01 Feb The Spooky World of Haunted Dolls
There’s just something about dolls that sets off something in human psychology. Something about the existence of things that are mostly human-looking, but distinctly NOT human just gives a lot of us the heebie-jeebies. Add the element of a spirit or demon using a doll as a makeshift body, and it’s a recipe for all sorts of nightmares. Cursed dolls have been fodder for horror movies since the 80s, but did you know that there are real dolls that are supposedly possessed? These dolls have been the subject of years of scrutiny, and they have launched themselves into the annals of horror mythology with their strange behaviour.
For some, it’s perplexing as to why demons and spirits would be attracted to dolls in the first place. However, doll-like objects have been used religiously and ceremonially for thousands of years. Poppets, effigies, and voodoo dolls are typically used to represent a person in rituals; this person can either be the caster themselves or another target of the spell. Typically, any spellwork done to a poppet or effigy is believed to transfer to the person it is meant to represent. Ancient Egyptian magicians very often used poppets to free the body of evil, transferring the bad spirits or curses to the doll.
It’s also assumed that dolls are attractive to spirits because they are humanoid enough to be functional, but they don’t have an animus or will that must be overpowered before the spirit can take over. This makes dolls ideal objects of possession for weaker spirits or even ghosts.
From a psychological standpoint, we mistrust dolls because they often inhabit a spot called the “uncanny valley” – this is a phenomenon where an object looks human enough to trigger certain instincts in our brains, but not human enough for us to feel comfortable or trust it. Emotionally, something that inhabits this area will elicit eerie feelings in us, and we attribute these feelings to something sinister about the object we’re looking at. The same phenomenon occurs with clowns and robots.
Arguably the most famous haunted doll ever, Robert is a soft cloth doll dressed in a sailor suit that carries a stuffed dog. As far as haunted dolls go, he’s not terribly scary looking, and could even be described as “benevolent” in appearance. He began life as a birthday gift to a young Robert Eugene Otto, an eccentric artist from Key West, Florida. He was manufactured by the Steiff Company in Germany and was purchased by Otto’s grandfather in 1904 while on a trip. He remained at the family home at 534 Eaton Street in Key West, even after Otto left to study art in New York and Paris. After Otto died in 1974, the house, Robert included, was sold to a woman named Myrtle Reuter, who owned it for 20 years before donating Robert to the East Martello Museum, where he now lives as a tourist attraction. Every October, he gets to take a vacation to the Old Post Office and Customhouse.
According to reports, Robert is a pretty lively doll, and is capable of moving around the room, changing his expressions, and giggling. Some have even said that Robert is “aware of what is going on around him.” If it stopped there, then Robert probably would have faded into obscurity as a harmless, if creepy, oddity. However, an aura of misfortune follows him wherever he goes. According to locals in Key West, he’s caused everything from car accidents to job losses, all to people who came across him at some point. Visitors to the East Martello Museum who “fail to disrespect Robert” are known to encounter mishaps after their visits, though visitors who are kind to him apparently avoid this fate. You can even purchase a replica of Robert at the East Martello Museum’s gift shop (though we wouldn’t advise it).
The lore surrounding Robert is as varied as the people who see him; some claim that Otto didn’t receive Robert from his grandfather, but instead that he was a form of retaliation given to him by a young Bahamian girl. Others believe that the doll “vanished” for a time after 534 Eaton Street changed ownership, and some say that Otto must have triggered the doll’s possession by blaming childhood mischief and mishaps on the doll.
Pop culture adores Robert, and he continues to be one of the most famous haunted dolls in existence. He was exhibited at TapsCON in Clearwater, Florida in 2008. Zak Bagans brought him to Las Vegas for an episode of Deadly Possessions in 2016. He also inspired a horror film franchise, which currently has five installments: Robert (2015), The Curse of Robert the Doll (2016), The Toymaker (2017), The Revenge of Robert the Doll (2018) and Robert Reborn (2019).
Mandy is an antique porcelain baby doll with a cracked face. When she was donated to her current home, the Quesnel Museum in Quesnel, British Columbia, she was wearing dirty clothes and had tears in her cloth body; she has since been repaired and is displayed wearing a soft white nightgown. Mandy is significantly more sinister looking than Robert; she is alarmingly lifelike and has a certain evil glee in her expression.
Mandy was donated to the Quesnel Museum in 1991 – the woman who donated her said that she would be woken by the cries of an infant in the middle of the night coming from her basement. When she went to investigate, she would find one of the basement windows open, and Mandy invariably nearby. After donating Mandy, the woman said that she stopped hearing the baby crying.
After the doll arrived, museum staff started to report odd occurrences. Their lunches would disappear from the refrigerator and would be later discovered hidden in drawers. Other objects would also go missing; pens, books, photographs, and other small objects would vanish, and some would never turn up. They would also hear footsteps echoing through the halls when no one was around. Originally, she had been placed facing the front entrance of the museum, but she was later moved to another wing of the museum. Notably, staff were careful to put her in a case alone, because it was believed that she could not be placed with other dolls because she would “harm them.”
In 1992, the curator at the time, a woman named Ruth Stubbs, was asked if she had any ghost stories for a book called “Supernatural Stories Around British Columbia.” Not thinking that it would take off, she gave them the story of Mandy. The doll became a Canadian sensation within weeks, and some of the doll’s numerous new visitors were experiencing the weirdness that surrounded her. One person tried to videotape her, only to have their camera turn on and off every five seconds while filming her. Others say that Mandy’s eyes will follow them around the room, and some swear that they’ve even seen her blink.
Mandy still lives at the Quesnel Museum, and she is available for viewing.
Okiku is a beautiful Japanese doll with long, black hair in an ‘okappa’ style and piercing eyes. She’s about 40 cm tall, and she’s wearing an intricate traditional kimono. According to her lore, she was purchased in 1918 in Sapporo by Eikichi Suzuki as a gift for his 2-year old sister, Okiku. The girl fell in love with the doll, playing with her every day and taking her everywhere with her. She even named it after herself. Unfortunately, Okiku died of yellow fever just a year later; her family wanted to bury her doll along with her, but circumstances prevented it.
This is where things get weird. The family placed Okiku the doll on their altar – a common practice in Japanese households, especially to remember the dead. At some point after that, they started to notice that the doll’s beautiful raven hair appeared to be growing. The ends were beginning to split, and witnesses said that it was starting to change colour in places and that the texture was different. If the growing hair wasn’t strange enough, family members started to see the doll in their dreams, and occasionally, the doll would appear at their bedside in the morning. Lights would flicker and they started hearing weird noises and voices in the house when no one was there. These phenomena would increase when key dates approached, like Okiku’s birthday, or the date of her death.
Perplexed, the family consulted spiritual leaders. They concluded that somehow, their daughter’s soul had become trapped inside the doll. While some families would be scared by this and try and purge the doll of its possession, Okiku’s family instead regarded it as a connection to their dead daughter and even became fond of the doll over time. In 1938, the family wanted to relocate to a different district of Japan, but they didn’t want to take Okiku with them – they believed that her powers were fueled by her proximity to their daughter’s grave, and they were worried that they would anger her by removing her. Instead, they approached a local temple and asked them to care for the doll.
The temple had heard stories of the doll, who had become moderately famous in the area over the years. They accepted the request and began caring for Okiku, regularly trimming her growing hair. They sent clippings for analysis, and scientific examinations confirm that Okiku’s hair is indeed human.
Nowadays, Okiku lives in a private shrine, set in a small wooden box, in the Mannen-ji Temple in Iwamizawa, Hokkaido, Japan. According to the priests that care for her, she’s grown more powerful as her fame has increased. Her hair grows faster, and she regularly appears in the priests’ dreams. Tourists who visit also claim that her mouth is slowly opening, and she appears to be growing small teeth.
Harold is very similar in appearance to Mandy, except he’s much less well-cared-for. He’s a vintage doll with a porcelain head, arms, and legs attached to a cloth body. He is not clothed in any of the photos, and he’s covered in a stain on his chin and down his chest. His expression is relatively cherubic, but his eyes are sort of dead looking.
The most interesting thing about Harold’s story is that his original owner admits that his involvement in it is a hoax. This man, known only as “Greg” in online forums, was an aspiring filmmaker, and he listed Harold for auction on eBay in 2003, claiming that he was haunted. Alongside this posting, he included a video showing the doll’s arm “moving”, and its mouth saying the word “Here” or “Harold”, which gave him his name. The video rocketed the doll to fame, even earning it a mention on Art Bell’s “Coast to Coast” radio show. His first auction of Harold ended with a $700 US bid, but the winner failed to pay him, so he listed it again.
The winner of the second auction was a woman named Kathy, who happened to be a family friend of Greg’s who knew that Harold was a hoax. She bought it because she was hoping to essentially capitalize on its sensational reputation; she would keep it for a few months and list it again with some new scary stories, making a profit in the process. She didn’t count on the weird events that came when she received the doll.
Kathy claimed that Harold was directly related to two tragic deaths of people she knew within six months of each other. She said that the first death was that of a roommate named Stephen, whom she described as a “health nut.” Within three months of moving in, she says that Stephen was diagnosed with lung cancer, and passed away a few weeks after that. Harold had been stored in the closet in Stephen’s room. The second death was of a woman named Ronnie, who had asked to see Harold shortly before going to Amsterdam to visit a friend. While abroad, she apparently fell down a flight of stairs and died of her injuries.
Other strange things seemed to follow Harold around while Kathy had him – she said that at one point, the linen closet in her bathroom spilled open and everything fell out, except it all landed in neat stacks, still folded as it had been inside the closet. Kathy relisted Harold on eBay in 2004, claiming that he was not haunted, but he was definitely cursed. At this point, Harold was purchased by Anthony Quinata, a medium. He came across Harold while buying other haunted items as research for a book; after engaging in a bidding war, he paid $720 US for him.
Quinata claims that he launched into researching Harold’s paranormal properties; he conducted EMF readings, took photos to see if any ghostly images showed up, and recorded it to see if he could find any electronic voice phenomena (EVP) associated with it. All of his tests turned up nothing until he took Harold to a friend of his who specialized in psychometric readings (essentially a psychic reading of an object’s energy). The woman claimed that, while holding the doll, it had threatened to kill her; she had a heart murmur, and she felt a squeezing in her chest while holding it. After the session, Quinata says that he played the audio recording back and heard a male voice that wasn’t present at the time – presumably, it was Harold’s voice.
“Later when I listened to the recording, I was stunned at what I heard. As I was sprinkling the doll with holy water I heard agonized screams. I then heard [the psychometrist] chuckle, and ask, “You’re sprinkling it with holy water?” A male voice responded, “Shut up, bitch!”
Then as she was doing her reading I heard, “I’m going to kill you… you bitch!” It was after that I heard [her] explaining that she felt as though the doll was trying to kill her. What followed was what I can only describe as an evil laugh.”
- Anthony Quinata on his website, haroldthehaunteddoll.com
Quinata went on to report numerous horrifying experiences with Harold – he said that he experienced terrifying visions produced by the doll, and that he’d seen it injure people right in front of him. In 2005, he decided to lock Harold away in a storage unit. The phenomena stopped. In 2013, when he discovered that Harold’s Internet fame had rocketed him into lists alongside the likes of Robert and Annabelle, Quinata decided to announce himself as the one who had owned Harold for the 8 years he had been stored, and further, he was going to take Harold out of his storage unit prison and figure out what is going on with him.
According to Quinata, he’s discovered that there is a spirit trapped inside Harold, and he’s so angry because no one will help him. As of this writing, he’s published a book about the subject and regularly updates a blog.
In the upper echelons of haunted doll society, there’s Annabelle. This nearly life-sized Raggedy Anne doll was first reported as a haunted object to none other than Ed and Lorraine Warren, the paranormal investigators whose exploits have inspired films like The Amityville Horror and The Conjuring. In the Warren’s account, Annabelle was gifted to an unnamed student nurse in 1970, who said that it “behaved strangely”. They discovered that the doll is allegedly haunted by the spirit of a little girl named Annabelle Higgins (hence the name), but this spirit is actually demonic in nature and is only masquerading as a human spirit.
The frightened student said that she and her roommate initially tried to “nurture” the doll, but its behaviour proved too malicious and frightening. She would reportedly move around the apartment on her own (a la Robert the doll) and leave messages for her owner on parchment, even though there was never any parchment in the house. The last straw was when, allegedly, Annabelle attempted to strangle a friend of the nurse’s. They contacted the Warrens, who attempted to exorcise the doll, but failed.
The Warrens took Annabelle and housed her in a custom glass box in their Occult Museum in Monroe, Connecticut, where she still resides today. Apparently, the box was custom made after Annabelle repeatedly escaped normal boxes with normal locks. She also apparently is capable of raining misfortune upon visitors to the museum that taunt her (she really does take a page out of Robert’s book on this one.)
However, not everyone is on board with their narrative. An assistant professor of Religious Studies from Texas State University named Joseph Laycock believes that Annabelle’s legend is a carefully crafted hoax based on a mixture of legends about Robert the doll and a Twilight Zone episode called “Living Doll” (S5E6), where the doll is also named Annabelle. This episode was released 5 years before the Warrens announced that they’d acquired Annabelle.
Despite her questionable origins, Annabelle has inspired a pop culture dynasty – she appears as an antagonist in a series of films that take place in the same universe as The Conjuring. For the films, the directors did not use a Raggedy Ann (mostly because they would need copyright permissions from the manufacturers) but instead created a horrifying, disfigured porcelain figure that is literally designed to be as menacing-looking as possible. She appears in Annabelle (2014), Annabelle: Creation (2017), and Annabelle Comes Home (2017). She’s also made cameo appearances in The Conjuring 2 (2016), Aquaman (2018), The Curse of La Llorna (2019) and Shazam (2019).
This is not an individual doll, but rather, an entire spooky island of them. Isla de las Muñecas, or The Island of the Dolls, is a small island on Teshuilo Lake in the Xochimilco Canals of Mexico. It’s a sort of terrible, long-running art project created by a man named Don Julian Santana Barrera. According to the rumours, Barrera devoted his life to honouring the spirit of a young girl who drowned in the lake. Whether this girl actually existed is up for debate – Barrera’s own relatives claim that he just imagined her. The story goes that shortly after the girl was discovered, he found a doll floating in the canal near the island – he hung it in a tree to show respect for the girl’s spirit, making it the first doll of hundreds he would bring to the island.
Barrera left his wife and child behind to move to the then-uninhabited island. He began collecting discarded dolls from surrounding canals and trash pits, and would even trade produce to the locals for more dolls. He would hang these dolls up in the trees around the island, apparently to memorialize the drowned girl. Oddly, he would never attempt to clean the dolls he found in any way – many are missing eyes, limbs, or even their heads. They are dirty and warped, distorted and frankly, frightening to behold. Even when the dolls came to the island in decent shape, exposure to the elements changed them into the stuff of nightmares. There are literally hundreds of dolls covering the whole island.
Barrera also filled the cabin he lived in with dolls, dressing them up with accessories such as sunglasses and headdresses. He said that he saw the dolls as “beautiful protectors” and regularly welcomed visitors for tours, charging a small fee for taking photos.
The story has a tragic ending; in 2001, Don Julian Santana Barrera was discovered drowned in the canal near his home – in the same area where he believed the little girl had died years previously.
The island is still there to this day, and locals say that it’s taken on a decidedly more sinister air. People say that the dolls move their heads and limbs, and some will even blink. Witnesses say that they hear the dolls whispering amongst themselves and that some visitors are lured there by their calls. Visitors will occasionally bring more dolls to add to the collection, attempting to appease the spirits that live there.
Australia’s native haunted doll is actually a marionette, and his name is Letta Me Out. He’s a pretty scary looking doll with a wide face split with a sinister grin, made even more sinister by his sharply angled eyebrows. He looks remarkably like The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. He was found underneath a house in Wagga Wagga, Australia 46 years ago by a man named Kerry Walton.
Kerry apparently gave the doll the name Letta, or Ledda, partially because he appears to have “European gypsy heritage” and partially because he occasionally screams “Letta me out!”. Nowadays, Kerry Walton lives in Warwick, Queensland, and still has the doll, who he says moves around the house at night, making strange noises. He also says that objects in the house shift or move around at night and that he constantly finds small scuff marks on his floors – as though the doll’s shoes were shuffling around.
According to Kerry, Letta also moves around in front of visitors. He consulted a psychic about the doll’s behaviour, and she held the doll during this interview. When she asserted that the doll had been owned by a child who drowned mysteriously, Letta allegedly moved in her lap.
Nowadays, Letta seems to be enjoying his celebrity status. He has his own Facebook and Instagram accounts that you can follow. If you’re in Australia, you can even visit him for free; a photo is $5.
Generally, when you think of a haunted doll, you think of vintage porcelain baby dolls or, in Annabelle’s case, an old Raggedy Ann. You don’t generally think of Barbie, right? Mattel’s track record for keeping Barbies ghost and demon free is pretty good, but there is one in Singapore that is allegedly the current favourite toy of a dead girl.
The doll is located at a shrine in Pulau Ubin, Singapore. According to lore, it’s a shrine to a German girl whose parents were arrested for potentially being spies in 1914. She tried to escape, fell off of a nearby cliff, and died as a result. The locals erected the shrine in her memory; it allegedly contains a lock of her hair and her crucifix.
In 2007, a local man had a strange dream three nights in a row, where a small Caucasian girl led him to a toy store and asked for a specific Barbie doll. He went to the store and found the doll from his dream, bought it and placed it in the German girl’s shrine. The dreams stopped, and now people visit the doll, bringing offerings like lipstick and perfume in the hopes that the spirit of the girl will give them good luck. The doll is still there to this day, and apparently shows no other supernatural inclinations other than its strange acquisition.
If you’re a Barbie collector or a horror aficionado, Mattel manufactures a “Haunted Beauty” doll that’s a replica of the Barbie at Pulau Ubin.