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Creepy Doll Alert: Edison's Talking Dolls Can Now Provide The Soundtrack To Your Nightmares

Posted by on May. 5, 2015 at 10:13 PM
  • 12 Replies

Edison's Talking Dolls Can Now Provide The Soundtrack To Your Nightmares

Thomas Edison's talking dolls were reportedly pretty robust, but their miniature phonographs were another story.

Collection of Robin and Joan Rolfs/Courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Back in 1890, Thomas Edison gave us the world's first talking dolls. Today, the glassy-eyed cherubs that are still around stand about 2 feet tall; they have wooden limbs and a metal body; and they sound supercreepy. (If you're looking for a soundtrack to your nightmares, listen to the audio story above.) Edison built and sold about 500 of them back in 1890. Now, new technology has madehearing them possible for the first time in decades.

Jerry Fabris, who curates sound recordings at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, says part of what makes the recordings so unsettling is that they were most likely read by a female factory worker imitating a little girl. (For example: Here's a shrieking recitation of "A Child's Prayer" that you will never unhear.)

Fabris says Edison was, for the first time, trying to market the then-brand-new wax cylinder phonograph for people to use at home, and he thought the best vehicle would be a doll. Its metal body held a miniature phonograph that was spring-activated by a crank sticking out of the doll's back. Edison knew the sound quality was raw, so he had the dolls recite recognizable verses like "Hickory Dickory Dock."

The dolls held a miniature phonograph that was spring-activated by a crank sticking out of the doll's back.

John Reed/National Park Service

The recordings didn't sound much better in 1890 than they do today. Fabris says, "Edison himself thought they were unpleasant." And so did everyone else. The dolls flopped in the market, not because people thought they were creepy but because they were expensive — about $200 in today's money. People also thought the dolls weren't lifelikeenough; they wanted moving mouths and for the dolls' voices to be understandable. Edison stopped making the dolls after about a month.

"After the business failed, he referred to them as 'little monsters,' " Fabris says.

And that raises a larger question: Why do we find talking dolls so scary? Talking toys occupy a horror subgenre so established that it's led to parodies. According to Georgetown University horror scholar Caetlin Benson-Allott, a talking toy belongs in an unsettling middle space: It's human, but not that human.

"It's both familiar and different," she says, "and we don't kind of understand if it's entirely dead or entirely alive."

It's what Sigmund Freud called "the uncanny," and we can feel it as a subconscious holdover from childhood, when we pretended our dolls were real. Even as knowing grown-ups, Benson-Allott says, there's a lurking apprehension "that that doll is actually alive and watching me."

She says we've probably freaked ourselves out with dolls for as long as we've used dolls — in ritual and in play. From a talking doll to technology, she says, when we give anything power there's a sense — even a fear — that that power might turn back on us.

Nerds Without Pants

by on May. 5, 2015 at 10:13 PM
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Replies (1-10):
billsfan1104
by Ruby Member on May. 5, 2015 at 10:16 PM
ThTs cool
Della529
by on May. 5, 2015 at 10:31 PM

Awesome!

romalove
by Roma on May. 5, 2015 at 10:32 PM

When I was in elementary school, we took a couple of trips to the Thomas Edison Museum here in NJ.  We walked through his lab, I still remember every detail of it, what it looked like, the smells of the "oldness" of it, the wooden plank floor.....anyway, I had a "thing" about him after that and read everything I could about him.

Thanks for sharing this, I loved seeing that doll.

LGA1165
by on May. 5, 2015 at 10:35 PM

 Ewwww.

I prefer the baby dolls with the chubby face and cloth body that you can wrap in a blanket and cuddle.

NWP
by guerrilla girl on May. 5, 2015 at 11:13 PM

Did you know that creepy dolls have their own subcategory on ebay? Seems they are in demand by collectors. 

Haunted Dolls Are A Thing, And They're Not Cheap, Either

Some dolls just don't seem quite right.

Some dolls just don't seem quite right.

Jak Hutchcraft

Some childhood symbols straddle the line between adorable and terrifying. Like clowns. Or Furbys.

Some dolls fit the category, too, with spooky eyes that seem to move or a porcelain pallor. They're not all Chucky, but some of them just don't seem quite right.

Listener Anne McLaughlin grew up with a cabinet full of dolls — including a pretty dancer doll and a set of wooden nesting dolls. But one, she says, stood out.

"One of the dolls in the cabinet was absolutely terrifying," she says. "Very tall, thin doll, and her face was not a doll face. It was a grown woman, so she didn't have big eyes she didn't have a smile. She had tiny little eyes. She always looked like she stepped out of one of those New Orleans ghost stories."

The lady doll was also a music box, and it spun slowly to music when wound. The doll gave Anne the creeps.

So one night, when she was about 10, McLaughlin thought to herself: "I'm going to take her out of the cabinet just to prove that I'm not scared of this doll" — even though she was very scared of it.

So she wound up the doll, left it on the bedside table and walked away. Suddenly there was a crash.

"And right when I turned around, she had just walked to the side of the bedside table, and fallen to the floor with a big crash, " McLaughlin can't even finish her sentence. "I went and slept with my parents."

The next morning, she crept back into her room and placed the doll back inside the cabinet.

"I was really sure to put her in the cabinet facing away from me ... so that she couldn't watch me," she remembers.

Many listeners have their own memories of haunted dolls. That's not surprising, considering that haunted dolls are big business on sites like eBay and Etsy.

Jak Hutchcraft, who wrote about the phenomenon for Vice.com, says he stumbled upon the trade one night when he was surfing around the "Everything Else" section of eBay.

"There was an advert for something which was a sadistic, perverted, haunted doll," Hutchcraft says. "It was this little, menacing-looking sort of troll."

Intrigued, he noted that the bids kept going up, with 10 people in the running. That doll that looked like a possessed little troll sold for more than $1,400.

Hutchcraft did some reporting to find out why anyone would want a haunted doll — let alone pay for one.

"Some people want to connect solely with the spirit," he explains. "Some people buy them just for the doll because they're doll collectors and the spirited aspect of it is just a secondary thing. I thought it was baffling, really, because I can look past the ghost as long as it's a cute doll."

Hutchcraft met with a woman who is a major player in the world of haunted dolls, and he found to his surprise that he kind of liked her. He started out as a skeptic but ultimately came to appreciate this seemingly bizarre subculture.

But when it comes to owning a haunted doll?

"I thought about it," he says. "But the thing is, the more it went on, the more it took over my life for about a year, really ... and then I started to think, 'Will my brain trick me into thinking it is haunted? Or something will happen when I get it.' And, to be honest, I didn't have the money to fork out — and I was a little bit scared!"

Many years after McLaughlin's scary doll "walked" off the table, she got the courage to take the doll out of the cabinet again. She found, upon closer examination, that the music box was off balance — probably the reason the doll fell to the floor.

But I've got to admit, I liked the story better when the doll was possessed.


Quoting LGA1165:

 Ewwww.

I prefer the baby dolls with the chubby face and cloth body that you can wrap in a blanket and cuddle.


Nerds Without Pants

redheadtmk
by on May. 5, 2015 at 11:20 PM

Oh my.... the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was the creepiest thing I have ever heard!  Those are creepy but awesome

LGA1165
by on May. 5, 2015 at 11:34 PM
Ewww , no . There's another reason to never go to EBay !

Quoting NWP:

Did you know that creepy dolls have their own subcategory on ebay? Seems they are in demand by collectors. 

Haunted Dolls Are A Thing, And They're Not Cheap, Either

Some dolls just don't seem quite right.

Some dolls just don't seem quite right.

Jak Hutchcraft

Some childhood symbols straddle the line between adorable and terrifying. Like clowns. Or Furbys.

Some dolls fit the category, too, with spooky eyes that seem to move or a porcelain pallor. They're not all Chucky, but some of them just don't seem quite right.

Listener Anne McLaughlin grew up with a cabinet full of dolls — including a pretty dancer doll and a set of wooden nesting dolls. But one, she says, stood out.

"One of the dolls in the cabinet was absolutely terrifying," she says. "Very tall, thin doll, and her face was not a doll face. It was a grown woman, so she didn't have big eyes she didn't have a smile. She had tiny little eyes. She always looked like she stepped out of one of those New Orleans ghost stories."

The lady doll was also a music box, and it spun slowly to music when wound. The doll gave Anne the creeps.

So one night, when she was about 10, McLaughlin thought to herself: "I'm going to take her out of the cabinet just to prove that I'm not scared of this doll" — even though she was very scared of it.

So she wound up the doll, left it on the bedside table and walked away. Suddenly there was a crash.

"And right when I turned around, she had just walked to the side of the bedside table, and fallen to the floor with a big crash, " McLaughlin can't even finish her sentence. "I went and slept with my parents."

The next morning, she crept back into her room and placed the doll back inside the cabinet.

"I was really sure to put her in the cabinet facing away from me ... so that she couldn't watch me," she remembers.

Many listeners have their own memories of haunted dolls. That's not surprising, considering that haunted dolls are big business on sites like eBay and Etsy.

Jak Hutchcraft, who wrote about the phenomenon for Vice.com, says he stumbled upon the trade one night when he was surfing around the "Everything Else" section of eBay.

"There was an advert for something which was a sadistic, perverted, haunted doll," Hutchcraft says. "It was this little, menacing-looking sort of troll."

Intrigued, he noted that the bids kept going up, with 10 people in the running. That doll that looked like a possessed little troll sold for more than $1,400.

Hutchcraft did some reporting to find out why anyone would want a haunted doll — let alone pay for one.

"Some people want to connect solely with the spirit," he explains. "Some people buy them just for the doll because they're doll collectors and the spirited aspect of it is just a secondary thing. I thought it was baffling, really, because I can look past the ghost as long as it's a cute doll."

Hutchcraft met with a woman who is a major player in the world of haunted dolls, and he found to his surprise that he kind of liked her. He started out as a skeptic but ultimately came to appreciate this seemingly bizarre subculture.

But when it comes to owning a haunted doll?

"I thought about it," he says. "But the thing is, the more it went on, the more it took over my life for about a year, really ... and then I started to think, 'Will my brain trick me into thinking it is haunted? Or something will happen when I get it.' And, to be honest, I didn't have the money to fork out — and I was a little bit scared!"

Many years after McLaughlin's scary doll "walked" off the table, she got the courage to take the doll out of the cabinet again. She found, upon closer examination, that the music box was off balance — probably the reason the doll fell to the floor.

But I've got to admit, I liked the story better when the doll was possessed.

Quoting LGA1165:

 Ewwww.


I prefer the baby dolls with the chubby face and cloth body that you can wrap in a blanket and cuddle.

thatgirl70
by Bronze Member on May. 5, 2015 at 11:43 PM

Not creepy really, listened to one of the clips, it's fascinating IMO. Imagine listening to a voice that was recorded 125 years ago? I'm gonna go listen to the rest.

Lady_Facetious
by Gold Member on May. 5, 2015 at 11:56 PM
I don't think the clips are that creepy. I think they actually would have sounded creepier if was a child in the recordings.
idunno1234
by Platinum Member on May. 6, 2015 at 12:11 AM
1 mom liked this

Me too! 

Quoting romalove:

When I was in elementary school, we took a couple of trips to the Thomas Edison Museum here in NJ.  We walked through his lab, I still remember every detail of it, what it looked like, the smells of the "oldness" of it, the wooden plank floor.....anyway, I had a "thing" about him after that and read everything I could about him.

Thanks for sharing this, I loved seeing that doll.

 

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