Last week going through today, a museum in Minnesota has a tribute to creepy dolls. One-hundred-year-old dolls with matted human hair, rag dolls with faces long worn off, and chipped China dolls with hollowed eye sockets are on display for everyone’s enjoyment and horror. It reminded me of a time several years ago, where I was taken on a terrifying doll tour of my own.
My Mom-in-law and I share a fondness for collectible dolls, nothing too freaky (I hope), just ones like little Geishas and ballerinas with Barbie hair buns. We don’t have all that many, which is a considerable element because it’s the volume of a collection that spikes the creep factor.
Anyway, a woman in the neighborhood where my husband grew up, decided to open her house and show off her own toy doll stash. So my two kids and I went with my Mom-in-law.
“She has almost a thousand dolls so far,” she told us as we stood outside a small orange brick rambler in West Valley City. “Looks like she invited the whole neighborhood.” My Mom-in-law pointed to the line that snaked out the neighbor’s front door to the street.
Inside, everywhere we looked, we saw dolls posed in frozen scenes: having morning tea on the piano top, a couple of boys fishing off the sofa, or on the lookout toys, their glass eyes blankly watching the visitors pass by.
Everywhere, dolls, dolls, dolls–down the hallway, into the kitchen, both bedrooms, the master bedroom, and even a couple on the bathroom sink lewdly watching and listening to all the muffled oohs and ahhs of the breathing set.
Stepping around Cherub faced babies and vintage Cabbage Patch Kids (with yarn, not corn silk hair), I guided my kids into the basement where I got the biggest shock of the Hairy-scary parade.
Not only was the neighbor a doll hoarder, but she was also a skilled story craftsman.
“This is Ollie Overalls,” the woman said, lifting a redheaded boy doll with a bowl haircut donning dungarees. “He loves his sugar cookies, which is why he has this little paunch—Heeheehee.”
This was long before the grandeur and craze of The American Girl Dolls that come with backstories and a resume that can double as a dating profile on Match.com. So, outside a third-grader’s imagination, this was odd.
“And this Lil’ gal is Gabby,” the woman went on. “She likes riding ponies, and that’s why she has this little bump on her head.” The woman tilted the doll in her arms to show us the real-live Band-Aid stuck to the doll’s forehead.
I swear, I saw a shift in that plastic pink-skinned doll, a tiny scream behind her blue marble eyes. “Help me! Help me!”
Obviously, this was a woman who had created her own world, but how delusional was she really? Had she crafted nearly a thousand identities, hobbies, likes and dislikes, for every single doll, too? I wanted to test my theory.
“What’s that one?” I pointed to a doll in layers upon layers of gauze and lace in the furthest corner of the room. The woman smiled and hurried around the toy maze to pluck her from her spot.
“Oh, this Charlotte. Charlotte’s the typical Southern Belle. She likes sweets, particularly chocolate.” She put Charlotte down and picked up another doll.
“Charlotte’s friends with Millie, who’s a bit of a tomboy. See? She has pigtails and tennis shoes.” She raised the girl doll with pigtails and apparently boyish tennis shoes on her feet as a form of an introduction to the crowd. She went on.
“Charlotte and Millie are fighting right now. That’s why I put them so far apart. They’re both friends with Sammy.” She raised a boy doll.
“The problem is, they’re both in love with Sammy, and you better believe he loves that! But it causes rifts between all of them, so I have to separate them from time to time.”
My kids moved close to me.
“What about that one?” I asked, egging the insanity along.
“Ahh. That’s a very special lady.”
The woman moved to the opposite corner from the bickering throuple (Charlotte, Millie, and Sammy), to a porcelain beauty.
The doll had glossy black painted hair. Pencil-thin eyebrows and overtly pointed eyelashes arched over onyx dot eyes, and her mouth was a red heart. Besides a plume of ebony feathers fringing her painted-on dress and sticking out of her shoulders, her nose was the only 3D feature.
“This is Mademoiselle Lula,” the woman introduced. “She’s had a spectacular life. She’s a burlesque dancer but hasn’t always been. You know what they say, sometimes the career chooses you!” She chuckled.
“Do your dolls come with these stories?” I asked, trying to choke down the burning sensation rising in my throat. There’s a word for that sensation, FEAR.
“No. I can tell what their story is as soon as I bring them home. Unfortunately, Lula’s a French doll, so it has taken me some time to figure out her story.”
“Uh-huh?” I moved my kids behind me. “Is that because you don’t speak French or because she doesn’t speak English?”
The woman laughed.
“Now the rest of the rooms are for my cute little clown dolls. My husband doesn’t like them as much as the rest of the kids. So I have to keep them behind closed doors.”
That was it. I turned around and saw the flash of my two children sprinting up the stairs.
“Well, that was strange,” my Mother-in-law said when we arrived safe and sound topside and were once again walking down the street among the living.
“What a freak-show!”
“I don’t think you’re the only one who thinks so,” she said. “Didn’t you notice all the people at the beginning of the tour?”
I had noticed that. I stood behind a crowd to get inside.
“By the time we went downstairs, we were the only ones still touring.”
That, I had not noticed.
The one question I had (that never was fully answered) was, did the woman actually have a real, pulse-driven-lung-breathing husband, or was he a close friend of Sammy’s, too?
“I know, right?” my Mom-in-law said. That’s all she said. Maybe she wasn’t so sure either?