Massachusetts Historical Society: “It was a big mistake to recognize this doll.”
November 1, 2021
Hello again, Beehive readers! As I prepared to write this blog, knowing that you would see it for Peak spooky season, I wondered what other seemingly non-threatening items in our collection I could associate with a terrifying bit of horror pop culture. If you’ve read the title, you’ll have already followed my conclusion.
This week, we’re stepping away from literature and heading straight for the big screen to discuss one of the most popular horror movie franchises of the 2000s, Conspiracy. The film series is very loosely based on a famous Ed and Lorraine Warren affair involving an “inhuman spirit” who deceives two young women into allowing her to own a Raggedy Ann doll named Annabelle. Yes, you read that right. The adorable doll with the head of red thread from Johnny Gruelle’s book of 1918, Raggedy Ann Stories became the culprit of nightmares in 1970 when the doll, given to a 28-year-old nursing student by her mother, allegedly started moving around on her own and leaving notes for the daughter and her roommate.. The activity would eventually turn hostile, and Ed and Lorraine Warren would be called in to investigate. As terrifying as the story is, this doll will probably be the least threatening doll I mention. In fact, the original Annabelle is so modest, the makers of Conspiracy the film chose to give it a new look. They feared she wasn’t scary enough as it was.
Now, as far as I know, none of the dolls in the MHS collection are inhabited by otherworldly entities or guilty of inexplicable animation, but we are often annoyed by them despite everything. Which begs us to echo the question from my previous blog about clowns: when did they become so threatening in the public eye? Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s Smithsonian magazine item (which I highly recommend reading) argues that dolls trigger paranoia in us because they look human, but at the same time, we know they aren’t. “Our brains are designed to read important information about intentions, emotions and potential threats from faces… However, we know that a doll is (probably) not a threat, seeing a face that has the look human but that doesn’t disturb our most basic human instincts. ”The more realistic the dolls have become over time, the more unstable we find ourselves.
With that in mind, I’ll start with the less realistic doll, and you can decide if her lack of humanoid characteristics makes her more or less scary.
This “Painted Bark Doll” is believed to have belonged to a Native American child but was donated to MHS from the study of American historian Francis Parkman. It is not known how Parkman came into possession of the doll, but we do know that he lived with a Sioux tribe for some time in the 1840s, so perhaps he acquired it at that time. The painted piece of bark appears to represent a mother carrying a child, and I think that makes the doll rather endearing. However, when sharing an image of this doll with a friend without context, he always found the faces annoying, simply responding, “This is horrible.”
John Leonetti, director of Annabelle, argues that dolls are the perfect vehicle for horror because they mimic human features, but lack emotion. It’s this inability to decipher the humanoid face that scares us and becomes a perfect empty slate for something more sinister.
This next doll from  named “Mama” belonged to Hilda Pfeiffer, daughter of Rachael and George Pfeiffer whose papers are in the Hartwell-Clark family papers. Rachael Pfeiffer died in childbirth in Hilda, which probably explains the unusual name of the doll. This connection alone is enough to unsettle me, personally. The doll is made of fabric and canvas and stuffed with cotton. Parts of her face painted in oils are missing and the back of her head is completely bare. I wonder if these imperfections bring you more comfort or alarm?
I close this blog with one of MHS ‘most famous dolls, Rebeccah Codman Butterfield. None of the previous dolls can hold a candle with the characteristics of this doll our Item of the month post refers to “charming”. I find this doll to have the most in common with Hollywood’s Annabelle in terms of the dread factor (that’s a technical term), and after verbal investigation with a few friends and colleagues, we unanimously found this doll. downright scary doll.
Take a moment to look into those perfect brown glass eyes sunk into the old papier mache face and tell me, honestly, that you don’t feel the least bit unsure of yourself. She is the most realistic of all dolls and by far the tallest at 81cm tall. It’s about half the size of Danny DeVito… Imagine waking up with a doll of this stature next to you. No thanks. And to top it off, she arrived with her own note written in first person. Did I mention that Annabelle left the girls’ notes?
I can feel your shoulders tighten across the screen. Relax, I’m just teasing. The note was written by Ellis Phinney Taylor, her former owner, and it details as much of the doll’s history as we know. If you want to learn more about Rebecca and where she is from, be sure to check her out. Item of the month page.
This press release was produced by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.