Hot Plastic Love:
The Killer Toy Phenomenon
One of the best devices for creating horror in story-telling, if we are to believe Sigmund Freud’s colleague E. Jentsch, “is to leave the reader wondering whether a particular figure is a real person or an automaton, and to do so in such a way that his attention is not focused directly on the uncertainty” (135). Does this begin to explain why killer toy movies such as Child’s Play are so popular? What exactly is it about a childhood doll with a knife that frightens us so? Is it merely, as Jentsch states, the wonder of the animation that possession provides to an inanimate object?
Freud suggests that “We recall that children, in their early games, make no sharp distinction between the animate and the inanimate, and that they are especially fond of treating their dolls as if they were alive… [however] children are not afraid of their dolls coming to life — they may even want them to. Here, then, the sense of the uncanny would derive not from an infantile fear, but from an infantile wish, or simply an infantile belief” (141).
What Freud means is that our sense of horror at seeing a killer toy movie is generated by our childhood wishes to see our toys come to life. I would go even further and say that our sense of, as Freud calls it, the uncanny is created by our sense of unreality at seeing our childhood wishes come to life. Just as we know as adults that our childhood monsters are not waiting under our bed or in our closet, we know that our toys can’t come to life, but that childhood belief stays with us even as we grow older, which is what killer toy movies exploit. Also, as toys play such an important part of childhood life in a capitalistic society, it’s easy to see why killer toy films remain effective, even to adults.
The killer toy genre was arguably popularized by Child’s Play, which featured a three-foot doll inhabited by the soul of a serial killer. The film did well at the box office, and spawned four sequels. Although later films were played for camp effect, the original is undeniably creepy, and offers perhaps the purest example of the killer toy genre.
As a result of the popularity of the Child’s Play films, and particularly of the popularity of the films killer, Chucky, a new twist in the genre developed. Films such as Puppet Master and Demonic Toys capitalized on the fondness moviegoers have for killer toys themselves by making horrific monsters who weren’t necessarily evil. The Puppet Master films in particular feel a host of killer toys fighting Nazis, taking the genre almost into action film territory. The allure of these films is that we can root for the killer toys, rather than feeling disgusted by their murders.
Another twist of the genre is to play upon the sexuality inherent in toys and our relationship to them. Toys are, after all, objects that many of us grew up with and have been used by cultures throughout the world to gender roles, so this development makes sense. Films such as Marrionnier explore the psychosexual boundaries of traditional dolls, and their eerily human likeness. Other films, such as Tourist Trap, explore the combination of revulsion and attraction we have to dolls that seem almost too human, such as wax figures.
Other films, such as Jack Frost and Gingerdead Man play the killer doll genre for pure camp effect, taking beloved childhood objects such as a snow man and gingerbread man and turning them into evil serial killers.
What ties the genre together is the focus on animating a normally inanimate object with lifelike features. Perhaps, on some deeper psychological level, we already assume that they will, due to a combination of our childhood wishes and fears. The “wax people” subgenre of films like Marrionnier and Tourist Trap seem to suggest an alternative, that through a sort of visual misinterpretation we automatically assume that what looks real, is real. Maybe we merely carry this misinterpretation into our adult life without noticing it. This would seem to agree with Freud’s assertion that, “with dolls, we are never far from childhood.”
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. NY: Penguin, 2003.