America loves its toys to death, at least if movies are any indication. Since the 1987 introduction of the murderous doll Chucky, killer toys have been a staple of the cineplex. Despite the modest returns of the Child’s Play series, Chucky continued to rampage from the toy box to knife block through six sequels, a 2019 remake, and unleash a score of imitators, including Annabelle, more than a dozen Puppet Master movies, and Brahms: The Boy II.
Somehow, watching child-size menaces hack adults to bits feels good in a place like this. In 2019, for example, Toy Story 4, Annabelle Comes Home, and the Child’s Play remake were all released within one week. The counter-programming to Woody was Chucky, and the counter-programming to Chucky was Annabelle. Things haven’t changed much. 2022 saw the release of two Pinocchios and the second season of Chucky. And Barbie isn’t the only doll coming to theaters in 2023. M3gan joins the killer doll subgenre, too. We’re living through a golden age of killer dolls that play on ancient anxieties in an easily malleable, updatable form.
Most killer dolls follow a similar plot, whether Chucky or Annabelle is doing the slaying. A child from a broken home receives a haunted doll that tortures the child and prays upon neglectful guardians. These movies play with biblical parental anxieties: Children are inherently corruptible, and even the things we give them for comfort can lead them toward sin. “There’s definitely something in the social imagination that is unsure of children, childhood playthings, stand-ins for childhood nostalgia, people’s own yearning for their own childhood,” David W. Kupferman, an assistant professor of educational foundations at University of Minnesota Moorhead, told the A.V. Club by phone. “And yet, if you were to do any kind of good deep therapy, most people’s childhoods are probably pretty horrific.” However, he continues, when it comes to killer doll movies, “These things don’t necessarily happen in families with many children. ‘Your dad and I got divorced. I never found anyone else. I wanted you to have a sibling but it never happened. So here’s this doll or whatever.’”
Chucky is far from the first haunted doll. The pre-code drama The Great Gabbo follows a ventriloquist whose personality melds with his dummy, so much so that it becomes his only means of expression. Gabbo’s not a killer (though it is sufficiently creepy), but even more ghastly playthings succeeded the film. The 1945 British horror anthology Dead Of Night and 1964’s Devil Doll both feature haunted dummies named Hugo, who fulfill a ventriloquist’s deadliest desires. “At the heart of many of these films was a kind of sublimation, where the human characters have ugly subconscious impulses that they themselves cannot act on—because they fear punishment, guilt, or shame—but that they easily carry out through their dolls,” writes The Atlantic’s Crystal Ponti.
While the roots of Chucky’s menace lay between Gabbo and Hugo, The Twilight Zone’s “Talky Tina,” from the 1963 episode “Living Doll,” added a layer of domestic dread, transferring the terror from carnie culture to childrearing. In “Living Doll,” an insecure step-father (played by Telly Savalas) sees his step-daughter’s talking doll as a symbol of the love they’ll never share as a family. Placing the doll in the playroom as the conduit for all the bad vibes a dysfunctional family had to offer, the killer doll took on a different resonance, one about the relationship between children and the things people project onto them. “Of course, we all know dolls can’t really talk, and they certainly can’t commit murder,” Rod Serling narrates in the episode’s conclusion. “But to a child caught in the middle of turmoil and conflict, a doll can become many things: friend, defender, guardian. Especially a doll like Talky Tina, who did talk and did commit murder.”
Kupferman argues that killer dolls express the corruption of the child. “We see killer dolls as both a stand-in for childhood (infantile, impotent), as well as modeling childhood’s inverse (misogynistic, murderous),” Kupferman writes in his essay “Toy Gory, or the Ontology of Chucky: Childhood and Killer Dolls.” “Killer dolls are both a reflection and a negation of constructions of childhood, compelling us to reimagine the ethical engagement with childhood as complex and ultimately unknowable.” That’s certainly true for kids named Andy—living dolls love an Andy.
After nearly 30 years of a smattering of killer doll movies, including Trilogy Of Terror and 1986’s Dolls, Child’s Play took hold of the genre in the late ’80s, cementing the themes that Annabelle and The Boy picked up in the 2010s. In the first three Child’s Play films, Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif) terrorizes his “best friend” Andy (Alex Vincent, Child’s Play, Child’s Play 2; Justin Whalin, Child’s Play 3), a passive kid from a single parent household. The first movie sees Chucky guiding Andy on a tour through an urban hellscape as Chucky plots revenge on his former enemies, including gangsters and Voodoo witch doctors. Like all parents in these movies, his mother (Catherine Hicks) thinks Andy is responsible for the doll’s crimes and begins to fear her child, who she seemingly no longer recognizes. Unfortunately, Andy doesn’t fare much better in the suburbs, where his foster family lives in Child’s Play 2, nor the military academy of Child’s Play 3, where he repeatedly bears witness to murder and mayhem until he inevitably commits it himself.
Since 1988, Chucky has emphasized the malleability of the killer doll, invoking the same playful energy of its subject matter. The Child’s Play series shifted in the mid-’90s. The series evolved, taking on the meta-horror antics of Scream, turning the killer doll into killer satire, where Chucky could comment on himself and say things like, “I’ll be back. I always come back, but dying is such a bitch.” When he returns for Seed Of Chucky, he and Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly) are the parents, dealing with their little monster, who acts out the fears and worries of the children they terrify. Glen/Glenda (voiced by Billy Boyd), the orphaned offspring of Chucky and Tiffany from Bride, is confused about their gender, urinates in their pants, and is traumatized by the actions of their parents. The only solution: a supportive family life. Not even killer dolls can escape the horrors of parenting.
These themes even update themselves. By the release of the 2019 remake, Child’s Play had come full circle. This time Chucky (now voiced by Mark Hamill) monitors the house as neglectful guardians rely on the doll to parent the child. However, Chucky is no longer powered by the soul of a killer but rather by lithium batteries. Turned into a smart home hub for modern audiences, this new and improved killer doll updates themes of parental neglect by satirizing domestic surveillance culture. But all the technology, security cameras, and smart hubs in the world aren’t making your kids any safer. On the contrary, they might be the thing that kills them.
Regardless of the circumstances, our perception of children hasn’t changed much. Whether at the mid-century orphanage of Annabelle: The Creation or the modern suburbs of M3gan, the genre’s malleability speaks to the persistence of parental anxieties about children, what they’re thinking, and what they’re doing. “I thought we’d be friends to the end,” Chucky says at the end of the original Child’s Play. Chucky was right.