“I like to tell people I have the heart of a small boy, then I tell them it’s in a jar on my desk” – Robert Bloch
Animism: The attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.
When I think of animism, dolls spring to mind first and foremost. You know, like Chucky from Child’s Play and Annabelle from The Conjuring and Annabelle. It’s hardly surprising that horror writers and filmmakers jump all over the whole doll thing, because it’s easy to imagine the soft-bodied little terrors becoming animated once the lights go out.
Always when we aren’t watching.
Even though their mass-produced faces are made into, what logically should be, permanent expressions of plastic friendliness, it’s somehow easy to imagine, as a child, that the physical makeup of their facial structure might change in the dead of night to accommodate a set of bitey teeth that weren’t there before. And that your shelf-adorning/nappy-wetting/baby-talking doll might lie in wait, hiding under your bed so that if your foot should leave the safety of your duvet they can bite right through your Achilles tendon and render you powerless against their ensuing onslaught of playtime payback.
As you can probably tell, I’m not a huge fan of dolls. And it’s hardly surprising really. I got a Baby Talk doll for Christmas in the mid-80s, I called her Wendy. She was like a female version of Chucky, I swear. Same hairstyle, only hers was blonde. Same outfit, only her dungarees were pink. Wendy was a talking doll, obviously, hence the name Baby Talk, and her mouth would move and eyes blink. At first I thought she was cool, she was supposed to say lots of different stuff, including: ‘I like to be picked up’. My thoughts on the matter soon changed, however, when it became evident that what she actually said was: “I don’t like to be picked up.” I’d like to think someone at the doll-making factory was having a laugh when they put her together, but I’m not so sure. Here’s why…
Quite some months after Wendy had been cast onto my ‘unused toy pile’, I decided to have a bedroom clear-out. When I picked her up, lo and behold, she spoke to me – which near enough scared the piss out of me. Not because she reminded me that she didn’t like to be picked up, but because she hadn’t had any batteries in for a long time. Checking, just to be sure, I confirmed this terrible truth.
So why in the goddamn hell was she speaking to me?
I was then faced with the awful possibility that if I told my folks of this dire situation they might not believe me – and, as happens in many horror films, just to throw the protagonist’s sanity into doubt, I worried that the doll would fail to speak in the presence of anyone but me. I had the sinking feeling that Wendy might start to terrorise me at night time when there was just me and her. My life flashed before my eyes and I panicked like shit and ran downstairs to tell my mam of this ghastly happening.
I distinctly remember my mam was standing ironing at the time, and she didn’t believe a damn word I said. It was reasonable, I suppose, to see why she would have doubted me – I had an overactive imagination and, even as a child, thrived on tales of terror.
Thankfully when I took Wendy downstairs to demonstrate the crisis at hand, the creepy little shit uttered her favourite phrase to my mam too. Phew! And later that evening when Wendy went on to admonish my dad for picking her up, he went about dismantling her to see if there were any secret battery compartments that had been forgotten about. There weren’t. The little bitch seemed to be powered by some vindictive hatred of being picked up.
That same night Wendy was stuffed into a bin liner and bundled up into the loft, where we stashed her behind the wall boards. To this day that’s where she remains (at least I hope so). My folks have asked if I’d like to reclaim her, but to hell with that, I’m happy to leave her where she is. Forever. Even if my folks were to move house, I’d feel better if Wendy stayed put. Although as a gesture of goodwill I’d probably suggest leaving a note on the loft hatch to advise the new occupants to leave the boards in the loft well alone.
Incidentally, here’s a picture of what she looked like (it isn’t a picture of the actual doll though, and I’ll be damned if I’m unearthing her for a photograph):
Similar to dolls, animism makes me think of puppets – especially of the ventriloquist type. *Shudder* Pinocchio used to bother me as a kid, he was one Disney character I seriously couldn’t get on board with (though, admittedly, I didn’t like Dumbo or Bambi either). And those clowns in glass boxes, the ones that laugh maniacally when you insert a coin. What’s with those things? I remember being transfixed by one when I was small. I loved watching it simply because it scared the crap out of me. Prime example of morbid curiosity! Thinking back, it was really, really awful. Like some mash-up of Hannibal Lecter and Pennywise the clown. It was easy to imagine that it might get up and smash right through the glass, probably giving everyone in the vicinity a fatal heart-attack before it had time to do anything other than belt out more hideous laughter. Who on earth decided they were a good idea? Seriously!
Animism isn’t restricted to things of human-looking ilk of course. Stephen King’s Christine, for instance, was a Plymouth Fury on a murderous path of debauched evil. I sometimes wonder if my Peugeot has a soul. It ate my Mumford & Sons CD about a year ago and refuses to spit it back out, sometimes playing it at random intervals whenever it feels like it. It also breaks down and does irksome things whenever I bad mouth it. But I suppose I can be thankful it hasn’t murdered anybody.
Audrey II the flesh-eating Venus flytrap in Little Shop of Horrors is another example of animism. As is the wily house on Haunted Hill which lures people into its wicked domain. And Frankenstein’s monster. Dr Frankenstein sews together a whole load of body parts from different corpses and then zaps the resulting grisly ensemble with lightning, then voila, the monster is animated – and it suddenly has a thinking persona. Animism is the result of a soul breathing life into a thing, giving it a train of conscious thought and the ability to perceive or feel things. It’s lending sentience to objects that wouldn’t normally feel emotions.
It can also be applied to natural phenomena. Lightning, for instance, can be a scary and unpredictable thing at the best of times, so imagine if a thunder storm had a temper to lose and actually decided to shoot streaks of high-voltage electric at things. Or if a tornado could mindfully map out a path of destruction with spiteful precision.
Films like Dante’s Peak and Perfect Storm use animism to a degree. It’s easy for naturally occurring disasters to be viewed by the audience as thinking, conspiring antagonists that are behaving unreasonably with full-on malicious intent – like het up serial killers who have a bone to pick with humanity.
Animism can often make us feel uneasy because any inanimate object coming to life way oversteps the boundaries of what’s deemed normal, therefore making anything at all seem possible. As much as Child’s Play highlighted how scary a living doll could be, because it seems there’s no easy way to kill that little sonofabitch if it goes all Chucky on you, I’d say natural phenomena is perhaps the scariest form of animism. You’ve just got to ride it out and keep your head down because there’s nothing you can do when Mother Nature gets her mad up. There’s no setting fire to her or running a bus over her or hacking her into a million pieces with an axe. Once she has a problem with you, you’re in the deepest shit imaginable.
But then again…
Even if you destroy that psycho doll good and proper, what’s to say the living soul won’t then transfer into your abandoned old Teddy Ruxpin to unleash a new cycle of terror on your sorry arse. And if you manage to pound Ruxpin’s smug little face into oblivion, what if this unshakeable, malevolent soul then comes at you in the form of the self-propelled petrol lawn mower from the garage?
Perhaps, on second thoughts, all forms of animism are equally as disturbing. What we have is a potentially never-ending conundrum because the soul is the issue, not the object itself. The soul is the driving force, and how could you even begin to destroy a soul? It’s an intangible thing.
Where would the soul that inhabits an object come from in the first place though? It has to be the soul of a dead person who’s looking for a new lease of life (or revenge), surely? Or the soul of a demon planting itself into some item by way of possession. Or maybe it’s some great sorcerer in the aether who’s trying to communicate with us using puppetry and magic.
Whatever, it’s all subjective for the makings of a great story. There are no steadfast rules.
On the flipside, are there any friendly examples of animism? Of course. Short Circuit the robot, Woody off Toy Story, Ted, Mark Wahlberg’s teddy bear, are just a few – although they’re still uncanny because they overstep the mark of what’s seen to be normal and expected. Despite their friendliness, they’re all a bit weird.
So yes, I think I can agree with Freud that animism is indeed freaky.
It’s the teddy bear that changes position every time you close your eyes. It’s the droid that has the capacity to fall in love – and to plot murder. It’s the tree that actually listens. It’s a vindictive wind. A wrathful storm. It’s the megalomania of the Earth when it shakes its tectonic plates and spews its volcanoes to remind us that it’s in charge. It’s the ventriloquist’s dummy that doesn’t always need to lend a voice because it has its own. It’s the unwanted object that keeps turning up on your doorstep whenever you throw it away. It’s the haunted house that seeks revenge for past wrongs committed against it.
But fear not, animism exists purely in the imagination. It’s the storyteller’s gimmick. No doll ever came to life really.
Although, there was a doll called Wendy once…
On that note, I’ll leave you with a picture of the real Annabelle (you can see why she was redesigned for the purpose of the film):