Pollock’s Toy Museum in London has a room full of vintage and antique dolls that creep people out. Museum employee Ken Hoyt says the doll room is near the end of the museum tour, and some folks will backtrack through the museum to avoid going in there, because the dolls creep them out. Psychologist Frank McAndrew did some research on “creepiness,” and explains what it means.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of a little piece of plastic, but it’s sending out social signals,” says McAndrew, noting too that depending on the doll, these signals could just as easily trigger a positive response, such as protectiveness. “They look like people but aren’t people, so we don’t know how to respond to it, just like we don’t know how to respond when we don’t know whether there is a danger or not... the world in which we evolved how we process information, there weren’t things like dolls.”
Some researchers also believe that a level of mimicry of nonverbal cues, such as hand movements or body language, is fundamental to smooth human interaction. The key is that it has to be the right level of mimicry – too much or too little and we get creeped out. In a study published in Psychological Science in 2012, researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that inappropriate nonverbal mimicry produced a physical response in the creeped out subject: They felt chills. Dolls don’t have the ability to mimic (although they do seem to have the ability to make eye contact), but because at least part some part of our brain is suspicious about whether this is a human or not, we may expect them to, further confusing things.
An article on creepy dolls and how they affect us at Smithsonian talks about the uncanny valley, pareidolia, and pediophobia, which is the fear of dolls. And if you think grandma’s antique doll collection is creepy, try having some around that look like you.