This week in Tales from ds106 Paul Bond and I discussed a couple of classic horror stories focused on dolls: The Twilight Zone’s “Living Doll” and Richard Matheson‘s episode “Amelia” from the TV movie Trilogy of Terror (1975). One of the questions we wanted to explore is, “Why the hell dolls are so creepy?” I’m no sure we got answered it, but one of the things that surfaced when talking about these two doll episodes was how freudian the subplots were. Both episodes are remembered for their dolls, one a lovable department store staple turned revenge killer.
And the other a racist curio that comes alive as a savage hunter:
But what I forgot about, which dovetails beautifully with the focus of week two in ds106, is the artful ways in which these killer dolls might actually be understood as part of the psyche—the manifestation of some deep dark id. This is particularly apparent with the character Erich Streator (Telly Savalas) from “Living Doll.” I was struck by the subtext this time around wherein he believes his wife (Annabelle) and step-daughter (Christie) are using the doll to taunt him because apparently he is unable to reproduce. He is haunted by the fact, and Talky Tina has transformed into the child he can never have. There’s a moment in the middle of the episode wherein Erich lays this out:
Annabelle: She’ll be a good playmate for Christie.
Erich: Mm-hmm. Lacking a brother or sister, you mean?
Annabelle: I didn’t say that.
Erich: But that’s why you bought the doll, isn’t it? Sort of a reminder?
Annabelle: It hadn’t occurred to me, but if that’s what you want to think.
And the Freudian themes are by no means a stretch, at the very beginning of the episode when Erich is interrogating Annabelle about the cost of the doll he says as much:
Erich: All right, how much did it cost?
Annabelle: I told you
Erich: I know, you charged it, but how much did it cost?
Annadelle: Erich, that’s enough.
Erich: How much did it cost, Annabelle?
Annabelle: Erich, I don’t think it’s the price of the doll that’s upsetting you.
Erich: Now we’ll get more of that freudian gibberish you’ve been getting from her doctor, huh?
Annabelle: It isn’t Dr. Lubin’s fault she feels rejected.
The father’s lack, the child’s rejection, the mother’s persecution: it’s right out of Greek tragedy. And the doll becomes the horrific representation of this family triangulation of insecurity, longing, and rejection. It was such a different experience for me this time around. The horror was the father’s inability to cope with his perceived lack, and the sadistic way in which he wanted others to suffer for it. Crazy. And as you can see from the extended quotes above, this is all captured through good writing. The set and effects for this show are about as minimalistic as they come, the genius is in the story. It’s the writing that carries this.
When I watched “Amelia” I was ready for something totally different. I had seen this episode when I was a pre-teen, and the Zuni fetish doll is one of those figures that has been burnt on my imagination. I was thinking this episode would be far less artful, and I guess you could argue that given how over-the-top the doll is, but as with “The Living Doll” the horror of this episode is embedded in the subtext that plays out when Amelia (Karen Black) is talking to her mom on the phone. It becomes quickly apparent she has left home temporarily to sublet an apartment in the city. It’s Friday night and she is trying to tell her mother she has a date with a man, and that she won’t be able to spend the evening with her. The apparent reply—we can’t hear the mother on the other side of the phone—is not happy. The mother accuses her daughter of abandoning her, trying to escape, etc. Amelia is visibly shaken, and ultimately calls her boyfriend to tell him she won’t be coming, and he lays it on as well. The calls are fascinating because they setup the horror of the story. The fetish doll is a representation of the frustrations driving Amelia’s life: her frustration with her mom’s refusal to let go, her sexual anxieties/frustrations with her boyfriend (she slips when talking to her mother about spending the night—not the evening—with him and quickly corrects herself), as well as her guilt about abandoning them both. It a taut, one woman show about the horrors of familial dependence and personal relationships. The doll becomes the manifestation of all this and more.
And unlike “The Living Doll,” where Erich is killed by the doll, Amelia is transformed by the doll into monster. And the last scene is of her telling her mother to come over as she is crouching down driving a machete into the carpet. And the final close-up seals it, she has given way to the darker impulses to finally stand up to her mother and devour her lover? The teeth say it all.
Interesting final point about “Amelia” that ties it back to “The Living Doll.” Richard Matheson wrote many, many classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. He wrote Amelia for The Twilight Zone, but they kyboshed it because it was way too dark and violent. Although when I think about the TZ episode “The Invaders” the two seem pretty similar. Regardless, I think Talky Tina certainly gives the Zuni doll a run for his money when it comes to dark and violent horror—but both do a brilliant job of mining the real horror of our emotional fears, insecurities, and frustrations.