What is it that makes us fear things from the very depth of our souls?

There is just something about the Japanese style of horror that leaves a lasting, and sometimes scarring, impression on people. A psychological brand of horror where oftentimes it is what you don’t see, rather than what you do, that you should fear the most. There certainly is no denying the terror of someone running at you with a chainsaw; but when you manifest a fear so deep and pure, it stays with you long after the fact – far beyond anxiety, past paranoia.

Although the topic of horror stretches to far out reaches, one aspect often used is through the concept of dolls. Dolls often represent a symbol of beauty and childhood; a toy played with leisurely or an elegant shelf piece adorning a young girl’s room. They are a picturesque effigy in porcelain with pristine clothes and impenetrable eyes that see everything and nothing. A human personification that stands to show us just how fragile we really are. Although there are many instances of dolls inclusion in horror and other dark genres, here are but a few marked examples:

So I think to myself: ‘Something different; a precious present for a precious person.’ The most suitable thing would be you yourself.

Black Butler

This may have been but a small arc within the anime, but it managed to stick out for me none the less. When young girls begin to disappear from the city at an alarming pace with the only evidence left behind being a small doll of their likeness in an old shop, Ciel and Sebastian begin investigating the case. It seems just like any other task from the queen, however, things become much more personal when Elizabeth falls victim as well. Locating where she is being held, they discover the whereabouts of the other missing girls…at least what is left of them.

No longer human, the girls have all been turned into reanimated dolls, following every command by the strings of their puppet master. As battle ensues and the girls fall in defeat, they do not bleed but rather sawdust, straw and other inanimate materials come apart from their seams. Their humanity left only as a memory. When they finally find Elizabeth held away in a tower, relief floods over them as they find she had not been completely transformed like the other girls. But all is not right in the world as Elizabeth mercilessly attacks Ciel, still being manipulated by invisible strings and unable to control her own actions. These episodes not only show the fragility of dolls but also the terrifying likeness to their human counterparts; or in this case, where they become one in the same.

“The dolls…dolls are hollow, you see. Completely hollow in body and soul. That void connects them with death, but hollow things seek to fill their emptiness. Don’t you feel as though this place is drawing something out of you?”

Another

From the very beginning, the opening of this anime signifies just how beautiful yet breakable a doll can be. Broken, battered, entangled, and distraught – the dolls paint a beautiful and tragic portrait. One of the most intriguing places and scenes in this anime to me by far took place in the doll shop “‘The Hollow Eyes of Yomi at Twilight”. The setting was already mysterious, but this added another level of cryptic darkness to it all. The dolls found within are all effortlessly beautiful but what really stood out was their design and display. Some were posed specifically, some haphazardly sitting or with hanging limbs off of a shelf, and some laid out as if for a funeral viewing;  dressed in elegant attire holding a beautiful flower while others sat aside, forgotten and in disarray.

When Koichi finds his way downstairs he is startled by Mei, who emerges unseen from behind a small coffin. Mei is a character very otherworldly and doll-like in her own sense, and standing next to an almost identical looking doll gives one the feeling there is much more to it than simple coincidence. Mei explains that the beautiful doll is only a half representation of her, but says no more at that time. Even as they take in the remaining scenery and dolls of the small room, an eerie calm yet unrest settles around them. Although the dolls in this series do not cause fear directly, the imagery and ideals they represent add to an already anxious and suspense ridden storyline.

“Didn’t we always used to promise each other, that we would stay together?”

Fatal Frame

This survival horror series holds a special place in my heart and throughout every game the concept of dolls has played an integral role in some way or another. In the original game, dolls may not have been a major aspect of the story but there is one particular room of Himuro Mansion I am sure most people remember: the doll room. At the beginning of the second night, Miku awakens into a room filled with dolls. As you inspect them closer a doll’s head will roll off unexpectedly, a small puzzle must be solved, and a larger doll on a special pedestal in the back of the room is hard not to notice. This is only the beginning though as a child’s laughter soon breaks through the silence and Miku is thrown into battle with the child’s spirit.

Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly offered a much larger concept of dolls through one particular arc/area known as the doll makers residence. The basic story of this game is that in an ancient village, the townsfolk believed that to appease the gods they had to make a human sacrifice – but this sacrifice was something unlike any other. In this case it would involve identical twins, where deep underground at the mouth of Hell, one twin would kill the other and then the sacrifice would be thrown down into the pit. The remaining twin would go on living, though many would suffer extreme psychological illness and duress.

The doll maker’s two daughters were chosen for the ritual one year and after it was done the remaining twin, Akane, fell into a deep depression over the loss of her sister. Their father, torn with grief, built a life size doll of Azami and it wasn’t long after that Akane returned to her usual self – never separate from the doll. However, she became so attached to the doll that a malicious spirit took control and began to possess Akane. When her father realized what was happening he aimed to destroy the doll and the spirit within; but upon finding out about his plans, Akane, in her possessed state, killed her father in order to save the doll. Exploring this area of the game pits you against Akane and Azami at the same time, yet only one can take damage from the spirit camera. A very sad and haunting story. No matter how keen the resemblance, a doll can never replace a life.

Fatal Frame 3 also uses dolls as a means of representation and sacrifice. Wara Ningyo are a type of Japanese doll often used to represent a person or particular aspect and it is believed that a person could become cursed if a doll in their likeness is nailed to a sacred tree. In Fatal Frame, this practice was used through numerous rituals of various levels from only using a doll to transfer sin and misfortune to the other world to sacrificing an actual person through an impalement ritual in which the villagers sins would be taken with that person to the spirit realm.

Lastly, in Fatal Frame 4 a particular type of doll, called a hozuki doll, can be found throughout the game and photographed for completion of a lengthy side quest. These dolls  were made by parents who had lost a child and are generally considered to be extremely unlucky and bring disaster. Although merely used to represent the dead, the mere presence of these dolls adds to the overall feeling of dread as the player explores the island and slowly uncovers its bloodstained history.

Whether the story be one of horror, suspense or simply unnerving at times, there is no denying the effect certain elements can put into play. Dolls may not necessarily bring terror about instantly, but rather do so gradually…psychologically. Barely seeing a distinctly human-esque figure out of the corner of your eye in the darkness, knowing what meaning lies behind certain dolls, a reasoning for their presence; it isn’t that they are necessary terrifying unto themselves, but rather the thoughts and imagery that manifests within our subconscious that brings about a true horror. It is the same tactic that places us on alert in dark situations and similarly can make even the bravest of men jump at mere shadows.

Beautiful. Enchanting. Tragic. Terrifying.

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