Between the familiar and the unknown – horror and the uncanny

As the gloomy nights close in, I’m experiencing two recurring cravings. The first is for homemade soup (preferably of the pumpkin variety, with a crusty roll too if possible) and the second is a fervent desire to watch scary films. Yes, the prospect of a Halloween movie festival in my living room is cause for much excitement. And scouring my film collection has led me to ponder recurring tropes within the horror genre – particularly the use of ventriloquists' dummies and other human-like puppets to scare the viewer.

As puppeteers are well aware, when a seemingly lifeless figure is animated, particularly one that emulates human movement, it can induce a feeling of the uncanny. A sensation difficult to define but one Sigmund Freud described in his 1919 essay on the subject as having a certain quality of feeling, belonging to “all that arouses dread and creeping horror” and yet also something that is “a class of terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar”. As a would-be ventriloquist, I believe this feeling – somewhere between the familiar and the unknown – can be crafted wonderfully through the use of ventriloquists' dummies.

Of course, it could be argued that uncanny feelings are a common experience for puppetry audiences, and not just for those watching something dark, gothic or scary. After all, much of puppetry’s charm lies in the mystery and illusion that results when life is breathed into the inanimate, whatever the genre. Yet, human-like figures such as dolls and dummies are particularly effective in messing with our minds, especially in horror, where they are presented in creepy settings with haunting music scores and all the other gothic conventions you can imagine.

For me, one of the most impressive efforts in blending ventriloquism with horror comes courtesy of Bristol-based puppet company Pickled Image. Their live show ‘The Shop of Little Horrors’ premiered this spring and, after a series of performances at the 2013 Suspense festival, will be touring the UK this autumn.

An exploration of murder and madness, ‘The Shop of Little Horrors’ is set in the run-down shop of a ventriloquists' dummy maker who harbours an unhealthy, Norman Bates-esque fixation on his own mother. I watched the show at the North Wall, Oxford, where it premiered after an extensive reasearch and development process at the same venue. Pickled Image successfully draw on a host of satisfyingly creepy devices to spook out their audience – take the moment when a dummy blinks, apparently unaided by any human hand, causing gasps across the audience.

But it’s also the design of Pickled Image’s vent dummies that give the play an especially uncanny edge. Everything from their wide, glaring eyes to their bony, claw-like fingers gives you an odd feeling, combining familiar shapes and expressions with the unknown and the eerie.

Turning back to horror films, creepy dolls are a staple of the genre. This summer, ‘The Conjuring’ (directed by James Wan, co-creator of the ‘Saw’ franchise) featured Annabelle – a china doll with pig tails, an eerie grin and cracks across her dirty face. Annabelle is purported to be possessed by an evil spirit and, though you never actually see this doll move independently, her ragged appearance is enough to cause ripples of discomfort across cinema aisles. The result is similar to that of Billy the Puppet from the ‘Saw’ franchise, whose presence acts as a kind of unpleasant calling card from the Jigsaw Killer to his victims, usually meaning something really rather gross is about to occur.

For me, Annabelle and Billy each score about an eight out of 10 on the goose bumps scale and that’s high considering neither ever really come across as sentient or capable of true independent movement. So, it’s logical that when human-like figures are given real autonomy and motivation – whether this be for walking, talking or even attacking people in a murderous rage – that this really does cause the great cauldron of uncanny feelings to bubble over in my mind!

‘Dead Silence’, another film directed by Wan, is a decent example of how a traditional ‘hard figure’ ventriloquist’s dummy can be used to great effect in assisting the day-to-day task list of a homicidal protagonist. This film is special in mixing things up a little, presenting us not only with human-like puppets but also with a puppet-like human as the murderer takes on vent dummy attributes, creating a sense of extreme discomfort in the viewer.

Dolls and vent dummies have been used to spooky effect in everything from ‘Doctor Who’ to ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (one Buffy episode entitled 'The Puppet Show' plays on our expectations that a little vent dummy is the culprit in an organ harvesting scheme!). But Tom Holland’s classic 1988 horror film ‘Child’s Play’ is arguably the ruling example of how human-like puppets can cause extreme fear in an audience. The moment when Chucky's owner realises her ginger, dungaree-clad little doll has been operating with an empty battery compartment still creates a very special kind of chill down my neck.

Scary film fest here I come... happy Halloween!


Helen Jauregui is learning to be a ventriloquist. Read her blog (A Dummy Run) all about it.


"Human-like figures like dolls and dummies are particularly effective in messing with our minds, especially in horror."

Additional Info

'The Shop of Little Horror's is on a UK tour throughout November. Find dates and locations on their website.