Knives and dolls: M3GAN, Chucky and my chronic fear of three-foot, plastic evil

Miniature maniacs: M3GAN, Chucky, Annabelle and Chinga (Universal/Disney/iStock)
Miniature maniacs: M3GAN, Chucky, Annabelle and Chinga (Universal/Disney/iStock)

I am alone in the house. But I know she’s upstairs listening. If I keep the cartoons loud enough maybe she won’t hear me put on my Batman slippers. I shuffle softly to the door and pull it open just enough to squeeze through into the hall. There’s the front door. The bunch of keys on the mat where my mum posted them through the letterbox. Will I be able to find the right key in time? I look up and Jesmar is there, standing at the top of the stairs, with her patchwork playsuit, placid smile and straw-coloured fringe. The air is electric and I can hear a terrible moaning. I need to run but suddenly I’m swimming through concrete. Where is the key –

“Sir?” There is a light on my face. “Sir! Are you alright?” The air hostess is standing over me. The moaning is very loud now. The moaning is coming from me. Oh my god “Aaaaaaaaaahhh I’m sorry, I was having a nightmare.”

I have just been woken up on a packed long-haul flight to New Zealand. My mistake? I’d watched Annabelle Comes Home – the third in the series of horror films about a killer doll. It’s not generally regarded as the best of the franchise, but it was easily frightening enough to provoke a recurring childhood nightmare about Jesmar, a life-size doll from my childhood that belongs to my mum. Jesmar was at one point bigger than me.

Dolls – particularly dolls that are made to a certain specification of three-foot tall and blue eyed with yellow, straw-like hair – are an ongoing source of fear and fascination for me. So the announcement of M3GAN, a horror film about a blue-eyed AI doll that sings “Titanium” by Sia and goes on a murder spree, filled me with anticipation.

The hype around it shows that I am not alone. There is a surprisingly extensive niche of doll horror movies. I have combed through them mainly, I think, to prod at my weird phobia to see what gives me chills and what just leaves me cold. The pioneering Child’s Play franchise, which started in 1988, never left too much of an impression – perhaps because my introduction to it was the satirical Bride of Chucky, by which point the series was so camp it had become a horror comedy. The Conjuring and Annabelle franchises – for me the best and worst, a terrifying watch – came much later, in the 2010s. Stop motion in films can sometimes push the same buttons – especially Ash’s dancing wife Linda in Evil Dead 2.

The most frightening of these dolls share the evocation of the uncanny valley, which is the feeling of dread inspired by beings that are not-quite-human-enough. There are many theories for this phenomenon, but my favourite is essentially a horror story itself, one attributed to video game developer David Szymanski: “The existence of the uncanny valley implies that at some point there was an evolutionary reason to be afraid of something that looked human but wasn’t.”

Being scared of being left alone is quite understandable. We all have abandonment fears

M3GAN’s added ingredient is sass. With her pussybow blouses, Sixties shift dresses and oversized sunglasses, M3GAN has the uncanny demeanour of Joan Didion on a murder spree. This Ridley Scott alien in a Regina George skin-suit enjoys hazing her targets before she destroys them. She has a personality that surely takes cues from the hilarious and sadistic GLaDOS in the sci-fi horror video game Portal – a brilliantly original but overlooked villain.

Try contrasting M3GAN with the more conventional Annabelle, who represents a masterclass in the folk wisdom of sinister physical traits. Like an evil Aubrey Plaza, she has wide sanpaku eyes – a classic trait of Hollywood stars, and also serial killers like Charles Manson. No offence, Aubrey. She has pigtails like Wednesday Addams, and clownish make-up and a cadaverous complexion that speak for themselves. “Eyes above ears, something to fear” is an expression you might hear said about Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer – but also Annabelle. Like so many female personifications of evil, she walks a line between childishness and savagery, innocence and evil. The best spooky dolls, to my mind, always do.

But no film will ever be as scary to me as a 1998 X-Files episode co-written by Stephen King called “Chinga” about a little girl who has become unhealthily attached to her doll – just like M3GAN. Creepily repeating the phrase “I want to play”, Chinga was horrifying because she does not harm people directly. Instead she possesses those around her with the will to self-harm – by clawing their eyes out, or stabbing themselves. Scully memorably cooks her in a microwave.

“When you are feeling afraid, physiologically it’s the same as other feelings like excitement,” says Dr Abigael San, a chartered psychologist with the British Psychological Society. “Your heart’s beating fast, your muscles are tensing up, your breathing is quicker.” The appraisal that a person makes of that physiological response determines the emotional quality of it. Which is why scary movies can be pleasurable and frightening at the same time.

If I avoid scary doll movies, I can generally avoid waking up screaming – but I remain irresistibly drawn to them, even if the consequences can be mortifying. The nightmares, too, are lurid like all the best childhood memories, shimmering with hallucinatory intensity, a feeling that my organs are being squeezed, and a lingering sense of dissociation. Although I wouldn’t describe them as pleasant, exactly.

New besties M3GAN (M3GAN) and Cady (Violet McGraw) in ‘M3GAN’ (Universal)
New besties M3GAN (M3GAN) and Cady (Violet McGraw) in ‘M3GAN’ (Universal)

Children can be afraid of all kinds of things, and their fears can be very potent. “Being scared of being left alone is quite understandable,” says Dr San. “We all have abandonment fears.” But simple fears can become latched onto inanimate objects – like a three-foot-tall doll, for example – in cases of classical conditioning. “You can develop a conditioned association with an inanimate object if it is there at the same time as you experiencing pain or fear,” says Dr San. “Like being left alone, or hearing an argument between parents, or something like that.”

My mum still owns Jesmar, whose frozen smile is now, horrifyingly, tainted with a dark constellation of mold. It has not escaped my attention that she is deformed in the tradition of late-stage horror icons, which become more demonic over time. It feels wrong to even write about her, wrong to summon her to my laptop at all – but at the same time, I am unable to resist…

‘M3GAN’ is in cinemas now