The other day, I went to see a movie. It was two P.M.; I was alone. The theater nearest our apartment is extremely comfortable, with large, fluffy, fully reclining seats and swinging armrests for easy canoodling. Yet the movies on the screen are never romantic. Most are big-budget fare full of CGI and superheroes and emoji. There’s rarely something I’d pay almost twenty dollars to see.
On this day, however, they were showing the latest film about the demonic doll. In fact, this latest is the prequel to the other Annabelle films; it tells the backstory of the doll’s possession. To my disappointment, it did nothing to address the question of why Annabelle resembles an especially grotesque Charlie McCarthy marionette in a Carol Burnett wig.
Doll horror movies are rarely scary, which is strange given how uncanny many people find dolls themselves. Still, they have become a tired trope. As with clowns, the idea of the doll is at this point scarier than any on-screen reality. (Besides, if you do finds dolls inherently frightening, there’s not much narrative tension to be gained from their turning evil.) But I always go to see any movie in which a doll plays the part of a murderous villain. And although I am a great defender of doll life and have never found my own dolls the least bit sinister, I will admit that one of the scariest ghost stories I’ve ever heard revolved around a doll.
Back when I was little, when my uncle was still very much part of our family—before he and my mother fell out so irrevocably—he used to tell us stories. There was the tale of Guac, who had no limbs and sometimes menaced the subways but at other times was the CEO of a large company. There was the ivy wallpaper at my grandparents’ house that would smother you if you didn’t keep your wits about you. And best of all, there was the doll with the purple fingernails.
Although there were certain variations to the story, the basic premise was this: a pilot crashed in the mountains (somewhere vaguely Himalayan) and was rescued from certain, snowy death by a group of mysterious villagers. They nursed him back to health and treated him with the utmost generosity and kindness. Of him only one thing was asked: never look behind the curtain.
The pilot had seen the curtain, of course; he had seen his caretakers paying their ceremonial visits to the curtain and whatever deity it protected, making obeisance, and bringing gifts of fruit and flowers. One day, naturally, his curiosity got the better of him: he peered behind the beaded curtain and there was the most beautiful doll he had ever seen, exquisitely dressed, each tiny finger capped with a long, purple, razor-sharp fingernail. Something about the doll called to him irresistibly, and, as if in a trance, he reached for the doll. When he lifted her from her pedestal, he thought he heard a muffled scream.
The pilot carried the doll from the hut to his plane. By now, the villagers had set up the alarm and were ringing a bell. There were torches and commotion. The pilot bundled the doll into his coat, threw her into the back of his plane, and barely managed to make ascent before the furious pursuers were upon him. He flew and flew. Now and then, from behind him, he heard the muffled scream and assured himself, again, that it was a figment of his imagination.
The pilot nearly made it home. He crashed mere miles from the house he shared with his young daughter. What the police could not explain, after they explored the wreckage, was the manner of his death. He seemed to have been slashed by the long, razor-sharp talons of some wild creature. Baffled, the police returned his possessions to his daughter, including the exquisite, purple-nailed doll.
At this point, the story would follow one of a number of paths: sometimes the doll would attack the girl’s tormentors. Sometimes she turned on the girl herself, having become jealous of other friends and toys, and would slowly scratch her way through walls in an inexorable quest for revenge. The telling was always accompanied by sound effects, for maximum petrification. I loved the story of the doll with the purple fingernails; I would ask for it all the time, and my uncle was also kind enough to trot it out at every one of my birthday parties, where it was always well received.
In retrospect, I guess the story owes elements to the plots of Mothra and Lost Horizon and The Moonstone and various Indiana Jones iterations—the basic greedy-plunderer narrative—but I thought it was the best, scariest thing I’d ever heard. My uncle was a terrific narrator, and the variations in the telling only added to the pleasure; it was both reassuring and surprising. Best of all, despite attempts to burn and smash and stake her, the doll with the purple fingernails had a Rasputin-like ability to defy death, so her saga was never-ending.
And so, this week, I found myself going to see this movie, just as I had the three others in the series. I knew it wouldn’t be very good, and it wasn’t—besides the bizarre getup of the main doll, there’s altogether too much cheap, scary action and not enough in the way of psychological suspense. Still, when the evil doll’s eyes gleamed in the dark, and the little orphan, crippled by polio, tried vainly to make her escape, I felt comforted and at home.
Sadie Stein is an advisory editor of The Paris Review.