The idea of living dolls terrified me as a kid, all starting with the trailer for Child’s Play 2. In it, a Jack-in-the-box’s tinkling music menacingly plays as Chucky’s face comes into frame, intercut with shots from the film. I don’t remember the Star Trek movie it was attached to, but I do recall burying my face in my seat to avoid the insidious hard stare of Chucky. The Hollywood appeal of killer dolls would peak throughout the ’80s and ’90s with the likes of Stuart Gordon’s Dolls, Maria Lease’s Dolly Dearest and my personal unsung favorite, Kevin Tenney’s Pinocchio’s Revenge.
Smash cut to 2019 and my childhood trauma is still making bank at the box office, kickstarted again thanks to the popularity of Annabelle, the doll introduced in 2013’s The Conjuring. Between the two subsequent Annabelle spinoff films, Brahms in The Boy, the return of Puppet Master, the Child’s Play remake, and countless straight-to-Redbox films like the Robert series, killer dolls are back in a big way.
There is no denying, though, that Annabelle is the new queen of pint-sized horror, and there is one aspect of her films that makes her unique: Annabelle rarely moves. Yes, there are scenes where she appears to move thanks to some clever editing, but we never see natural, humanistic movements as we do with the Zuni doll in Trilogy of Terror.
And while that may disappoint killer doll purists, with Annabelle the dramatic tension is elevated precisely because she isn’t anthropomorphic. It’s in this breaking of form, the doll’s economy of movement, that Annabelle finds her suspenseful strength. We almost mentally dare the doll to move as other scares – a door quietly closing on its own, a stranger walking in the background – flash in our periphery. The suspenseful stillness of the possessed doll leaves us in breathless anticipation of movement, a feeling pervasive through the core of the series’ many scare set pieces, particularly in its first sequel, Annabelle: Creation.
So how can anticipation become so unnerving? Well, think about it, have you ever had anxiety before a big vacation, or through the agony of waiting for test results? Anticipation spikes our stress because we’re left waiting for something, however good or bad, to happen. These primal anxieties come from our innate fight or flight response, and when a horror film taps into this it can elicit a charged reaction from its audience.
This anticipation permeates every scene Annabelle is featured in, crawling under your skin and staying there. But when she does move – like an offscreen head tilt – it’s with a carefully measured economy of movement.
Economy of movement is how an actor can most efficiently use their body to convey emotion, a core concept of Etienne Decroux’s movement theory “Corporeal Mime.” The practice is to show how the body can express both internal and external emotions through physical gestures. You could consider the idea birthed from the performer’s idiom of “I don’t know what to do with my hands!” – too much careless movement, and you give the impression that you are lost on stage, your physical expression losing any punch or meaning.
When an actor or director limits a character’s – or in this case a doll’s – movement in a scene, though, it can imbue the eventual motions with real emotional weight. Annabelle doesn’t need to run around holding a knife to frighten you, because she can generate the same fear with a mere turn of the head. This creeping stillness is meant to prey on our ingrained animalistic anxiety, never letting our guard down just in case we finally catch her moving.
But Annabelle wasn’t the first doll to rely on stillness to scare its audience. That precedent can be traced back to Richard Attenborough’s 1978 cult classic Magic.
Based on a novel by William Goldman, and starring Anthony Hopkins in the dual role of ventriloquist Corky and his dummy, Fats, Magic is a psychologically haunting film more than it is just about an insidious dummy. The stillness that the film utilizes for Fats shares many of the same concepts that make Annabelle work so well, particularly in how the cinematography supports this motionless terror.
In an early scene in the film, Corky snaps at his childhood crush Peggy (Ann-Margaret) over a failed magic trick. Once the trick works, their frustration dissolves into passion. But conspicuously in the foreground, our eyes are drawn to Fats sitting in a chair, the duo a blur behind him as the camera creeps closer to the dummy. The music transforms into a jarring cacophony of noise as we wait — on the edge of our seats — anticipating Fats to move. But he remains still, giving the audience no release from the scene’s anxiety.
Surprisingly, this entire idea is perhaps best actualized in Magic’s trailer, a teaser so frightening to kids in 1978 that it inspired Rodney Ascher’s documentary Primal Screen 39 years later.
While the dummy’s face is animated, Fats remains still, as if controlled by a phantom ventriloquist, speaking with Hopkins’ manic, piercing voice. But it’s in the dummy’s final stillness, his eyes rolled back into his wooden skull, that the horror finally reverberates. Within Fats’ stillness lies the entire film’s unnerving mood.
Ultimately, the biggest trick of all may be our own eyes. There are moments in both Magic and the Annabelle series where the doll doesn’t move, but our eyes trick us into believing it may have, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, “Didja see that?!” beat that feeds off of our own imagination. Because we want to see Fats and Annabelle move, in our heads they almost do.
So, sure, Annabelle and Fats don’t walk around like spooky doll king Chucky, but that shouldn’t be seen as a detraction from the menacing power that lies within this duo’s stillness. Precisely, it is because of their lack of movement that we are on edge throughout their entire films. The killer dolls and dummies may never actually move, but we’ll always be afraid that they just might. And that is truly magic.