Essays · Movies

Finding Renewed Fear in ‘Child’s Play’ 25 Years Later as a Parent Whose Kid Has Talking Toys

Horror movies change as we grow older.
Child's Play
By  · Published on November 8th, 2013

Recently my son received a gift from his grandmother, a giant talking Elmo doll. This toy is popular because it gives hugs and says a whole ton of phrases and sings a few songs and snores when it’s bedtime. When it moves there is a robotic motion and sound that keeps it from seeming too real, but it’s often still very creepy in how lifelike the thing seems. Especially when you forget to turn it off and it speaks to you out of the blue when you’re otherwise alone in the house. For all I know, it has said things not in its program of recorded speeches. For all I know, it’s watching me right now. At least I remember putting the batteries in. I think…

Since the toy came into our house, I’ve been wanting to revisit Child’s Play. Because why wouldn’t I want to exacerbate the feeling that this Elmo is possessed? Today is actually the 25th anniversary of the horror movie, which introduced us to a redheaded doll who’d join the ranks of the most famous modern scary movie monsters. Chucky has been around now long enough and through so many sequels that he’s a bit watered down in terms of his effect, but this year I’ve reaccepted the evil Good Guy as a figure of terror, and it’s not because his latest installment, Curse of Chucky, returns the franchise to more of a horror tone. It’s because I’m a parent, and for the first time in decades I’m surrounded by stuffed animals and vocal, animatronic figures.

Back in 1988, when I was 11 years old, the Child’s Play premise was scary because then too I was surrounded by toys. There was some residual fear already from Poltergeist – my brothers and I grew up particularly afraid of the clown doll scene. But by the time Child’s Play had arrived, we had the Cabbage Patch Kids and the new generation of battery-powered talking dolls that were informing a lot of the relevance of the movie. Of course, it wasn’t a new concept, nor were talking dolls. Child’s Play itself came exactly 25 years after the debut of the “Living Doll” episode of The Twilight Zone, which was inspired by the new and popular Chatty Cathy doll (the producers even got the same voice of the doll for their evil version, Talky Tina). And this sort of toy had been around since at least the late 1800s when Edison created his Phonograph Doll.

As a kid, though, there was some level of identification to be had with Andy, the little boy whose Good Guy doll is inhabited by the spirit of serial killer Charles Lee Ray, and who remains innocently and obliviously friends with the toy for much of the film. Some other children, if they were permitted to watch horror movies as I was, might have even had some sick fantasy in the fact that most of the deaths in the movie are disliked authority figures such as the babysitter and the dismissive mental hospital doctor (there are few kills in the movie, but that fantasy continues in the next couple films). I might have been more concerned at the time for those dolls that weren’t my own, like the talking Pee-Wee Herman doll my brother carried around everywhere. Or the Lester ventriloquism dummy the same brother also “befriended.”

A couple years later, I went to a presentation by famous paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (recently portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring), and while showing slides of the real “Annabelle” doll (actually a Raggedy Ann possessed by a girl named Annabelle Higgins) they claimed this case was the inspiration for the Chucky character. Other sources say Child’s Play is based on the much earlier true story of Robert the Doll. Either way, creator Don Mancini has mostly given credit to the Cabbage Patch Kid craze and an initial interest in satirizing that and in the business of advertising to children in general. Given how “Elmo” was disappointingly one of the first clear words in my kid’s vocabulary, I better understand that concept and worry now.

But regarding the possessed doll aspect, for the years between childhood and parenthood, my main consideration of Child’s Play was in the way the characterization of Chucky takes the idea above that level. Killer dolls fell more into the ghost story camp before Child’s Play mashed it up with the slasher genre that was preferred during the ’80s. And the fact that Chucky was given such a huge personality, thanks in large part to Brad Dourif’s voice work, which clearly sounds influenced by the actor’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest co-star Jack Nicholson – making him part Jack Torrance, part (after the fact, mainly due to his similar frustration with his transformation into a monster) The Joker (interestingly enough, Tim Burton is said to have originally wanted Dourif for the role in Batman), gave him a presence that was more villain than evil spirit or boogeyman or other mysterious threat.

Because of the voice, Chucky easily turned into a celebrity himself yet also would become less scary the more he spoke and cracked wise, similar to the way Freddy Krueger became a bit too comedic as his franchise went on. Not that silent slashers can’t be silly, too, but it’s easier for them to stay scary while talky horror villains are aligning themselves with one-liner-spouting action heroes with every clever quip made during a kill. Many horror monsters are iconic simply for their image. Characters like Freddy and Chucky are special for having a look you can immediately picture in your mind, but also voices that can stick in your head, too. Just reading this probably invokes the sound of Chucky’s laughter and the intonations of both his Good Guy voice and his Charles Lee Ray voice. That’s how Elmo’s voice is for me these days, too.

I’m no big horror fan or expert, but in those middle years I’ve grown to appreciate Chucky for all the different ideas that went into it. There are so many killer doll movies (one of my rare horror guilty pleasures when I was young was the Puppet Master series), but they’re just about killer dolls. Chucky came out of and then became a part of our culture, full circle, because the design and execution of the character and concept here plays for various effects (and it’s nice that Curse of Chucky doesn’t totally reject the Bride of/Seed of horror-comedy era storylines) and speaks to multiple levels of fear, and not just the brief physical scare variety. Very few horror franchises, whether I liked them 25–30 years ago or not, have given me such a new perspective in my adulthood, let alone as a father.

Not that I want to continue on another path, but also coming now from a father’s point-of-view, it wasn’t until this week’s re-watch that I even wondered about Andy’s dad and the ways Chucky becomes a father figure. All the more interesting if we find ourselves making up that vague back story…

Anyway, I want to leave you with a related video that very well could give you more nightmares than Child’s Play ever did. Coincidentally, last night I was directed by my colleague Peter Hall to a Kickstarter for a new social robot called the ZENO R25 that sort of resembles Chucky. Peter had no idea, of course, that at the very minute of his tweet I was watching Child’s Play. He even referenced the movie. And now I’m horribly afraid that my kid will want one of these or something like it in the near future.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.