Watch a Documentary on the Creepy Real Phenomenon Behind The Boy

By  · Published on January 21st, 2016

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The premise of The Boy sounds very strange. A nanny is hired to look after a child, but that child turns out to just be a doll. Creepy, yes, but not as unusual as it seems. In the movie, that doll is a substitute for a couple’s real little boy, who died in a fire. In real life, many people who lose a son or daughter similarly replace them with ultra-realistic dolls. They’re called reborn dolls, because they’re regular dolls redone to look more like real babies. The doll in The Boy isn’t that realistic-looking, but it is apparently actually alive.


The phenomenon of reborn dolls goes back more than 15 years and is a big business and also considered by some to be an art form. Not surprisingly, there have been a few documentaries made about it. One of the higher quality efforts is from Vice Media. Reborn Babies spotlights both doll makers and collectors, one of whom has four she treats as if they were her biological children. The short doc also features clips from YouTube where people showcase their reborn dolls as if they’re real, complete with baby sound effects.

As can be expected from Vice, Reborn Babies exoticizes its subjects, but it doesn’t feel exploitative. More just stunned and curious. The thing is, it’s a little late to the party, being produced in 2014. The doc also doesn’t go very deep. The most prominent collector sees the dolls as a hobby, equal to her husband’s interest in producing electronic music, albeit a hobby requiring a lot of responsibility in the caring for the dolls. There is minor acknowledgment that some people buy reborn dolls in the image of their deceased or grown children, but the most interesting central idea is that they’re a good substitute to having actual children, as they’re easier to raise, never get old or leave you and won’t ever get hurt.

Going back a little further, there’s the mid-length documentary My Fake Baby, which was made for broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK in 2008. Narrated by Ben Chaplin, this one does feature a woman who gets a doll in the image of a real child. But the kid isn’t dead. He’s her grandson, whom she helped raise for a few years from infancy while his mother had cancer, but now the cured mother and grandson live on the other side of the world. She can Skype with the boy, but she wants a reborn doll version at home anyway.

My Fake Baby otherwise is a lot like Reborn Babies, only with British subjects rather than German. We meet makers and buyers and another husband with a hobby of his own, but there are more scenes out in public where we see subjects pushing reborn dolls in carriages and witness people’s reactions after realizing the babies aren’t real. The doc seems to ogle less, sharing stories rather than presenting them, with a fascination that’s more set on understanding the phenomenon than gawking.

Another British look at reborns is in the form of the BBC documentary series Inside Out. I’m not sure when this episode is from, but it does include a woman with a reborn doll who also lost a son to sudden infant death syndrome at four weeks old. She’s a complicated character, though, because although she has a reborn with the same name as her deceased child (though it’s not in his likeness), she says it’s not recommended to try to replace a lost son or daughter with a doll (many psychologists say the same). She also has other kids, too.


Finally, and most recommended (it’s on Nonfics’s list of the best documentaries of 2015), is Ulrich Seidl’s latest feature, In the Basement. The film offers a peek into the homes of various subjects, including one man who collects Nazi paraphernalia, another with an S&M dungeon and also an old woman with a collection of reborn dolls. There’s no context given for her interest nor barely any semblance of her story. We just see her in her basement going through a storage area and pulling lifelike baby dolls out of boxes, coddling them and then returning them to their shelves. Below is just the trailer. You can stream the film now on Netflix.

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.