Friends ’til the End
Nicholas Russell on Annabelle: Creation

The Occult Museum of Ed and Lorraine Warren in Monroe, Connecticut, home to all manner of supposedly possessed or cursed objects, represented something of a nuisance for neighbors who lived nearby when the museum was still operational. Eager adventurers and thrill-seekers often pestered neighborhood residents, asking where they might find the Warren house, which is now unoccupied and in the process of receiving new zoning regulations. Even before The Conjuring was released in 2013, the house—and the basement where the Museum was displayed—was a constant source of interest from errant visitors, whom neighbors, like pissed-off hall monitors, complained about to the local authorities. Such a mundane local fracas undercuts the amusingly creepy arrangement of the Warren house, which has now been thoroughly mined by The Conjuring franchise. Their museum of the occult became, inadvertently, a museum of film props, some objects more recognizable than others. That the franchise happily trades in on the “true events” experienced by the Warrens, with a healthy dose of dramatic license, made this museum seem even more authentic.

During their years as notorious paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine maintained their basement as a sort of nuclear waste repository for dangerous, evil totems. Patrick Wilson’s fictionalized version of Ed in the first Conjuring film compares it to keeping guns off the street. Inevitably, as with any bankable franchise that starts to run out of ideas, The Conjuring spin-off Annabelle Comes Home turns this basement of horrors into a funhouse of silly villains with authoritative names like The Bride and The Ferryman. But the true star is the doll Annabelle, who plays a small part in the first Conjuring and endures the crucible of one terrible eponymous franchise entry to get to the underrated Annabelle: Creation.

Annabelle opens The Conjuring, her spectral antics upsetting a group of young college students. She writes threatening messages in red crayon all over the walls. She reappears after being thrown away. “Miss me?”, she writes playfully, menacingly. Annabelle is merely a ruse, according to the Warrens. Really, she is a demon taking the name of an innocent girl, invited into the body of the doll to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting. This is hilarious and ghastly in equal measure, but that’s the nature of evil dolls: they’re meant for children, which makes subsequent encounters with them in adulthood seem like manifestations of human psychosis. Members of the audience in the theater where I saw the film yelped when Annabelle showed up. She’s the first shot of the film, a close-up of her eye, scarred with a deep crack, that becomes less visible as the camera pulls back. Director James Wan would have been forgiven for going the Jaws route, waiting to properly reveal this impossibly powerful and infernal doll that every single character in this opening scene is talking about. But part of the fun of Annabelle is how her mischief is only ever seen after the fact, a tactic that invites the viewer to imagine what it must have looked like for her to, say, climb onto the ceiling in order to write her threatening messages.

Annabelle is a schlocky creation who seemingly has the powers of a cartoon: she teleports, she flies, she throws furniture around, all in service of whatever might be most outrageous for a given scene. In her own franchise, there’s a relatively consistent, extremely simple formula: Annabelle is given as a gift, then havoc ensues. There are variations on this, mostly in service of exposition about the demon that lives trapped within the doll, or how it’s a magnet of evil. But it’s the gift-giving aspect that’s part of what makes her scary, the fact that her reputation never precedes her, that the children she’s embraced by are so desperate for love and affection that they never find her appearance unsettling, and that, despite the silliness of her antics, what Annabelle ends up doing (gouging a woman’s eyes out and crucifying her; possessing children; drawing a cult of loyal, murderous followers) is more violent and extreme than seems possible.

The real Annabelle was actually a cloth doll based on the Raggedy Ann books by Johnny Gruelle, which took place in a world full of sentient dolls. The films fashion her into a supremely unsettling wood-carved harbinger of chaos, complete with garish rouge cheeks and deep crow’s feet around her eyes. Here is a rare iconic cinematic object, immediately recognizable, easily described, and totally distinct from its origin. Raggedy Ann, the character, is far creepier than her real-life toy counterpart. Gruelle’s precise linework is coupled with watercolor paints, some sort of intangible intelligence granted to the doll even though we never see Raggedy Ann do anything more than walk and bend over. The physical toy is decidedly tamer, a caricature of a maid, the body all rounded edges, the hair bright red and wild. There is the odd sense that if Raggedy Ann were to magically mutate into a human being, she would be an adult woman. By contrast, Annabelle is unmistakably youthful, a precocious child in miniature, yet given the facial features of a sun-ripened, plastic surgery-ridden middle-aged woman. Her wrinkles are deep, the rouge on her cheeks a cloying pink. The fact that she’s wooden freezes the toy in a garish temporal amber; every scratch, chipped bit of paint, and gash only adds to the fact that Annabelle, like a drawing, can only age by putting more lines on her face.

Annabelle is only the most recent, memorable addition in a string of cinematic horror dolls. One of the conventions of horror is that evil—otherworldly, supernatural, demonic—can never seem to directly affect humanity. Only through objects, through invitation, through some sort of channel, can evil gain access. And rather than reduce an audience’s capacity for fear, dolls exaggerate it. Their accentuated features, plastered expressions, and sometimes adult occupations are grafted onto the body of a child. They’ve become a cinematic shorthand for the uncanny, as symbols for a person’s mental instability. How many characters have we seen walk into their childhood bedrooms, or break into locked chambers, only to find one or a horde of dolls lined up next to one another, staring with unblinking eyes? Think of the doll from Seinfeld who looks exactly like George Costanza’s mother. There is a kind of emotional logic at work: dolls are inherently uncanny for their resemblance to people; so, what if they had minds of their own?

Some franchises lean into this more than others. The gleeful campiness of Chucky and the Child’s Play films trades in on a fully mobile talking toy that has the capacity and desire to stab, and—perhaps even more horrifying—get hitched. Stuart Gordon’s 1987 film Dolls, which came out the year before the first Child’s Play, has almost the same premise: wicked people transmogrified into dolls, trapped there, and turned into killing machines. Don Mancini, screenwriter for all seven of the original Child’s Play films before its reboot in 2019, claims he found inspiration from a number of sources. There were the Cabbage Patch Kids, whose popularity in the eighties sparked the occasional violent toy store frenzy among desperate parents. There was the “Living Doll” episode of The Twilight Zone, featuring the sentient Talky Tina. In it, a woman named Annabelle purchases a wind-up toy for her daughter, its catchphrase being “My name is Talky Tina, and I love you very much.” Tina soon begins to say other things like “My name is Talky Tina, and you’d better be nice to me!” Perhaps the most salient inspiration Mancini names is the clown doll from 1982’s Poltergeist, who toys with then attacks 8-year-old Robbie Freeling, using its long skinny arms to choke the little boy like a boa constrictor.

Annabelle and dolls like her echo real life objects—Victorian-era style dolls like the American Girl series, with their weird, dead eyes—which may be where their power to scare comes from; they’re perverse aberrations of familiar toys for children. And yet people continue to buy Annabelle throughout these films, lavishing love on her as if she were stuffed with cotton. Though Annabelle is menacing on her own, it is also how she is used specifically within the medium of film that terrifies. Her most disturbing angles are when she’s bathed in shadow just so, when the camera cuts to a rocking chair that seems to be moving of its own accord and sneaks round to show her sitting in it. The filmmakers who have used Annabelle have been careful never to let her move more quickly or flexibly than a stuttered head turn. Chucky might be able to walk around and mug for the camera, but Annabelle works best when everything around her moves instead. That space for the audience to imagine what she might be capable of grants Annabelle her resonance. She is a tangible object, rather than a digital fabrication. Her materiality is irrefutable, which makes her outsized actions baffling.

The Conjuring’s success in 2013 marked a major return for the evil doll subgenre, as well as a spate of horror reboots in general. Both Child’s Play and Poltergeist received 21st-century remakes and both projects seem to miss the forest for the trees. The new Child’s Play movie starring Aubrey Plaza turns Chucky into an AI-based toy created by a tech corporation, swapping the admittedly problematic voodoo of the original for something approximating social commentary. Poltergeist’s reboot gives its clown an even more obviously sinister expression, the wild jester’s hat replaced with Raggedy Ann red hair. And while the original film’s doll-related scares take place at night, with lighting that allows the audience to see the action, the remake opts for the tired dark room and flashlight jump scare routine.

Original ventures like 2016’s The Boy and the Apple TV series Servant offer less ambulatory toys that might simply be red herrings for the protagonists’ deteriorating psyches. Neither project has caught the imagination of the public. In many ways, Annabelle remains the epitome of the subgenre, at least for now. The franchise keeps Annabelle as a lightning rod of demonic activity, giving more imaginative filmmakers the freedom to come up with all manner of seemingly doll-agnostic scares. Annabelle sits and stares, the camera the only thing that can get as close to her as we would like to, though of course we know the consequences of such an action. The Warrens keep Annabelle in a glass display case, a sign attached that reads “Positively Do Not Open!” It is a testament to the boldness of her design, and the mischievous melodrama of her mythology, that a simple push-in to her wide-eyed visage is more effective than any final jump scare.