the doll games
shelley and pamela jackson


s doll journal

the uncanny

Excerpt from S Jackson's doll journal, summer 2000

I never liked books about dolls. I wasn’t interested in dolls as dolls, I was interested in the characters they became in the games. I did try on the "maybe they come alive when we’re not looking" trope so common in kids’ books; I snuck looks back into rooms I was leaving to catch them at it, and I felt a twinge when things happened to my dolls that would really hurt a human being, I liked to tuck my stuffed animals into bed with their heads out so they could breathe, and as I wrote on leaving for AZ one time, "I feel sorry for everything I’m not taking–stuffed animals, dolls, even pencils!"

But we didn’t make up stories about dolls coming to life, we made up stories about people. Hence the uncanny effect of such grown-up productions as the Raggedy Anne stories or Rumer Godden’s doll family adventures, dolls smearing food on mouths that can’t open to swallow, or in the case of a baby doll with an open mouth, "swallowing" but becoming full of sticky goo: dolls as the walking dead, inanimate matter invested with a lively ghost. What about Miss Hickory? We were supposed to be charmed to read that a squirrel ate her head? And that afterwards her twig body kept going like the famous headless chicken or Ichabod Crane, as if she didn’t need a mind to live (and in that case what was "living"?), and this was not meant to be a horror story, but quaint and touching. In the end her body was grafted onto a tree and every last trace of memory was erased in the vegetable take-over. How horrible!
Those books revealed that there was something voodoo about our whole enterprise. They reminded us of everything we were trying to overlook. The dolls were just things, subject to the misadventures of things. Even a possessed doll is still made of rags (which tear, or burn, or soak up water) or china (which clinks and cracks) or wax in the older books (which melts, most horrible of all) all of which are stuff. The doll is a thing, like a corpse, but even more like other objects, cups and dirty clothes and nuts and sticks, and this may be why the whole material world used to seem on the verge of humping itself up and acquiring legs and a pinched, squeaky voice: anything could metamorphose into a prop in a doll game, or even a character, changing size and shape accordingly, as the dresser was sometimes a cliff, sometimes the riggings of a ship. (That’s another thing to think about: our taste for impressive scale, vertiginous heights, etc.)
But "this might be why" is wrong, because of course the doll games themselves depended on the ability to see things another way, to animate a stone or forked bits of plastic. Imagine someone who couldn’t do this, who picked up a doll as one picks up a strange tool, careful in case there are sharp bits, wiggling the moving parts. (Is it a garden tool? A can opener? A nut cracker? Some kind of calipers? A sex toy?) That person wouldn’t be quite human. Maybe the ability to imagine a life for a piece of stuff in the shape of a person is just a special case of the ability to imagine a life for a person. I don’t’ just mean strangers: the better you get to know a person the more you realize that you don’t know who they are, that you have invented a fair part of their personality, and more, that you can’t stop, that knowing someone is a kind of creative projection, though subject to checks and correction. A person is an action figure. Though a spookily animate one. If there is something distressing about ascribing spirit to a hunk of plastic, wax or wood, then there is something no less distressing about ascribing spirit to a hunk of flesh–