Ouija, the movie based on the "spirit-filled" board game of the same name, hit theaters Oct. 24, and the movie wasn't all fun and games. The film follows a group of youngsters who use the mystical board to summon the spirit of their deceased friend Debbie.
Just from watching the trailer, you'll see that things will not go well for this bunch as the game awakens evil spirits that terrorize them. And you thought Ouija boards didn't really work.
Apparently, this is what the kids are into these days. Ouija was No.1 at the domestic box office this weekend, raking in an estimated $20 million. Not bad for a movie that only cost about $5 million to make. But it's not just the basic premise of teens in a haunted house that makes this film such a hit with horror lovers. It's also the idea of a game coming to life.
Today, the idea of evil games and toys is a recurring theme in horror movies, and Ouija is just the latest film to feature a sinister plaything. Annabelle also opened in theaters a few weeks ago and was based on a real-life Raggedy Ann doll said to be inhabited by an "inhuman spirit." These aren't the first instances of toys being used to horrify audiences, and considering the success of Ouija and Annabelle, which earned nearly $76 million at the domestic box office with a production bugdet of only $6.5 million, evil toys will surely be the topic of many more movies to come. But why, on the one hand, do we love dolls, stuffed animals and other toys so much and, on the other hand, get so creeped out by them?
For one thing, it stems from fears of necromancy or communicating with the dead. Obviously, the Ouija board, advertised as a sort of oracle with other-worldly powers, is a great example of this.
The inspiration for the Ouija board came from America's fascination with spiritualism and clairvoyance during the 19th century. Barring a few salacious reports of incidents like Ouija boards encouraging murders, it was mainly used for family entertainment.
That was until The Exorcist premiered in 1973. In the film, 12-year-old Regan becomes possessed by the devil after playing with a Ouija board by herself. From then on, the Ouija board would usually be portrayed in movies and TV shows as a game with demonic powers. Prominent religious leaders and groups have denounced the game in recent years for being a part of the occult.
And if it's not a supernatural game freaking us out in movies, it's usually a doll, which also relates to a fear in communicating with spirits. Pediophobia (fear of dolls) is a type of automatonophobia or fear of humanlike figures.
Ventriloquist dummies, which are some of the most terrifying objects on Earth are at the core of automatonophobia, but its origins don't have anything to do with those humanoid puppets. Stay with me here.
Ventriloquism dates back to Ancient Greece. It was purely a vocal technique in which sounds would originate from the stomach. This was linked to gastromancy or the method of predicting the future through spirits in the stomach of the prophet.
From then on, ventriloquism would be seen as part of the occult, whether it was a sign of being possessed or used to trick people into thinking dead bodies could talk. Once dummies were brought into ventriloquist acts, it continued the idea of there being a disconnect between what is seen and what is heard, or at least what is supposed to be heard, which was very unsettling to people.
The aesthetic of the ventriloquist dummy, along with dolls and humanlike robots, obviously also plays a big role in why we think toys can turn evil. The reason the appearance of these objects makes us feel so uneasy can be explained by what is called "the uncanny," a term first coined by German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch.
"Among all the psychical uncertainties that can become a cause for the uncanny feeling to arise, there is one in particular that is able to develop a fairly regular, powerful and very general effect: namely, doubt as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate," Jentsch wrote in his 1906 essay "On the Psychology of the Uncanny." "The mood lasts until these doubts are resolved and then usually makes way for another kind of feeling."
Sigmund Freud popularized the term after the end of World War I, saying that "the uncanny" is when something scares us because at one time it was so familiar to us.
In his 1919 essay "The Uncanny," Freud states that children don't make a differentiation between what's animate and inanimate; they even consider dolls as real people. Whereas children are excited and hope for dolls to come to life, adults see this as troubling because of its implausibility.
Our fear could come from the fact that dolls and toys like them resemble humans but can't act or emote as humans do, and this freaks people out. John R. Leonetti, director of Annabelle, put it best:
"As inanimate objects, they are just scary," Leonetti told The Huffington Post regarding what makes dolls so horrifying.
"If you think about them, most dolls are emulating a human figure. But they're missing one big thing, which is emotion. So they're shells. It's a natural psychological and justifiable vehicle for demons to take it over. If you look at a doll in its eyes, it just stares. That's creepy. They're hollow inside. That space needs to be filled."
Horror movies like Annabelle and Ouija are doing nothing to help make toys any less scary. Particularly since the 1950s, scary movies and TV shows have been filled with terrifying toys, which just perpetuates this fear that playthings can turn evil. Early 1960s episodes of The Twilight Zone featured evil dolls and dummies. The Child's Play series featuring the murderous doll Chucky is probably the most famous demonic doll. Even the kid-friendly and completely non-threatening Toy Story trilogy featured evil toys.
So whether you're going to check out the Ouija movie for your Halloween celebration or you're seeing a doll sitting on a shelf, you now know that there's actually nothing to be afraid of.
Any fear of these objects can be explained by history, pop culture and psychology. At least, we hope so.