In a memorable episode of the Fox animated series King of the Hill, my favorite character Dale Gribble stalks, captures and executes a ventriloquist doll given to my second favorite character Bobby Hill. That little dummy, named Chip Block, finds himself in the same predicament as the Steve Buscemi character in Fargo. He becomes wood chipper material. Dale Gribble suffers from an actual medical condition known as automatonophobia. The persistent, abnormal, and unwarranted fear of ventriloquist’s dummies, animatronic creatures or wax statues. Those who suffer from this condition do not just fear Mortimer Snerd, but they also fear Abraham Lincoln and Johnny Depp at Disney World, or Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Hollywood Wax Museum. They probably fear him in reali life, too.
Judging from pop culture, one might well assume that there is a persistent strain of automatonophobia running throughout America. The ventriloquist dummy has in particular been a popular go-to villain in movies and TV shows. From movies like Dead of Night and Magic to TV shows ranging from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to ALF (and no less than two different Twilight Zone episodes) the little wooden dummy has been used to plumb the depths of viewer anxiety about the possibility of investing these inanimate objects with sentience. The result of the anxiety that people who genuinely suffer automatonophobia can be no less real than the anxiety that people express who fear snakes, rats, or the number 13. How the anxiety of automatonophobia typically gets expressed is through an increased heart rate and blood rate as well as shortness of breath and a paralysis of fear. In other words, a panic attack. Nearly every one of us has at one time or another either personally experienced or knowing someone we can trust who experienced a bizarre episode with a doll.
I grew up in the 1960s and had two female cousins who got a doll that was popular at the time. It was a ballerina who stood about two feet tall (maybe shorter, I’m going on memory) and it wore a tiara that, when you pushed down on it, caused the ballerina to dance. One night, my cousins and their families were awakened by the sound of the music this action produce and watched as the inanimate doll was dancing without benefit of human interaction. This should not have happened as it would normally take the pressure of a hand on the tiara to cause such a thing. Most of the rest of us have a similar experience of a doll seeming to move, or at least the fear of ventriloquist dummy from watching those movies and TV shows. The result for the masses has been a natural acceptance of a certain base level mistrust of dolls and animatronic objects. The fact that this surface level fear exists can be viewed from the constant barrage upon our psyche of warning signs expressed in films such as Westworld and TV shows like the X-Files episode written by Stephen King about a psychopathic doll to even the Treehouse of Horror episode featuring a talking Krusty the Klown doll that tries to kill Homer. The underlying predicament that those who partake of the universal fear of dolls and dummies seems to be related to the potential for them to somehow be invested with life. Most of us those who experience an occasional sense of dread at seeing a creepy doll in the darkness do so to the greatest extent when the doll appears most human. The more cartoonish or outlandish the design, the less likely it is to instill fear.
Of course, not everybody experiences this fear to the degree of developing automatonophobia. And, yes, automatonophobia is notably different from other phobias because there is a deeply irrational fear of something that literally cannot actually harm the person who must live with it. Like any other phobia, the bets method for dealing with the irrational fear of ventriloquist dolls, animatronic figures, and wax dummies is to get professional help. Because it is a phobia, it may have developed from a traumatic experience buried deep inside your subconscious. Therapy will help you if you want get to the root of your problem and deal with it. If you simply want to be able to visit the Hall of the Presidents at Disney World, or to be to step inside Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museums, or to watch Anthony Hopkins work his magic in Magic, then you might simply want to try taking an anti-anxiety medication.