The Fear That Lies in the Dark
“It was a dark and stormy night…”
“I don’t get what makes them so scary. They’re obviously cloth and some stuffing with the occasional porcelain face. Why can’t you just knock them over or something? Or even burn it for good measure?”
My best friend sighs disappointedly as we stroll out of the movie theater decorated with comically horrific posters that seem out of place from its neighboring shops’ signs promoting the new year. “Haven’t you watched the movies? You can’t do any of that stuff because they’re magic or something like that. Even if they weren’t magic, that painted face and those unblinking eyes…” She shudders dramatically. “Dolls stare into your soul, and it gives me the creeps.” She pauses to stare at a poster adorned with the infamous Annabelle doll, which has been conveniently aligned to look down at passersby, suitably illustrating her point of dolls and puppets being absurdly terrifying.
“First off, dolls don’t stare at anything because they aren’t real beings. So saying they ‘stare into your soul’ is just over exaggerated personification. Secondly, the reason they’re so disturbing is that the human brain isn’t programmed to deal with objects that aren’t quite lifelike but look uncannily real. So the eyes you’re referring to are only scary because they look realistic, but our brain rationalizes that they are obviously not based on prior knowledge of the doll’s real materials such as plastic, cloth, and so on. Anyway, the exact cause of a fear of dolls or pediophobia has yet to be exactly agreed upon. However, it is believed that-”
“Okay, thanks,” Elsa interrupts as she hurries away from the poster. “I think I have enough information to come to the same conclusion that Annabelle and even Chucky are utterly terrifying. Any doll that comes to life is automatically nightmare-inducing no matter what my brain says.” She frowns conclusively, her attempt to end the discussion on her supposedly “nightmarish” fears.
“But if you know what makes them scary, how do they still-”. She glares at me and shakes her head to signal the futility of my reasoning. We walk silently as January’s brisk air sweeps past our cheeks and steadily freezes our fingers. Suddenly, my genius idea to help Elsa overcome her fears as part of her alleged New Year’s Resolution by watching The Conjuring seems emphatically less brilliant. Despite this inference, my brilliance appears once more in what may or may not be a terrible plan. “What if I could prove it to you?”
“Prove what?” She raises a brow skeptically. “That dolls aren’t scary?”
She scoffs at my excitement, “Fine if you think they’re so non-intimidating, spend one week with a doll of my choice in your room.” She glances at me for any sign of hesitation.
“Deal.” My grin, although motivated by a vastly different cause, shares an identical resemblance to the nearby poster model’s toothy smiles meant to project fake, photogenic happiness while veiling reluctance or nervousness.
After quickly scanning the shops along the street, Elsa finds a store jutting out between a dentist’s office and a gaming store as though the architects forgot to include this store and instead of redesigning the street, they shoved it into place, ignoring the fact that it was much too small for a decent store.
We enter the dusty shop, helpfully labeled with a rotting slab that chipperly read, “Enter if you dare!” instead of the respectable store signs. Inside the store that resembles something more like a shed, piles of creepy objects clutter the walls in tottering jumbles and spill from mildewed shelves. A skinny walkway snakes through the piles to an obscured desk and a curtained door.
“Well, I think we’ll find a doll somewhere in here,” I chirp hopefully and peer at a doll’s plastic eyeball in between a few books.
“Hopefully one that’s fully intact,” Elsa commented, picking up a plastic leg that most likely belonged to the same body as the eye.
“You wish to purchase a doll, eh?” I yelp as an old woman hobbles out from the curtain. Her eyes narrow toward us as she glares at our prodding hands.
“Sorry, you startled me,” I apologize, pausing for the expected “You’re welcome” or some form of acknowledgment. “Yes, we are looking for a doll.”
She grunts and shuffles past us. The woman disappears behind a pile and after audible shuffling, appears again with a musty cardboard box clutched in her wrinkled and frail hands.Reaching for the box to at least glimpse at its contents, she wheezes with a faint hiss, “I must warn you, every item comes with a price.”
I pause and blink at her, “Er, that is generally how most shops work?”
“And that price might be much more than you expected…” she tacks onto her warning.
I mumble irritatedly, “Can I at least see what’s in the box?”
She pauses and visibly thinks. A simple question should not require that much consideration. “No.”
“No?” She shakes her head in the non-affirmative. “How am I supposed to buy it?”
She shrugs, “I will let you have this doll with no cost if you agree not to open it until you reach your home or whatnot.”
“How do I know if it’s an actual doll and whether it’s in good condition?”
“I believe that is what industries call ‘consumer trust.’” she snaps in a high-pitched voice that I assume is meant to mock my own.
I sigh and glance at Elsa, who shrugs as if to mimic, “Might as well go with it.”
“All right, lady. I’ll take the box,” I emphasize to match her sarcasm. Her wizened face sneers as she shoves the box into my arms, creating a cloud of dust that Elsa and I cough into. The crass shopkeeper snorts impudently and lurches back behind the curtain.
Elsa and I hastily leave the store and walk the rest of the way back to my apartment silently, still reeling over the spooky store and the abnormal woman presiding over it. Once we reach my apartment, I set the box onto my desk and we step back to inspect it.
“Well, besides its, erm, ‘condition’, it looks all right,” Elsa starts. I take a deep breath to will away any hints of fear. Despite my summoned bravery, I quickly knock the top off and jump backward in preparation for an attack of sorts. Inside lies just as the shopkeeper promised: a doll with stiff, stringy orange hair and one green, bulging eye. Its cheeks are dusted with pink, and its painted lips curve into a ghost of a smile, hinting at mischief. The doll is dressed in what used to be a sharp suit and has now degraded into a ripped, black jacket and a disheveled, white button-down. The rose in his lapel has significantly wilted and crumbles into broken petals to match the quality of his singular shoe and other bare foot. I laugh nervously and inch towards the rumpled figurine before poking it to ensure its inanimateness. Luckily, it doesn’t move an inch, and I take a deep breath before removing it from the box and propping it against the wall.
“Oh, look at the time!” Elsa breaks the silence and begins to back towards the door. “Sorry, but I have that… thing to attend. Have fun with your monstrosity!” With a slam of the door, the doll and I are left to each other’s company. I sigh, frown at my new companion and go about my day.
The first night with the doll is admittedly creepier than I expected. In the dark, its black outfit blends with the surrounding and contrasts with the orange hair and bright green eye, the two features that have seemingly remained unaffected by the amount of time passed. Still, the head stares back at me. No, not stares, I remind myself. It’s not real and therefore not scary. And I drift off to sleep.
Another six days go by with rainstorms similar to Bulwer-Lytton’s cliched phrase and a different scare to accompany them every night. The first few days, as I settle in for sleep, I could swear that the doll blinked as lightning dances across the sky. The next day, the wind howls through the trees and it almost seems as though its whisper of a smile widens into a malicious grin. Another day, its head twists with a sickening crack as the thunder cracks its hair-raising whip. And yet, every night, I sit up breathlessly and find the doll in its original position, staring back at me with its lips permanently lifted in a wicked smirk.
The last day of Elsa’s challenge arrives with another dark and stormy night to worsen my predicament. I settle in for sleep and find myself yet again glancing at the now-familiar companion sitting on my desk. I lie awake waiting with bated breath for the anticipated nightly fright, but nothing happens. No blink or twist or motion of any sort though the lack of movement seems to scare me more than anything. It baits me into nervous expectancy with my entire body coiled and ready. I exhale, feeling ridiculous for being scared of an inanimate object. “There’s nothing to be scared of,” I murmur before drifting off to sleep.
I sleep dreamlessly and am startled awake by a particularly loud crack of thunder. My eyes flash open and I sit up, waiting for the doll to move on its cue. But again, nothing happens. I lie back down with a groan, hoping to fall back asleep when a cold breeze brushes over me. I peek my eyes open expecting a window to have opened and realize how sorely mistaken I am as I come face to face with a gaping, empty socket. I take in the strings of hair, the green eye, and the cruel smile staring down at me. His head tilts inhumanly with a sickening crack, and his eye twinkles in the lightning that is shortly followed by ominous thundering.
“No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.”