The horror industry has spent a lot of effort trying to convince us that old dolls are scary, but I’ve never really bought into that. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s inherently creepy. There needs to be something in a doll’s design that sparks that sense of fear or unsettledness—some distinctive perversity or malevolence in its face, a palpable feeling that there’s an otherness about it that shouldn’t exist, perhaps an expression that might have seemed acceptable in 1900 but looks twisted or suspicious today. That doesn’t come simply with time; it’s instilled on the day of creation, part of its genesis, and then can grow more pronounced as the decades pass—like there’s a wickedness inside, trying to let itself be known. Despite the cliches, most old toys don’t have that unique quality needed to be genuinely scary. Most old toys are just old toys.
Since opening in 1956, Pollock’s Toy Museum has devoted itself to preserving old toys. Dolls, games, and toy theatres are stuffed into all corners of its cluttered three stories, which can be found at 1 Scala Street in London’s Camden district. Named after Benjamin Pollock, a prominent publisher of toy theatres in the Victorian era, the museum has a fantastic collection of those rare, often forgotten papercraft play sets, which let people recreate popular plays or vignettes from history and literature in their own home, and which were popular throughout Europe in the 19th and early 20th century. Those toy theatres are beautifully designed works of commercial art that you should study closely if you visit Pollock’s.
You’ll probably just want to talk about the dolls, though.
Most of the old dolls you’ll find at Pollock’s won’t make an impression beyond their age. They are, again, simply old toys—fascinating because of their age and the insight they provide into how our ancestors played, but nothing that will give you a jump scare when you catch a stray glimpse of it while scrolling through your photos on your phone three years later. If do you come to Pollock’s solely hoping to find an old house filled with cursed dolls, well, first off, have some respect for the museum and its mission, and secondly, you have come to the right place, because you will absolutely find some dolls at Pollock’s that were apparently crafted by Satan himself.
Case in point: the poor little lady above. This wax doll, made in England in 1822 and named “Caroline,” isn’t just creepy because of the cracks across her face. No, it’s more delicate than that; it’s the way her eyes seem a little too wide, and the pupils far too big. It’s the way her hairline starts in the middle of her head, like she’s Larry from the Three Stooges. It’s the way her arms, or what we can see of them, are puffy and wrinkled, seemingly of a different shade and consistency than her face, like the arms of an 80-year-old on what is otherwise supposed to be a youthful doll. Caroline was no doubt unsettling well before those cracks marked her face and chest.
These two babies highlight the line between an old doll and a creepy old doll. The one on the left might seem a little too smug for a newborn, but who can blame it: it’s already won the Victoria Cross and despite only being like three weeks old. There’s nothing “scary” about it. Their friend, meanwhile, is a perfect example of what I meant when I said that a genuinely creepy doll must have some kind of perversity or malevolence in its face. Despite having the body of a newborn, this is clearly the face of a middle-aged man planning something sick and unmentionable. These two FUMSUP toys were manufactured to serve as good luck charms for British soldiers stationed overseas, but I don’t see how the guy on the right could bring good luck to anybody.
There is something deeply amiss with these two dolls. Is it their identical faces, with an identical blank expression that betrays no sign of life or thought? Is it the unruly hair, the tangled auburn crop on the left, and the twin-spired crest on the right that looks like the ears of a Yorkie? I feel this is the one time when Pollock’s knowingly leans into the whole “creepy doll” thing, as that pillow is the single most ominous object in the entire building. I hope I never see these two little straingers welcoming me to anything ever.
This well-dressed chap has perhaps the most classic “creepy doll” sense of style. It’s always a little surreal to see a child in a suit, and that’s only amplified when it’s not a child but a doll who is also wearing a hat. His multihued eyes are almost entrancing, pulling us in like headlights freezing a deer in its tracks, and there’s a clear hint of malice upon his smile. He’s just too eager, and it triggers our innate sense of mistrust. This little guy is up to no good, and I shiver to think of what he would actually say if it were possible to pull his string.
These are extreme examples, though. These are the creepiest dolls I found at Pollock’s. There are others, but none as scary as these. Most of my photo reel is of old board games, toy theatres, and 100-year-old dolls that are no creepier than a photo of my grandparents. These would-be Roberts) are the exception at Pollock’s.
If you head to Pollock’s solely for the kitschy fun of photographing weird and unsettling old dolls, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re willing to read the informational cards next to those dolls, though, and focus on the rest of what the museum has to offer, you’ll find a fascinating tribute to a part of daily life that’s rarely examined by history museums. That’s part of the charm of Pollock’s: it’s exactly as creepy or educational as you want it to be.
Pollock’s Toy Museum can be found at 1 Scala Street in London, just half a mile from the British Museum.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.