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Automatonophobia: Irrational Fear of Dolls, Wax Figures, Puppets, and Dummies

FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and parent with an interest in DIY and health topics.

Mannequin Mischief: Artsy, Offbeat, or Just Plain Creepy?

A mostly male group of mannequins cavort in their birthday suits in a Paris shop window.

A mostly male group of mannequins cavort in their birthday suits in a Paris shop window.

Unexpected Scene in a Paris Shop Window

The scene was so out of place amidst Paris' bread shops, fashion boutiques, and quaint sidewalk cafés. Yet there it stood like an accident scene, begging the bystander to look for a moment too long. I stopped in my tracks and complied.

The object of my fascination was a shop window filled with more than a dozen male mannequins. How surreal. Together they cavorted merrily in their birthday suits. Frozen in time and space, they did chin-ups, waited patiently for their turns, and played chase. One even tried to fly.

Entranced by the weirdness of it all, I stared—gawked even. Then I did what any good tourist would do: I took photos. After all, you just don't get this type of thing where I'm from.

Although intrigued, I also found the scene bizarre. It was as if I had caught the mannequins in the midst of some kind of naked aerobics. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) But it all seemed so ... creepy? Artsy? Over the top?

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Mannequin Shenanigans

Did I catch them in the middle of naked mannequin aerobics?  Is there a message to these mannequin displays?  Or, does the window designer just have an offbeat sense of humor?

Did I catch them in the middle of naked mannequin aerobics? Is there a message to these mannequin displays? Or, does the window designer just have an offbeat sense of humor?

Fear of Mannequins and Other Human-Like Figures

Although I'm not afraid of mannequins, there are plenty of people who are. If you're one of them, turn back now. You have been warned. Trust me: the scenes get more unnerving from here.

Automatonophobia: Irrational Fear of Things That Impersonate Sentient Beings

Automatonophobia refers to an irrational fear of any object that falsely imitates a living, conscious being (human and other animals). Common examples include dolls, wax figures, puppets, animatronics, prostheses, and ventriloquist dummies.

Automatonophobia is an umbrella term and includes several more specific categories of phobias, including:

  • coulrophobia - fear of clowns
  • pupaphobia - fear of puppets
  • pediophobia - fear of dolls

Double Take

Who is being watched -- people on the street or these mannequins?

Who is being watched -- people on the street or these mannequins?

Symptoms of Automatonophobia

Symptoms of automatonophobia mirror those of most phobias to specific objects.1 Faced with a doll, mannequin or other feared object, a person may experience both emotional and physiological symptoms, including:

  • a feeling of dread
  • trembling
  • rapid and irregular heartbeat
  • shortness of breath
  • perspiration
  • nausea
  • dry mouth and even
  • a full-blown panic attack.2

If any of this sounds familiar to you, refer to the sidebar (at right) for a description of diagnostic criteria for phobias.

Additionally, there are on-line screening tools available which can help you determine whether you need to seek professional help.

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Impacts of Automatonophobia on Daily Living

Those who suffer from automatonophobia can experience significant impacts to daily functioning.

For example, some people are so debilitated by their fear of mannequins that they find it difficult to do their own shopping. Imagine being afraid of the display dummies in the mall!

Others are required to deal with practice dummies as a part of their professional training. Medical professionals often train with dummies when learning CPR, surgical techniques, drawing blood and doing spinal taps. They even practice on dummies when learning how to deliver babies. Some of the most advanced digital mannequins are designed to speak, blink their eyes, breathe, and even "die" if their quality of care is insufficient.4

In such cases, fear of dummies can potentially end a career before it really gets started.

Fear or Full-Blown Phobia?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is a classification system used by mental health professionals to diagnose and describe mental conditions.

Accordingly, people who are truly phobic (as opposed to merely fearful of something) demonstrate a variety of behaviors.

  • Those who have a phobia to a specific object or situation experience a marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable. The fear is out of proportion to the actual level of danger posed by the specific object or situation.3 The fear can be prompted by either the presence of a specific object or situation or the mere anticipation of it.
  • Exposure to the specific object or situation almost always creates immediate anxiety.
  • The person avoids the specific object or situation or endures it with immense anxiety or distress.
  • Avoiding the situation or object, anxiously anticipating it, or the distress of experiencing it significantly interferes with the person's ordinary activities. His or her routine functioning is impacted at work, school, or in social relationships. Or, the person experiences significant distress about having the phobia.
  • The individual has experienced symptoms for at least six months.
  • The person's anxiety, panic attacks, or pattern of avoiding a specific object or situation is not better categorized by another mental disorder.

Who Experiences Phobias?

In general, women tend to experience phobias (of any type) at higher rates than men. One research sample, for example, found that more than one-fourth of women experienced some type of specific object or situation phobia.5 This was more than double the prevalence among men.

Unfortunately, having one phobia makes you more prone to having other phobias later. Over 75% of people diagnosed with a specific phobia experience multiple phobias throughout their lifetime. More than half struggled with three or more phobias.

The average age of onset for specific phobias is seven years old.6 Research has found a relationship between the development of specific phobias and lower socioeconomic class.

"Look Into My Eye"

This dirty dolly needs a good scrub and an urgent trip to the doll doctor.

This dirty dolly needs a good scrub and an urgent trip to the doll doctor.

How a Phobia Develops

A phobia can have either sudden or gradual onset. It can be triggered in several ways, including:

  • directly suffering a traumatic event (e.g., being frightened in the presence of a doll)
  • observing someone else expressing fear in a scary situation (e.g., watching a scary movie about an evil ventriloquist dummy)
  • hearing threatening information about an object or situation (e.g., stories about killer clowns and child abductors dressed up as clowns).

There is also research that suggests that each of the following play a role in the development of phobias:

  • genetics
  • brain chemistry
  • culture, and
  • personality — specifically the tendency towards neuroticism.7

(Neuroticism is a normal personality trait that describes the extent to which a person is prone to experience anxiety, moodiness, worry, envy and jealousy.)

Claudia Schiffer: Is She for Real?

Paris' Grevin Museum features wax doubles of movie stars, celebrities and politicians.

Paris' Grevin Museum features wax doubles of movie stars, celebrities and politicians.

What Makes a Doll or Other Humanoid Figure Look Creepy?

There are several theories about just what causes a doll, dummy, or other human-like figure to appear frightening. Psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch theorized that feelings of discomfort arise when people are confused about whether an inanimate object is alive. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed that phobias are the result of unresolved childhood conflicts between the self-centered id and the judgmental superego.

What? They're Afraid of Me?

These two dolls find it hard to imagine that anyone might be afraid of them.

These two dolls find it hard to imagine that anyone might be afraid of them.

The Uncanny Valley

Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori also attempted to explain people's reactions to almost-human looking figures.8 Mori used a line graph to plot people's emotional reactions to the human appearance and movement of objects such as stuffed animals, prosthetic limbs, androids, dolls and puppets.

The more something resembles a human, the more positively we respond to it -- but only up to a point. However, if an inanimate object is "trying too hard" to be human, we begin to notice that there is something "not quite right" about it.

When this occurs, we are revolted at the imposter. We see it as eerie and scary rather than beautiful. For example, a doll stares blankly into space. A wax figure doesn't show signs of inhaling and exhaling. A prosthetic limb fails to have the warmth of human skin. These differences about the object shock and frighten us.

Mori terms this sudden dip in emotional reaction "the uncanny valley." He therefore recommends that limb prostheses, for example, be made to look visibly artificial so as not to creep others out.

Because of the uncanny valley, roboticist Mashahiro Mori recommends that prostheses be made to look obviously artificial.

Because of the uncanny valley, roboticist Mashahiro Mori recommends that prostheses be made to look obviously artificial.

Seeking Treatment for Phobias

Although phobias are highly treatable conditions, a skilled therapist is required. The typical aim of therapy is to reduce fear and avoidance responses. One of the more popular and effective treatment options include Cognitive Behavior Therapy. It involves challenging fearful thoughts and modifying the fear that one has learned to associate with an object or situation.

Unfortunately, only about one-third of those with phobias receive treatment for it. Among those who do seek treatment, 25–50% drop out.

Gifu Japan's Scarecrow Mannequins

Reader Poll

Movies That Inspire Automatonophobia

If you don't have automatonophobia but want to work on acquiring it, try the following movies that feature scary dolls:

Chucky Movies

Anyone who has ever watched Chucky on screen most certainly recalls the doll with the soul of a serial killer. He talks. He engages in black magic. He wields a knife and hacks people to pieces.

"Child's Play" is a series of three movies beginning in 1988. A single mother gives her young son a red-haired boy doll only to find that it is trying to insert its serial killer soul into the boy in order to become human. Butchering ensues.

In later movies, "Bride of Chucky" and "Seed of Chucky," the doll finds a partner and reproduces. The movie "Curse of Chucky," released in 2013, renewed the series with a new round of killings.

This Chucky Doll Could Give You Nightmares

The movie Child's Play and its sequels feature Chucky, a doll with the soul of a serial killer.

The movie Child's Play and its sequels feature Chucky, a doll with the soul of a serial killer.

The Clown In "Poltergeist"

In the 1982 movie "Poltergeist," a family is attacked in their own home by terrors both seen and unseen. One of the assailants is a creepy clown doll that plays into every kid's worst nightmare. It grabs the kid and drags him under the bed.

Fats the Ventriloquist Dummy in "Magic"

This classic 1978 psychological thriller features Anthony Hopkins as a mentally ill magician and ventriloquist who is the object of his malicious dummy's control issues. When the magician attempts to rekindle an old flame with his high school sweetheart, Fats, his foul-mouthed, knife-wielding dummy intervenes.

The movie idea of a deranged ventriloquist dummy struck a nerve with parents, as its televised advertisements had to be discontinued. Parents complained that the advertisements alone gave their children bad dreams. Promotional ads featured Fats' eyes rolling to the back of his head as the movie's tag line was read by an off-screen actor ("Abracadabra I sit on his knee, Presto change and now he is me. Hocus pocus we take her to bed, Magic is fun, We're dead.") Then, the doll's eyes open and look left. Creepy!

Creepy Doll Video

Reborn Dolls: Are They Cute or Just Plain Creepy?

There is a population of grown up little girls who refuse to give up their dollies.

Primarily older women, these doll enthusiasts spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to "adopt" very human lifelike dolls called "reborns." Online storefronts for reborns are set up like "nurseries" with an "adoption" process.9

Sometimes reborns replace an infant the woman lost or never had, or a child who has long since grown up. It is not uncommon for the dolls' adoptive "mothers" to treat it as one would an infant, including talking to it, carrying it with her in public, and even throwing birthday parties for it.10

Just what makes these reborn dolls so special?

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Close Mimicry

Reborns are molded from vinyl and are designed to be as humanly authentic as possible. They have dimples, manicured nails, open nose holes, and their skin has a mottled appearance resembling that of a newborn.

Reborn arms, legs and heads are also weighted to give the doll the feel of a real baby. Some such dolls even have

  • electronic devices to emulate heart beats
  • voice boxes to produce infant crying and other sounds
  • mechanical breathing mechanisms to imitate inhaling and exhaling and
  • heat packs to make them feel warm to the touch.

Watch a Segment on Reborn Dolls on Dr. Phil Then Decide

Mistaken for the Real Thing

Unfortunately, there have been occasions when reborns were so well crafted that they were mistaken for the real thing.11 Police have occasionally broken into hot cars to "rescue" abandoned reborn infants. More frequently, people have also cooed over a reborn out for a stroll with its "mother" only to learn it is art imitating life.

Reborn dolls first appeared in the United States in the early 1990s. Now also popular in Europe and Australia, the dolls have no sign of slowing down — or growing up.