Robert The Doll and The Uncanny Valley

Posted on August 6, 2020

Robert The Doll, Our Fear of Chucky & The Uncanny Valley

In the realm of psychology, there is a condition/inherent natural psychosis/ concept/hypothesis- one that’s ubiquitous to most humans – called the “Uncanny Valley” phenomenon. You’re probably scratching your head right now and asking yourself: “wasn’t this a haunted doll blog piece? Wasn’t this article about Robert The Doll? What in Sam’s hill have I stepped into.” Well, give me some rope, I’ll either pull off some amazing bit of journalistic thaumaturgy or I’ll come out the other end with a hangman’s neck extension and a rather nasty cramp around my nape and throat.

Anyway, the “Uncanny Valley”… let’s talk Freud and Jung; let’s take a sit and analyze our emotional hiccups. The “Uncanny Valley” is basically, to put it bluntly, a screw loose in our cerebellum we as humans have to deal with daily. It’s something wiggy and unstable that goes off in our brains whenever we see Raggedy Anne. One minute we’re fine, the next we’re off our rocker dealing with a short circuit that’s making us spazz out. It is also the reason why we are afraid of dolls. It’s why we look at a Teddy Bear, a stuffed unicorn and Baby Yoda, and think: “that’s so cute,” while turning our heads and giving the stink-eye to one of those creepy vintage rag-dolls.

The Valley catalogs in our brain an anthropomorphic zebra with a cigar as huggable, and instantly shortchanges a ventriloquist dummy. It’s human nature, in other words, to fear and feel apprehensive towards dolls. And, here’s the doozy, the more lifelike the doll or construct, the more it raises the hairs at the back of our necks. Don’t believe me? Go back and rent “The Polar Express,” look at Tom Hank’s dead eyes in that animation film… what do you feel? Did you experience that same level of gut-churning terror or unease with any of the Toy Story movies? Both computer animation films had Tom – mister “if it came out he punched a nun, your first thought is, “what did the nun do?’” – Hanks… but of the two which gives your nightmares? Woody or the Conductor?

 

 

chart that states An empirically estimated uncanny valley for static robot face images
Source: Wikicommons. An empirically estimated uncanny valley for static robot face images

“Valley” denotes a dip in the human observer’s affinity for the replica, a relation that otherwise increases with the replica’s human likeness.”

  • MacDorman, K. F, 2016.

This, in a nutshell, MIGHT be the reason why haunted dolls exist. We are genetically coded to fear anything that looks but isn’t human…. why? Because the more realistic it is, the more poignant its inconsistencies become. The more natural it looks, the greater the emphasis our perceptions place on that one artificial factor in its makeup; the more we realize it’s unnatural, that it’s trying to deceive us in a way,  and that there is something wrong with it.

It’s either that – GO SCIENCE!

meme of Jesse From Breaking Bad saying: Yeah, since bitch!
Source: Tenor

Or the alternative is unsettling and requires holy water and a bible

Robert The Doll

photo fo Robert the doll in his sailor outfit with small stuffed dog
Source: Wikicommons

Robert might very well be the second or third most famous haunted doll in the world. Why? Because if you’re a Chucky fan a cursory investigation will automatically tell you that that Child’s Play knave was in fact inspired by Robert. Robert is the nightmare fuel that spawned the 80s icon. 

The tale of Robert dates back to the turn of the 20th century and, like any good ghost story or fairytale, it’s full of plot-holes, inconsistencies, retellings, exaggerations, and poetic licenses. In this article, we are going to give you the scoop, the story, and basically the 4-1-1 on each and every one of those origin stories? Why? Because each is sinfully delightful in its own way, and each deserves its turn in the limelight. The truth is that no one really knows the definitive tale of Robert… no one is willing to place their hands in the fire and go: “folks, this is the truth, and everything else is poppycock.”

Robert’s bizarre little tale begins in the early 1900s. A young boy named Eugene Robert Otto – an eccentric artist that would later become the toast of Key West – was given a unique doll. Gene, became attached to the doll, and quickly named him, Robert and, well, the rest is history… as in blood-curdling, “please don’t turn on the lights” history. 

But before we dive into the “let’s get holy water and hope it goes away” details of Robert’s hauntings, let’s ask ourselves… WHO GAVE GENE THE DOLL?

The Unusual Suspects

  • The Grandfather: Theory number one, and the least intriguing one of the bunch, says the Robert wasn’t a one-of-a-kind piece but a by the book mass-produced product manufactured and sold by the Steiff Company in Germany. In 1904, while on a trip to Germany, the doll was purchased by Gene’s granddad and given to the small boy as a birthday gift. The funky little sailor suit was likely one of the outfits Gene used to wear as a kid. 
  • The Voodoo Priestess: many believe that Robert was created by a charming Haitian servant that used to work in Gene’s household. The girl had grown fond of Gene and created a doll to protect the little boy. Somewhere along the way, while infusing the effigy with raw magical power, her spell went astray and something wicked from beyond the veil ended up inhabiting Robert.
  • The Voodoo Priestess Redux: Others believe that Gene’s father had in fact abused and mistreated the charming servant. The woman, driven mad by the villainy inflected on her, crafted a doll – using Voodoo and black magic – and cursed the thing to punish all who came in contact with it.
  • The Devil: The doll showed up on the shores of Key West. Flotsam from a doomed ship. Gene’s family salvaged the thing when the boy became enamored of it. Many believe that the Devil was responsible for the turnabout of fates and that Robert carries in its innards the wrecked souls of sailors and mariners. 
  • The Neighbors: the last conjecture states that its not the doll but the sailor outfit that’s cursed and haunted. The doll was brought over from Germany, but its original clothing was shoddy and not really up to the standards of Gene’s affluent family. One day, Gene’s mom became enchanted by a little sailor outfit that was being sold in one of Key West’s various boutiques. She bought the piece, dressed up the doll, and Gene – who also liked the sailor outfit – became even more infatuated with the toy. What the matriarch failed to notice was the fact that the quaint sailor outfit had been repurposed and reconditioned from old fabric and cloth… It had once been a pajama worn by a boy, of Gene’s age, that had died of Yellow Fever. It’s spirit, they say, still vacationing inside that dammed suit. 

The Haunting of Robert

“Robert did it…”

Eugene lived in what is now called the Artist’s House – an unusual Inn that can be found at 534 Eaton Street. It was in this spot that Gene and Robert forged a friendship that would last a lifetime. It was also on this spot that the legend of Robert’s misdeeds started to take flight. 

Over the course of Gene’s life, Robert acted wonkily to say the least. The first hint that something was amiss occurred when Gene was 10. Middle of the night, BANG! Gene’s mom flies off her bed, the house is in pandemonium. A cacophony of noises – screams, thumps, crashes, and cracks – hail like gunfire from Gene’s room. She stumbles with her husband, both in a panic, towards the little boy’s boudoir. 

“Mom, HELP! HELP!” Gene cries.

The door is shut. Not only shut but barred by something that’s pushing back. When both parents try to wrench the entrance open, something – a force – counteracts their combined strength. The wood cracking and billowing almost like its breathing under their attacks. It’s impossible to get in. Windows shatter, lights flicker, the noise and dissonance coming from the room akin to a thousand tiger roars; it’s deafening. 

Finally, everything stops. The hellish storm has passed… Complete silence. The door swings open. It creeps on salty and rusted hinges. The parents look in. The room, every bit of it, has been overturned; a warzone. Gene is in one corner of the space, crying his eyes out. The only thing left standing is Robert, sitting like a king on the foot of Gene’s bed…

Gene turns to his parents and points at the regal doll: “Robert did it…”

That night, they get rid of the thing. The next day, the doll once more appears inside Gene’s room; PUFF out of thin air. Rinse and repeat. Dozens of times they try to get rid of the thing, and dozens of times it comes back.

They have no other choice but to accept the futility of their struggles and realize that this is a cross they now have to bear. 

Over the years, strange and paranormal happenings flood the small house. Tragedy befalls all who disrespect Robert. Misfortune plagues those individuals that try to severe the connection between Gene and Robert. 

Gene’s parents would regularly catch their son upstairs speaking to the doll and getting a reply back in a wholly distinct voice. They described noticing the doll speak and beholding his appearance change. Snickering and sightings of Robert running up the steps or gawking out windows were also reported. 

Eventually, Gene’s parents died… and as is the way of things, Gene would later follow their footsteps; he got what all of us get: “one lifetime.”

But Robert remained.

The Hauntings Continue 

Gene Otto expired in 1974. The house was sold and a new family moved in. And just one guess as to what they uncovered in the attic? Robert. A distraught Robert whose only friend had perished, a Robert no longer kept reigned in by Gene’s personality. The doll started terrorizing the new inhabitants, he became particularly focused on the family’s ten-year-old kid. 

The child claimed that Robert moved at night, and even more frightened, that the toy wanted to hurt her.

Enough was enough. Not long after, Robert the Doll – by then a minor celebrity in the Keys – was donated to the East Martello Fort, where visitors from all over the world can come parlay with the forces of darkness and play with fire. 

Robert In the 21st century

Even the President is scared silly of Robert. Robert’s reputation for mayhem is known throughout the land… To what extend? Well, former President Bush actually wrote Robert a letter asking for his blessing during his administration. Well, it was really a  note to Robert on his 103 birthday. That right, POTUS – the man with his finger on the red button – made it an agenda item to personally tell Robert – and I’m paraphrasing – “please, no shenanigans while I’m in the Oval Office.”

photo of east Martello fort museum in Key West
Source: Wikicommons. East Martello Fort Key West

When you visit Robert at East Martello Fort, you must show the fearsome creature its due respect. Robert has a nasty habit of going hog wild on unsuspecting dupes and skeptical stool pigeons. 

Thousands have proclaimed their cameras fizzing out or becoming inoperable whenever they try to take a photo of Robert. Others hear demonic giggling when the put their hands against Robert’s case. 

The doll has provoked numerous:

“Car accidents, broken bones, job loss, divorce, and a cornucopia of other misfortunes.”

It’s common, whenever you visit Robert and fail to grasp the gravity of what you’re playing Russian Roulette with to experience what the museum has classified as “POST-VISIT MISFORTUNES.” 

So, do we fear Robert because he’s possessed – maybe an avatar of Old-Scratch or one of his sulfuric minions? Or do we fear him because of a concept investigated by Freud and Jentsch, later identified by the robotics professor Masahiro Mori as bukimi no tani genshō in 1970? Visit East Martello and find out…

For more macabre tales visit our blog.

Sources:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027715300755?via%3Dihub

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley#cite_note-MacDormanChattoPadhyay2016-3

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_(doll)

https://www.fla-keys.com/keysvoices/robert-the-doll-goes-to-vegas/