Monsters Among Us: Why ‘The Mummy’ Endures 90 Years Later


There are times when something that’s almost human is more terrifying than an actual monster. After all, uneasiness often stems from things that come eerily close to resembling humanity. Roboticist Masahiro Mori explained why people feel this way with his 1970 essay about the “uncanny valley” effect, and ever since, society has better understood why they feel uncomfortable around things such as lifelike dolls.

The living doll shows up infrequently in the horror genre, but when it does, people take notice. They’re ultimately torn between curiosity and repulsion as these puppets gain sentience and carry out their sinister missions. Chucky and others have all skittered across the big screen, but these stories, from five different anthology series, are a reminder of how toy terror also lives on television.

The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
Living Doll

Even on its last legs, Twilight Zone — by then, the series had already dropped the “the” from the title — managed to come up with some all-timers. Surprisingly enough, one of its most memorable episodes, “Living Doll,” wasn’t written by series heavy-hitters Charles Beaumont or Richard Matheson. Beaumont was credited, but this classic dose of dolly dread was penned by Jerry Sohl and directed by Richard C. Sarafian.

“Living Doll” includes the familiar setup in these kinds of stories; a child brings home a seemingly normal toy, which then unexpectedly comes to life. And as usual, a parent is the first to detect the doll’s sudden consciousness. The toy in question is Talky Tina (voiced by June Foray), and host Rod Serling describes her as an “unwelcome addition” to the Streator household.

Erich (Telly Savalas) isn’t a great stepfather to Christie (Tracy Stratford), and his bad behavior only worsens when Talky Tina comes into the picture. Christie’s mother (Mary LaRoche) has a hard time endearing her daughter to her new husband, hence comforting the child with toys. Of course what makes the kid happy turns into a source of dismay for the patriarch. At first Erich thinks his family is playing a trick on him, but by the time he realizes Talky Tina is in fact alive, it’s much too late to stop her.

“Living Doll” is a prime example of cautionary tales involving domestic abuse and inanimate objects. Talky Tina comes to the defense of a mistreated girl, and her threat isn’t limited to the father. Everyone must heed her warning or they’ll be sorry. As for Erich’s resentment toward Christie, that really has nothing to do with her; he’s upset about his own shortcomings as both a man and a husband.

Night Gallery (1969-1973)
The Doll

The Night Gallery episode “The Doll” is based on a novella by author Algernon Blackwood. Series creator and occasional show writer Rod Serling alters a good chunk of the source material, which was published around the late 1940s, but he also emphasizes the horror element.

In this haunted episode, an officer in the colonial forces of Queen Victoria (John Williams) returns home from India to find his niece in possession of a ghastly new doll. She (Jewel Blanch) and the housekeeper (Shani Wallis) believed the doll was a gift sent from India by the uncle, but he reveals he did no such thing. Soon the colonel realizes the wicked toy is part of a nefarious revenge scheme.

If there’s anything about “The Doll” that doesn’t exactly work, it’s the doll itself. The first one, that is. The niece’s new toy looks frightful, so it’s hard to believe she’d want to play with it, much less keep it. “Living Doll” from Twilight Zone at least hid Talky Tina’s malevolence beneath a soft and lovely veneer. Having this doll be so openly evil-faced undoubtedly helps etch this episode in viewers’ mind, but it doesn’t make much sense from a logical perspective.

This episode is both an early instance of the evil doll trope and a subtle offering of colonizer horror. Serling wisely cut out some problematic parts from the novella, though the screen adaptation sees Henry Silva and Than Wyenn each wearing brownface. Regardless, the best aspects of “The Doll” shrine through. This includes a new ending, one not seen in Blackwood’s story. It’ll be hard to scrub that cursed image from your eyes.

Tales to Keep You Awake (1966-1968, 1982)

Ventriloquist puppets are within the realm of dolls, though they aren’t necessarily for play, either. These things bring up other ill feelings apart from those caused by the “uncanny valley” effect; their whole purpose is to act alive. Someone being able to throw their voice also leads to other frightening possibilities.

After taking an extended break away from Tales to Keep You Awake (Historias para no dormir), Narciso Ibáñez Serrador revived the series in the ’80s. Not only was the show obviously in color, but episodes were now also feature-length. The downside was the return was shot on a low budget, there were only four episodes, and everything was put together rather quickly. Even so, fans of this obscure Spanish anthology can’t shake the creepy title character of “Freddy.”

The third season’s premiere episode is a mesmeric experience, especially if you’re only expecting a killer puppet. There is certainly a slasher element in “Freddy,” but for the most part, the story mainly concerns the human characters, including the namesake’s puppeteer. Serrador does not take a spartan approach here; the dialogue is about as long as the chase scenes.

Whenever the intentionally cliché-ridden “Freddy” does embrace its macabre side, those moments feel like epics. Hapless women wander aimlessly through shadowy rooms and corridors for what feels like hours, unsure of who (or what) is following them, if they’re being followed at all. The giallo-esque lighting undeniably helps the mood, as does the increasingly menacing music. These ’80s episodes’ master tapes were unfortunately damaged, but those visual artifacts and blemishes make for some happy accidents. And that twist at the very end? Talk about surprising.

Buy the series on subtitled Blu-ray from Severin now, or if you speak Spanish, watch the untranslated episode on Tubi.

Monsters (1988-1991)
Holly’s House

Some dolls aren’t toys, and some dolls aren’t even dolls. Not in the traditional sense, at least. The robot seen in the Monsters episode “Holly’s House” is a child-sized animatronic that resembles a doll, and she’s remote-controlled by Katherine (Marilyn Jones). While the fictional series Holly’s House has proven to be a success, it’s also weighed heavily on Katherine’s personal life.

What should have been an ordinary day on set ends up being a tense one when Katherine’s boyfriend and costar (Perry Lang) asks her to marry him. This comes only after Katherine reveals she’s pregnant. Others urge Katherine to say yes, but a voice in her head holds her back. And with this being Monsters, that voice starts to take on a life of its own.

“Holly’s House” features a potent psychological study of its main character, which is uncommon in this series. Katherine essentially uses her TV show to keep herself from growing up and having to make adult decisions. Playing Holly was, up until now, a rather safe and acceptable form of escapism. But with a baby on the way, Katherine is forced to make choices she doesn’t want to make. Either way, she has to give up one of her babies.

This is a sad story about a woman who can’t have it all. There is a vagueness to what happened here, though in both theirs and your best interest, it’s better if there’s no hard answer. “Holly’s House” is a high point in Monsters that offers the audience more to chew on than usual.

Goosebumps (1995-1998)
Night of the Living Dummy (II & III)

A question that comes up often in the Goosebumps community is, why didn’t the show adapt the first book in the original Living Dummy trilogy? The second and third entries were sent to the small screen, but the series skipped one of Stine’s most renowned stories.

When asked about the “missing” episode, producer Steve Levitan said: “There were a bunch of books we tried during the outline stage before there was a first draft script. We would just decide ‘No, this isn’t going to work. Let’s move on to another one.’ There’s no lost episode that was shot.”

Even without an origin episode for Slappy, “Night of the Living Dummy II” works even better as an introduction. Slappy gets all the attention here, whereas in the first book, he played more of a secondary role. Then, the two-parter “Night of the Living Dummy III” features even more animated dummies, and unlike the last episode, actors are regularly used to play Slappy and his friends. There are consistency issues to consider, such as the dummies’ sizes changing from shot to shot, but watching Slappy physically chase after children is unnerving.

There is another Slappy episode in the original show, adapted from Goosebumps Series 2000, called “Bride of the Living Dummy.” Here Slappy seeks a mate, and he does so by stalking a pair of sisters and their blonde doll named Mary Ellen.

Series of Frights is a recurring column that mainly focuses on horror in television. Specifically, it takes a closer look at five episodes or stories — each one adhering to an overall theme — from different anthology series or the occasional movie made for TV. With anthologies becoming popular again, especially on television, now is the perfect time to see what this timeless mode of storytelling has to offer.

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