Ventriloquist's dummies, being so distinctively human and yet at the same time, so not human are just a little bit creepy...and in some cases, a lot creepy. This disturbing discord may have something to do what Freud call the 'uncanny' and a similar reaction can occur with perceived clown creepiness.
According to Freud: the uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar. The uncanny then, may be something which is deeply familiar and yet rendered strange by some extra element. In the case of dummies, the extra element is an eerie lifelessness - they are humans without a life force. They look like humans but they don't act like them. The more familiarly human-like the dummy, the creepier it tends to be and it's the old-fashioned, classic v- dummies, with their fixed, empty expressions broken only by a mechamical jaw drop or a head turn, that seem to invoke the most discomfort. Furry animal or caricature dummies are far less less disturbing.
Both clowning and ventriloquism are old fashioned forms of entertainment, past their heyday and this perhaps further alienates contemporary audiences; there is a distrust there. Just as the traditional image of the clown has been mutated into something evil in a host of schlock horror films, so too has the v-dummy. The psychological scariness of puppet-comes-to life-and -takes-on-a-mind-of-its own meme has been rehashed in popular culture several times.
Of course, even Pinocchio had it's mildy creepy undertones but these deliberately distorted and exaggerated images are designed to rattle our cage of unconscious fear. There's now an expectation that we should find these things scary and thus both clown and dummy are now firmly entrenched as modern icons of evil.
A fear of ventriloquist dummies can be a genuine phobia. If you break out in a sweat when you are confonted with a v-dummy, your heart starts beating rapidly and you just have to make a hasty retreat from the room, you may have a case of autonomatonophobia.
This is an irrational fear of ventriloquist dummies, dolls, humanoid robots, animatronic creatures or wax figures. The core of the fear seems to stem from the discrepancy between the representation of something which should be alive but is not. Although most of us might feel a little disturbed by such things, true autonomatonophobia, ie; freaking out, is actually very rare.
I've had some experience here because, oddly enough, I once owned a ventriloquist dummy - well, he was perhaps more of a toy really than a well crafted professional dummy. Nethertheless, he was full size and could blink, move his head from side to side and of course, open his jaw. My best friend had given him to me for my sixteenth birthday.
Now that might seem like a strange present but we'd seen him on display in a shop a some time before and had both gone crazy over him...we'd had some serious fun 'talking' through him and cracking jokes. It must have been an expensive present and I was amazed to receive it. Only, once I had him on my own and it was just him and me, he lost some of his appeal. He used to sit on a chair in the corner of my bedroom...watching me...waiting. Was that a blink? Did his head move..? In truth, I wasn't really scared of him but he did eventually end up stuffed somewhere in the dark recessses of my wardrobe. Out of sight, out of mind.
I called this vacant-eyed intruder into my personal space "Laraby" but can't remember why. Laraby was wild looking, with a shock of orange hair and he wore a black and white check suit and a garish bow tie.
Alas, old Laraby must not have been made of sturdy stuff because over the years he kind of disintegrated - bits fell off here and there and now all I have left is one eye, which I keep in a box for sentimental reasons. A bit creepy eh...?
He Said That...Not me!
As mentioned in the video above, v-dummys, through their operators, often possess devilish personalities and may voice outlandish, rude and sometimes bawdy remarks that a flesh and blood human would find hard to get away with.
By contrast, the ventriloquist is usually calm, rational, polite and much nicer than his alter-ego dummy; anything unsavoury is pinned on the doll and strangely, the audience buys easily into the deception. During the act the dummy takes on a life force - a personality and it's when they're alone and unanimated, they get spooky.
Of course, many ventriloquists use a variety of dummies, all with different personalities and not all of them are bad boys. Talented ventriloquist Shari Lewis and her Lambchop creation were about as disturbing as a kitten in a flower pot.
Maxwell and Hugo
One of the most genuinely disconcerting dummy horror stories was played out in a vignette in the 1945 British film, Dead of Night . The segment was based on a short story by Ben Hecht, called the The Rival Dummy and had been translated to film before, in the 1928 film The Great Gabbo. The Dead of Night version starred Micheal Redgrave who, in one of his most accomplished performances, played a ventriloquist, Maxwell descending into madness via the relationship with his dummy, the sleazy and shadowy Hugo Fitch, played by...oh wait, he's not real.
In the film, Maxwell has a successful nightclub act and his ventriloquism is staggeringly good...except Hugo's behaviour on stage begins to get disturbingly aggressive. In the dressing-room things aren't much better and Maxwell converses with Hugo as though he were a living, breathing human. Indeed, so convincing a ventriloquist is Maxwell, we begin to believe Hugo is real, although we never see him move independently.
Things aren't good between the pair and Hugo complains that Maxwell is cramping his style. Maxwell resents Hugo but is unable to extricate himself and he becomes paranoid, fearing his dummy will desert him. The dummy taunts him and threatens to join up with another ventriloquist, Sylvester Kee. Kee is fascinated with Maxwel's skill and visits his dressing-room but has no plans to team up with Hugo. One evening, Hugo goes missing and Maxwell finds him in Sylvester's room; how he got there is a mystery but Maxwell accuses Sylvester of theft and shoots him.
Now in prison, Maxwell slips further into madness, until eventually his personality is completely absorbed by that of his dummy - he becomes Hugo. The story of Hugo and Maxwell is a compelling one and can be intepreted in two ways - the dummy really is posessed of a supernatural life-force or Hugo is irrevocably insane. From a psychological point of view, the latter is the most interesting. Man and dummy are inextricably bound together because of course they are really two distinct, conflicting personalities within the same man. The segment was critically acclaimed and popular with audiences, and though the theme had been explored before, it was really this vignette that propelled the whole killer-doll sub genre.
Edgar Bergen (father of Candice) was probably the most famous ventriloquist of the 20th century and, as far as I know, the only one to forge a successful radio and screen career from his act.
Radio might seem an odd medium for a ventriloquist to shine in, but Bergen's success there is testimony to his comic talent, which transcended the novelty of the act. A ventriloquist may be technically skilled but that's only half the story; he also has to develop an amusing, sustained banter lest the audience tire of the novelty. The dummy must be perceived as a 'real' personality.
Charlie had a snappy line in witty repartee. He was a ladies man, a worldy wit and just generally a bit of rake. Ventriloquist and dummy worked well together and the latter used to tease that he could see Bergen's lips moving. It was a highly successful act..so much so that Bergen's career lasted almost sixty years. Charlie became such a 'real' identity, even in his own home, that Bergen's daughter Candice, an only child, has often remarked that he was "like a brother" to her. Obviously no creepiness there then.
Gerry Gee was a television 'personality' in Australia in the 1960s and he was owned and operated by ventriloquist Ron Blaskett who peformed regularly on an afternoon children's program called The Tarax Show.
In between lemonade ads, the show, (hosted by the chronically genial Happy Hammond), featured variety acts aimed at kids. At the time there was no creepy associations with Gerry; the kids took him at face value and there was even a successful line in Gerry Gee dolls, along with reproduction dolls of his sister, Geraldine Gee. The dolls were the first real example of Australian TV merchandising.
As he was aimed at at children, Gerry Gee was a pretty clean cut , though cheeky, boy who was representative of mainstream values; he liked football and Tarax lemonade and spoke with a thick Australian accent.
Looking back, it's striking how amateurish Australian advertising was back then. In those days of live television, there was no opportunity for a second take...yet it's strange when the dummy puts in a more convincing performance than the real live human.
In 1998, the original 42 year old Gerry Gee sold at auction for a mere $17,000. Cheap at the price.
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