Ventriloquist's Dummies

The Uncanny

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.


"Jerry Mahoney" Image from Lana's Vintage Etsy shop
"Jerry Mahoney" Image from Lana's Vintage Etsy shop

Old-fashioned

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.


The worst possible spooky combination -scary clown AND dummy combined
The worst possible spooky combination -scary clown AND dummy combined

Phobia

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.



Dummy Dearest

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.


Laraby's Eye
Laraby's Eye

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...?


Shari and Lambchop. Not spooky.
Shari and Lambchop. Not spooky.

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.


Hugo
Hugo

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.


A nasty piece of work
A nasty piece of work
Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy
Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy

Charlie McCarthy

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.


Ron Blaskett and Gerry Gee
Ron Blaskett and Gerry Gee
Gerry Gee Doll
Gerry Gee Doll

Gerry Gee

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.

More by this Author

  • How to Make a Song
    19

    ~Take a melody, some words...a burst of inspiration and stir gently~ That's all there is to it. No, not really...well it might be that easy for some, but not for others. Just so I don't feel like a total fraud, I...

  • How to Talk Like a Film Critic: Glossary of  Film Terms
    21

    So you want to be a film critic? Well here's something to get you started; a general guide to some of the language of film criticism...

  • A Day in the Life of a 1950s Housewife
    115

    Post-feminist revolution, 1950's housewives carry a certain amount of hip kudos. Now that we have equality (or a facsimile thereof) we don't have to be on the defensive anymore. We can wear a stiff, full skirt, vintage...


Comments 23 comments

Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Good hub. I have a strong memory of lambchop. I loved Shari's voice. It was cute in a weird way when she was being herself and when she was being lambchop. Weird but...nice.

I have seen the British film Dead of Night a number of times. It is a series of shorts strung together but all the stories are very good and make, combined, a real spooky ending.

Well, we've talked about clowns before. Me? Sometimes they are lovable but, regardless, they are pretty open about what they are so if they're evil - look out! I did a bit of clowning at college but I was a playful rather than a very bad clown.

For ANZAC DAY and because I am a history buff I have put together three hubs dealing with the first three decades of the 20th Century. One I have titled ANZACS and YANKS. Just thought I'd throw that in.


Merlin Fraser profile image

Merlin Fraser 5 years ago from Cotswold Hills

wonderful hub and yes I too remember Lamb Chop from the days of Gas powered TV... although you missed one, take a look

http://youtu.be/1uwOL4rB-go


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 5 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Jane, a very interesting hub. A little scary for me though. Couldn't watch the videos. But v e r y interesting.


Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

Interesting topic for a hub but I must say that I do not like either clowns or v-dummies and find both to be creepy. Voted up!


drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

Fascinating topic, Jane, and you covered it very well. Have you also seen the "Chuckie" films that feature a psychopathic dummy? He (it) is a perfect example of the fear that is invoked by the viewer per Freud's theory of uncanny.


A.A. Zavala profile image

A.A. Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

Just for the record, all Ventriloquist's and their dummies are weird and spooky. Anyone who apires to stick their hands inside a body cavity to manipulate and entertain others just isn't right. Thank you for sharing!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

O_________________________O


jrsearam profile image

jrsearam 5 years ago from San Juan, PR

I have a childhood memory of Anthony Hopkins in the movie "Magic", which still gives me goosebumps. Cool hub Jane, a little creepy. JR


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Rod, you're wearing a new outfit! Looks good.

I love "Dead of Night"...it's a real classic and the recurring dream theme is an interesting aspect too. So you were a clown? Wow, I can't imagine that, but there y'go!

I'll check out those new hubs - cheers


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hahaha Merlin..that terrorist dummy is not spooky at all! Thanks for that.

Lambchop is pretty cute..."gas powered TV". LOL!


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Austin...I always imagined you as someone who's not scared of anything! Glad I could rattle your cage....:)

Thanks


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Danette, you're not alone there! Thanks for dropping in.

Drbj, thanks. I've heard of Chucky o'course but never seen the films. I looked him up on YouTube...OMG, he's an autonomatonophobes worst nightmare!


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

A.A Zavala, it takes a special kind of person to be a ventriloquist...:) Thanks for reading.

Simone...that eloquent comment says it all!


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi jrsearm, I feel creepy just writing about them. I've never seen "Magic" but I did come across some pictures. Definitely a spooky looking dummy. Thanks for visiting,


DavitosanX profile image

DavitosanX 5 years ago

Yeah, ventriloquist dummies are scary, but it's loads of fun to freak people out with them :D No mention of Jeff Dunham and Achmed, the dead terrorist? Tsk, tsk, too bad.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi Davito...nice to see you. Lol...Merlin kindly put in a link to Achmed in the comments...but c'mon, he's not spooky!


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Yep new outfit Jane. Glad you like it. Just happens to be the real me. Thanks for taking a look see.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Always a pleasure Rod...


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

For reasons unknown we had a Charlie McCarthy dummy in our attic when I grew up. I was rather fascinated by it. When my younger cousin was over once we went up to the attic so I could show it to her. When I picked it up and tried to demonstrate how it worked she was scared screamed and ran back down the stairs.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Haha..thanks for thst story dahogland. I think The Charlie MacCarthy dolls are really nice. I'd love one! They're very collectable too apparently.


waxi 5 years ago

" ....growled Mr Grimwig , speaking by some ventriloquial power , without moving a muscle of his face ...." [Oliver Twist -PP 378 ]

The above is one of my favourite line from Oliver Twist which I have scribbled on a scrap paper saved over the years and always here and there in my drawers This also testifies my profound fascination with ventriloquy which prompted me to respond to an excellent hub by Jane

Enough has been written by Jane and I read the readers comments so I ll present a perspective from my experience.

I always felt that dead objects have some frozen life within them which they exude when they are observed in complete solitude. Let me articulate this by quoting Byron's famous lines from "Child Harold's pilgrimage

There is pleasure in the pathless woods

There is a rapture on the shore

There is society where none intrudes

By the deep sea and music in its roar

Long before I read these lines I always felt that when I spent long hours all by myself in woods and on the beach I experienced an eerie feeling which is no less true as Jane wrote , " The core of the fear seems to stem from the discrepancy between the representation of something which should be alive but is not." The wood , the rock , the dead jelly fish , the endless blue sky , the wandering cloud , the sand , the anchored boat, the seashell etc etc all seem to be staring at me as I pass them along with my shadow . As long as I am alone I feel I have them for a company The companions are my double side I am inextricably bound with them from a past I cannot recall , a present I explore and a future I cannot foretell . The pleasure I gain from this weird experience is mingled with an eerie fright of a Freudian uncanny familiarity . A bit of Byron was within me before I read Byron and after I read Byron I emerged a polished Byron .

One of my finest life experiences in art galleries was to visit an exhibition by Antony Gormley in which thousands of terracotta figurines were placed in a room in Ikon gallery in Bham Uk In pin drop silence , I could hear the gobbledegook mutterings of these helpless , dead creatures After a while , I realised that if I spent more time I ll be petrified into a salt statue. I had a choice either to end up a salt statue or walk away. I chose the former so I could live to enjoy the eerie uncanny horror and to share with someone my experience.

Finally , another personal experience of ventriloquy is reading Nietzsche's bizarre autobiography titled "Ecco Homo " The small book is one of the wonders of Literature and can only be judged on its own merits Once the book has been read , like a classical piece of music it grows on repeated readings and in my solitude in the woods I can hear the words emanating from wood !!!!!!!!!!!!

Its a personal experience but surely makes living a pretty dramatic experience.

Thanks Jane for giving me an opportunity to come out what was brewing in me for ages.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

waxi, thanks for that great contribution, which adds a lot of poetic value to this hub. Seems that you've had some very interesting experiences and you obviously think deeply about things.

I'm so glad you chose not to end up a tiny terracotta figurine...:)


Tom 4 months ago

Very nice and detailed hub! I have just order a dummy (Little Jeff) from http://ventriloquistdummiesforsale.com and I love it! It's a little hard to start for a beginner like me, but I learn more every day!

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working