Season 1, Episode 6: “Unboxed”
Directed by Michael E. Satrazemis
Written by Tyler Hisel
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “The Beast Within” – click here
South of Mexico City there is an island with a “disturbing history” called Island of the Dolls, originally Isla de las Muñecas. In the 1950s, Don Julian Santana abandoned his family to go live on the island. A long while later, he found a drowned girl there. Not far he found a doll, likely belonging to the girl. He thought it was a “curse” because he left his own family. So, he kept the doll like it was his own child. He looked for more dolls, sometimes going into the mainland to find them. They were hung as “offerings” to the girl’s spirit, to ward off her anger.
He eventually drowned in the same water where he’d found the girl, leaving all his dolls strung up on the island, left to the decay of time.
Aaron Mahnke reminds us how dolls become special objects to children, as a “trusted friend” and more. However, many of us are creeped out by dolls, their strange eyes. All a product of the primitive brain. Mahnke speaks of the “uncanny valley,” which is a reason why Tom Hanks in The Polar Express is unsettling, something too close to human yet not quite human. And this is ultimately why dolls, mere objects, hold power of us. Sometimes they won’t relent, either.
We go to 1904, in Key West, Florida. Thomas and Minnie Otto (Joe Knezevich & Kristin Bauer van Straten) lived there with their son Robert a.k.a Gene (J.T. Corbitt). His Aunt Bridget (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) sends the lonely little boy a doll from her trip in German. Because the kid was a bit different, the doll had a quick effect on him, they became best friends. He was like a real boy to Gene, he sat at the table with the family, he had a meal set out for him, as well. Dad doesn’t dig it, he’s upset by the neighbours talking about his son, though mom realises the object is their child’s “only friend.”
One day Minnie believes she hears her husband upstairs. Yet there’s only her son, the doll, whom the boy’s named after himself: Robert. Just the lads, laughing and chatting together. Even dad starts hearing things, someone running around upstairs when his boy’s asleep not far from him in the next room. Things are beginning to turn up broken, and Gene swears it wasn’t him. When he claims the doll did it all, it sounds insane, naturally.
“Robert is real. And he doesn‘t like it when you scold me.”
Mahnke discusses ventriloquism, why it’s unsettling to people. In 19th century America, people were interested and likewise a bit repelled by the act. Some were accused of witchcraft. Others were believed to be mediums, channelling “voices of the dead” into their dolls. A razor’s edge between entertaining and eerie.
Edgar Bergen and his doll Charlie were the most famous American ventriloquist act. Years later, his daughter revealed the doll was treated as a member of the family. It had a room. It even got his inheritance, left behind for him rather than Edgar’s daughter: the very famous Candice Bergen.
Aunt Bridget gets to Florida, upset over Gene’s relationship with Robert the doll. She brings out the Bible to get across her point, lamenting these “new beliefs of the Suffragette.” Everybody’s worried about the kid. Except for mom. Thomas and Bridget want to get rid of the doll, whereas Minnie doesn’t want to do that to Gene.
So they lock the doll away in a crate, nailing it shut to be kept in the attic. Afterwards, things got weird. First Bridget turns up dead. Then Robert the doll is back sitting next to Gene’s bed as he sleeps. Mahnke questions when dolls gain their power over us. He tells us about a woman named Frances Glessner Lee. She made dolls, only to kill them all in various ways. She made forensic science miniature crime scenes based on real cases: “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.” This helped revolutionise the way scenes were thought about, the care for minute details; today, these are still used for teaching purposes.
Aunt Bridget supposedly had a stroke. Wasn’t necessarily what everyone in the house believed. Mom asks her son how Robert got out of the box. He replies he can’t tell, implying the doll has strange powers. This prompted Minnie to break down and send him away to a boarding school.
Mahnke talks about “reborns,” which are lifelike, custom-made dolls. Made painstakingly to look like a newborn baby. This is a truly strange evolution in the concept of the doll. Watching them being made, watching women cradling them like actual children, even how they’re broken out of a bag as if they’ve truly come out of a human, it’s terrifying. This is the power an object can hold over a person.
Just as poor Minnie believed Robert the doll was responsible for everything bad in their home. She nailed him up again in the attic for good. Skip ahead, 24 years later, and Gene (Michael Patrick Lane) is a painter who travelled Europe. Thomas died, and Minnie was left at home with the doll. When her boy returned, he was grown and experienced and their reunion was wonderful – he also brought his wife, Anne (Haley Finnegan).
But Minnie starts warning the new bride, that they’ve offended Robert. He won’t be happy his friend Gene is being taken away by the women in his life. It all sounds nuts to the young woman, of course. A product of those years alone with only the doll in that house. Despite it all, the couple moved into the home, and the influence over Gene began all over again. Terrifying.
Anatoly Moskvin, Mahnke tells us, was a special sort of strange. He had dozens of dolls, whom he dressed, drank tea with, read to; inside their chests, he installed music boxes. See, Anatoly stole corpses for a decade. At home, they were his “companions.” He mummified the bodies and turned them into dolls. He felt they’d, someday, come back to life. Yikes.
One night, Anne took Robert outside, doused him in petrol, and took a match to him. Next day? He’s back sitting at the table with her husband, fresh and clean. Obviously things got especially scary from there on in, decades of Robert living with them. People would say they saw him staring from the window. His legacy lived on, longer than his owner. He went on haunting the house, until a museum took Robert, where he’s become a famous tourist attraction.
Just don’t take a picture with him unless you ask his permission. Or he’ll get… angry, and do “bad things.”
My favourite episode of Season 1 as a whole, because there’s so much within the story, true history I never knew (Candice Bergen!), and on top of that the entire tale is macabre and weird and super creepy. Just a fantastic episode.
I’ve not yet heard anything, but I do hope this will be successful enough for a Season 2. Mahnke is excellent, he’s a wonderful narrator. The subjects of the podcast were interesting enough, this show gives it the best possible visuals to add that extra OOMPF. Give us more.