"Most of the time, the reason a doll becomes haunted is because of unfinished business," said Jayne Harris, paranormal investigator and haunted doll trader. "It could also be a fear of passing-over, or sometimes there's somebody on the other side that the spirits don't want to reconnect with."
I'd stumbled across the online trade of "haunted dolls" in eBay's Everything Else section. Among the listings for used vape pens and hand-crafted male chastity devices, I spotted an ad for a "nasty perverse possessed doll", the description warning that this innocuous, ginger-haired child's toy should only be bought by "experienced, adult collectors". It eventually sold for just over €1,400.
Curiosity is the lifeblood of the internet – it's what leads us down 3AM Wikipedia holes, or inspires us to spend far more time than we should watching competitive archery videos. That same curiosity took a hold of me when I discovered this cyber subculture; who were these people listing cheap plastic dolls for up to thousands of pounds? Why were people actually paying these asking prices? And did they truly believe they were inhabited by "sexually sadistic" demons?
A bit of digging revealed that there's been a rise in the selling of ghostly items online ever since a supposedly haunted wine cabinet was sold on eBay in 2004. The box is said to be possessed by a dybbuk – a malicious possessing spirit in Jewish mythology – and has come to be known by the highly inventive name of "the dybbuk box". The item has been bought and sold several times at online auctions, and the various owners' experiences have been chronicled online, inspiring the Sam Raimi-directed, Matisyahu-starring 2012 horror The Possession.
With this well-publicised cabinet came an abundance of purportedly possessed objects; plenty of online vendors were suddenly keen to shift the dozens of devilish dolls they conveniently had stored away in their garages, some for €40, some for €400. Within this gold rush, I thought, there must have been some disingenuous undercurrents: discover you can make 500 percent profit by ripping off a stranger on some piece-of-shit toy, and the basic theory of capitalism dictates that some optimistic chancer is going to have a crack.
To find out more, I spoke to Nancy Oyola, an online seller from New Jersey who had listed a job-lot of haunted dolls on her Etsy page. Soon into our conversation she told me that she'd inherited more than 300 of them from her late grandmother's estate and swore to me that she'd had paranormal experiences with nearly all of them.
I asked her why she decided to sell them. "People are fascinated by them," she told me. "Many people who work with black or white magic are in need of a particular spirit to help them with their spells and rituals, so I can help."
Nancy went on to add that her advice to buyers is to always check a seller's feedback before purchasing a haunted item. I took her up on her tip immediately, checking what messages had been left by those who'd bought dolls from her page. Despite my initial skepticism, it seemed that her operation was legit: her buyers were very happy, with nearly all of them confirming the dolls' haunted qualities.
Buyer feedback, paired with a spooky backstory, are one of the only guarantees a seller can really offer. The two other methods of "proof" are readings by electronic voice phenomena (EVP) devices – which create recordings that appear to contain supernatural voices, often hidden within static – or KII meters, which measure fluctuations in the electromagnetic field, but also often pick up radio frequencies.
Clearly you need to have a certain amount of belief in the paranormal to put any faith in these devices, but it's fair to assume that people looking to spend thousands of pounds on a haunted doll have already firmly made their minds up as to how invested they are in the supernatural.
After over a year of trying, I eventually arranged a time to meet up with a British haunted doll collector for a chat.
Jayne Harris is a big name in the world of possessed children's toys: through her website, haunted-dolls.com, and her ever-growing Facebook page, she sells (or helps to facilitate the sale of) at least one doll a week, and is highly regarded and well liked in the community. This community – as I soon learned – doesn't "buy" or "sell" possessed objects; it adopts, as if the figurines and the lost spirits living inside are orphans in need of a loving home.
As a teenager, following the death of a close family member, Jayne found herself searching for answers at her local spiritualist church, dissatisfied with what she was being offered by the Catholicism she'd been raised with. After befriending a woman there, Jayne was invited round to meet the her doll, Maggie.
"She didn't seem crazy, so I eventually decided I'd go," Jayne told me. "When I arrived I was told to introduce myself to Maggie, and as I said hello the TV came on by itself and played the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I was shocked!"
Jayne wasn't how I assumed she might be. She's married and has two small children. She's chatty, friendly and didn't seem overly rigid in her beliefs, or introverted in any way.
"I've always said that I don't expect anyone that hasn't had a paranormal experience to believe in [haunted dolls]. I probably wouldn't," she explained. "I've got an interest in UFOs, but I'm still not convinced because I've not had any experiences in that field. But whether you believe or not, things like ouija boards do actually work."
Jayne told me several times that she no longer dabbles in ouija boards, citing the fact they're used to communicate with demonic energies, as opposed to the human energies she deals with. She also seemed certain that a spirit from a doll could never possess a human.
"Possession is demonic because [demons] have never and will never have a physical body and presence," she told me. "Demonic possessions don't usually end well. People don't tend to make it through in one piece. Psychologically it can be very damaging."
Our conversation meandered between concepts I could grasp and others I found slightly trickier to comprehend, so I decided to speak to an expert to help me make sense of things. The appropriately named John Sixthsense is a parapsychic medium, 2012 winner of Spiritside Medium of the Year and founder of the (now-defunct) ghost-busting team UK Paranormal.
"I can't see how this mass production of haunted dolls is feasible," he said, after I told him about the wealth of figurines available online. "We don't get to choose where a spirit will reside or what it's attached to. They've got free will just as we have."
From John's experience, he explained, hauntings are usually specific to houses, not objects. He added that in the rare event of a spirit attaching itself to an object, the owner of that object should contact a professional like himself to banish the lingering spectre, not sell its host on the internet. The problem with blind buying, he clarified, is that it's "very irresponsible" because buyers don't always know the "velocity" of the spirit they're about to allow into their home.
I agreed that a haunting doesn't really seem like something you'd actively invite into your life. However, some sellers – like whoever was behind that first eBay post I saw – claim that their dolls are "evil" and "extremely negative" as a kind of sinister selling point, meaning there has to be a market out there for that kind of thing.
So what compels people to buy them?
"There are some people who are interested because they don't have children of their own. They ask if I've come across any spirited children that are in limbo," Jayne explained, adding that adopting a haunted doll isn't always the right course of action for someone in that position. "There's a lot of pressure on me to get it right," she said. "I don't give them out to just anybody."
Jayne also told me that there's the appeal of companionship for some new owners, with many simply compelled to adopt through a need to connect with any spirit available.
John, however, believed that paranormal investigation groups were behind a lot of the purchases, searching for props to take along on ghost hunts.
From their assessments, it became clear that there are two dangers to prepare yourself for when buying a haunted doll. One: that you'll spend a bunch of money on a dud and won't be able to get a refund (good luck finding "hauntedness" in the Trade Descriptions Act). Two: the danger that when you adopt a doll, bad things start to happen – or at least you attribute negative things in your life to the doll.
Of course, this might not be such a bad thing in itself: if all of your negatives and faults are projected into an inanimate object, it might ultimately make them easier to deal with. It also might be another reason why people seek out the dolls in the first place.
The fact I have very little money in my bank account put a stopper on my plans to buy a doll of my own, but I did get as far as " The Common Sense Guide to Buying and Selling Haunted Items", an instructional how-to posted on eBay.
The last point of that guide reads:
"Have a plan of action of how you are to dispose of the item if it starts wreaking havoc in your home! Some of the activity we have witnessed from haunted items [is] banging on walls, scratching noises, walking sounds, moans, knocking, whispering, displaced objects, bed shaking, scents, ectoplasm…"
I put all this to Jayne, because despite her veil of levelheadedness I wondered if she had ever experienced anything darker than what she initially let on. She told me the story of a puppeteer's doll that she'd recently removed from somebody's house, due to the upset it was causing there.
"The day I got it back home I put it in the cabinet in my basement and closed the door," she said. "Five minutes later, when I was upstairs, I heard a bang. A tin of paint had fallen and smashed the cabinet, and there was paint all over the floor. The doll was just sitting there. It looked really creepy."
Jayne explained that she then started having headaches and was finding it hard to sleep, which are both signs of demonic possession.
"Days later, my three-year-old daughter started saying, 'Shhh, mummy, John is asleep.' When I asked who John was she told me he was her friend. I thought, 'Okay, children have imaginary friends, it's not unusual.' Then, a few days later, she came running into the kitchen crying and said, 'Mummy! Mummy! John shouted at me…' This made me feel really uncomfortable, so I passed the doll onto my medium friend, Hazel."
I think what fascinates me most about the community is the people, not their dolls. Everyone I spoke to was sincere and – perhaps a little anticlimactically – pretty much completely normal. They just so happen to believe that the figures they have sitting in their homes are inhabited by the spirits of dead children.
Jayne was matter of fact and grounded as she chatted about poltergeists and demons. John was the same, talking about the inconvenience of exorcisms as if they were on a par with emptying the dishwasher, or someone stopping still, right in front of you, as you try to get on an escalator.
It's always harder to build a rapport with someone if you don't meet in person, which might explain why Nancy from New Jersey was slightly cagier. However, she shared the same passion for – and belief in – the haunted dolls as Jayne.
I tried to assess what my thoughts were about these two big-time collectors and came to the conclusion that investing that much time and money into objects you truly believe to be haunted is only going to prompt your mind into further validating those beliefs. It would be easy to suggest that this is a symptom of the power of suggestion and the crafty work of conmen, but – in Jayne and Nancy's cases, at least – I don't think that's true.
At the heart of it, it's the believers breathing life into this international subculture. Ghosts might not exist if the right people weren't there to see them, and those in the doll-collecting community don't seem to mind that the lines between fact and fiction are sometimes blurred. And, in fairness, why should they? Followers of religion all around the world put their faith in the make-believe, and that's widely accepted as a logical, sane thing to do. How is this any different?
Either way, I don't think I'd ever stretch to spending three months' rent on a creepy, "sexually aggressive" doll to watch over me while I sleep. I'll leave all that to this lot.
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