What a child “is” is a darkening question…leading us, in moments, to cloudiness and ghostliness surrounding children as figures in time.
—Kathryn Bond Stockton, The Queer Child
I remember being very sick and having nightmares, and that’s all.
—Regan MacNeil, Exorcist II: The Heretic
It’s March 2017, and my fifteen-year-old son David, accompanied by his therapist Eric, returns home from the Anderson, South Carolina, mall with a twenty-four-inch Chucky doll, six-inch plastic knife included.
David is fifteen, a former foster child from Texas whom my husband Howard and I adopted less than six months ago. Howard and I have hired Eric as David’s behavior modification therapist. David lies, steals, threatens others with grievous bodily harm. We want him to tell the truth, respect personal property, and disagree peaceably.
“Sorry,” Eric says, pulling the timesheet out of his backpack for me to sign. “I couldn’t stop him from buying that.”
Eric is thirty-five, three years younger than my husband and me, and he works full time as a high school guidance counselor. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday afternoon, he shepherds David into the community, encouraging my son’s healthy—read age-appropriate, read sane—interactions with other human beings. Sometimes Eric and David play basketball at the Central-Clemson Recreation Center. Sometimes they eat Blizzards at Dairy Queen. Eric ostensibly uses these opportunities to monitor and correct David’s behaviors. But in reality, and we all know it, my son is too old for this game. At his age, after nine years in foster care, David is statistically unlikely to modify his behavior.
If David is a doll making his way down the assembly line, he’s failed quality control and been held up for packaging.
“Let me guess,” I answer. “Spencer’s?” It’s David’s favorite store. Mine, too, when I was his age. I loved the slasher movie memorabilia, the scatological knickknacks.
Eric nods, and I sign the time sheet: 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. During these two hours, my son ate a pretzel, drank a Monster, and spent fifty dollars of saved allowance on the Chucky doll he now squeezes to his chest.
David has, at best, a cloudy knowledge of his childhood. He doesn’t want to talk about it, and when he does talk about it, he makes up stories, transforms names. He sometimes says that his mother could not take care of him, that she did not love him. But there are secrets I keep from my son because I don’t want him using the internet to contact his mother now—not when we are trying to become a family, to build a home. For instance, I don’t tell David that, thanks to case reports kept by Child Protective Services, I know all the reasons the state removed David from his mother’s custody. I don’t tell him that not being able to take care of him and not loving him are two different failures. I don’t tell him that his father, imprisoned when David was taken into care at age five, declined to contest the termination of parental rights, unlike his mother, whose court-appointed attorney at least filed a feeble appeal.
David claims that he has never seen a Child’s Play film. He rarely admits to not having done something, so I know he is telling the truth. His foster parents never let him watch horror movies. Staff at his several group homes and residential treatment centers (RTCs) would sometimes smuggle in R-rated films, and sometimes horror movies, but never any of what my son refers to as the Chucky Ones. David therefore doesn’t know that his doll, with its cracked skull and stapled polymer flesh, represents the Chucky from the last four films, not the first three; that after the serial killer Charles Lee Ray (the soul trapped in the body of the Good Guy doll Chucky) fell to his temporary death in Child’s Play 3 (1991), chopped to bits by an amusement park motor fan, his onetime girlfriend Tiffany put him back together, bit by bit, to create the new, modern doll featured in Bride of Chucky (1998), Seed of Chucky (2004), Curse of Chucky (2013), and Cult of Chucky (2017).
David says he bought the doll because he likes the name Chucky. I know what he means. It’s homonymic: chunks of flesh and plastic pieced together into an impossibly living being.
David asks if he can watch One of the Chucky Ones, and the answer is absolutely not. My husband and I differ on this issue, but according to all the parenting literature, we must present a united front if we want to change David’s behavior. Howard says, “no R-rated movies,” so I say it too, knowing adults have little control over what teenagers will watch if they’re so determined.
My husband’s attitude towards art is broadly Platonic: reality is good, the imitation of reality, bad. Howard worries that David will imitate the bad behavior he sees in R-rated movies: the obscenities, the violence. His fear is not misplaced. When David, using a lighter and a disinfectant can, shoots flames across the floor of the high school bathroom, he blames a YouTube video about fire tricks. When we stop him from beating up a mall mannequin, he claims he was acting out a viral video.
If it were up to me, I wouldn’t say, simply, no R-rated movies. I’m enough of a Freudian to believe that prohibition feeds desire, and that prohibiting my son from watching One of the Chucky Ones only makes him want to watch them more. At his age, I also loved horror. And I suspect that I am now somewhat better off—a happier and healthier human being—for indulging my love through books and movies: through play.
As a teenager, I consumed most horror movies in their edited-for-TV versions. These movies ranged from the excellent (The Exorcist , Rosemary’s Baby , and Nightmare on Elm Street ) to the execrable (Exorcist II: The Heretic , Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge ). I watched and rewatched the first sequence of Child’s Play movies (the original , Child’s Play 2 , and Child’s Play 3) downstairs in the bonus room on Saturday afternoons and weekend nights, hoping that my parents wouldn’t—or would—open the door.
Certainly, parental censure produced a significant portion of my investment in horror. In the evangelical parlance of my childhood, my parents worried that horror movies, as well as the Stephen King, Robert McCammon, and Clive Barker books I read, “desensitized” me to carnage, sex, and sin. These books and movies, they feared, immunized me against evil, made me less likely to recognize and combat it. To protect my sister and me from “the culture,” my parents declined to supply the house with cable TV and (as I do now) forbade the rental of R-rated movies.
Unofficially, however, my parents indulged my taste in the macabre. They never stopped me from reading anything except Anne Rice, whom they deemed too sexual, or from watching anything on TV except Roseanne and The Simpsons, which they deemed antithetical to family values. My parents were ambivalent disciplinarians who drew arbitrary lines around particular pop culture objects. They did their best. When, at sixteen, I began collecting R-rated Stephen King adaptions on VHS (Pet Sematary , Carrie , The Dead Zone ), they turned a blind eye.
My love of horror has dissipated with age. Suspense now interests me more than gore. I prefer human monsters (serial killers, psychopaths) to inhuman or otherworldly ones. My waning interest signals, I think, that the genre fulfilled a particularly adolescent need. It answered a teenage inquiry, unsatisfied by my Christian beliefs, about the distinction between good and evil, reality and fantasy, life and death, the limits of the body.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that my investment in horror waned alongside my belief in God. Horror’s landscape of the possible has come to seem less possible, and less interesting, the more of a nonbeliever I become.
At my parents’ house in suburban Atlanta, David and Chucky shut themselves inside the bonus room. Gone are the blue couch and forty-inch, cathode-ray-tube TV. The room is now filled with toys for his two new cousins, my two young nieces. The mess David makes suggests that he spends most of his time in there playing with the three-story, pink, plastic dollhouse.
Standing with me in the kitchen upstairs, my mother muses, “That room gives him the opportunity he never had to be a little boy.”
I joke that little boys should not play with dollhouses. But my mother knows it’s not my son’s poor performance of heterosexual masculinity that concerns me. I failed that test long ago. I’m concerned that playing with dolls at age fifteen signals considerable—perhaps irreparable—
delay in my son’s development of compassion, of empathy.
When I was ten, our neighborhood’s at-risk youth, Drew, age thirteen, showed me how to stuff a plastic army truck full of army men and Black Cat firecrackers. The explosion sent plastic shards shooting across the summer street. I lost dozens of army men that way, which was fine, because I never liked army men. But I also lost Optimus Prime. Drew said I was too old to play with Transformers and killed him. I found the little bits of red- and gray-painted plastic littering Drew’s front yard.
Psychologists at least since Jean Piaget have understood why children play with dolls, and why they need to play with dolls. This form of play provides a vehicle for wish fulfillment and dispute resolution. Playing with dolls helps children negotiate their relationships with other living beings.
More broadly stated, dolls are props in childhood games; and games are the primary way children determine their place within—and test the limits of—the social systems and institutions around them. Through dolls, children project themselves into the world as mother, father, dog, Snuffleupagus, soldier. Through playing with dolls, children figure out the rules that lead to success (life, happiness, friendship) and failure (death, sadness, alienation). Children act out fantasies—some pro-social, some deeply anti-social—on dolls. They reenact situations from their own lives with a difference, with different outcomes and from different vantage points. Dolls afford children the ability to learn—through roleplaying, through storytelling—not only the behaviors expected of them as civilized little adults, but also what it might be like to inhabit another body.
What games do David and Chucky play with the dolls in that dollhouse downstairs? What aspects of my son’s traumatic life do they reenact or enact differently? What desires do they satisfy? Is David the good guy or the bad guy?
Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel Pinocchio tells a mythic story of childhood maturation through paternal rescue. Wishing to become a real boy, the mischievous wooden doll must first descend to the underworld, the belly of the Terrible Dogfish, and rescue his creator, the poor woodcutter Geppetto. The abundance of Pinocchio adaptations, the 1940 Disney film only the most famous among them, owes much to the story’s archetypal structure. Real boys—which is to say boys who will grow into men, which is to say children who will grow into adults, which is to say adults capable of living with other adults as members of a human community—must dispense with the image of their parents as invulnerable but honor them anyway. Growing up requires recognition of parental failure, but also parental resuscitation.
Child’s Play murderously inverts this myth. In the world of these films, Chucky is not a mischievous yet essentially good little boy. He is a Good Guy doll harboring an essentially evil soul. Charles Lee Ray wants to become a real boy again—and to do this he needs an already real boy, Andy Barclay, the only child of a single mother who works at the perfume counter at the mall. Karen Barclay has already failed her son by not buying him the Good Guy doll he wants for his birthday. And if she were a good Freudian mother, she would stop there: let Andy be sad. It’s her effort to assuage her guilt by buying her son a stolen doll off a street peddler that ushers in evil.
Karen Barclay does not fail again, which is all for the worse. At the end of Child’s Play, she rescues Andy by shooting off Chucky’s appendages. Only in Child’s Play 2 do we learn that Andy is thereafter taken into state custody. His mother’s stories about a murderous doll have forced the state to institutionalize her. Andy has become a foster child.
Driving home one afternoon that May, I find David standing in the street outside our house. He wears a Chicago Bulls jersey, red skinny jeans, and construction boots. He clutches Chucky to his chest and waves at me with the knife hand.
I roll down my window and take my son’s picture. I text the picture to Eric.
“For you to sell one day to CNN,” I write.
Because I’m an inconsistent disciplinarian, I invite David and Chucky to watch the original Nightmare on Elm Street. Howard is out of town.
Officially, I want David to see Nightmare on Elm Street because it terrified me as a child, and watching scary movies with your son seems like something fathers should do.
Unofficially, I want David to see Nightmare on Elm Street so that he knows what good parenting looks like. The Elm Street parents are notoriously absent from the film. They murder Freddy Krueger in an effort to protect their kids, but thereafter wander out of their children’s lives, leaving them to fight their nighttime battles alone.
As Krueger’s first victim, Tina Gray, climbs the bedroom walls in her tortured sleep—thrashing, screaming, gushing blood—I look over at Chucky and my son seated on the chaise longue.
“Are you okay?” I ask. I suspect David has never before seen anything like this.
He nods. “That looks fake as shit.”
An elementary Freudian thesis: murder marks a failure in the civilizing process, a gap in one’s education. “Civilization,” Freud writes, “describes the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes—namely, to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relationships.” Civilization, Freud continues, makes us miserable. Self-regulation demands the repression of desire. Human achievements, like rescuing our parents from the belly of the Terrible Dogfish, prove arduous, grueling. But through civilization we live as humans rather than as animals. Civilization enables human community. It constitutes human community.
By “childhood,” then, let us refer to the period of civilizing education in homo sapiens.
As a species, our long childhood provides us with considerable time—necessary time—to gain this education. We’re not born knowing not to harm one another. We learn how to protect ourselves against harm, how to adjust our mutual relationships so as not to harm ourselves and other people, as we grow up. We learn of what harm consists—and the degrees to which we and others like us can withstand it—as we mature.
Another elementary Freudian thesis: we’re all born murderers. Hopefully, we grow out of it.
Like many big brothers, I used to rip the limbs off my sister’s Barbie dolls. I had my reasons: revenge, animus. Jealousy: I liked Barbie dolls more than army men, although never as much as Transformers. I sometimes played Barbie with my sister. I was Barbie, she Ken, the family dog Barbie and Ken’s car. When Hannah and I weren’t being horrible to one another, we did a fine job playing house.
David’s behaviors—as everyone in the world of foster care and adoption and adolescent mental health care provision refers to them—make life with our son horrible. A franchise of bad sequels. But it’s my and Howard’s job as parents to at least try and reduce the degree of that horror.
Some games need to be played. Some, stopped. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Watch Child’s Play 3. Colonel Cochrane, the commander at Kent Military Academy, hates the thought of his cadets playing with dolls. He orders sixteen-year-old Cadet Andy Barclay to forget these “fantasies” of psychopathic toys, paraphrasing no less an authority than Saint Paul:
“When I was a child…I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). It sounds easy enough—notwithstanding Andy’s years in foster care. Notwithstanding the institutionalization of his mother and Chucky’s brutal murder of his foster parents.
“At Kent,” the Colonel brags, “we take bedwetters and turn them into men.”
This turning requires the cadets to put away one set of games (domestic games, doll play) in exchange for another: namely, Army Man. But in his once-more resurrected doll body, Charles Lee Ray now wants to play Hide the Soul with the young cadet Ronald Tyler. In the Academy cellar, where Tyler has absconded with his shameful toy, the incantation begins. Clouds gather as the cadets outside march with their guns around the field. Only Colonel Cochrane, coming to inventory supplies for a game of capture the flag, interrupts the transfer: “We don’t play with dolls now do we, Tyler? Dolls are for girls.”
For girls or for children? Do both fall under the category of “bedwetters”? Either way, Colonel Cochrane saves Tyler’s life by stopping this game. Tossing Chucky in the garbage, he also sets into motion a string of gruesome campus murders.
David says he learned most of his behaviors from the other kids in RTCs. He was once a blank slate, then their student. He blames his former RTC peers when he flips over a desk and threatens to have his teacher shot; when he emails a series of threats to a student whom he mistakenly believes insulted him on Snapchat; when he tries to punch me in the face as I tackle him in the middle of the road and two police cars siren up behind us; when, during a dinner-time tantrum, he promises, “Three of us are going to sleep tonight, but only one of us will wake up!”
David asks me if I believe in possession, and honestly, this is a hard question to answer. I no longer believe in demons, spirits, or souls, much less possession, so the answer is no. But he knows I don’t believe and asks anyway. He wants me to play a game with him. He invites me to extend the limits of the possible in this imaginative space. So I shake my head and say, “Maybe.” If he needs me to, I will say yes.
Foster parents arrive pre-failed. That’s what makes foster children’s attachment to their new parents so hard. Foster children don’t idealize you. They know you can’t protect them.
“Are we even qualified to take care of a boy like this?” Phil Simpson asks the social worker in Child’s Play 2. Phil and his wife Joanne have just learned about Andy’s “fairy tale” regarding the killer doll—his way of coping, the social worker explains, with the trauma of witnessing multiple murders. Phil Simpson worries, not for the last time, that Andy may need more help than he and his wife can provide.
What Andy needs—what most traumatized children need—is someone who will listen to them and believe.
Pieced back together by the Play Pals toy company in an effort to exonerate their doll in the press, Chucky returns for Andy. He sends the disbelieving Phil Simpson toppling off the basement stairs, breaking his neck. He slits Joanne Simpson’s throat.
The Simpsons prove no more capable than Karen Barclay of protecting the boy from evil.
Children need to believe that the world is a safe place, even if it’s not. Or they need to be exposed to danger slowly, in stages, through games and play. Childhood trauma is a premature encounter with evil.
I tried to explain this thesis to David when I took him to see It two weeks after its September 2017 opening. Stephen King’s book, and the original 1990 TV miniseries, meant a lot to me as a teenager. Seven children band together to defeat, and defeat again, a murderous, alien malevolence. They win by refusing to fear this creature who feeds off terror. It analogized to my church youth group’s battles with Satan—the difference, I now understand, being that the evil in the world of It is real.
My psychological abstraction was lost on my son. It merely scared the shit out of him. He swore blood pooled up in his sink, too, and started checking the sewer grates for clowns.
Thesis: Charles Lee Ray is Karen Barclay, the Freudian Mother as deadly toy.
In the kitchen, Eric pulls out his phone and flips to a grainy picture of his teenage self standing beside Ed and Lorraine Warren on the back porch of their house in Connecticut. Through family friends, he met these founders of the New England Society for Psychic Research, the paranormal investigators played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga in James Wan’s two The Conjuring films.
“Did you see the doll?” David asks, he and Chucky both peering over my shoulder. He means Annabelle, the Raggedy Ann doll the Warrens declared possessed by the ghost of Annabelle Higgins. The Warrens keep the doll encased in glass at their Occult Museum.
“I did!” Eric says, his face as lit up with excitement as my son’s. “It was so creepy!”
“Do you think it’s really alive?”
Eric shrugs. He doesn’t know. And David starts talking about how sometimes he wakes up to find Chucky asleep in the closet.
If my life were a movie about possession, this would be the part where the worried parents seek professional medical help for their troubled child. In The Exorcist, Chris MacNeil takes her daughter Regan to the hospital following several disturbing events, including the violent shaking and levitation of Regan’s bed. The doctors draw the girl’s blood, run an EKG, and take her temperature. Lighting a cigarette in the office hallway, the doctor then explains to Ms. MacNeil that Regan suffers from “a disturbance in the chemical-electrical activity of the brain…in the temporal lobe…up here in the lateral part of the brain.” The condition is rare, but it does cause hallucinations and convulsions, or “muscular spasms.”
Chris MacNeil came to the hospital for precisely such an answer, but she is not satisfied: “That was no spasm. I got on the bed. The whole bed was thumping and rising off the floor and shaking. The whole thing, with me on it.”
Now the doctor must wonder if the mother hallucinates, too. “Ms. MacNeil,” he tries again, “the problem with your daughter is not her bed. It’s her brain.”
This doctor is wrong, of course. The problem is not Regan’s bed or her brain. The problem is an ancient demon from the Middle East, Pazuzu, who for some reason has traveled across the ocean and possessed the body of this girl, the daughter of a divorced actress who is shooting a film in Georgetown. Why Regan? Is demonic possession a metaphor for puberty, for the awakening of sexual knowledge, as suggested by the infamous scene in which Regan masturbates with a crucifix? Does the absence of a father—a Father, in both Freudian and Christian terms—render her vulnerable? Is possession her mother’s fault for getting a divorce? Does Regan invite Pazuzu’s possession through her play with the Ouija board that she finds in the closet? Does Father Merrin bring Pazuzu back to Georgetown from his archeological dig in Iraq? Is the doubting Father Karras, not Merrin or Regan, Pazuzu’s real target?
The film does not answer any of these questions. It only raises them, and many others. As Ellis Hanson explains in “Knowing Children: Desire and Interpretation in The Exorcist,” the film’s “very narrative structure is out to get us,” forcing us “to wonder why the devil is there at all, through what psychological, sexual or moral flaw he is admitted to the film, and why there are so many unexplained mysteries.”
But there is no why. As Hanson argues, there is only a child at the center of this unsolvable puzzle: a gothic child, like Miles and Flora in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, who harbors secrets, most of them seemingly, strangely sexual.
David’s obsession with Chucky should come as no surprise. Surely there’s a part of me that, at age thirty-six, wanted a doll, one my husband wasn’t so sure we needed.
“Sir,” David said one day early in our relationship (before Eric, before Chucky) when he still called me sir. We were waiting at the Central-Clemson Recreation Center for his swim lesson to begin. “What if you went through my phone and found nothing but pictures of knees? Just hundreds of pictures of knees. Wouldn’t that be weird?”
My son hangs onto the wall of the therapy pool, leans back and pulls his skinny legs up to his stomach. His knees break the surface of the water. “Knees.”
He laughs. I laugh.
On the way home, he clarifies: “You can trust me not to take pictures of people’s knees. I don’t have a phone.”
Howard and I joke that David doesn’t need a therapist. He needs an exorcist.
We make variations on this joke, too. Eric needs to remember his Bible and his holy water. We should advertise for someone who wants to babysit Rosemary’s teen. When David forces himself to vomit sweet potatoes all over the dining room table, I tease him and call him Regan.
Howard and I hospitalized David for the first time six months after he came to live with us. Manic, he tore apart his room—ripped posters off the wall and threw his books off the bookshelf. As I watched him rage from the doorway, I remembered the advice of another foster parent who suggested filming these tantrums and then watching them with your teen later—to discuss, essentially, how crazy they look, and how such behavior will get them hospitalized or jailed. I took out my phone and started filming.
But I succeeded only in turning my son into a movie star. He threw a Mason jar against the wall and, accidentally or on purpose, cut his arm with one of the shards. He yelled, “Pick up the goddamn glass, faggot,” alternately stomping around his room and flopping down on the bed. He wiped blood on the wall, his bedsheets, and the carpet. Lying on his back, he pulled his knees high over his head and farted. This tantrum continued for forty-five minutes before we drove him to Oconee Medical, where the nurse whisked him past triage and the doctor sedated him after he tried to mount the wheeled blood pressure monitor.
“Could your son be on any street drugs?” the doctor asked. He was young, clearly a resident. Trying to maintain a professional demeanor in the face of an obviously possessed boy.
“Is Pazuzu a street drug?”
Andy Barclay returns to the Child’s Play franchise in Cult of Chucky. We don’t know much about him. He lives alone in a cabin in the woods. He owns numerous firearms. He has trouble dating due to all the stories about him on the internet. “I was six,” he tries in vain to explain to a woman he likes. “My babysitter was murdered, along with my teacher and my case worker, and thirty-seven other people over the years, that I’m aware of.” Having blown Chucky to bits with a shotgun, he now keeps the doll’s still-living head in a safe, behind his framed Kent Military Academy sweatshirt. Periodically, he takes Chucky out to torture him with an array of different devices.
It’s a common trope of horror films: banish the evil only to have it return. Or disperse. In Cult of Chucky, Andy’s efforts to contain the doll to his safe fail because Chucky transfers his soul into multiple Good Guy dolls at once. Using a voodoo spell he finds on the internet, Chucky breaks the rule of the game that would restrain him to one body.
David plays with Chucky for eight months, then gives him away to the younger brother of a friend. I do not ask why—grateful to see the doll go, glad to no longer hear of Chucky’s nighttime antics, hopeful that Chucky has satisfied whatever need David had for him, and that the evil is gone.
WILL STOCKTON has had his translations and creative writing appear in Asymptote, Broad Street, and Tupelo Quarterly. His latest books include a bilingual edition of Sergio Loo’s Operación al Cuerpo Enfermo / Operation on a Malignant Body (The Operating System, 2019) and, with D. Gilson, Jesus Freak (Bloomsbury, 2018).