A Look at Some of the Scariest Mannequins in Horror
In the midst of my weekly movie watching frenzy, I couldn’t help but notice an underlying automaton theme: As sentient beings, we often tend to mistrust people who are quiet, stare blankly, or act differently from the norm. And mannequins, with their life-like features and perfectly smooth skin, are a prime representation of that mistrust. They may look human, but those vacant eyes and “something isn’t quite right” factor they exude suggests otherwise. Sure, dolls and puppets can be super creepy, evoking lingering childhood fears and a ton of killer doll movies – and ventriloquist dummies have been etched in our minds with movies like the 1945 anthology Dead of Night, 1978s Magic, and numerous, highly effective Twilight Zone episodes.
In the ’90s, the popular Goosebumps books from R.L. Stine helped keep the fear alive, introducing Slappy the dummy (who would go on to be the main villain in the 2015 film). Additionally, 2007s underrated Dead Silence was no slouch either, with the creepy puppet master himself, James Wan, ushering the dummy into the new millennium and instilling yet another fear into a new generation of horror viewers who were only used to the late ’90s post-Scream self-referential offerings or the torture porn sub-genre.
The official name for such a fear of these seemingly lifeless creations is Automatonophobia. By definition, this phobia is the irrational fear of any object that falsely imitates a living, conscious being, common examples include dolls, wax figures, statues, puppets, animatronics, mannequins and ventriloquist dummies. Sufferers may think that inanimate or robotic things, seem to move on their own are potentially dangerous.
I first learned about this being an actual phobia in 2007 shortly after the Doctor Who episode “Blink”, which features the Weeping Angels, who in their usual form, resemble silent human-sized stone statues of winged angels who inch closer to you when you aren’t looking. If you delve back into Doctor Who canon – both old and new incarnations – you’ll find episodes involving the Autons, who were robots that resembled plastic department store mannequins. Talk about nightmare fuel!
This leads us to what I consider to be the creepiest, and most underused, of the automaton family – mannequins! Mannequins have made appearances in the aforementioned Twilight Zone, numerous Italian Gialli films – such as Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace and Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Paola Cavara’s Black Belly of the Tarantula, and Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo – but it wasn’t until 1979 that mannequins really became front and center in a horror picture, with the Charles Band production, Tourist Trap.
Tourist Trap starts out innocently enough, with the ol’ “a group of young travelers getting stranded in the middle of nowhere” setup, a common trope to be sure, but in its early stages of use in 1979. One of them heads off alone off alone in search of help, stumbling across a seemingly deserted gas station, only to be violently assaulted by a handful of maniacally laughing mannequins and puppets, as objects in the room are hurled at him via telekinetic powers of an unknown killer. This set piece is pretty bonkers, and defiantly one of my favorite scenes in the movie. You can watch it HERE.
The rest of the group eventually run into the charming, yet slightly off, Mr. Slausen (portrayed by the wholesome Chuck Connors, who really steals the show, going all out for his performance) who brings the gang back to his roadside museum filled with wax mannequins and other tourist trap pleasures, “Slausen’s Lost Oasis”, so they can wait while he heads back to his home to get tools to fix their car. Beyond the museum is what appears to be a deserted mansion, and old man Slausen warns the remaining tourists not to venture toward that area, little do they know, Slausen’s mask wearing brother, Davey, is lurking about, and begins stalking them with one goal in mind, to turn them into mannequins.
This 1979 movie does borrow from others before it – namely Halloween, with a dash of Carrie, and some heavy Psychomeets The Texas Chain Saw Massacre vibes. It all works though, as the different genre puzzle pieces come together to form a unique little offering. The mannequins used in Tourist Trap are effectively creepy, especially when their jaws open, and the siren-esque howls lure in unsuspecting victims. Tourist Trap is an effective genre offering, not in the same league as the previously mentioned films that influenced it, but I totally understand the home video cult following it developed in the 1980’s, and the all out bonkers performance by family western star Chuck Connors is worth the price of admission.
Bill Lustig’s 1980 slasher classic Maniac is probably the most well known of the three movies mentioned. It was given an X-rating upon release for extreme violence and gore and it’s a dirty little flick. The movie tells the story of mannequin obsessed psycho killer Frank Zito, and the sleazy essence of ’80s New York, in all of of its filth-infested glory. Frank is played by the legendary Joe Spinell (who also co0wrote the story and developed the character), who I could literally spend 10,000 words expressing how much love I have for him. I’ll spare you that, but if you are reading this and aren’t familiar with him, Joe Spinell had supporting roles in the first two Godfather films, the first two Rocky films, and Taxi Driver. Do yourself a favor and read up on this incredibly interesting, larger than life, gifted individual.
Maniac was Spinell’s first starring role, and he created a deeply disturbed portrait of a deranged man turned serial killer who, as a way of coping with the childhood abuse from his mother, savagely murders young women. After the kill, he scalps them and adds the freshly cut headpieces to his mannequin collection. Maniac’s mannequin finale is one of the genre’s most memorable, as is the second to none makeup and effects from the legendary Tom Savini, and Joe Spinell’s empathy inducing performance. I could never root for a character such as his, but I certainly couldn’t help but feel bad for Frank Zito. As far as I’m concerned, this gritty slice of New York sleaze is required viewing, and a must own for anyone’s collection. I also recommend the Alexandre Aja-penned remake that was released in 2012, starring Elijah Wood as Frank Zito, and a unique POV perspective. Rest In Peace, Joe Spinell. We miss you.
Our next entry is an overlooked gem. Pin was released straight-to-video in 1988, but don’t let that fool you: this movie is the real deal – an underrated psychological thrill ride that has been overlooked as the years have passed. Written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Sandor Stern, Pin is finely acted by a cast that includes David Hewlett, Cynthia Preston, and everyone’s favorite Stepfather, Terry O’Quinn.
The upper-class Linden family live in a strict household with an OCD, over sheltering mother (Bronwen Mantel) and strict, physician father (Terry O’Quinn). Their children, Leon and Ursula (David Hewlett and Cynthia Preston) live a sheltered life, and eventually, start to have questions about things of a sexual nature – or as they call it, “the need”. Doc Linden uses his ventriloquist skills to bring a medical display mannequin, named Pin (short for Pinocchio, ha!) to life, and has it answer the questions for the children, eventually using Pin as an all purpose teaching instructor.
We then jump forward, and Leon and Cynthia are now in the prime of their teen years,when their parents are killed in a car crash, which we the viewer aren’t quite sure if Pin was responsible. After the accident, Leon begins to display schizophrenic tendencies and assumes the role of Pin (or does he?), eventually using the mannequin to murder his “enemies” to lock down the presence of his sister in his life. Is Leon responsible for this, or is it Pin? The end results are wickedly shocking.
Pin is subtle, virtually bloodless, twisted, and focuses on the psychological tension that’s driven by dramatic performances, it’s a well-crafted flick that deserves a better fate than it’s been dealt. It had been years since I watched this one, and revisiting it late at night really creeped me out thanks to a great opening set piece that ranks high among the list of mannequin scares. It’s also the most overlooked and forgotten movie that I’ve written about so far. That’s a damn shame because Pin is just as eerily enjoyable as the other movies I’ve mentioned here. If you haven’t seen it, check it out!
My own experience with mannequins is freakishly amusing one. I used to work at a mall-based store, and after we’d close up for the night, that long walk through the darkened mall with nobody around would always feel a bit creepier. Especially as I walked past department store windows under the silent observation of those vacant eyed storefront mannequins, who I swore I thought saw move out of the corner of my eye. I don’t miss that job.