Having read Burn, Witch, Burn! by A Merritt I got curious about how old creepy doll stories were seeing as Burn was published in 1932.
The Smithsonian Magazine has an article about the history of creepy dolls in general:
Dolls inhabit this area of uncertainty largely because they look human but we know they are not. Our brains are designed to read faces for important information about intentions, emotions and potential threats; indeed, we’re so primed to see faces and respond to them that we see them everywhere, in streaked windows and smears of Marmite, toast and banana peels, a phenomenon under the catchall term “pareidolia” (try not to see the faces in this I See Faces Instagram feed). However much we know that a doll is (likely) not a threat, seeing a face that looks human but isn’t unsettles our most basic human instincts.
You can’t talk about creepy dolls without invoking the “uncanny valley”, the unsettling place where creepy dolls, like their robot cousins, and before them, the automatons, reside. The uncanny valley refers to the idea that human react favorably to humanoid figures until a point at which these figures become too human. At that point, the small differences between the human and the inhuman – maybe an awkward gait, an inability to use appropriate eye contact or speech patterns – become amplified to the point of discomfort, unease, disgust, and terror.
But before the 18th and 19th centuries, dolls weren’t real enough to be threatening. Only when they began to look too human, did dolls start to become creepy, uncanny, and psychology began investigating.
It’s also exactly the kind of thing easy to exploit in media. Some doll makers blame Hollywood films for the creepy doll stigma, and there’s no doubt that moviemakers have used dolls to great effect. But the doll was creepy well before Hollywood came calling. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as dolls became more realistic and as their brethren, the automata, performed more dexterous feats, artists and writers began exploring the horror of that almost immediately. The tales of German writer E.T.A Hoffman are widely seen as the beginning of the creepy automaton/doll genre; Jentsch and Freud used Hoffman’s “The Sandman,” as a case study in the uncanny. The story, published in 1816, involves a traumatized young man who discovers that the object of his affection is in fact a clever wind-up doll, the work of a sinister alchemist who may or may not have murdered the young man’s father; it drives him mad. The horror in this story turned on the deceptive attractiveness of the girl, rather than any innate murderousness in her; for the 19th century, creepy dolls stories tended to be about the malevolence of the maker than the doll itself.
I don’t normally like creepy doll stories, but Burn, Witch, Burn! is spectacular. Interesting given what the article posits that in the book the dolls are described as incredibly life like, “the most life-like doll imaginable.”