When Barker Davis wanders into Hollow Hills one day, blood-soaked from head to toe, the town immediately blames the deranged toymaker living in the woods nearby. But arresting the toymaker leads to more questions than answers and the bloodbath is just beginning. Now, it’s up to Sinclair Redman to figure out what’s really causing the carnage before bodies pile too much higher.
When I first wrote String Them Up it was early 2022 and Murder Puppets weren’t really a big deal on the market. Billy, from Saw, seemed to be sidelined after Spiral. Annabelle was three movies deep, but seemed to be losing steam despite Annabelle Comes Home being surprisingly fun. Puppetmaster got a spinoff that nobody paid attention to. Really, only Chucky seemed to be getting much mileage through his TV Series and/or movie which was confusing. String Them Up got picked up by Crystal Lake Publishing (hooray!) and then scheduled for a release that was a year and a half out.
During that year and a half, suddenly, puppets hit the main stage again. Rachel Harrison’s Bad Dolls and Grady Hendrix’s How To Sell A Haunted House popped off. Megan (excuse me, M3gan) came to theaters. Hell, even gaming got in on the pint sized terrors with House Beneviendo DESTROYING ME in Resident Evil 8 and My Friendly Neighborhood rearing their twisted little heads. The floodgates opened all at once and it took me a while to understand why. But through revising and editing String Them Up, and embracing this new wave of glass-eyed murder dolls, I think I’ve learned Five Things Writing STRING THEM UP about why puppets are so damn scary…
Puppets can be scary because of the uncanny valley
I think the main reason that puppets freak people the hell out, is because it’s so easy to mistake something that’s so OBVIOUSLY not human for a human. Which sounds contradictory, but you know what I mean. It’s like AI “art,” right? At first glance, you might recognize what’s really happening. The painting of the spooky lady in the black dress looks good and spooky and you want to give props to the artist for evoking such a uniquely gothic mood. But then you see the fingers and they’re all jacked to hell. And then you see the way the foreground and the background all blend together because a computer couldn’t decide when a dress should stop and a shadow should begin. It’s frustrating. You feel duped. How stupid must you have been for ever thinking, even at a glance, that these ‘paint’ splashes made sense.
I think puppets parade around on the same chaos wagon.
When you see that mannequin anywhere other than a store window, you’re bound for an “Oh, hi Mark,” moment until you notice the blank, dead eyes. Looking directly at these things is so unnerving because they fooled you to start with. It makes you question your sanity in the most discomforting of ways. How could you have mistook a doll on the couch for a real child? Are you stupid? Or did your peripheral vision give you a glimpse through some veil that your regular senses aren’t attuned for? We can’t trust these damn things.
Then, add to this confusion the fact that, in our horror stories, the dolls start to move. When Pupkin attacks in How To Sell A Haunted House, it lends credence to a concept that’s always itched at the backs of our minds. We realize suddenly that those little looks that we originally dismissed, those little “mistakes” of perception, were actually the reality and now we can’t trust anything anymore.
Puppets can be scary because they are everywhere.
It’s the classic shot. The antagonist toy sitting in a pile of other stuffed animals, dolls, or what-have-yous. The main character walks past, unassuming. The demon doll’s head turns. Shit’s about to go down.
It’s a classic for a reason.
The dolls in our houses are so omnipresent and so innocent that we never pay them mind. Even when you KNOW that Chucky is out to get you, it’s so easy to just blow off the cute, fluffy, wooly, plastic comfort objects. It’s Toys R Us Camo for our antagonist. You go toy blind.
And what makes it worse is, if you have kids, then you know that there’s NO WAY to keep track of which toys are supposed to be where. You get used to the idea of them moving “on their own,” because your kids are constantly ping-ponging from room to room with them in tow and there’s no way to track your targets. There’s not even a way to tell the intruders from the regular toys. My kids have so many toys things scattered around the house from birthday parties and ‘borrowed from’ friends and grandparents and trips to the grocery store with mom that if a new, potentially violent, little friend makes its way into our house there’s going to be no way for me to know. Not until it’s too late, at least.
Puppets can be scary because life in plastic, it’s fantastic
How do you kill a toy? Do you take out its batteries?
If it’s electronic.
But how many times has THAT worked against Chucky, huh?
Something eerie about puppets and dolls and the whole ‘animated play thing’ trope is just the dark second-act-realization that our characters have that they don’t know how to kill what’s already supposed to be inanimate. Evilized dolls inherently come along with a mystery of what evilized them. If it was a programming error (looking at you, M3GAN) then maybe you can destroy their processing chip. If they’re playing host to a demon, then maybe you resort to your run of the mill catholic cleansing ritual (bathtime, Annabelle). But until the characters deduce what’s making these little monsters tick, that unknowing and resulting inability to battle back can be a blissful well of terror to draw from.
Puppets can be scary because of projection
You know when you were a kid and you used to play with dolls, puppets, action figures, whatever? And you subconsciously projected a lot of your own interests, fears, and insecurities into those toys? Barbie is mad at Ken because Ken won’t let her have ice cream for breakfast? Mmhmm. Sounds familiar. It can be cute. Barbie is mad at Ken because somebody keeps hitting her on the playground and the teacher isn’t doing anything about it? Well, hold on, then… Down this dark spiral we go. Something that I think is under-utilized by the evil puppets in mainstream horror is the role of the puppet master. How the person playing with the dolls can reveal bits of themselves that even they themselves don’t want to address fully. Would my kid tell me he was having problems at school? Hopefully. But would Ken tell Barbie about it? Absolutely. Take the ownership away from it and things can be easier to talk about.
But let’s play this out in its most sadistic form. Let’s throw it back to an episode of Heroes from…what? 2008? There was a puppet master villain there. He kidnapped Hayden Panettierre and her mom. He controlled their limbs. He made their bodies do whatever he wanted, and what he wanted was gross. Predatory. They kept him mostly reigned in, because the show aimed for a PG-13 rating, but there’s clearly a darkness here that can be acknowledged, and I bet your imaginations are racing to the worst possible places right now. I know mine was.
So then when I was writing String Them Up I tried to find ways to marry all of this together. I wanted to get an absolute psychopath pulling the strings. I wanted the worst person possible channeling all their frustrations and worst thoughts into some creepy little vehicles for destruction. I think I managed it.
Puppets are FUN
And then here’s my last idea for why puppets are seeing the spotlight all of a sudden again. Ignoring all the pseudo-psychology that I’ve been rambling about. Ignoring how maybe an evil puppet master pulling the strings of mindless cronies might parallel some Cheeto-tinged socio-political happenings in our real world. PUPPETS ARE FUN.
There’s something entertainingly absurdist about watching Chucky’s tiny stumpy legs fluttering as he chases a victim down a hallway. It’s so ridiculous that you have to smile. Poltergeist Clown’s face is nightmare fuel, but tee-hee, those arms are so stretchy! My last, and probably biggest revelation while writing String Them Up was that this comedy could be, and needed to be, embraced. Horror doesn’t need to be doom and gloom for all two hour, two hundred pages, or twelve episodes. A little bit of levity in the right places, like with puppets, can go a long way towards making a story entertaining and memorable. So again, I tried to reflect that in String Them Up. I kept a lot of scenes that will, hopefully, keep you up at night. But I also embraced the nonsensical aspects of my subject matter. I love the way that the story turned out, with all of this thrown in a blender and pureed together like that one scene in Small Soldiers, and I hope you have some fun with the story too.
William Sterling is an independent author and host of the Killer Mediums podcast. His books tend to play in the realms of “popcorn flick horror” with high body counts and a soft spot for unexpected endings.
String Me Up: Amazon