Is there anything creepier than a ventriloquist's dummy? You can keep your spiders, snakes and all the other members of the extended family of phobias. Ventriloquists' dummies are the boys to give you nightmares every time.
The anxiety that they induce has been identified, according to the website, Changethatsrightnow.com, as automatonophobia, which is defined as "a persistent, abnormal, and unwarranted fear of ventriloquist's dummies, animatronic creatures or wax statues".
Having recognised the symptoms in myself, it was with mixed feelings that I heard the news that one of the most nightmarish figures of my childhood, Archie Andrews, was sold at auction in Taunton on Wednesday for £34,000.
Archie Andrews can lay claim to being Britain's first ventriloquist's dummy superstar. He had his own radio (yes, radio) show, Educating Archie, a television show and a variety of guest spots and live performances. In his heyday, the 1950s, Educating Archie netted 15 million listeners and boasted appearances by the likes of Tony Hancock, Max Bygraves, Harry Secombe, Beryl Reid and a pre-teen songthrush called Julie Andrews. He lent his name to several lines of merchandising from toys, dolls, games, soap and lollipops.
A mannequin invested with the personality of a wisecracking schoolboy, he put the willies up me something awful.
Archie Andrews and his operator, Peter Brough, who died in 1999, were throwbacks to another age. They came from an era of light entertainment that drew directly on music hall and vaudeville, when folk thought it highly amusing to see a grown man conversing with a wooden dummy. Such was the fascination for the ventriloquist's art that young boys were encouraged to purchase joke shop items that would assist in their endeavours to emulate their heroes. The small, semi-circular device was placed behind the teeth and after some practice it was claimed that you could throw your voice like a professional. In reality, what emerged was a sort of buzzing sound until you either lost it down the back of the sofa or swallowed it. Not surprisingly, they have not been available for some decades.
For the art of man and dummy, which did not emerge in its current form until the late 19th century, is dead now - in spite of some postmodern comics such as Harry Hill and the American David Strassman who keep the torch alive, and the ventriloquists (or "vents" as they're known in the business) still plying their trade. Not since Orville the Duck - a green monstrosity in a nappy operated by Keith Harris who appeared on television until 1990 - has a pairing enjoyed real celebrity. (Harris, incidentally, learnt his craft literally on his father's knee; he impersonated a living dummy while his dad "operated" him.)
But while their heyday has come and gone, the terror that they can instil lingers. From Magic to Dead of Night, through episodes of The Twilight Zone, Edgar Lustgarten Presents and Hammer House of Horror, the ventriloquist's dummy has been a recurring object of malign possession, of semi-demonic powers, bespeaking madness, paranoia and heart-stopping terror.
There are several reasons for the ongoing legacy of creepiness. We're not talking about a benign Pinocchio-like figure who metamorphoses into a real boy; we're talking about a shiny faced, approximately life-sized wooden doll, ghastly of aspect, which is invested with a wholly unnatural "life" through the medium of the ventriloquist. The dummy never looks anything other than what it is, a totemic miniature human, clearly lifeless, that nonetheless speaks and exudes a personality. And while the reality is that one is witnessing two voices from a single source, the illusion is that one is watching two personalities sparring with each other.
Add a third party and something odd happens; the vent virtually disappears. The invited guest or stooge will address all his remarks to the dummy, leaving the vent to evaporate. This peculiar relationship between dummy and handler, slave and master, is therefore psychologically complex in the extreme.
To be able to perfect the art of throwing one's voice is admirable, I daresay, and can afford much amusement when an apple pie or the family cat appears to talk. But there is the nagging suspicion that ventriloquists use dummies to express their darkest thoughts - to vent their wrath and exorcise their own psychological demons.
America's most celebrated vent, Edgar Bergen, took the care and consideration of his chief dummy, Charlie McCarthy, to bloodcurdling extremes. Having survived the death of vaudeville, Bergen refashioned Charlie - who had been modelled on an Irish newsboy - into a wisecracking socialite and hit the Chicago supper club circuit. On radio, Charlie sparred with Mae West, W C Fields and Orson Welles among others and became a star in his own in right.
Bergen's daughter, the actress Candice Bergen, revealed in her autobiography, Knock Wood, that she was brought up as the dummy's kid sister: "For me as a child Charlie McCarthy had semi human status. He wasn't flesh and blood and he wasn't a doll, either. But he was a sacred calf. He brought home the bacon."
She also recalls Charlie's room in their Beverly Hills home, with its bed, wardrobe filled with monogrammed clothes, desk, West Point cadet's hat, feathered Indian headdress and pin-up of Dorothy Lamour. Most creepy of all, she recollects sitting on her father's knee being encouraged to converse with the wooden brother perched opposite her.
Cinema has long realised the potential of the relationship between ventriloquist and dummy. In The Great Gabbo, Erich von Stroheim plays an egotistical vent whose only conduit for romancing the woman who loves him is his dummy, Otto. In a reverse of the norm, the dummy represents the more human side of the partnership, while the cruel and sadistic master becomes increasingly detached from reality.
Richard Attenborough's film Magic, on the other hand, occupies more familiar territory, with Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist whose dummy apparently takes on a mind of its own following his vent's failure to capitalise fully on their partnership.
Best of the lot is the "Ventriloquist's Dummy" episode, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, in Dead of Night, the 1945 portmanteau that some regard as Britain's greatest horror film. Certainly, the tale of Michael Redgrave's ventriloquist being sweatily possessed by the spirit of his malevolent dummy, Hugo, is played with utter conviction and the penultimate sequence as the dummy steps off a bed, unaided, and walks towards him has all the elements of a fever dream.
So what is it about these man/child mannequins that creates such fear and creepiness? First, there is their appearance: the mad, swivelling, psychotic eyes beneath arched eyebrows and that crude parody of a mouth (with painted teeth) that opens and shuts with a click that's rather too close to the sound of a trap for comfort.
While ventriloquism flourished in the early 19th century, the use of dolls or dummies to accompany the acts was peripheral. John A Hodgson suggests in his essay, An Other Voice: Ventriloquism in the Romantic Period, that the great Scottish ventriloquist brothers, James and John Rannie, who toured America from 1801 to 1809, may have used small, child-like dolls as an adjunct to their act. Eyewitness accounts refer to a doll called "Tom" or "Tommy" employed by James Rannie: "When it came to the performance of what he calls Ventriloquism, the man came with his infant, which he calls Tom, and made appearantly [sic] Tom speak by asking Questions, and Tom answered."
As most ventriloquists at the time were more concerned with promoting their own extraordinary powers, they did not give too much publicity to their wooden collaborators. It is clear though that the ventriloquist's dummy evolved from a simple wooden doll, occasionally with a hinged mouthpiece. As they became more popular, they were forced to grow in size so that they could be better seen by audience. And thus the diabolical dummy emerged.
Further evidence comes from woodcuts advertising Rannie's act, some of which provide the first widely disseminated illustrations of these dolls. Tommy is depicted as a "stiff, articulated figure, man-like but child-sized, wearing a ruff and elaborately plumed broad-brimmed (or possibly tricorn) hat, standing balanced on one leg on the ventriloquist's flat, outstretched palm."
It is these floppily articulated limbs that lend them the aspect of death. When at rest, unlike dolls, their eyes remain open, their mouths fixed in a rictus grimace. Moreover, with their rouged cheeks, lurid red lips and unnatural eyelashes, all ventriloquist's dummies look like the badly embalmed corpses of small boys. Not, in any way, conducive to untroubled dreams.
Worst of all, perhaps, is the voice. The high-pitched squawk that emerges is one of the least pleasant sounds made by a human being. Even the relatively benign Lord Charles's drunken slur is creepily offensive. Once you've witnessed a dummy and his vent in action, the abiding fear is that, in the absence of the operator, the dummy will start talking of its own volition.
Although automatonophobia makes no distinction between ventriloquists' dummies, waxwork figures and automata there is something singularly insidious about the Archie Andrews of this world. I don't recall having nightmares "peopled" by animal characters like Rag, Tag and Bobtail or string puppets like Tex Tucker. But a clinical psychologist I spoke to admitted he'd encountered people who had anxiety problems over the Thunderbird puppets because of their lifelike appearance.
My contention is that it's precisely the fact that they are not lifelike that gives the dummies their power to terrify. As Candice Bergen said, they are neither flesh and blood nor dolls; they are something "other". It is this "otherness" that defines the nature of their potency. They are grotesque caricatures of small boys; Homo homunculus, a scaled-down simulacrum of human that talks but cannot walk. And, invariably, they play Mr Hyde while the ventriloquist remains a tight-lipped, grimly smiling Dr Jekyll.
Thus the schoolboy Archie Andrews addressed his handler, Peter Brough, with the dismissive "Brough". Lord Charles would give Ray Alan a quizzically sozzled leer and slur: "Silly ass." And Strassman's venomous Chuck would actually spit at the audience or his handler. That there is an element of masochism here is undeniable.
The creepiness of the dummies is almost matched by the weirdness of the people who operate them. Bergen's account of her father's antics is, one gathers, relatively restrained. According to Jonathan Rée in his essay Tummy-Talkers, Brough acknowledged "that 'the habit of talking to oneself for a living' was decidedly odd if not insane; but that did not stop him taking his puppet with him on family holidays or using it to spice up romantic weekends with his wife". Of all sexual deviations, a ménage à trois featuring a ventriloquist's dummy must be the least enticing.
It is thought that ventriloquists, like taxidermists, tend not to be normal people. Shari Lewis, the magician, vent and children's entertainer who immortalised an old sock as her puppet Lambchop, was, by all accounts, one of the sweetest people you could meet. But therein lies the difference. Her dummy is not pathologically inclined mini-person, it is a soft toy by any other name. The classic ventriloquist's dummy is neither soft nor benign. And the refined art of the ventriloquist sits uneasily with the crude physical apparatus of his craft, pushing the matter further into the realm of the surreal.
The sight of a man with a young boy sitting on his knee while the adult's concealed hand ferrets around inside him adds a unwelcome dimension. As if the damn things weren't creepy enough we must now, it appears, acknowledge the element of incipient paedophilia.
The family of the late Peter Brough claim that their sale (or, if you will, "re-fostering") of Archie Andrews was to ensure his proper preservation in the hands of a caring collector. "We thought we'd give him a chance to go to someone who will love him and look after him like we have," said Brough's daughter, Sarah Domellof. Fine sentiments, indeed. If it had been me, I'd have just wanted to get the creep out of the house.Reuse content