Bisque doll

How American Horror Stories Subverts Horror’s Creepy Doll and Clown Cliché

The following contains spoilers for American Horror Stories Season 2, Episode 1, “Dollhouse,” available now on Hulu.

Few genres are more susceptible to cliché than horror. For every terrifying classic, there are a thousand cheap knockoffs happy to dress up the same basic monster in new clothes. Producers interested in a quick win can usually get one by mimicking the gimmicks of previous hits, and since they don’t need to produce more than a few decent jumps, they usually do well. As a result, stereotypes tend to stand out all the more.

american horror story thrives in part because it understands these clichés and knows how to overturn them. Fans who think they know exactly what’s next may be surprised in a number of ways, as the show first announces its influences and then looks for ways to undermine them. The inaugural season, for example, was rewarded with overturning typical stereotypes about ghosts and haunted houses, while Season 9, “1984,” had a lot of fun shaking up summer camp slasher clichés. The new episode of American Horror Stories also finds a surprisingly subtle way to undo two of the classic archetypes.

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Season 2, Episode 1, “Dollhouse” openly goes for the easy scary doll dunk, then throws in a spooky clown twist on top for good measure. Both are quick ways to throw an audience off balance, so horror purveyors big and small keep coming back to them. Then, having established the appropriate expectations, the episode upends them by making its clown/doll amalgam the protagonist.

Clowns traditionally operate outside of established social structures and their extravagant appearances invariably carry disturbing connotations. Stephen King used the notion to the fullest with Pennywise from Thisbut the trend has also produced DC’s Joker and twisted metal Sweet tooth among others.

Similarly, the dolls can easily take a right turn in the Uncanny Valley, producing characters like the Child’s play movies and annabelle series. Both are prolific enough to produce more than their share of low-rent counterfeits, and american horror story never shied away from performing with both, most notably with Twisty the Clown in Season 4, “Freak Show.”

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“Dollhouse” dives right into its premise, with a promotional poster showing the eyes of its horrified victims trapped behind porcelain faces. Her villain – a doll maker who murdered his wife in a jealous rage – abducts young women and locks them in a life-size dollhouse. They are forced to dress and behave like living toys, only to be eliminated one by one in a series of tests designed to find the final “perfect” subject. The winner of the macabre contest is then sealed in plastic to become a permanent living doll.

However, with all of this, her brave heroine, Coby, finds part of her redemption by dressing up as a clown doll. The character differs markedly from the other women – dressed as servants, wives and other patriarchal roles – and attracts the attention of their captor’s son, Otis, for whom she performs magic tricks. In the process, his clown outfit and mask become a symbol of hope and defiance rather than fear. Otis’ sympathies for her and Coby’s quick thinking allow her to survive her ordeal, though she ultimately needs to be rescued by The Witches’ Coven in order to escape for good.

“Dollhouse” emulates feminist horror stories like The Women of Stepford, giving its unsettling imagery of human dolls a solid thematic foundation while playing with two common horror characters. Good or bad, American Horror Stories never just lets those clichés rest, and in Coby’s choice, it finds a way to undo two of the genre’s most exhausted vigils in a new way. It’s not the franchise’s most spectacular trick, but it works surprisingly well: helping the new season get off to a good start.

New episodes of American Horror Stories air every Thursday on Hulu.