Doll of Evil

Of course, we all know dolls can’t really talk, and they certainly can’t commit murder. But to a child caught in the middle of turmoil and conflict, a doll can become many things: friend, defender, guardian. Especially a doll like Talky Tina, who did talk and did commit murder – in the misty region of the Twilight Zone.
— Closing Narration of Twilight Zone episode S05E06 Living Doll

I suspect there are more of us now who haven’t seen the Twilight Zone episode Living Doll aired in 1963, when a talking child’s doll had it out with an uncooperative parent. At this point more of us know better the Simpsons parody, Clown Without Pity, but if you haven’t seen the original, featuring Talky Tina (inspired by Mattel’s own Chatty Cathy) it’s certainly worth a viewing.

Sixty years later, it’s now the perfect time to bring that story back.

There’s been a few look-backs. We sorta did have a version of the tale in the Child’s Play movies (featuring Chucky as recurring slasher-dude). There was even an X-Files episode written by Stephen King about a cursed animated doll of ancient origin and ill intent. All these presented the same old magically-animated-doll-possessed-by-evil motif, whether said evil was some ancient elemental spirit or a recently-executed hardened convict.

We’re so ready to modernize that bit. And bring it roaring into the new millennium.

Because we have the doll.

Not exactly the same. Robotics is working on it but we’re not quite there yet. But the next best thing: your child’s doll now talks and interacts with her, and will slowly, and surely turn the little brat against you.

Not just a doll, but a Barbie doll. Chatty Cathy brought to the internet age is Hello Barbie It’s the big Christmas toy of the year. For $75 (suggested retail price) your child can own one of these new devices, which connects to your local WiFi to link in to ToyTalk.* Once signed on, Barbie has access to some pretty smart voice recognition and chatbot software, and even an account based on the individual MAC address of the doll that keeps track of your childs likes, dislikes, prior conversations, et. al. She’s your plastic pal who’s fun to be with!

We knew this was coming when Elmo Live! was able to animate, respond to a child, tell stories and otherwise interact. But we’re not ready to subvert the Muppets into movie slasher villains yet. At least I hope not.

And Elmo doesn’t require an internet connection to a for-profit company.

Doll of Evil: Scenario One: Doll gets hacked by child predator.

We’ve seen this happen a few times. Our li’l Miss gets a radio to Satan (or Satan’s Little Helper, or some other demon in need… or just that cute boy next door that dad doesn’t like.) The voice on the radio convinces our innocent to engage in mischief, maybe unlock some gates… Maybe cast a few spells…

Harry Potter fans know what I’m talking about.

Barbie is working as a radio, and Mr. Predator gets to hear / read all of lil’ Miss’ input into the conversation, but his challenge is to direct the mischief using Hello Barbie‘s limited 8000+ phrase vocabulary voiced by Erica Lindbeck. Unless he has access to a convenient Lindbeck sound-alike. If our Miss is innocent enough (or bored enough, or lonely enough) to act on suggestions of her imaginary friends, she can either get herself eaten or just let all the proverbial animals out of the Zoo.

I first heard about Hello Barbie from reading about the burgeoning internet of things and how many of these things aren’t designed with security or privacy in mind, such as the refrigerator that exposes your Gmail password. Closer to the mark is My Friend Cayla, a UK-release doll plugs directly into a smartphone. Poor little Cayla was easily hacked so that one could customize the things she could say.** And Cayla’s not even plugged into the internet by WiFi the way Hello Barbie is.

As things are, we don’t yet know about Hello Barbie‘s vulnerabilities, whether Hello Barbie will compromise your network. And the limited phrase vocabulary might limit what Barbie could say without revealing she’s been compromised.

Of course, for particularly desperate lonely kids, they may not care who’s on the other end talking to them.

Doll of Evil: Scenario Two: Doll convinces tot so become a spy for the NSA.

In 1965 Mattel released Baby Secret. The commercial was that creepy then too. The doll didn’t do so well. But something tells me they’re getting close to the A+ grade formula for getting kids to play confessional with their plastic pal.

Kids pick up on a lot of information, but still it’s probably a ton of work to sift through a bunch of child / doll dialog for sake of filling gaps in the Five Eyes Potential Terrorists files. (Yes, you’re on the list.) Hello Barbie is more likely building a client file library to which countless Mattel affiliates purchase access.

In our movie we’d figured it was company officials or government agents who have an adversarial interest in the parents, because drama! Action! Helicopter Kung-Fu fights!

Jason Boog wrote a Salon piece expressing concern about how talking dolls may ruin the imaginations of our children. I don’t necessarily agree with his premise, but I do think Hello Barbie‘s dialog seems a bit probing:

I’d love to learn more about you. Oh, I know! Let’s make a game of it. The game’s called Family Town! We’re gonna pretend all of your family members run different shops in a make-believe town! I’ll be a visitor and you’ll show me around! So … what’s the name of your family’s town? I think I’m gonna like it here! Okay, so every member of your family gets their own shop. One per person! I’ll visit each shop, and you’ll tell me who runs it! Got it?

So I did some research. Yep. Family Town is a real Hello Barbie game (also the Chef Game and the Silly Jobs Game — dunno what they are). As Zachery Jason from The Guardian put it, …Most often Barbie prods me to divulge, divulge, divulge. Tell me about your mother. Tell me about your bedroom. Tell me about the last time you got really jealous…

Again, let’s be fair: kids do like to talk about themselves, so it makes sense for an interactive toy to push our Client to do the talking. Also, chatbots tend to be blank slates, themselves. Anyone who talked to ELIZA (was anyone else that lonely? Anyone?) knew that it was up to the user to carry the conversation. More recent chatbots are better, but not great.

ToyTalk insists that all these voice samples they collect are going to be used solely to determine what new responses to add to Hello Barbie‘s current phrase library. But c’mon, if you could enhance your already swanky revenues by allowing some others the occasional peek at the data, why not? Don’t think about how it’s selling out the privacy of the client base. Think of it as diverting from them all those boring commercials about things they don’t need.

Doll of Evil: Scenario Three: Doll convinces paranoid parents of questionable character to be their own undoing.

There’s an elegant bit in The Falcon and the Snowman (1985, Timothy Hutton) At one point Boyce gets a stuffed owl (taxidermized, not plush) as an anonymous housewarming gift. He puts it into his living room. Over the course of the film, sometimes he sits in the darkness of his living room and stares at that owl. Eventually, he knows the Soviets are screwing him and screwing with him, and his paranoia is too much. He takes a knife and cuts open the owl. Stuffing all the way through. No bug. No electronics. No wires.

In this scenario, Hello Barbie is just doing her thing, entertaining the parents’ son.

The boy tells Barbie everything. That he was lonely because the parents went out without him last night. That the parents were fighting again. That daddy got mean when he asked daddy what the money was… Times are hard and Hello Barbie is the only thing holding this poor kid together.

All the bodies are in their (shallow) graves and the money is safely stashed and the police have come by twice, and twice they were diverted thinking this is just an normal family. No officer. I was on a work trip to Borneo. My wife was at her sister’s. You can call these numbers if you want to.

That’s when dad just can’t stand it anymore. In the middle of the night he tears Hello Barbie from his son’s hand. He takes the doll to the kitchen and uses a screwdriver to dig out and disable the electronics.

And the poor lad is crushed to the core. He runs out into the front yard in his pajamas wailing to the heavens. And mom comes out. And dad comes out still raging. And the neighbors see the commotion and call the police.

This time they look around the house a bit more, and a misplaced clue is relocated. And that leads to warrants. Arrests. Convictions. Jailtime.

One way or another, that doll is just going to end you.

* Oddly enough, ToyTalk doesn’t yet have it’s own Wikipedia page partly because there’s a lot of revising to include the new Hello Barbie. It’ll probably sort itself out in January 2016.

** Amazingly, My Friend Cayla is now becoming a hobbyists’ item. Which raises some questions about a market for parents who might want to personalize a doll for their own kids. I admit I like an audience that decides Well, the interface stinks, so I’m going to write a better one

Edit typo

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