The Child’s Play franchise is one of the best known long-running franchises in horror, with seven installments of the original franchise, the 2019 remake, and a forthcoming TV series that promises to continue the original storyline all helping to ingrain the red-haired killer doll Chucky into the public consciousness. Chucky’s creator, Don Mancini, has revealed that his inspiration for the idea of a killer doll movie included ’80s consumerist fads such as the Cabbage Patch Dolls and the My Buddy Doll, as well as the notorious Zuni doll segment from the 1975 movie Trilogy of Terror and the “Living Doll” episode of The Twilight Zone.
But all those scary plaything movies and shows owe a debt of influence to a long legacy of allegedly haunted dolls, a phenomenon which has inspired numerous films besides the Child’s Play series, such as The Boy and, of course, the Annabelle franchise. While haunted dolls are pretty numerous — arguably way too numerous depending on your opinion of freaky doll babies — the most famous doll of them all might just be the one simply known as Robert the doll, who has haunted Key West, Florida, for over a century. Read on to learn the secrets of this sailor-suited goblin and why people fear Robert the doll so much, but be careful what you say: He’s apparently petty, vindictive, and always listening.
The man behind the Robert doll
Robert the Doll was the property (or “friend,” depending how you look at it) of a different, more human Robert, Robert Eugene Otto. Otto gave the doll his own name, though he himself actually went by “Gene.” Otto was the youngest of three sons of an affluent Key West family, and he studied fine arts in Chicago, New York, and Paris, ultimately becoming a notable (and eccentric) painter and author. It was in Paris that he met his wife, Anne, a concert pianist, and the two lived in New York together for a while before moving back to Key West and, more specifically, to the home in which Otto had grown up and which he had since inherited. They would name the Colonial Queen Anne manor the Artist House, where they would live until the end of their days. Gene passed in 1974, and Anne followed two years later. The Artist House is a hotel these days, if you want an idea of how prominent a family the Ottos were.
In fact, visitors to the hotel have reported sighting an unsettling apparition strolling the turret room staircase. TV shows from the Discovery Channel and the Travel Channel have come out to the Artist House to see if they could lay eyes on the famous thing that haunts the Artist House. Nah, not a spooky doll. Rather a beautiful woman wearing a wedding dress, said to be the ghost of Anne Otto, patrolling her own home. Robert the doll, you see, is elsewhere.
Birth of a devil doll
Before you even learn about Robert’s reputation for being haunted, just his look may be enough to unsettle you. He’s got beady black eyes and a weird little monkey face covered with the scars of over a century of aging, and he wears a little sailor suit and holds a doll of his own, a little stuffed dog (or bear, maybe?) with bug eyes and a wide-open mouth. He’s just kind of a weird doll.
As it turns out, Robert is not just weird, but in fact unique. As Atlas Obscura explains, Robert was not a mass-produced item meant to be a toy for children everywhere. Instead, Robert was a one-of-a-kind item meant as part of a window display of clowns and jesters for the Steiff Company, the toy makers who made the original Teddy bear to celebrate Theodore Roosevelt. Built around the turn of the 20th century, Robert is 40 inches tall (human child size!) and stuffed with wood wool, also known as excelsior, made from wood shavings usually used for packaging. Although Robert would have originally been dressed and painted up like a jester (in case his current look isn’t enough to haunt your dreams), the sailor suit he has worn for over a century would have likely been one of Gene Otto’s own outfits, handed down to his impish new friend. Considering Gene gave the doll his own name and his own clothes, it almost makes you wonder if Gene didn’t send a little piece of his soul into the doll, too. You know, if you believe in that sort of thing.
Gene and Robert: A boy and his doll
Gene Otto and Robert the doll were inseparable for much of Otto’s life. According to Slate, Gene would carry Robert everywhere with him, and at night, Gene’s mother could hear him holding conversations with the doll, who spoke in his own voice. Though she originally assumed Gene was doing both voices, she would later come to question her assumption about this. Gene was never without Robert: The doll had his own chair at the dinner table and slept every night in Gene’s bed. Even weirder, Gene talked about Robert exclusively as if he were a living entity. Later, Gene built Robert his own room in the attic, complete with furniture and other, smaller toys meant for Robert, including the little dog (or bear? … lion?) that Robert can still be seen holding today.
One habit of Gene’s that a number of people have found quite concerning was his tendency to blame his own bad behavior on Robert. Gene was known for frequent tantrums, which he would say were Robert’s fault. Spills or overturned chairs would get blamed on the doll as well. At every turn, whenever chaos and disorder followed the young Gene throughout the Otto home, “Robert did it” would be the refrain.
Perhaps surprising no one, Anne Otto did not care for her weird husband’s even weirder friend, and so Robert found himself confined to the Artist House’s turret room when the couple moved into Gene’s family home. As it turns out, that wasn’t enough to stop his antics.
The terror or Robert the doll begins
The adult Gene Otto would often go up to the turret room to work during the day, as he found the light there preferable for painting. His good pal, Robert, exiled to that same room by Gene’s mean wife, would be his constant companion, propped up against the southwest window. As the stories go, however, schoolchildren walking past the Artist House would see Robert the doll moving from one window to another or even scowling at them through the glass. After Gene’s death, Anne made sure Robert was locked in a cedar chest in the attic.
Myrtle Reuter bought the house in the 1970s after Anne’s death and found herself Robert’s new handler. Visitors to the house claimed they would hear unexplained footsteps skittering across the attic room above them as well as disconcerting giggling. According to the Robert the doll homepage, a plumber working in the house’s attic once heard giggling and turned to discover that the doll had moved across the room on his own. Additionally, Robert was said to change facial expressions when he could overhear conversations, especially if they were about him or Gene. One visitor commented that Gene Otto must have been an old fool, only to see Robert’s face twist into an angry scowl. Reuter continued to bear the burden of being Robert’s companion even after moving out of the Artist House, only to discover that Robert would run room to room in her new house, too. Robert the doll would soon be finding a new home.
Robert the Doll: Origins
Where does a doll like Robert come from? How does a simple child’s toy end up causing mayhem and terror for those who disrespect him or his childhood friend? Well, officially — like, officially officially — Robert was a gift to Gene Otto from his grandfather on his fourth birthday in 1904. His grandfather bought it for him on a trip to Germany, presumably from the window display at the Steiff Company. But the legends surrounding Robert the doll are something else entirely.
The Artist House website says the doll was a gift to Gene from a young Bahamian girl, either as a gift or as retaliation for some wrong perpetrated by the Otto family. Slate relates the story that the doll was a gift from the family’s Bahamian maid. The added element of the Bahamas seems to exist to bring in the idea of voodoo, and indeed Florida Keys Treasures says Robert’s toys included small voodoo dolls that he would hold in his lap and throw across the room when angered.
The official Robert the doll page entertains the possibility of voodoo being at the heart of Robert’s antics, but seems to give more consideration to the idea that Gene imbued the doll with all sorts of potent emotional energy by constantly blaming the doll for everything negative in his life. Whatever the case — laden with a voodoo curse, filled with negative energy, or sharing a piece of his human friend’s soul — Robert’s activity has continued long after leaving the Artist House.
A new home for Robert the doll
After 20 years as Robert’s caretaker, Myrtle Reuter had apparently had enough of the doll’s antics and finally donated him to Fort East Martello Museum in Key West in 1994, where he has spent almost all of his time since. The choice of home was a fitting one, as Robert’s pal Gene Otto had designed the museum’s gallery. Robert was not initially put on display in the museum, but visitors soon showed great curiosity about the doll when they learned he was there. So Robert the doll was put in a glass case, sitting in a little chair and holding his toy lion. On the wall all around him are pinned up letters of apology from people who have come to visit him. (More on that later.)
According to the Robert the doll homepage, staff started noticing a “shift of energies” at the museum once Robert arrived. After Robert had been put out for display, visitors and museum employees noticed that cameras and electronic equipment would malfunction in the doll’s presence, with photos coming out smeared or out of focus, for example. Mishaps at the museum are often attributed to the doll, with the common refrain being the same as the one at the Ottos’ house: “Robert did it.”
Robert can be visited every day except Christmas at the museum, even at night after the other exhibits have closed, though he is temporarily moved to the Old Post Office and Custom House every October.
Cursed by Robert the doll
In addition to any mischief Robert might make by running about the museum or gumming up the works in electronic devices, the impish little doll is most famous for placing curses on visitors who disrespect him, specifically by taking his picture without permission. Past visitors to the museum have attributed any number of misfortunes to encounters with Robert, including “car accidents, broken bones, job loss, divorce” and many others. According to the curator of the museum, Robert receives one to three letters a day, and while some are fan letters, the vast majority are apologies from visitors who had disrespected Robert during their visit and subsequently suffered some catastrophe in their life.
The Robert homepage contains scans of a few letters sent to Robert, including one from a child who wants to be pen pals with Robert for some reason and somewhat disconcertingly asks if he has a girlfriend. Another is a desperate letter of apology for taking Robert’s picture without permission from someone who had subsequently received a speeding ticket and continuous car trouble. The best, though, is the kid who writes to cheer on Robert for destroying those who disrespect him. Many of the numerous letters of apology to Robert are pinned up to the walls around his display as a warning to visitors. Other pieces of Robert’s fan (?) mail ask Robert for advice or just to curse their enemies with eldritch doll power.
Perhaps needless to say, there is also a gift shop, where you can buy your own replica Robert doll, among other creepy things.
All the Robert the doll memes
Robert’s fans don’t restrict themselves to sending letters, be they letters of apology or marriage proposals or hex requests. He also receives email, as well as more … physical offerings. Fans apparently “discovered” that Robert has a sweet tooth, so it’s not uncommon for visitors to leave candy at Robert’s display. The museum even once received a box full of peppermints addressed to Robert with no return address. Other visitors will leave Robert gifts of money and even, ahem, marijuana cigarettes, which is ridiculous, because as everyone knows, haunted dolls vape.
All these tributes are tended to by Cori Convertito, the museum’s curator and Robert’s current caretaker. In addition to making sure the Florida humidity isn’t ruining Robert’s wood shaving-filled body and reading all his mail and sometimes answering it, Convertito also runs Robert’s social media accounts. Besides his official homepage, Robert also has a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account. Among the various horrors to be found on the haunted doll’s fan page are perhaps the scariest things of all: memes. Potentially the most nightmare-inducing one of all is the above image, in which Robert’s face was photoshopped onto that famous picture of Kim Kardashian spraying champagne onto her butt. This image was part of a social media campaign to get attention for the museum in order to win a grant, which they did, so, uh, good for the museum, but sometimes the ends don’t justify the horrifying, horrifying means.
Robert the doll is a star
While Robert has inspired no shortage of popular horror films about possessed, enchanted, or otherwise maleficent dolls, Robert himself has made something of an impact on popular culture all on his own. Notably, Robert left Florida for the first time when he was taken to Las Vegas to appear on Zak Bagans: Mystery Mansion on the Travel Channel in 2015. He later appeared on an episode of Ozzy and Jack’s World Detour, where the Osbourne boys visited Key West’s spookiest boy and bought one of the replicas available in the gift shop. Additionally, Robert’s life story was featured on both the podcast and TV versions of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore.
But perhaps most interesting, depending on your definition of “interesting,” is the Robert the Doll film franchise. Since 2015, writer/director Andrew Jones has produced a movie about Robert at the staggering rate of one film a year, starting with 2015’s Robert and continuing through The Curse of Robert the Doll in 2016, Robert and the Toymaker in 2017, The Revenge of Robert the Doll in 2018, and Robert Reborn in 2019. Apart from using the Ottos’ names in the first film, very little of Robert’s real story is preserved, as the setting is moved from 1904 Key West to 2015 Wales, and it features a doll that is somehow even uglier than the real Robert. The later films set Robert’s origins during World War II, decades after his actual manufacture, so one of the movies features a haunted doll killing a train full of Nazis. That part’s cool, at least.
Dolls for days
While Robert is among the most infamous haunted dolls in history, he is far from the only game in town. His fame at this point is far outstripped by Annabelle, the demon-possessed Raggedy Ann doll imprisoned by Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real paranormal investigators whose lives are the basis for the Conjuring franchise of films, which includes three movies focusing on Annabelle (so far). Those movies for the most part have very little to do with the reported Annabelle case, but they have overall been very good for the haunted doll brand.
One haunted doll that somewhat amazingly has not yet been made into a blockbuster horror jam is Charley, a truly terrifying boy that was found at the bottom of a trunk together with a yellowed copy of the Lord’s Prayer in a spooky old house in 1968. From there, Charley went on to torment the family who found him, like Robert moving from room to room and causing chaos, as well as speaking to the family’s youngest child in the middle of the night. For years now, Charley has made his home in a little curio shop outside Salem, Massachusetts, where it is said he can still be seen moving from time to time.
Of course, if quantity over quality is what you value when it comes to nightmare dolls, Mexico City’s Isla de las Muñecas is the place for you. This horrifying island full of hundreds of rotting dolls is a mind-bending tribute to a drowned girl who may or may not have existed. Anyway, pleasant dreams!
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