“Hi, I’m Chucky. Want to play?”
Iconic lines like these will forever be in the zeitgeist due to one of the most popular horror film subgenres: killer dolls. There’s something eerie about how a seemingly innocent toy, meant to bring children happiness, can bring their worst fears to life.
With the wide release of M3GAN (2023), rated PG-13, we see the trope modernized with an AI doll in this hilariously campy sci-fi horror. Set in present-day Seattle, 8-year-old Cady moves in with her aunt Gemma after losing her parents in a car crash. Gemma, a roboticist at a toy company, gives M3GAN (Model 3 Generative Android) to Cady as an experimental companion, despite not being finished with her design or parental controls. Naturally, chaos ensues.
The movie does more than make the trope relevant for Gen Z, however. It also raises awareness of issues young people experience that often go unheard. M3GAN, along with Annabelle: Creation (2017) and Child’s Play (1988), both rated R, shed light on two in particular.
Cady is sent to live with her aunt Gemma, but her paternal grandparents in Florida also offer to take her in. A major conflict is that Gemma must prove that she’s a fit caregiver and that her home is a safe environment, none of which Cady is aware of as she navigates her grief.
A similar dynamic plays out in Annabelle: Creation. After their orphanage closes down, Janice and Linda are among six girls taken by a nun named Sister Charlotte to stay with the Mullins, dollmakers who lost their daughter. Set in 1955 California, the film shows Janice slowly lured by the demon Valak to awaken a possessed porcelain doll.
In Child’s Play, 6-year-old Andy wants a Good Guy doll for his birthday, and his widowed mother Karen unwittingly buys the doll possessed by serial killer Charles Lee Ray in 1980s Chicago.
None of these children have control over who their parents or legal guardians are, or the safety of their living situations. It’s not uncommon to hear teens and tweens wish for different parents in a fit of angst, but they have little say in more serious decisions. When the court is involved in children’s custody cases, there is no nationwide mandate that the final ruling must consider the wishes of the child. In the states in which consideration is required, the child must be at least 11 years old, but more often 12 or even 14 years old. In certain child welfare cases, the court may appoint a lawyer or other trained representative to speak for the child during the proceedings.
In all three of these films, while the dolls are seemingly at the center of the conflict, the issue of guardianship is at play in the background. They speak to the dangers of not listening to or honoring children’s wishes when it comes to who is fit to care for them.
MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES
Cady is assigned a therapist named Linda, who observes her play sessions with M3GAN and home interactions with Gemma. Linda raises concerns that Cady could be building an unhealthy attachment to the doll when she should be bonding with Gemma and learning to manage her emotions. On the other hand, in Annabelle, Janice tells Sister Charlotte that she feels an evil presence in the Mullins’ home, only to be told she should consider how her actions could affect the other girls. After a series of murders in Child’s Play, Andy is taken to a psychiatric hospital in which the doctors don’t believe his claims that Chucky is the killer and coming for him next.
Cady is resistant to the therapist’s involvement in her life, but Janice and Andy both voice that they’re in harm’s way to the adults around them. Unfortunately, the latter are written off. This mirrors issues that children have regarding access to and agency in mental health services.
According to Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a non-partisan health policy analysis organization, in the 2021-2022 school year, only 34% of schools provided outreach services such as mental health screenings, while only 17% offered telehealth services. They also found that while 96% of public schools reported offering mental health services of any kind, they faced challenges ensuring that students actually used them. Accessibility issues can make it hard for anyone to access mental health help, and the outcomes can be even worse for those in rural areas or low-income households that go underserved.
The films speak to the importance of children having access to mental health services when they are going through a traumatic experience–and good quality services, at that. We can only imagine the problems that could have been avoided if a trained professional had listened to the fictional characters in these movies–even though it wouldn’t have made for as exciting a plotline.
Gen Z has had a front row seat to the increased awareness of mental health issues and violence. When it is a question of their sense of safety and well-being, it is imperative that we allow them to voice their concerns and propose solutions.
Here’s hoping that in 2023 we listen to young people more about the issues that matter to them. We should believe and support them when they say they need help. It could change our society for the better, or at least protect us all from evil dolls.