Vote, if you dare: A Minnesota museum is once again running a contest to determine which of its vintage dolls is the creepiest.
Every year, staffers at the History Center of Olmsted County in Rochester, Minnesota, sift through the museum’s collection to pull out a selection of truly terrifying dolls. Then, they share photos of the dolls and encourage members of the public to vote for the one they find the eeriest.
This year’s theme is “Murder at the Masquerade.” In honor of the contest’s fifth anniversary, staffers decided to try something new: They turned the annual event into an interactive murder mystery.
The story goes like this: Blair Hanscom, the creepy doll who won last year’s contest, invited five of her friends to a masquerade ball at Rochester’s Chateau Theater. All of the invited dolls showed up wearing masks they’d found in the history center’s collection. (The museum even held a real, in-person masquerade event for humans earlier this month—on Friday the 13th.) At the ball, Hanscorn was found dead “under mysterious circumstances,” per the museum’s website.
So, in addition to casting their vote for this year's creepiest doll, the museum is asking members of the public to sniff out the guilty doll’s identity, as well as determine the motive and murder weapon.
Doll sleuths participating remotely have been analyzing clues and scenes from the whodunnit posted on social media. And for in-person visitors, museum staffers set up a special exhibition depicting the “crime scene,” complete with clues and artifacts.
The five suspects are Estella Congreve, a porcelain and leather doll with glass eyes of unknown origin; Dr. Martin Dolor, a doctor doll made in Spain in the 1950s and ’60s; Charley Arquette, a battery-operated bartender doll made in Japan in the 1950s; Grandma Ada, a doll made of cloth padding and wire that can be posed in various ways; and Poppy, a leather and porcelain specimen with real human hair made in Germany.
The creepy doll contest began in 2019, when the museum shared photos of some of its vintage dolls. The images went viral on social media, and the dolls took on a life of their own—pun intended.
Every autumn since, the museum has curated a new selection of unnerving figurines from its collection. The contest culminates on Halloween night, when staffers reveal which doll was crowned the creepiest—and, this year, which one was the murderer.
In total, the museum has 124 historic dolls dating to between 1825 and 1985, all of which have a direct connection to Olmsted County, Minnesota, where the museum is located. The contest’s popularity has helped the museum grow its collection, as locals have started donating their own dolls to the cause.
Why are dolls so frightening? Experts have differing opinions, but one theory is that their eeriness is rooted in uncertainty. We don’t generally consider dolls a true threat—but sometimes, our brains aren’t quite sure.
“You’re getting mixed messages,” said Frank McAndrew, a psychologist at Knox College, to Smithsonian magazine’s Linda Rodriguez McRobbie in 2015. “If something is clearly frightening, you scream, you run away. If something is disgusting, you know how to act. But if something is creepy … it might be dangerous, but you’re not sure it is … there’s an ambivalence.”