Twice a week, researchers wander up and down the Gulf Coast of Texas searching for endangered birds, sea turtles and marine mammals in an effort to understand the coastal ecosystem—and, in the process, they come across a lot of garbage that’s washed up on the beach.
But amongst the volleyballs, soles of high-heeled shoes and other random debris they find, one type of trash stands out: Creepy toy dolls.
Researchers at Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve have found dozens of dolls (and various doll body parts) while surveying a 40-mile stretch of the beach between Padre Island and Matagorda Island in southeastern Texas.
“There’s a lot of nightmares out there,” Jace Tunnell, the reserve’s director, tells McClatchy’s Mitchell Willetts.
And though it’s not clear why dolls, specifically, keep washing up on the beach, the unnerving discoveries help raise awareness about the ripple effects of littering. It’s an eerie illustration of one of the reserve’s important research findings: That Texas beaches get 10 times the amount of trash as those of other north-central states along the Gulf of Mexico.
Texas likely gets so much debris because of the loop current, a warm-water flow that travels up from the Caribbean and into the gulf, according to a two-year study the reserve conducted with other Gulf-Coast research organizations. The study found that the majority of washed-up debris was made of plastic and that the amount of garbage increased in the spring and summer.
Scientists have been finding dolls on the coast for years, but only recently started posting about them regularly on the reserve’s Facebook page. One of the first to attract a lot of online attention turned out to be the head of a sex doll. Tunnel tells McClatchy the reserve “got a lot of followers on the page after that.”
Some of the toys have no hair. Others have gooseneck barnacles growing out of their eyes and mouths. Turtles have taken bites out of others. Many are missing body parts.
It’s enough to make you shudder—and psychologists say a big reason why we find these and other dolls “creepy” is because they make us feel uncertain.
“You’re getting mixed messages,” Frank McAndrew, a social psychologist at Knox College, told Smithsonian’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.”
So many people are disturbed by the toys that there’s even a formal name for the fear of dolls: pediophobia, which falls under the umbrella category of fear of humanoid figures, known as automatonophobia.
And as unsettling as the mangled dolls in Texas are, the reserve has found a way to use them to help raise awareness—and a little cash—for its programming.
Staffers regularly post videos and photos to the reserve’s social media pages, pointing out how harmful the dolls and other debris can be to marine wildlife (trash can get wrapped around birds’ necks and turtles often mistake garbage for food). They also auction the toys to raise money for sea turtle and bird rehabilitation efforts.
So though the scientists feel a little jolt of terror every time they find a decapitated doll head staring back up at them from the sand, in the long run, the temporary discomfort is worth it to help protect the coastal ecosystem from even scarier threats, like pollution and rising sea levels.
“Next time you see something on the ground, pick it up and do your part for the environment,” Tunnell said in a February 2021 Facebook video. “ … you could be saving wildlife.”