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31 October 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 11:07am

The rise of the creepy doll’s house

How did the doll’s house, a potent image in fiction and literature for centuries, finally saturate film and television?

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Spoiler warning for: The Miniaturist, Hereditary, Sharp Objects and Halloween.

In 2018, doll’s houses, miniatures and dioramas are appearing again and again in TV and film. As Vulture and Screencrush have both observed, the “handy miniature metaphors” are having a moment, appearing in everything from prestige TV series Sharp Objects to horror film Hereditary to recent halloween releases.

First came The Miniaturist, which aired in the UK on BBC One last Boxing Day. Inspired by the real story of Petronella Oortman (whose elaborate 17th century doll’s house is exhibited in Amsterdam to this day), it follows an 18-year-old Petronella (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is gifted a doll’s house by her new husband when she arrives for the first time in her marital home. Tiny pieces of furniture, dolls, and even miniature keys, mirroring the furniture and inhabitants of the larger house, begin to anonymously arrive for the doll’s house – each piece unlocking the secrets of the real home she has entered.

Then, in June, came Ari Aster’s horror film Hereditary, which follows miniaturist Annie (Toni Collette) as she deals with the death of her difficult and secretive mother. Annie makes tiny replicas of her own house, complete with uncanny models of herself, her children and her mother – but as the deadline for her new exhibition approaches, increasingly horrible and terrifying things begin to happen in and outside of her real family home.

Jean Marc-Vallée’s television thriller Sharp Objects began airing on HBO in July, following Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a journalist with a traumatic past who moves back in to her mother’s historical Southern mansion (complete with ivory floors) to cover the murder of two young girls in her hometown. As her mother obsesses over maintaining the aesthetic and moral precision of home, her little sister, Amma, compulsively plays with her doll’s house: a perfect replica of the mansion. In the show’s final twist, the doll’s house becomes both the key to solving the mystery of the murdered girls, and a tool to communicate the horrors of Camille and Amma’s childhoods.

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More have emerged this Halloween. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House follows Olivia (Carla Gugino) and Hugh (Henry Thomas) who buy the haunted Hill House as a fixer-upper, intending to flip it in order to build their own “forever house” for their family. Olivia pours over the blueprints for the forever house – fast forward 30 years, and though their dream project was never completed, their daughter Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) has had a tiny model version of the forever house made, complete with working porch lights, that sits in her own family home. Meanwhile, their other daughter Theo (Kate Siegel) is a child psychologist who invites her young patients to use a doll’s house as a tool to describe their fears and re-enact their traumas, helping Theo to understand the family dynamics at play in their real homes. Another Netflix show, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, features voodoo-doll subplots: and Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) owns a doll’s house, complete with a room that is an exact replica of her teenage bedroom. The reboot of Halloween sees Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) build a house to trap killer Michael Myers in: she also owns a miniature replica of the original film’s Myers House, a detail that delighted critics. When Myers is (spoiler alert) defeated, we see the replica house symbolically burn.

So how did the doll’s house, a potent image in fiction and literature for centuries, finally saturate film and television? When did we reach Peak Creepy Doll’s House?

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The Miniaturist. Photos: BBC.

In 17th-century Europe, as Nicole Cooley explains in the Atlantic, doll’s houses were designed for adults as a marker of great status, or as teaching tools allowing mothers to show their daughters how to run a house. British doll’s houses in the 18th century saw owners precisely recreate their homes in miniature, before becoming children’s toys in the 19th century. Now, as Cooley observes, outside of TV and film, miniatures are having resurgence: just look at the popularity of the Instagram account The Daily Mini, or the New York Times article declaring the rise of “Miniacs”.

At once symbolic of the domestic, of wealth, and of girlhood, doll’s houses are sanitised environments that are decorative and controlled. They are also spaces of childlike imagination and play – which makes them ripe for mystery, thriller and horror, genres which are so often interested in where violence and innocence meet, and frequently subvert images of childhood simply to creep us out.

The parts of doll’s house history that interest me are where they intersect with the work of women interested in violence and oppression. Agatha Christie was obsessed with playing with her doll’s houses in childhood: in her autobiography, she wrote at length of this pastime, concluding, “I can see quite plainly now that I have continued to play houses ever since.” Both Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys wrote short stories that used doll’s houses to explore the subjugated position of women and girls in domestic society. The artist Louise Borgeoise made several works that shone bloody red light on doll’s house furniture, described by the Paris Review as “mysterious crime scenes from the victim’s perspective”.

But my favourites are the doll’s houses made by Frances Glessner Lee: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. These miniature models of crime scenes were painstakingly made by hand by the wealthy heiress for the Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard Medical School (a department she established and funded herself). Glessner Lee, unable (unlike her male counterparts) to study her passions medicine and law at university, was a volunteer police officer and had been making dioramas for years. It’s hard to overstate the methodical precision and incredible effort she put into the Nutshell Studies. Tiny keys open real locks, miniature pencils are functional. She wore a blue suit for a year to create fabric with a worn effect for one wooden victim’s trousers.

Glessner Lee’s “Red Bedroom”. Photo: Lorie Shaull

The studies (named things like “Dark Bathroom” or “Burned Cabin”) show tiny dolls, based on the stories of real victims, arranged lifelessly in fully-furnished rooms – each one is filled with little clues that may, or may not, help the onlooker to gain some insight into how each victim died – though Glessner Lee insisted there was no specific, concrete solution to be discovered in any of them. They revolutionised criminology by enabling law enforcement officers to learn a methodical approach to crime scene analysis, pioneering approaches still used today. As a result, Glessner Lee is often referred to as the “mother of forensic science” – and was supposedly the inspiration for Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher. They are now exhibited as works of art. As Glessner Lee scholar Jennifer Doublet told the New York Times: “For me there is perhaps nothing more satisfying in the Nutshells than the subversive pleasure of seeing the world of male detectiving blown wide apart by the macabre depiction of domestic violence in the precious, controlled, female space of a doll’s house.”

“It is extremely interesting to note the effect of these models on the students,” Glessner Lee wrote. “At first glance, they are impressed mainly by the miniature quality — the toy doll house effect — but almost immediately they enter into the reality of the matter and completely lose sight of the make-believe. Several have commented, with apparent surprise, at the giant size of the world when they come out of the model room.”

Hereditary. Photos: A24.

The academic Susan Stewart writes, “That the world of things can open itself to reveal a secret life—indeed, to reveal a set of actions and hence a narrativity and history outside the given field of perception—is a constant daydream that the miniature presents.” In several of 2018’s dramas, doll’s houses become modern-day Nutshell Studies, stages on which characters can re-enact the actions of the plot, allowing the protagonists to use them to unearth secrets and solve the mysteries at the heart of the drama. In The Miniaturist, the items Petronella receives for her doll’s house lead her to the two fundamental secrets of her household. A tiny replica chest with a key inside helps her discover the keys inside the full-size chest in her husband’s study – using them to open a locked door, she finds her husband behind it, having sex with another man. A miniature rocking cradle causes her to uncover the hidden pregnancy of her sister-in-law.

In Hereditary, Annie’s miniatures become model crimes scenes when she starts to replicate the traumatic events occurring around her. When her daughter is killed, decapitated in a bizarre car accident, Annie recreates what she calls “a neutral view of the accident” in miniature form – only to destroy it, overwhelmed by grief.

In Sharp Objects, Amma’s doll’s house seems to function purely as a symbol. Amma is a teenage girl torn between two identities – at night, she’s out taking drugs with her friends, but in the daytime, at home, she’s being dressed by her mother in infantilising formal dresses, and playing with her doll’s house. But when Sharp Objects seems to solve the mystery at its core, as Camille and Amma’s mother is imprisoned, we are reminded over and over again of the final missing clue: teeth removed from the murdered girls’ bodies are never found. It’s only when Camille looks inside Amma’s doll’s house, and find’s her mother’s ivory floor mirrored in miniature by rows of tiny human teeth, that she realises Amma is the real killer.

The Haunting of Hill House. Photos: Netflix.

Of course, doll’s houses, the home in miniature, more often than not function as a metaphor for domestic intimacy or claustrophobia. And as representations of the domestic, doll’s houses are by association feminized objects. Miniature objects owned by men in pop culture are often used to nod to politicised male violence that usually occurs outside the home: I think of Ben Horne’s obsession with his civil war battlefield diorama in Twin Peaks, Frank Underwood’s obsession with his civil war battlefield diorama in House of Cards, and the miniature soldiers that are photographed by the protagonist in the upcoming film Welcome to Marwen. (A nice gender subversion of this is Daenerys’s Painted Table, a model-strewn map, in Game of Thrones.)

But when women own miniatures in TV and film, it tends to be evocative of domestic, familial closeness: positive or negative. In Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, Aura (Dunham) moves back into her family home after college – her mother is a miniature artist (Laurie Simmons, a real miniature artist, and Dunham’s actual mother). Both women find the experience too close for comfort, but the film ends on a hopeful note about their slightly dysfunctional familial intimacy, as Aura shamefully discloses an embarrassing sexual encounter to her mother while lying next to her in bed. In Gilmore Girls, a TV show about two very different but parallel mother-daughter relationships – one suffocating, one nourishing, Lorelai’s doll’s house is “the only thing she actually likes” from her childhood, and she is devastated when it is smashed.

It’s not surprising, then, that doll’s houses on screen in 2018 are so often bound up in suffocating claustrophobic mother-daughter relationships. Trapped in houses and families that smother them, the women of these stories are all struggling under the weight of maternal relationships that infantilise and imprison them – from the paranoia Laurie pushes onto her daughter and granddaughter in Halloween, to Amma and Camille’s mother’s literal attempt to weaken her children in Sharp Objects, to Sabrina’s fear of being confined forever to the witch world in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. In Hereditary one of Annie’s models shows her lying in bed with her infant daughter Charlie, while her mother tries to take the baby and breastfeed her herself.

Sharp Objects. Photos: HBO.

“The miniature,” Stewart writes, “linked to nostalgic versions of childhood and history, presents a diminutive, and thereby manipulatable, version of experience.” For these women, miniature houses become a way out of claustrophobic domestic environments, a potential space in which to re-imagine their worlds.

In The Poetics of Space, the philosopher Gaston Bachelard devotes an entire chapter to miniatures, hoping to understand their frequent appearance in fairytales and other stories. “We are obliged to grant these images a certain objectivity, from the mere fact that they both attract and interest many dreamers. One might say that these houses in miniature are false objects that possess a true psychological objectivity.” He writes that miniatures give the viewer “the enlarging gaze of a child”.

Bachelard describes “miniature worlds” as “dominated worlds”. “The cleverer I am at miniaturising the world,” he writes, “the better I possess it”. In these films and TV shows, doll houses often function as a tool for protagonists to exert control when they have none. In The Miniaturist, Petronella arrives in her new home as an underdog – even the servants, supposedly her servants, tell her how to behave. Left alone for hours at a time, shut up in an unfeeling household, we might expect her playing with a doll’s house to be an infantilising activity. But the more Petronella spends time with her dolls, the more control she gains, as the secrets she uncovers give her an upper hand, and she increasingly takes on a more active role in securing the fate of the household. In Sharp Objects, Amma uses her doll’s house as a relief from a domestic life in which she is used as a doll by her mother, as a prop to show off the depths of her maternal instincts, rather than a growing human being with a life of her own. By extension, murdering the girls who compete for her mother’s attention becomes a way for Amma to exert control when she feels powerless. Viewers with an extremely keen eye might have spotted the Myers doll’s house in Halloween, and been given the clue that Laurie’s own house is a trap – when Michael Myers return, she is able to use her house as a way to manipulate, control, trap and kill him.

The most supernatural of these dramas, though, are governed by forces outside of the protagonist’s control – the real villains are not other people, but ghosts and demons. In these offerings, the doll’s houses are limp, a hollow symbol of the control exerted over the characters by outside forces. In The Haunting of Hill House, two doll’s houses have opposing functions – Theo’s doll’s house helps her control the fate of abused children, but Shirley’s model “forever house” is little more than a sad reminder of the supernatural forces controlling Hill House, and her family, forever. In Hereditary, Annie makes model after model of her mother and children in different poses, but in the end, she can’t do anything to stop her daughter’s death, or stop her son from seemingly going mad – because demons possess her children. As her grip on her household becomes weaker and weaker, she deliberately destroys her models.

“The miniature world remains perfect and uncontaminated by the grotesque,” Stewart writes, “so long as its absolute boundaries are maintained.” It’s no surprise that so many of 2018’s fictional doll’s houses see their boundaries disrupted. The doll’s house of The Miniaturist is meddled with my mysterious outside forces, the doll’s house of Sharp Objects is peered into by an interfering journalist, the miniatures of Hereditary are demolished by their grief-stricken maker, Halloween’s Myers doll’s house burns. In a fraught world that seems increasingly grotesque, nothing can remain uncontaminated. In 2018, no doll’s house is safe.