Cursed Conduits & Dead Silence (2007)
Dead Silence Movie Summary
Jamie Ashen’s wife, Lisa, is murdered mysteriously the same night a ventriloquist dummy shows up at his door. He rips the case apart, revealing that it’s connected to his hometown. He travels to Raven’s Faire, a sleepy, spooky town that could be anywhere (though the vibe is East Coast). His father and stepmother welcome him, though he isn’t interested in their welcome; he only came to find the truth about Mary Shaw. The dummy came in a box that had her name on the inside.
Donnie Wahlberg is also there as a detective, trying to trip him up because he thinks Jamie had something to do with Lisa’s death. Together, they find that Mary Shaw’s body may be dead, but her vengeful spirit is alive through the conduits of her handmade dolls. She rips out the tongues of the descendants responsible for murdering her. Jamie is a descendant of a body who heckled Shaw at one of her shows; she kidnapped his ancestor, Michael Ashen, and turned his body into a doll to engineer the perfect doll from “existing parts”. Lisa was pregnant with Jamie’s child. Everyone dies and only Ella, Jamie’s stepmother is left alive because she is the perfect doll that Mary Shaw created to bring about everyone’s downfall. Jamie’s dad has been dead the entire time while Ella uses his body as a makeshift ventriloquist dummy to fool others.
The Twisted Fairy Tale
Right away, we’ve got a twisted fairy tale going on: stepmother is the real villain. Her name is even associated with fairy tales because the name is already within Cinderella. I was impressed by her ability to throw her voice and quickly dismayed by how the movie alluded that a body doesn’t begin rapid decomposition soon after death. Without refrigeration, he’d look a lot more dead than that (I worked in a funeral home). It just seems like a lot of work to play with a revenge doll-man, just saying.
We see this story as the photo negative of Toy Story (1995)—the whole idea of: what if your toys are alive? And what if they were evil? Movies about adults and toys tend to go down this road, turning the idea of childhood into a demented concept. Michael Ashen, the heckler, calls out the bent reality of Billy (or Mary rather), who then has an existential crisis in front of everyone, causing a domino effect with death eventually plaguing the town. Tongues are ripped out, and people are posed in family portraits. We hear dark nursery rhyme music in the opening credits, which uses our own childhoods against us to generate fear. Not every story about dolls is heartwarming; don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because of what you remember as a kid.
Conduits are objects, people, places, or a process of trance/trance-like states that allow communication between the supernatural and our world (Wikipedia). Dolls were originally used as vessels, a place for spirits to go (Wallace). The Egyptians were the first to use doll-like figures called poppets, for ceremonial use/for spirits to inhabit (Wallace). Poppets have also been used for the purposes of cursing (not to be confused with pop culture’s idea of a voodoo doll, which isn’t accurate.) A loved one or one being cursed can even have the doll made in the image of the person to make the process of soul-latching to the vessel easier (Wallace).
Dolls also fit into the uncanny valley in that they look like us, but aren’t us, which weirds out our evolutionary senses. We see this in animation—if an animated character or a robot looks too much like our own faces, it wigs us out [think The Polar Express (2004) and Monster House (2006). Our brains tell us this is a threat to our safety, which makes one wonder: what in our evolutionary past was a threat to us because it looked too much like us?
The New Bloody Mary/Mary as Witch
Mary Shaw is the new Bloody Mary, operating without the mirror—her conduits are the dolls she created by hand; her rebirth in this world is through the vessels she made. Bloody Mary is a supernatural spirit to dually scare children (folklore like this actually does have a function to make children behave through the threat of an unseen, usually supernatural entity) and as a sleepover game where one goes in to the bathroom with a candle and says her name. Eventually, she appears in the mirror. We even see this imagery play out when Jamie looks into a mirror and sees Mary behind him. Shaw wants to extract her own vigilante justice in severing the bloodlines of those who murdered her forever; her soul cannot rest until this is done.
Shaw could be seen as sympathetic after her murder, but killing Lisa and her unborn baby takes Mary straight into the role of villain. When one preys on a pregnant woman, it is often viewed as the murder of two lives instead of one as well as the vulnerability associated with pregnancy. It is also way horrifying that Mary murdered a child and turned him into a literal puppet on strings. Reality can be bent and, in this case, reality was twisted for a sick narrative of a most likely mentally ill woman playing “mother”.
I adore what Leigh Whannell did here, using the dolls as very literal conduits to bring Mary back into the world. Once the conduit is destroyed, Mary can’t come through. How else would she be here if not through the dolls she created/enchanted? Stopping her means destroying their little wooden bodies. Whannell also brings it back around to the title: dead silence is what is heard when Mary Shaw pokes a hole in the veil to our world.
We had a little bit too much confrontation with Donnie Wahlberg, who was underutilized (he did better in this same role for Saw 3) though I see why he was included the way he was: he was a plot device to give audience information we couldn’t have otherwise known. This movie worked better with the unhappy ending since Mary really thought this through. Sometimes evil isn’t stopped in our world—if every story had a happy ending, life would be a fairytale and that just isn’t true.
There’s almost this idea that Mary Shaw is a witch; she fits the bill—old, strange, lonely, accepting dolls as children. She is the master craftswoman/puppeteer, so she has to be sinister because who does that, really? The dolls themselves and her use of them as conduits alludes to spellcasting of some kind to keep her “alive”. Her folklore is built early on and expanded throughout the movie in a folkoresque way, meaning it’s not real folklore but it feels enough like folklore to be mistaken as such (Tolbert and Foster: 5). “Beware the stare of Mary Shaw. She had no children, only dolls. And if you see her in your dreams, make sure you never, ever scream”. (“Or she’ll rip your tongue out by the seam”, an alternate version in the trailer tells us.)
During the Salem Witch Trials, the older/strange/poor women were eliminated first, seen as dregs of the community who drained the limited resources. Though she was not hanged for her (in this case, actual) crimes, there still seems to exist a parallel between Mary Shaw and being a witch who is eventually gotten rid of for her enchanting of the conduit dolls.
The Dead Theater
We have the dead theater, which is where the final showdown happens; major Halloween vibes. I love the idea of the lure for the final showdown at the theater, where it all began. (Mary’s rather theatrical.) I love the doll collection, and the theatricality of having them watch– the doll’s eyes/heads moving one by one is awesome. Also, it wouldn’t be an evil doll movie without a creepy clown, would it? (Hello, Poltergeist!)
There is beauty in this type of atmospherics; in death, the natural world reclaims our creations. This process could also be seen as ominous: sooner or later, we all return to the earth and it’ll take back whatever we made. This reveals a theme of liminality, where the supernatural already has its home; abandoned places are a relic of what was versus what now exists yet somehow existing in neither time exactly.
Movies and TV love cursed conduits. We see this in the murderous Talky Tina doll from The Twilight Zone, who was inspired by Chatty Cathy dolls; she began generations of fear that trickled into later movies and television (McRobbie). In Child’s Play (1988), the character of Charles Lee Ray transfers his soul via voodoo into the “Good Guy” doll (modeled after the My Buddy dolls). Ray (who refers to himself as ‘Chuckie’) then becomes stuck within the doll in a series of films, always with the same goal: transfer himself out of the doll and into a human body. Slappy from the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine was unhinged, a mysterious ventriloquist doll come to life through magic to carry out nefarious plans.
Usually, magic is involved of some kind because how else would a doll come to life? (Billy from Dead Silence even resembles Slappy, though that could a time period manufacturing design.) The box with the dummy being randomly received or mysteriously found is another theme that emerges from these narratives; it implies that no one in their right mind would actually buy a ventriloquist dummy because they’re both creepy and outdated. Our fascination with dolls appears to stem from our fears but also the obsession with our own faces; we manufacture these playthings to resemble ourselves. Not everyone is weirded out by dolls or ventriloquist dummies, but that doesn’t mean our reptile brains aren’t watching to see if they move from where we left them.
Bousman, Darrell Lynn, director. 2006. Saw 3.
Hooper, Tobe, director. 1982. Poltergeist.
Lasseter, John, director. 1995. Toy Story.
Kenan, Gil, director. 2006. Monster House.
“Mediumship”, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mediumship.
McRobbie, Linda Rodriguez. 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-creepy-dolls-180955916/
Tolbert, Jeffrey A., and Michael Foster. 2015. The Folkloresque: Reframing Folklore in a Popular Culture World.
Wallace, Jeanette. 2018. https://rutgersfolklore.wordpress.com/2018/04/29/dolls/
Wan, James, director. 2007. Dead Silence.
Zemeckis, Robert, director, 2004. The Polar Express.
Thanks for viewing ‘Cursed Conduits & Dead Silence’ by writer Victoria Jaye. Checkout Victoria’s website at Demon Folklorist
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