Mark Sykes’s Sixth Sense of Humour

From Issue 11 (July 2011)

Warning: This Toy May Choke You, or PsychoToys and why we love them

THE THING ABOUT BLOOD-spattered machetes and rusty straight razors is, at least they’re unambiguous. You know they’re bad, bad things, and you know it’s not personal. But the distinction between friendly things and evil things isn’t always that neat. It’s pretty safe to assume that the guy with the hockey mask and the machete is probably not chasing you down for a romantic sushi dinner, but you’re safe with that cuddly little teddy bear with the cute little button eyes. He’s your bestest bedtime buddy. Right? But what if he’s not? What if you happen to spill a little orange juice on him at full moon, and it turns out he’s not so sweet after all? What if he’s really a fluffy little bundle of serial bloody death just waiting for the kiddies to fall to sleep?

Over the years, movies and books have worked up an unhealthy obsession with innocuous and cuddly toys that turn into terrifying, psychotic, cold-blooded killers.

There’s a certain breed of horror writer that specialises in scaring little kids, and grown-ups who have kids, and grown-ups who are kids by showing them that the toys they sleep next to at night are actually alive; not only that, but they don’t really like children. At all. And who could blame them? Kids spend all day beating the crap out of their cuddly little friends, banging their heads together and then nonchalantly tossing them over their shoulders as they randomly pick some other hapless teddy bear or plastic dolly to shove into their gummy, drooling maws.

Hollywood, in particular, has successfully sustained a toy-fuelled terror campaign  for years. There are some truly great living toys out there in movieland; a handful are good, but it’s when they’re itching to maim something that the fun really starts. In the real world, few arresting officers will buy “My dolly did it,” as an alibi, but fear tends to follow us home from the movies and curl up under the covers with us at night. And whether the evil toy is powered by repressed teen rage, the spirit of an evil ancestor, or just a fresh pack of Evereadys is more or less moot when the residents of your toy box are preparing to pluck your eyebrows with the garden shears – real or imagined.

If it’s done properly, a toy doesn’t even have to be the central character in the film to be memorable. Take the toy clown from Poltergeist, for instance; you just know that something that smiley is going to do something horrible before the end of the movie, and sure as hell, once the ectoplasm hits the fan, it grows fangs, wraps its freakishly long arms around Oliver Robins and drags him under the fucking bed – nightmare central – while mom and dad are unable to help, dealing as they are with the rotting corpses in the swimming pool. Apart from the bit where the chairs stack up on the kitchen table, it’s the scene I wait for with the most anticipation. Perfect horror!


Another ‘toy’ that’s secured its – or rather her – place in movie history is the replicant, Pris, from Blade Runner (for all intents and purposes, she’s a toy for men, being as she was a pleasure model), played by Daryl ‘Uma took my other fucking eye’ Hannah. As a 12-year-old boy, I remember feeling not only frightened but also just a bit envious of Harrison Ford getting his head crunched like a macadamia between her 21-year-old thighs. And what does he do in thanks? He blows a hole right through her! I’d have pulled one of his fingers back to his wrist for that too, the heartless bastard.

Now, demonic clowns and killer blonde acrobatic love slaves are all very well, but if ever there was a toy invented solely for the purpose of fuelling nightmares, it has to be the ventriloquist’s dummy. That they’re used to ‘entertain’ children is just a front. They’re not even from this planet – everyone knows there’s a factory on Mars given over solely to the task of churning out these things. They come off the assembly line, are given the spark of life by a demented wizard, and are then jettisoned off in the direction of Earth. They enter our atmosphere, land in a field like a bunch of alien meteorites, white hot, and then rise up and walk, looking for the nearest human habitation to terrorize. Preferably a home with a couple of young kids, some dumbass parents, and a pet of some kind to eviscerate. At least, that’s how I’ve always seen it. Also, what would you do if you spent all day with someone else’s hand up your ass? Happily gut someone like a salmon at the first opportunity? I know I would.

I’m not the only one who thinks these things all need to be rounded up and incinerated; the following list contains just a few examples (taken from a somewhat disparate selection of outstanding films and TV shows) of what results when automatonophobic writers try to exorcise their own jabbering demons by writing stories that can’t end until the beast has been vanquished:

– Dead of Night (1945): In this criminally overlooked film, Michael Redgrave plays a ventriloquist who thinks his dummy, Hugo, is alive. But is it? Of course it bloody is! Some terrifically disturbing scenes here.

– Magic (1978): Anthony Hopkins can’t function without Fats (a doll that makes Chucky look like a Care Bear), and Ann-Margaret finds that threesomes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Before its general release in the UK, the TV trailer for this film had to be pulled after numerous complaints came in that it was scaring the living shit out of children. YouTube “Magic 1978 Movie Trailer” and you’ll know that that’s bullshit; the adults complaining didn’t have the guts to admit they were the ones losing sleep.

– Krusty Gets Kancelled (The Simpsons Season 4, 1993): Gabbo is coming! He’s just a baaaad widdle boy – as the TV audience of Springfield found out. Personally, I found Krusty’s attempt at a rival doll, and its missing lower jaw, much more entertaining, but hey.

– Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng Chiang (1977): A hideous Peking homunculus that moonlights as a Chinese ventriloquist’s dummy stalks the fog-filled streets of 1890s London and knifes people. What more could you ask for? Complete genius.


And from Blade, Jester and Pinhead (from Puppet Master, though who in their right mind would let their kids sleep with these guys) to Chucky, to Pennywise (we all float down here) via that freaky little bear in AI, they all find a way to screw you up eventually, and the list goes on and on. May it never end.

The fact of the matter is, nothing scares us more than a supposedly lifeless and innocent comfort object with intelligence and a straight razor. What if the snugly teddy bear your kiddy is sleeping next to comes to life and offs the whole family?

Kids, if you’re reading this,  take my advice: If you’re going to have a toy box in which to keep your fluffy frogs, wind-up ballerinas, doe-eyed teddies and talking puppies, then for Christ’s sake, make sure it’s made of kryptonite. Before you go to bed, lock it, bolt it, immerse it in a swimming pool full of holy water, and surround it with hired mercenaries trained to blind a Cabbage Patch Doll with their thumbs. Come morning, when the sun is safely up and their powers are weak, then you can take out your toys and play with them.

However, when it comes to the lead paint and small parts, you’re on your own.

Here you go, kiddies – we’ve given you the chance to create your own petrifying plaything, with the easy-to-use Something Wicked patented mix ’n’ match Psychotic Toy Generator – simply choose an element from each column, and hey presto! You’ve got a movie franchise!

Image of Pris from Blade Runner © Warner Bros

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Mark Sykes

What can be said about Mark Sykes?

Film actor, world traveller, model, novel writer, piano and violin player, ballroom dancer, deep-sea diver – he is none of these things.

Actual achievements include the odd play or musical, avoiding death by starvation through singing to people around London, and completing all three Halo games on ‘legendary’ level.

Literary influences include Philip Pullman, Carl Hiaasen and Iain M. Banks.  Favourite activities include vacuuming, buying stationery, applying sun lotion to total strangers, catoptromancy, going to Paris to see his brother, getting lost in Derbyshire, and trying hard to tell the truth at all.

After being Something Wicked’s “Man In London” he now lives in Cape Town and is enjoying the sun.

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One Response to “Warning: This Toy May Choke You”

  • Great piece, Mark. How the hell you ever put up with the stuff we had to write at Sainsbury’s I don’t know! I’m still droning out drivel, only in telecoms now.
    Anyway, Kathy Hof sent me this link and I shall be looking out for your stuff henceforth. Hope you are very well and still singing! Drop me a line if you like at jmrhiggins [at] gmail [dot] com – would love to hear from you.

    Martin H