Edison's Talking Dolls Can Now Provide The Soundtrack To Your Nightmares : The Two-Way Thomas Edison built and sold about 500 dolls back in 1890. Now, new technology has made hearing their supercreepy voices possible for the first time in decades. (Thanks, technology.)
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Edison's Talking Dolls Can Now Provide The Soundtrack To Your Nightmares

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Edison's Talking Dolls Can Now Provide The Soundtrack To Your Nightmares

Edison's Talking Dolls Can Now Provide The Soundtrack To Your Nightmares

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There's no way to transition to this, so here is one of the world's first talking dolls.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLL TALKING)

EDISON TALKING DOLL: Little Jack Horner sat in the corner eating a Christmas pie...

SIEGEL: That's easy for her to say. Actually, the doll there was reciting the nursery rhyme "Little Jack Horner." You can thank Thomas Edison for providing the soundtrack to your nightmares. Edison built and sold around 500 of these talking dolls back in 1890. NPR's Neda Ulaby says new technology has made hearing them possible for the first time in decades.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: And you may never un-hear this glassy-eyed cherub shrieking out a child's prayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLL TALKING)

EDISON TALKING DOLL: Now lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

ULABY: That's most likely one of Edison's female factory workers imitating a little girl, or so says Jerry Fabris. He curates sound recordings at Thomas Edison National Historical Park. Fabris says Edison was, for the first time, trying to market the then-brand-new wax cylinder phonograph for people to use at home. He thought the best vehicle would be a doll.

JERRY FABRIS: About two-feet tall, it would have wooden arms and legs.

ULABY: Encased in its metal body was a miniature phonograph spring-activated by a crank sticking out of the doll's back. Edison knew the sound quality was raw, so he had the dolls recite recognizable versus, like "Hickory Dickory Dock."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLL TALKING)

EDISON TALKING DOLL: Hickory Dickory Dock, the mouse ran up the clock.

ULABY: Were these pleasant to listen to back in 1890?

FABRIS: No, I don't think so. Edison himself thought they were unpleasant.

ULABY: So did everyone else. The dolls flopped in the market, not because people thought they were creepy, but because they were expensive - about $200 in today's money. And people thought the dolls were not lifelike enough. They wanted moving mouths and the doll's voices to be understandable. Edison stopped making the talking dolls after about a month.

FABRIS: After the business failed, he referred to them as little monsters.

ULABY: Which raises a larger question - why do we find talking dolls so scary?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHILD'S PLAY")

BRAD DOURIF: (As Chucky) Hi, I'm Chucky. Want to play?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Screams).

ULABY: Talking toys occupy their own horror subgenre that led to their own parodies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TWILIGHT ZONE")

JUNE FORAY: (As Talky Tina Doll) My name is Talky Tina, and I love you very much.

TELY SAVALAS: (As Erich Streator) Will you shut that thing off?

FORAY: (As Talky Tina Doll) My name is Talky Tina, and I think I could even hate you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Clown Doll) I'm Krusty the Clown, and I don't like you.

(As Homer Simpson) (Laughter).

(As Krusty the Clown Doll) I'm Krusty the Clown, and I'm going to kill you.

(As Homer Simpson) (Laughter) Didn't even pull the string that time.

ULABY: A talking toy belongs in an unsettling middle space, says horror scholar Caetlin Benson-Allott. It's human, but not that human.

CAETLIN BENSON-ALLOTT: Where it's both familiar and different, and we don't kind of understand if it's entirely dead or entirely alive.

ULABY: It's what Sigmund Freud called the uncanny, she says. And we can feel it as a subconscious holdover from childhood when we pretend our dolls are real. Even as knowing grown-ups, it's that lurking apprehension, she says...

BENSON-ALLOTT: That that doll is actually alive and watching me.

ULABY: Benson-Allott says we've probably freaked ourselves out with dolls for as long as we've used dolls in rituals and in playing. When we give anything power, she says, from a talking doll to technology, there's a sense - even a fear - that that power might turn back on us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOLL TALKING)

EDISON TALKING DOLL: Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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