“Hello, good hunter,” The Doll said to me after I accidentally visited Bloodborne’s first optional boss, the howling Cleric Beast, and obtained some of the game’s metaphysical currency, Insight. “I am a doll, here in this dream to look after you.”
I could tell before she said anything. I’m used to dolls watching me, giving off that milk glass glow, a certain satin womanhood. They freak me out. Bloodborne, FromSoftware’s role-playing game battered with decay and perverted blood, knows that. A realistic doll is a silver hairbrush with burnt horsehair bristles, a medium-evil interpretation of what girls want. It fits comfortably in the game’s scary palm. But Bloodborne settles into discomfort without endorsing it, and that’s why, no matter how hard I try to branch out, Bloodborne is my perpetual game of the year.
The porcelain dolls in my bedroom had green eyes, I remember. I wasn’t sure if their bonnets were made of satin, because I didn’t know that word yet. But I noted their muted lustre, the coin-sized glass irises I found both easy to stare into and frightening. Frightening, because I recognised the dolls as a pulseless version of myself — we were both small, incapable of sleep. They were like me, but not. I was worried that they would come alive at night and kill me.
I eventually got the courage to tell my parents I hated the dolls and had them evicted from my room. Around a decade later, I played Bloodborne for the first time. Unnervingly, and a bit tenderly as the white doves of childhood memory flickered in, I recognised a piece of myself in the cloaked blonde girl slumped on the stone steps, The Doll. Freud would call my reaction — a dash of fascination, a dash of a worm coming up from inside my stomach — a product of “the uncanny.”
“Dolls are of course rather closely connected with childhood life,” he wrote in a 1919 essay. “Children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects, and […] they are especially fond of treating their dolls like live people.” A sense of the uncanny, then, comes not necessarily from fears taught by fairytales, but a more general “infantile belief.”
Bloodborne toys with childhood fear and beliefs like a cat pawing at an already poisoned mouse. The residents in Yharnam, a city in the game where mist hovers like a permanent poltergeist where everything probably smells very bad, hold dearly to the basic idea that if they do what they’re told and stay inside, they’ll be ok. They lash out — “Away, away!” staggering Yharnamites command, waving their torches at me like it’ll do anything to stop my ax from cleaving their face from their neck — at the monster they see in me, while disease catalyzes the monster in them. They turn to zombie werewolves, all of them, aching for blood.
The game’s only respite is the Hunter’s Dream, where the doll resides.
“This was once a safe haven for hunters,” dirty old man Gehrman says to me when I first arrive at the workshop. “We don’t have as many tools as we once did, but you’re welcome to use whatever you find. Even the doll, should it please you…”
I’ve completed Bloodborne three times now and have a few lightly used save files, too. I’ve watched every lore video on YouTube, and I’m charmed by its dull 30 FPS at this point. But every time I watch low poly Gerhman say, “even the doll, should it please you,” I’m a bit shaken. I try to move on quickly — sure, old man, the Vietnam War was a great idea.
Still, in its many tainted worlds, FromSoftware has an undeniable habit of presenting its women characters as subdued, maimed meerkats. And, beyond my elementary school anxiety, dolls, especially after the advent of Barbie in 1959, are used often as symbols of the impossible feminine ideal, literal objectification. “A living doll, everywhere you look,” Sylvia Plath wrote in 1962, in a poem critical of expectations for wives, “The Applicant”. “It works, there is nothing wrong with it. […]/ Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.”
Over 30 years later, Courtney Love seems to reply — “He only loves those things because he loves to see them break,” she sings in the 1994 Hole song “Doll Parts.” “I fake it so real, I am beyond fake.”
But Bloodborne’s doll, though Gehrman likely wishes otherwise, does not signify the patriarchy-sanctioned lobotomy Plath and Love fear. She isn’t quite the fantasy of 1987 “romantic” “comedy” Mannequin, where Kim Cattrall’s languishing soul is stuck inside a window display mannequin until she falls in love, or stiff sex doll Bianca, with whom Ryan Gosling initiates passionate, imaginative romance in Lars and the Real Girl (2007). The Doll’s existence doesn’t prescribe much to the ancient inspiration for both of those movies, either: Roman poet Ovid’s story of Pygmalion, a sculptor so enamoured by his creation — “that of a virgin,” “even more lovely naked” — that the goddess Venus allows it to come alive and, at long last, get married.
The Doll, while still a cake topper for the rest of the game’s knee-deep carnage, was created with the intention of providing unconditional affection and support (“should it please you…”), but she anguishes over her artificiality instead of taking pleasure in it. Her tears, though made of hard crystal, still fall and, when I use my ax to butcher her human counterpart, Gehrman’s obsession, Lady Maria, she knows. And she’s glad.
“Have I somehow changed?” she asks me. “Moments ago, from some place, perhaps deep within, I sensed a liberation from heavy shackles.”
Like The Doll, I feel bound, always, by other people’s interpretation of what I look like. Just as when I was a child, horrified by the vision of prim ladyhood my dolls showed me, I continue to be painfully aware of my smallness.
Walking down the street, as cars honk and men shout various phrases, I sense some people want to know if they can break me like porcelain. So I go home and I go to Yharnam, pick up my ax, or if I’m in a good mood, raise my Holy Blade and hack through monsters. They don’t know they’re monsters, and I act like I’m pruning a rose bush. I see myself, somewhat begrudgingly, in the blonde doll, who spooks but mirrors me.
What I like about Bloodborne is that it understands that fear has no honest resolution. You learn to live inside of it. It allows me to unlock a nightmare I’ve never really been able to forget, and, so, like a fragile, fuzzy grey moth, I routinely return to this thing that wounds me.
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