There are few things as inherently creepy as dolls, with their dead eyes and lifeless gazes. It is perhaps no surprise that these objects have drawn to them all manner of tales of the supernatural and unexplained, and cursed or haunted dolls have become a rather booming area of the paranormal. One place that seems to have really perfected the whole idea of scary dolls is the island nation of Japan, which has various legends and tales of dolls that are haunted, cursed, or just downright unsettling.
One of the most famous and indeed spookiest of Japan’s odd dolls is one that is supposedly haunted. The tale of an infamous doll known as the Okiku doll begins in 1918, when a boy purchased it while on a trip to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido to give to his little sister, Okiku. The overjoyed little girl was smitten with the doll, and played with it every day, even going so far as to name it after herself, Okiku. The two were reportedly inseparable and went everywhere together until tragedy struck the following year and Okiku fell gravely ill. The girl soon died from complications of severe influenza and fever, and the mourning family placed her beloved doll in a family altar in memory of their daughter.
Not long after the heartbroken family placed the doll in the altar, they noticed something odd. The jet black hair of the doll, which had originally been cropped to about shoulder length and with neat ends in the traditional style, started getting longer day by day and the ends of the hair became random and haphazard in length in contrast to the straight cut it had had previously. Before long, the hair had grown all the way down to brush against the doll’s knees, which caused the rather alarmed family to conclude that Okiku’s spirit had somehow inhabited the doll. Even when the doll’s hair was trimmed, it soon grew back inexplicably and always stopped at around knee length.
In 1938, the Suzuki family moved to Sakhalin but was wary of taking the mysterious doll with them. Since they believed that their daughter’s spirit resided within the doll, they were unwilling to discard it and so they instead brought it to Mannenji temple, in the town of Iwamizawa, Hokkaido, Japan. The family explained the doll’s unusual qualities to the priest of the temple, yet he accepted it anyway and soon was able to see for himself that indeed the doll’s hair continued to grow. Trimming the hair became a regular chore at the temple, and soon pictures of the doll with hair of various lengths were adorning the shrine where it was kept.
To this day, the doll remains at Mannenji temple, housed within a modest wooden box, and its hair purportedly continues to mysteriously grow no matter how often it is trimmed. The haunted Okiku doll has become rather famous throughout its native Japan, with its story being adapted into novels, films, and traditional Kabuki plays, which have mostly expanded and dramatized the story to include more ghostly, spooky elements such as the doll giggling, sobbing, wailing, or walking about, which were never actually reported by the family.
It is unclear what is going on with the eerie growing hair of the very creepy, pale-faced Okiku doll. No one has really been able to explain how it has kept growing continuously for the better part of a century. Is this a truly supernatural phenomenon or some sort of hoax? Samples of the Okiku’s doll have been taken and analyzed in the past and it was determined that the hair was indeed human, but this does not necessarily point to a supernatural origin. What is going on with this doll? Is this some sort of trick or are there paranormal forces we don’t understand compelling its hair to perpetually grow?
Staying in the vein of the paranormal, we have the bizarre and enigmatic Japanese ritual called Ushi no Koku Mairi, which roughly translates to “A visit to the shrine at the hour of the fox,” with this typically said to be between the hours of 1 to 3 AM in the morning, a sort of “witching hour” in Japan. The ritual itself has been carried out since time unremembered, and involves using a type of cursed doll made of bound straw, called a waraningyo to spite or attack one’s enemies. This doll is meant to be an effigy of a person one wishes to bring down death and misfortune upon, and is to be fashioned from one’s own hands.
Similar to your typical Voodoo doll, the doll should ideally contain somewhere within it a piece of the person one wishes to curse, such as hair, skin, blood, or clippings of fingernails, although a photograph is also said to be effective if done right. The maker of the doll is then required to don a very specific traditional garb consisting of a white kimono, a mirror worn on the chest, and an upturned trivet on the head, with three candles burning on the legs, and a wooden comb held fast between the teeth. The doll is then brought to one of the many sacred trees found at Shinto shrines, called shinboku, and then nailed to it with long iron spikes known as gosunkugi. Some of these trees at famous shrines are covered with the countless scars of centuries of nails driven into them by those who would carry out the curse.
During the whole process there are certain rules that need to be obeyed. Most importantly is that one must never be heard or seen performing the dark ritual, as to do so is often said to cause the sinister curse to rebound right back to the one who would inflict it unless the witness is killed. This is so integral and serious that it is said that in the old days those who would carry out the ritual routinely carried a knife or sword with them for the expressed purpose of slaughtering any who might stumble across their grim deed. The ritual may also only be carried out at the hour of the fox, and there is a certain order to which the nails should be hammered into the doll, with the spike to the head always last. Although there are countless variations of the ritual, these details are for the most part consistent.
The supposed procedure of the whole thing varies as well. Depending on the local tradition, the curse can be carried out at one time or must be done over the course of several nights, and the effects can vary wildly as well. Some traditions variously say that this curse will cause a person to gradually sicken and die from disease, that they will experience bad luck, or that they will simply drop dead when the last spike is driven home into their effigy’s head. Others say that the target will be haunted by a vengeful spirit, demon, or even a god, or kami. The Ushi no Koku Mairi ritual is taken fairly seriously in Japan, and whether it really works or is just an urban legend there are still apparently laws in place to punish and prosecute anyone caught trying to actually go through with it.
Although the ritual of Ushi no Koku Mairi goes back centuries, there are more modern eerie rituals concerning dolls that have sprung up in recent years in Japan. One of the more notorious began to make the rounds across the Internet in 2007. Called Hitori Kakurenbo, or “One-man Hide and Go Seek,” the ritual supposedly uses dolls possessed with conjured ghosts or evil spirits to play the game. The very specific instructions for the game involve starting with a doll that has had all of its stuffing removed and replaced with uncooked rice, a fingernail clipping, and sewn back up with red thread, after which it is given a name. A television is then set up in the room and a bathtub filled with water, and the room is purified with incense. You are also supposed to keep a knife handy to protect yourself if things get rough, which says a lot.
When this is all done, the doll is supposed to be submerged in water at exactly 3 AM, and all of the lights to the house are to be turned off. Then you are to go to your hiding place, turn on the television, and then go back to the doll in the bathtub to tell it “I have found you, [Doll’s Name]. You are the next it, [Doll’s Name],” after which you stab the doll and snip the red threads to release the spirits within, put the doll back into the water, and go hide. At this point the instructions are for you to take a mouthful of salt water and hold it in your mouth without swallowing it and then hold the cup in your hand as you go out to look for the doll, which is now said to be gone from the bathroom and hiding somewhere else. When the doll is found, you say “I WIN” 3 times and the rest of the water is to be poured over it and the doll destroyed with fire. The TV is, eerily enough, meant to warn of any unwanted entities being invited in through the game, and one English language description of the rules rather ominously says of the process:
It is not generally advisable to emerge from your hiding place without both holding the salt water in your mouth and carrying the cup with the remaining salt water in your hand; should anything have found its way into your home during the course of the game, they will act as safeguards and protect you from any harm your visitor or visitors may attempt to inflict upon you. The purpose of the television is to alert you to the presence of these potential visitors. Should it begin to display abnormal behavior, do NOT, under ANY circumstance, leave your hiding place without the salt water.
Do not allow the game to go on for longer than two hours. Once it has been started, the game MUST be played through to completion. Do NOT attempt to abandon it partway through. To do so would result in disaster.
This may all sound like a pure urban legend, but there are scores of reports that say that it is real and that these dolls really do become possessed to walk about and hide. They are also decidedly malevolent in that they are said to cause nausea, panic, dizziness, and even death if the ritual is not performed correctly. One such account said:
I waited for approximately 1 minute but couldn’t feel any signs which would signify that the ritual worked.
After the 1 minute I started to feel the signs. I suddenly had to take deep breaths to breathe. I realized the temperature had drastically made its way down. The spare room in which I was hiding happened to be just beside the living room where the television was. Remember I left the television on a static noise channel? I swear I heard the static noise grow louder. I waited patiently despite the extreme conditions.
I started to feel nauseous at this point and I immediately knew it was time to end the game. I picked up the cup of salt water beside me took half of the salt water in my mouth but didn’t swallow it. Remembering the instructions I read on the internet, I got out of my hiding place with the half cup of salt water and started looking for the doll. Even though my jaws and cheeks started to hurt a bit I didn’t swallow the salt water.
I entered the bathroom to check out the tub but the doll was not there. I already knew this would happen but I just decided to check it out. The thought that a possessed doll was after my life gave me shivers. I was bare-handed so I decided to go to the kitchen to take another knife. By chance, if something went wrong I could use this knife for my protection. I searched all the places on my way to the kitchen but there was no sign of the doll.
I was happy because I finally reached the kitchen at this point. But when I entered the kitchen I got the shock of my life. The doll was lying on the kitchen floor. The knife which I gave it lay right beside it with an ADDITIONAL knife (which I didn’t give it). The doll had found another knife in the kitchen in the meanwhile. I quickly poured the salt water in the cup on top of it before spitting the salt water in my mouth on top of it as well. Then I said, “I win!” 3 times before leaning down and cutting the crimson thread with my teeth. I picked up the doll and took a lighter before heading to the lawn.
I was successful in burning the doll with a little help from the lighter. The fire stopped by itself when the doll was badly burned and was not recognizable anymore. I picked up the heated doll and headed towards the nearby dumpster. I dumped the doll in the dumpster and headed back home. Nothing happened to me because I did the ritual correctly BUT please don’t try this. I am too scared even now. It was a really, trust me, really scary experience!
Another account was posted on a Reddit thread by a commenter calling herself “sarahinjapan,” and she says that she and a friend named Akane went through the ritual and went to the bathtub where the doll, named “Erina” was. They then continued with the game, and the witness would say:
Then we ran out of the bathroom, turning out all the lights and switching on the tv in our hiding room to a static channel. Akane grabbed a knife and left the salt water on the table. We went back into the bathroom, and sure enough, the doll was there, in the bathtub, smiling serenely up at us from the bottom. “Erina, Akane and Sarah found you!” we yelled. We yanked it out, Akane stabbed the heart and made sure to sever a lot of the red thread before dumping it back in the tub.
“Erina is the second it! Erina is the second it! Erina is the second it!”, we chanted, then ran back to the family room with the tv going. We each took a gulp of salt water, making sure not to swallow it, then held our cups firmly before settling in the closet. Akane left open a crack of the door because she wanted to watch what would happen to the tv. It was a terrible, terrible idea. To this day, I wish we’d left the door closed.
For the first five minutes, we were just waiting. Nothing was happening, and I felt relieved. Then, I heard the static of the TV begin to change. Without any of us touching the remote, the tv began to switch channels, fast enough that sentences began to form from the words of different channels.
Urban legend or not, the thought of playing hide and seek with a possessed doll is certainly rather unsettling indeed. Go ahead and play the game if you want, but I will pass, thank you very much. Moving out of the paranormal but still firmly wedged into the realm of the creepy is the story of the incredibly life-like doll crafted by 19th century artist Hananuma Masakichi, who was a master of making what the Japanese call iki-ningyo, or “living dolls,” which were renowned for their breathtaking incredible realism, to the point that they often could not be distinguished from the real thing.
The spooky legend behind this particular doll is that Masakichi crafted his masterpiece, completed in 1885, in order to leave his lover with a reminder of him as he was dying of tuberculosis at the time. The dolls was lovingly rendered down to every minute detail, including pores in the skin, real human hair, eyebrows, and pubic hair, and some say even real teeth and fingernails. Interestingly, he never did die of tuberculosis and the woman he had made this for left him anyway, and additionally there are doubts that this is even a self-portrait at all, but it is still a shockingly realistic creation all the same. Clad in a loincloth it looms there looking just as if a real person is standing there, and such is the stunning, obsessive attention to detail that the doll caught the attention of Robert Ripley, of Ripley’s Believe It or Not fame in the 1930s, after it had been brought to the United States sometime in the late 1800s.
Ripley would purchase the doll from a San Francisco art gallery for $10 (about $180 in today’s money), after which he would take the strange curiosity on tour to the Chicago World Fair and many other venues before coming to rest at the Fisherman’s Wharf Ripley’s Odditorium in the 1960s and then moving on to the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum in Buena Park, where it was damaged by an earthquake in 1994 and later further damaged by insects and age. The doll was eventually repaired and went on to the Air & Space Museum in San Diego and finally to the Ripley’s Odditorium in Amsterdam in 2015, where it remains to this day. It remains a mystery as to why Masakichi really made this doll, who it really depicts, and how it got to the United States, but one thing that is for sure is that it is one of the most insanely detailed dolls around, particularly impressive considering how old it is.
Lastly we come to the secluded rural hamlet of Nagoro, located in the sleepy valleys of Shikoku island, Japan. The village was once a normal place to be, until people started to move out in search of jobs and the elderly slowly withered away. When 67-year-old Tsukimi Ayano returned to her village after living for a time in Osaka, she found it to be a veritable ghost town, with a population of just 40 souls still lingering on here. Tsukimi went about remedying the situation by making a scarecrow in her father’s likeness before moving on to meticulously crafting life-sized dolls to repopulate the village, and others were soon taking her lead, until around 400 such dolls were scattered about the town.
Many of these fully-dressed dolls represent those who have died or moved away, and they are arranged in all manner of poses and activities. Abandoned schoolhouses hold doll students and teachers, the river holds dolls eternally fishing in these waters, and others are working fields, waiting for buses, or arranged as if walking along the streets or just sitting staring out into nothingness. Tsukimi has even fashioned a doll to represent herself, and constantly repairs and maintains these strange village denizens, and they have become a draw for tourists looking to see something new and creepy. The odd village with its doll citizens was notably covered in a documentary called “The Valley Of Dolls,” by director Fritz Schumann, and one can visit the so-called “Nagoro Scarecrow Village” to this day.
What it is it about dolls that draw such stories?Here we have looked at creepy dolls in Japan that run the gamut from slightly disturbing to the truly haunted and cursed. In every instance we have dolls that have pervaded the public consciousness here, and which run from true paranormal phenomena, to urban legends, to the just plain spooky. In the end, we are left with the impression that yes, dolls are creepy, and yes, there are tales that look to emphasize this to the max. Of all the areas of the world with their strange tales of haunted or weird dolls, Japan really seems to have gone the extra mile.