Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Robert the Doll

The notion of "the haunted doll" is one that recurs in classic horror fiction, and Florida is home to one of the prototype real-life examples: Robert the Doll. He's had quite an interesting life, but currently resides at the Fort East Martello Museum and Gardens on Key West.

The painter Robert Eugene Otto was born in October 1900 to a wealthy family in a lavish mansion at the corner of Eaton and Simonton streets. They employed an extensive staff of servants from the Caribbean and the Bahamas. He was primarily raised by his nanny of Bahamian (some say Haitian) descent, who gave him a primitive doll for his 4th birthday. Some versions of the story say the doll was already wearing a sailor suit, others say it was dressed that way by the boy to match his own. Some versions say the nanny gave him the doll as a sincere gift, whereas others suggest it was a deliberate curse on the family because the nanny was disciplined for practicing hoodoo in the yard.

The boy soon developed a strange relationship with the doll, more so than your average child and toy - he took it everywhere he went, dressed in an identical sailor costume, and would have conversations with it at all times, even when alone, discussing things in low conspiratorial whispers. Eventually he demanded that he only be called "Gene" so as to avoid confusion with the doll named Robert.

Then things gradually got creepier and creepier.

Neighbors reported walking past the house and seeing the doll looking at them from a window. If that wasn't disquieting enough, sometimes on the walk back they saw the doll had changed windows and was now peering out from a different one. Some grown-ups were startled to hear - or think they heard - Robert actually speak in response to Gene. The child, precocious though he may have been, was likely not a ventriloquist.

With increasing regularity, incidents of mischief occurred around the home which Gene, when accused of being responsible, would blame Robert. At first they didn't believe him, of course... until the night when the entire family, so the legend is told, actually witnessed the doll moving by itself.

Years passed. Gene grew up, got married, settled down and inherited the house he grew up in. But he still kept Robert. And renovated a turret room in the house's attic as an apartment for the doll, complete with his own furniture. Needless to say, Gene's wife thought this was bizarre, and whenever they would have a quarrel, Gene continued in adulthood to blame it all on Robert. When Gene died in 1974, his wife chose to just leave the doll in the attic and sold the house with him up there. The next family to move in found him, and gave him to their young daughter. It was a gift they'd soon regret - the girl began screaming out in the middle of the night, claiming that Robert got up and walked, and attacked her on multiple occasions. Years later as an adult, she was still frightened by it and still insisted to interviewers that Robert the Doll was alive and wanted to kill her.

The doll was ultimately donated to the Key West Art and Historical Society, who in turn placed it with the Fort East Martello Museum. And in May 2008, Robert left Key West for the first time, to be on display at TapsCon, a paranormal convention held in Clearwater. It was here that Robert's picture was taken with some sort of special "aura-capturing camera", though apparently not a Kirlian one, and that sure enough, Robert's photo showed a purple mushroom-cloud aura around his head and a blue glow around his body.

Robert, who if nothing else has the claim to fame of being the inspiration for the "Chucky" movies, remains on display in Key West. Visit him at your own risk, and don't think unkind thoughts. He can hear them.

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