Our Fetish for Zuni

Why we’ll never escape “that doll”

by Kristi Petersen Schoonover

May 05, 2012

Zuni Fetish Doll - Trilogy of Terror

Yeah, we love that Zuni fetish doll from 1974’s Trilogy of Terror, but why?

The answer lies in what he represents.

The mention of 1974’s Trilogy of Terror sometimes results in a blank stare until I jog it by adding: “you know, the one with the nasty doll that chases a woman around her apartment?”

The memory is suddenly fresh: “That doll scared me so much as a kid! I had nightmares for weeks!”

The person never remembers the film’s title, its star, that it’s an anthology, or the name of the freaky dervish: Zuni. In fact, a search on “trilogy of terror zuni doll” turns up a YouTube video titled “Trilogy of [T]error. The one with the doll. Part 1,” and even Art Schmidt of borg.com, an online fest for hardcore speculative fans, admits “The first two [stories] I can honestly say I have no memory of whatsoever.”¹

What the person does remember are the doll’s beady eyes, predatory teeth, and language (like a voice-boxed baby being choked). He can also recall his first viewing—down to his environment, circumstance, age and even what he was wearing. Schmidt, whom I mentioned earlier, claims the movie “physically altered my DNA,”² and I’m sure many children of the 1970s feel the same.

So what is it about the Zuni fetish doll?

Each Trilogy of Terror segment is based on a Richard Matheson short story: “The Likeness of Julie,” “Therese,” and “Prey,” respectively. Although the stories are unrelated, the theme which connects them is imprisonment—each tells of a woman battling for her freedom. This is a strong symbolic connection to the Women’s Liberation Movement, which was in its infancy when Matheson penned “The Likeness of Julie” (1962), was in full swing when he wrote “Therese” and “Prey” (1968 and 1969, respectively) and was at its height when Trilogy of Terror aired in 1974.

Whether Matheson intended to comment on this repression of women is unclear, but it’s possible that the social climate informed his work. Consider the plots and how they comment on goals the Women’s Liberation Movement was trying to achieve: In “Julie,” the title character is cloaked in layers of tweed and polyester—until a nearby male “wonder [s] what she’d look like under all those clothes.”³ The plot involves the shedding of those clothes and the emergence of Julie’s latent personality as a result; she is set free through the sexual act. Comment: women should be allowed to dress as they please and not be dictated by what society decides is “proper.” In “Millicent and Therese,” a woman with multiple personality disorder tries to free herself from the memory of the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her father. Comment: oppression and suffering at the hands of men (as in lower pay, lack of access to education and other things) must come to a halt. In “Amelia,” a single woman has moved out of her controlling mother’s house into her own apartment. Comment: women do not need to have a husband and children in order to find fulfillment.

Enter the Zuni fetish doll. Amelia tells her mother: “There’s supposed to be some Zuni hunter’s spirit inside of it and um, there’s a golden chain wrapped around it to keep the spirit from making the doll come to life.”4 This is a particularly enlightening piece of dialogue. The doll represents Amelia, and the chain around her—keeping her from all that life has to offer—represents her mother. The Zuni spirit represents Amelia’s lust and right to experience sex, which we sense have been repressed and denied for a very long time. The cancellation of her planned sexual encounter is the ultimate straw, however. Amelia is so sexually frustrated and resentful of her mother that she (metaphorically) breaks the chain. The doll attacking her represents her nasty, repressed inner self destroying the façade she shows the world. She is transformed from a quiet, repressed woman into a murderous beast—and she will never be the same.

This is what we all, subconsciously, recognize in that Zuni fetish doll. The doll’s spirit represents all that is repressed or is struggling to break free in each of us, and the plot of this story provides a visual on what might occur should we fail to control it. We will never escape the Zuni, because the Zuni is inside of us. He is the ugly we see in ourselves we hope to God never gets loose.

So the next time you watch Trilogy of Terror and think, “man, after all these years that doll still scares me,” stop and ask yourself why.

The answer just might terrify you more.

¹ Art Schmidt, “Halloween video recommendations, Part 3–Art’s list,” Borg.com http://borg.com/2011/10/28/halloween-video-recommendations-part-3-arts-list/ (accessed May 2, 2012).

² Ibid.

³ Trilogy of Terror, DVD, directed by Dan Curtis (1974; Orland Park, IL: Dark Sky Films, 2006).

4 Ibid.