As if some of the stories in our genre are not horrible enough, there is one phrase that seems to elevate their mystique – “based on a true story.” One can find easily find stories from real life that are far more disturbing and shocking than anything put to screen. And while serial killers, true crime stories, and mysteries, have been cited as the inspiration for several classic horror films – like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street – inspiration is as far as it seems to go. Few movies actually tell the entire tale. A rumor that still seems to be making the rounds is that the killer doll Chucky from Child’s Play was inspired by an infamous haunted toy called Robert the Doll. A quick Google search pulls up at least a dozen articles claiming this as fact, or it is mentioned casually in other articles about the doll itself. The only problem is that there is no real citation for the veracity of this claim, probably because it simply isn’t true. It’s hard to tell when exactly this rumor started. It is possible to see where people made the connection because both stories contain an element of voodoo, but it’s time to set the record straight on Chucky’s true origins.
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Robert the Doll was the property of Robert Eugene Otto, known as Gene, an artist from Key West, Florida. He was given the doll in 1904, and maintained an oddly close relationship with it into his adulthood. Robert was 3 feet tall, made of straw, had human hair, and wore a sailor outfit. Gene named Robert after himself and took the doll everywhere he went. Their relationship turned sinister when Gene started blaming various acts on the doll. When things would get thrown around a room or other toys of Gene’s would be mutilated, the boy would claim, “I didn’t do it! Robert did!” His parents would hear Gene talking to Robert, and giggling. A part of Robert’s folklore is that he was given to Gene by a Bahamian or Haitian servant who put a voodoo curse on the doll as revenge for her mistreatment by Gene’s parents.
In 1994, Robert was donated to the Fort East Martello Museum in Key West, where he currently resides in a glass case and seems to continue his reign of terror. Visitors and staff claim to have seen the doll move or change facial expression. It is said that anyone who takes a picture of the doll without first asking for Robert’s permission is then cursed by him, and the museum receives many letters from visitors apologizing to Robert for “disrespecting” him.
Admittedly, that’s a cool story. And some of the elements do sound a little bit like what we see in the first Child’s Play film. One of the movie’s best scenes starts with Karen Barclay overhearing her son Andy speaking to someone in his room, and finding out that he is speaking to Chucky. And, obviously, Charles Lee Ray was able to transfer his soul into the doll through the use of voodoo. But that’s really where the similarities end, and the belief that the two maniacal toys have any sort of connection is only based on pure assumption. The real inspiration for Chucky is easy to find.
Don Mancini wrote the original script for what would eventually become Child’s Play, and currently holds the reigns on the original franchise, having written all the films and directed the last three. He was a junior at UCLA in the mid-80s when Cabbage Patch Kids were all the rage in the consumer market. Growing up, Mancini’s father worked in marketing and advertising, and so he had the inside scoop on how the campaigns worked. As Mancini stated in a 2013 interview: “I just knew a lot about the world of advertising, and how cynical it is, especially with regard to children.” He also cites the use of a real advertising term that refers to children as “consumer trainees” (which was used in Child’s Play 3).
Adding to all this, Mancini had been a life-long horror fan and knew of the dolls-coming-to-life trope that had been used in films like Trilogy of Terror, and the Twilight Zone episode “Talking Tina.” He realized, however, that this idea had never before been fleshed out into a full-length film. Thus, the seed for Child’s Play was planted. (For more info on the evolution of the movie, read our article here.) As you can see, Robert the Doll plays no part in this origin story. Neither Mancini nor Tom Holland, who reworked the original script and directed the film, has ever made any kind of mention of the haunted doll.
This is something that even Robert experts seem to know. David Sloan is the author of the book Robert the Doll, and is a paranormal enthusiast who started the first ghost tour in Key West, Florida. He is often the go-to guy for information on one of the most haunted cities in America. In an interview with Florida Weekly on June 22, 2017, Sloan was asked, “Anything specific come to mind that you’d like to set the record straight on?” Sloan’s answer?: “Robert was not the inspiration for Chucky. Child’s Play creator Don Mancini has stated that the My Buddy Doll and Cabbage Patch Kids inspired his movies. Robert has parallels, but had nothing to do with it. Too many people will sacrifice the truth for a good story. Nobody wants to let this lie die.”
So there you have it. While it’s a neat idea to think that Robert and Chucky are kindred spirits of sorts, it’s just not the case. Robert will probably forever remain one of the famous supernatural legends, and Chucky as the most famous killer doll in film, but hopefully now their rumored connection is severed, and they can each enjoy their own separate levels of infamy.
*Updated July 3, 2023