A decade before he founded Occupy Wall Street, the late anthropologist David Graeber published a now-famous article on the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) (In These Times, 27 December 1998). Buffy’s novelty, according to Graeber, came from her fighting supernatural evil in a world devoid of God or even a personal belief in Him.
The essay, “Rebel Without a God“, comes to mind while watching the inaugural season of Chucky (2021). It is the franchise’s first small-screen adaptation following many Child’s Play films that spanned 30 years (1988-2019). Instead of asking how good actions might exist absent a good supernatural cosmos, Chucky initially has us examine whether horror can actually exist in a ubiquitously horrible world. In other words, what would a slasher film look like that was written, produced, shot, based in, and only screened in Hell look like? This exciting possibility gives so much to the viewer – and then the series regrettably crabwalks its way back into a traditional teen horror show.
For those who don’t know, “Chucky” is a possessed doll. The serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), in his final moments, transferred his soul through voodoo into a doll. To realize his goal of becoming corporeal again, Lee Ray must find a child to perform the same ritual so his soul might vacate the toy and become a real boy. Unlike Pinocchio, Chucky has yet to reach his destination, but he has enjoyed the journey of slicing, squashing, and swearing his way through eight films.
Although Child’s Play has diverged at several points along its trail, it maintains a common thread of something as small, innocent, and cute as a child’s doll turning out to be crafty, manipulative, and deadly. In the Child’s Play films, there has been something of a general progression. Chucky becomes both a husband and father and, like his long-term antagonists, he has picked up some physical and emotional scars. Viewed in toto, the overarching character development is not in Chucky, but in the world he terrorizes.
In Tom Holland‘s original Child’s Play of 1988, Chucky is a present to a little boy, Andy (Alex Vincent). Although missing a father, Andy has a caring mother (Catherine Hicks) and is raised by a village of supportive neighbors, government workers, teachers, etc. In a song of innocence, it’s easy for Chucky to bring the horror. Subsequent films take place in subcultures: the foster care system, a military reform school, an insane asylum, etc. In several of these locales, people ultimately defeat Chucky with the acumen they gained by being marooned in unloving places. Yet, such subcultures are not entire societies.
At first, the current series seemed like a completion of this progression from evil in a good world to evil in a world so evil that malevolence is distinguished only in its manifestation and not its essence. In the current television series, a possessed doll’s knife is horrifying, but this punctuated violence is only an intermission for the more stomach-turning slow-moving torture of quotidian social existence two decades into the 21st century. The nightmare on all streets is not a paranormal gorgon, an aggrieved school janitor’s spirit, a vengeful mother of an unsupervised camp swimmer, a pariah family in Texas with a chainsaw or other imaginary scapegoats. It is our now.
To illustrate this, the show’s creators have come closer to anything that I have seen to building a pandemonium (Latin for “demons everywhere”). Even the setting for Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment (1541) is only half bad. In Chucky, devils are literally everywhere even if they are not literally devils. Each character is surrounded by their torturers. Those closest to them, who, in more normal times, would be loving, are now the cruelest.
Let’s look at the life of the story’s protagonist. Jake (Zackary Arthur) is a 14-year-old boy. He is a sensitive introvert, an aspiring artist, and gay. He lives with his widower father (Devon Sawa) who is brutish, a drinker, and provides for his only child by bitterly working at an auto repair shop.
Jake is bullied at school by richer, better-looking, more athletic, and straight kids, one of whom is his cousin. We have what is a seemingly sympathetic figure in Jake who could ultimately overcome the limitations of his world by overcoming Chucky or perhaps the other way around. But it is not that simple. Looking beyond the sexual-orientation bigotry written into Jake’s father, Jake actually sucks.
What Jake’s dad is to Jake, Jake is to his dad. Yes, such a dad is not going to be sympathetic to all aspects of his son’s existence. Yet, much of what Jake’s dad despises in Jake is valid. Jake is quite dumb, emotionally unpleasant, universally weak, immature, and talentless as an artist. He even works in the lowest-prestige visual medium of collages by reassembling dissected doll parts. Jake’s life at the emotional, social, and professional level will likely always be a disaster.
Jake’s father, like Jake, has other relationships of torture. Jake’s uncle is not a struggling mechanic but a successful unspecified something else. He has a sexy wife, a big house, a flash car, and a handsome, athletic, straight son with a blonde girlfriend, Lexi (Alyvia Alyn Lind), from an equally elite local family. If this wasn’t hard enough, this nephew tries to live up to his own father’s expectations. Likewise, Jake’s uncle (also played by Sawa) is burdened by the multifaceted failures of his brother as well as tortured by the non-verbal murmurings of his wife’s secrets.
These pairings of reciprocal torture extend throughout the story for each of the characters as well as a general humiliation and antagonism associated with broader social forms and values. That negativity exists in all types and scales of human relationships makes this story a literal pandemonium. Sartre’s hell of other people was never being able to escape their evaluations of you, this far worse hell is its inversion. Others do not conform to your expectations of an ideal father, son, brother, cousin, friend, etc., but paradoxically you fault them most for not unconditionally accepting you for “who you are”.
So how do the showrunners pull off something so unique and powerful? I have given you a basic formula of antagonism but not a description of the artistry needed to produce a fictional world that has meaning and can speak through words, colors, and shapes to ours. Chucky has some of the best worst acting available on television. The adult actors are professionally self-aware and in on the gag, but I’m less sure about the teens.
In the campy sci-fi film, Starship Troopers (1998), its director, Paul Verhoeven, is said to have screened for untalented actors so as to make the audience question the explicit motifs and messages of the film. Possibly along this vein, in Chucky, the teen performances are perfectly timed with their biological and professional lack of maturation. They are lanky, dead-eyed, yet whose confusion of everything, especially their own emotions, is jerked into being through an ugly spasm of facial expressions. Chucky’s teens are cast at the perfect age – just after abstractions become real enough to stumble over but before they become solid enough forms upon which to build.
Jake, for example, plays each scene like the rankest adolescent who, at a dinner, impeccably displays for the extended family his future of failure and the inevitability of embroiling all of them in his lifetime of emotional and professional malperformance. His lack of demeanor is physically expressed with so shaggy a bowl haircut—we can only assume from a lopsided bowl he made at art camp—that it leaves him between proto-tween and vestigial Neanderthal.
As Chucky is melodramatic, the dialogue and pacing match, leaving the audience careening off balance. Chucky appears to be the only one in the town capable of carrying on a conversation. He listens, tries to understand the internal worlds of others, even if it is to manipulate them, and speaks to people in ways they can understand. Everyone else sounds like people live-tweeting their therapy sessions.
Contours to this drama are given by the teenager scenes, where there is an uncanny silence between words, sentences, and people as if they are just now learning how to talk. But Chucky is as much serious Aeschylus as it is sitcom-y Saved by the Bell (1989-1993). Pronouncements of personal and public morality abound. Delivered into the invisible carnage of asocial relationships are statements about injustice, rights, ethics, duty, community, and all the keystones of our secular sermons. It steers closest to the ancient Greek sirens by coupling private sexuality and public morality.
When Jake is surprised that Chucky accepts his “gender fluid” son, Chucky is offended and responds: “I’m not a monster, Jake.” When Jake counters that Chucky murdered the marginalized (and thus by definition innocent) housekeeper, he swears that, of course, he didn’t do it because he only kills those who deserve it.
Visually, the episodes are subdued surrealism. Lexi’s overuse of bronzing, makeup, hair dye, and Liberace minimalism camouflages her in the ecosystem of the wallpaper, bedding, drapes, and stainless-steel appliances of America’s petite Versailles. For Halloween, her parents even dress like 18th-century French aristocrats for a ball. Their track housing mansions devote most of their spaces to grand entertaining areas where the teens seem to have a party every night.
However, the editing makes it difficult to be sure where one party ends, where another begins, and if people behave any differently at these parties than they do with their parents or while at school. These strangely unsensual and unsexual get-togethers typically funnel into Platonic teenage bedrooms, which are either plastered with anachronistic movie posters or look like 1880s Victorian brothels in Kansas City. They become bedrooms for an id that does not know its place and a place that does not know an id.
This brings us to the curious connection between sex and violence in Chucky. Trashy horror films are thought to have their origins in presenting a punishment for socially unsanctioned sex. In Chucky’s most farfetched surrealism, hormonal teenage boys rolling in the sheets lose their libido because they think their girlfriends are not quality people. Instead of a closet for seven minutes in heaven, “seven minutes in hell” at parties is a place where people choose to be uncomfortable in private with someone they lust after and who they know lusts after them.
Throughout the series, there is a failure to integrate particular aspects of their personality into a coherent human subject. For example, the gay characters have comfort in their identities with no comfort in the desires that produce such identities. This is a reversal of a coming-of-age story about the maturing of our inner worlds and then projecting them into the outer one. The ultimate act of coitus interruptus is having the punishment fit the crime.
Impaling lovers has been an iconic scene spanning 3,000 years from Phinehas in the Old Testament (Numbers 25:1-9) to Jason in Friday the 13th Part 2 (Steve Miner, 1981). Attempting to join such heavyweights in horror, Chucky hides under a teenager’s bed. His successive knife thrusts remain unconsummated as the lovers become distracted out of their supine positions by friends, phones, memories, and ethical evaluations of one another. Never being alone long enough to be together, seems to be punishment enough for healthy people. In such an un-carnal world, old-fashioned punishment fails to find a target.
True to modern social sensibilities, there is a neuro-atypical child in one of the families. Caroline (Carina Battrick) is the younger sister of the mean teenage girl antagonist, Lexi. Capable of savant-level art, Caroline develops a strong attachment to Chucky after seeing him at a school talent show “performing” as Jake’s puppet. She draws, plays video games, watches TV, becomes upset when she doesn’t have her blanket or sunglasses, and somewhat looks up to her sister.
Although there are direct references to her disabilities, unlike the rest of the population she seems nearly normal. She behaves and thinks like Andy, the child Chucky first attempted to possess back in the original 1988 film. Over 30 years, a typical child has thus become freakish while Chucky has become more indistinguishable from mainstream society. When her older sister questions whether it is age-appropriate for her to watch the local nightly news by saying “I thought you were watching West World,” we now know that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed is the most handicapped.
Communication technology organizes the contemporary nightmare. Much of the bullying is done online through Instagram, Facebook, and text. A GoFundMe page, ostensibly designed to help Jake and his family, instead mocks how financially impoverished they are. Jake’s love interest, Devon (Bjorgvin Arnarson), produces a podcast where he unhealthily obsesses over crime and serial killers. In this world, people are able to relive the worst parts of their day or lives over and over. Rather than a Kardashian sex tape trumpeting us into the elect, technology becomes a supercut of our own abuse.
The beginning of each show has a meta trigger warning that the colors and flashing lights may produce seizures, and at the end of the episode, there is a phone number made available if you know someone who is being bullied. As if flashing lights and bullying are only brought to us by Chucky.
The issue of technology is not new to Child’s Play. The mass production of children’s toys was connected with capitalist greed in John Lafia’s 1990 film, Child’s Play 2. In that film, the weapons of war are shown to be as deadly in the hands of teens as trained professionals. The most dramatic departure from the etiology of Chucky happened in Lars Klevberg’s 2019 Chucky film, when the doll’s evil was not a result of possession but a software glitch in a new interactive AI system.
Yes, Chucky is a doll possessed by a person possessed by a demon, but it could be said that we are people possessed by a glowing screen that is possessed by the worst parts of us. When Jake stalks Lexi by tracking her cellphone to kill her, he nearly stabs Junior Wheeler (Teo Briones) by mistake. Lexi lets her boyfriend borrow her phone to listen to her playlist after coordinating outfits. In this world, Junior might as well be Lexi, or anybody, or nobody.
Episode 3, which should have been the finalé if this show were horror in its truest sense, ends with Chucky seemingly killing Lexi by stabbing her in her bedroom. A fire started by this scuffle appears to consume, or at least threaten, partygoers in her house. As Chucky leaps at a cowering Lexi, between hearty human laughs, he tells her: “This is for Jake, you fucking little bleep bleep bleep.” The “bleeps” are in the episode, and one cannot tell what he is saying. Why censor those words but not “you fucking little” or the show’s violence itself? The arbitrary nature of the censorship captures the essence of the series up to this point.
If a satanic doll is about to stab a teen girl to death in her bedroom, does it make a sound if it happens deep within Hell? Such should be the contemporary impossibility of horror. What life could Lexi have had? She initially retreats to her bedroom to smoke a joint. But what could she be smoking marijuana for? What interior world could she be cultivating…or relaxing? These are legitimate questions because she may not have a soul.
This could also be said for the teens who silently dance “together” downstairs, with music playing only in their headphones. Their shut eyes never meet the eyes of their partners or the world itself. They remain as oblivious to a burning house as they would be to a burning bush. What future could Chucky possibly take from them? In this house the sociopathic doll is certainly the only thing that is happy, that can sincerely laugh, and possibly it is the only thing that is “alive”. Whereas Buffy taught us to fight evil, Chucky teaches us a harder lesson, that we may be evil. This is horror.
Subsequent episodes scrub away the mark of Cain and Chucky has become just another teen supernatural series. Ostensibly, this turn in narrative and tenor comes after the youths survived the house fire. Oddly, they neither reflect on what they learned nor how they have changed – if they have changed at all. The fire just happens and then the main characters coalesce on a mission to save themselves and the town.
In Matt and Ross Duffer’s Stranger Things series (2016-), the children are socialized, supported, and generally good people and we can see how they would organize for noble purposes. Chucky’s maladapted youth throwing off their embryonic yoke to fight for good is so unrealistic that it breaks the series. Perhaps we could hope that we can fight evil without being “good”? But, at the very least one needs to be competent and capable of cooperation.
Everything those children have been exposed to and who they are, however, indicates that this is impossible. Why does Chucky turn away from true horror? Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (1899) also ends with a lie. Marlow tells Kurtz’s widow that in his final words he spoke her name when in fact Kurtz’s final words were an assessment of existence itself as “the horror”.
Truth is a torch but a tremendous one. That is why we hurry past it, shielding our eyes, indeed, in fear of getting burned.– Goethe