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Squirrels, Porcelain Dolls and ‘Shockheaded Peter’

by on October 23, 2012

My brother was given a porcelain squirrel by my Grandma when he was very young. She thought it was a sweet and endearing object that he could play with. Yet, to this day, that “cute” red squirrel haunts him…

Now 22yrs old, he says that he remembers clearly how he thought the squirrel’s eyes would follow him as he walked around the room. They were large, shiny and extremely life-life. No wonder he was spooked.

I too also recall a particularly uncanny moment whilst playing hide and seek at my Grandparents’ house.  I tiptoed into their bedroom mischievously, and to my horror, several porcelain dolls (my Grandma clearly had a thing for porcelain) were staring down at me from on top of her wardrobe. They were all in transparent boxes – contained – yet their perfect faces and heads cocked unnaturally to one side provoked a feeling of revolution from within me.

As young children, our imaginations are extremely powerful and this often makes us fearful of such objects – which are real yet not real.

On the subject of frightening small children…

In 2004, I saw the musical “Shockheaded Peter” in London. This adaptation of a 19th-century play tells cautionary tales for children, using both puppetry and actors in the style of grotesque Grand Guignol.

Here are a couple of example scenes from the show:

Harriet burns to death when she plays with matches

Conrad Suck-a-Thumb bleeds to death when the Scissor Man removes his thumb

Fidgety Philip impales himself on the family’s best cutlery

These nightmarish scenes would be almost impossible to perform with just actors (and the stage would be pretty gross, covered in blood…) so instead they use puppets. Even though you are aware that they are not real (they’re controlled physically by the actors) you still feel a huge sense of empathy with these performing objects. There painted-on facial expressions look human – and ultimately, you identify with them as humans, regardless of the fact that you know they are not. I heard several people wincing in the audience when one puppet’s thumb was chopped off with giant scissors.

It was interesting that, for me, I empathised more with the unfortunate puppets (knowing they were inanimate performing objects) than the vile humans (actors smothered in grotesque clown-ish makeup, with pale faces and evil grins).

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