The first trailer for the reboot of Child’s Play came with a surprise. The original was about a serial killer who possessed a doll and killed a bunch of people. Now, Chucky’s a smart toy who finds autonomy…and then kills a bunch of people. It seemed odd for a reboot to change the premise of its own story this much but it actually makes perfect sense.
The first movie played on that all-too-real phenomenon of “Satanic Panic.” This one is about the fear of technology. Whether by accident or design, Child’s Play is a horror franchise that perfectly encapsulates American moral anxiety.
Child’s Play debuted on November 9, 1988, spawning a massive franchise with six sequels, comic books, and a shitty mobile game. It told the story of a serial killer named Charles Lee Ray who, after being shot, performed a “voodoo ritual” (I seriously can’t make my air quotes big enough) that put his soul in a Cabbage Patch Kids-type doll. Then, you know, mass murder.
Funny enough, this wasn’t the starting pitch. According to an interview with Mental Floss, writer Don Mancini’s first script was about a popular kids doll that was filled with a blood-like substance. When the doll’s blood became mixed with his owner Andy’s, Chucky became a scary version of Andy’s “id,” killing everyone who pissed him off. The whole “serial killer possesses a doll” thing was added by someone else much later—something Mancini said he did not care for, by the way.
But it ended up being one of the most important things about the film. You see, Child’s Play came out in the midst of a huge morality movement.
The ‘80s were…a weird time. The previous two decades were all about peace and love—which meant sex, spiritual exploration, and lots of drugs. But it also meant the Manson Family, Ted Bundy, and Jonestown. Cult murders, child abuse, kidnappings, “stranger danger,” and serial killers started getting a lot more attention. It started with faces of kidnapped children showing up on milk cartons, then it got more attention on the news and in movies. It’s no coincidence that serial killer movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween started growing in popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Not to mention Chucky’s real name is based on three actual killers: Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswald, and James Earl Ray.
Then, we got Ronald Reagan, televangelism, and the rise of fundamentalist Christianity. The perfect storm of moral panic—a lot of it centered around the safety of children. People were scared. With so much perceived evil in the world, much of it with the potential to harm kids, there needed to be a reason for all the pain. Instead of taking a step back and looking at our society as a whole, it was decided that the reason was…Satan.
For anyone who grew up in an evangelical household (raises hand), the idea that the devil is a real and destructive force in our lives is something that’s often conveyed. But many religious folks got a really big scare when the Church of Satan opened in 1966. It mostly served as a counterculture group focused on humanism but many religious people saw it as an abomination—and part of a larger problem. Fear of the occult has gone on for centuries (hello, Salem Witch Trials), but this was a unique situation. There was a strong belief that the devil was real, he was here, and was working to steal the souls of American children. That satanists and occult worshippers could lead children down a dark road, leading to possession, anarchy, and even the apocalypse.
This wasn’t just a religious scare. Satanic Panic was a public menace. From the mid-‘80s into the early ‘90s, hundreds of teens, parents, and daycare workers were accused of abusing or killing children in satanic rituals. Many were arrested and put on trial, largely based on testimony from the kids themselves, which used a debunked technique called “recovered memory therapy.”
This phenomenon skyrocketed in popularity within the courts following the release of 1980’s Michelle Remembers, written by psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his patient Michelle Smith, who later became his wife. In the book, Pazder described using hypnosis and other therapy techniques to help Smith recall years of satanic ritual abuse, supposedly at the hands of the Church of Satan. The book has since been discredited, but the effects were quick and powerful. Recovered memory therapy became a valuable tool—especially for prosecutors, who were reported to have coerced or manipulated testimony provided by some of the victims.
The most famous case about satanic ritual abuse at the time was the McMartin Preschool trial. It started in 1987, just a year before Child’s Play came out, and ended after three years with zero convictions. This all might sound kind of ridiculous, given what we know now, but this was a real problem with real ramifications. People’s lives were destroyed. Some ended up serving years in prison, like the West Memphis Three. One woman in Texas was just exonerated in 2018…after 21 years behind bars. One of America’s biggest witch hunts since the actual witch hunt happened because of Satanic Panic.
Satanic Panic went beyond the courts into everyday life. Children’s books like Don’t Make Me Go Back, Mummy taught kids how to tell mum or dad that their teacher was a devil worshiper. Cops were trained in how to detect satanic activity—targeting followers of the Church of Satan, as well as pagans and people who practiced voodoo. There was also a huge emphasis on popular media—how it was evil, corrupt, and designed to turn kids to Satan. Things like heavy metal, roleplaying games, and toys. Including, that’s right, the Cabbage Patch Kid! The very inspiration for Chucky himself.
In 1986, pastor G. Richard Fisher told his followers that Cabbage Patch Dolls were evil because they’re adopted and you sign a “contract” for them. Therefore, Satan could enter your home and cause all kinds of trouble. Fisher once described a “real story” where a Cabbage Patch doll was preventing a woman from giving birth to her baby:
The mum had been in labour for two or three days, with no signs of problems for the mother or baby, but no progress. This was baby number five. The Lord prompted me to ask them about any items in their home through which Satan could gain entrance to interfere. There was a Cabbage Patch doll in their home. They threw it outside and agreed to burn it when they could get a fire going. Within two hours, this mum had a beautiful son.
Child’s Play feels like the catalyst of that decade-long moral paranoia. Chucky wasn’t just a serial killer who used a magical ritual to possess a child’s plaything, he was literally their worst fears brought to life: an occult evil targeting children. Which brings us to 2019.
We recognise that Satanic Panic was, well, wrong. Another McCarthy-like era of persecution that targeted people for what they liked, and discriminated against actual religious beliefs. Nowadays, we have something else to be scared of: technology. One of our biggest concerns is how technology has infiltrated our lives—whether it’s in fiction, like with Black Mirror, or the real world. It feels like every day there’s something new and exciting, and possibly scary. We fear it getting to the point where the technology we’ve created becomes something we can’t control, which would mean…possession, anarchy, and the apocalypse! Ring any bells? And, much like Satanic Panic, much of that anxiety centres around how it’s affecting kids. I’m not saying they are two sides of the same coin, by any means. What I am saying is both of them represent a common fear—a fear of something we don’t understand.
Look, who doesn’t love a good haunted doll watch? But there’s a reason the reboot has changed its hook. Chucky becoming a robot for kids isn’t some desperate ploy for the story to remain relevant…at least not entirely. It’s a natural evolution for this horror franchise that, surprisingly, carries some narrative weight.
Chucky changed because our fears changed. He truly is a smart toy—perhaps a little smarter than we give him credit for.