On an otherwise mild June morning, a woman was jogging by the ballfields and elm trees of Crocheron Park in Queens when she spotted something horrific: a tiny body lying lifeless in the grass.
Paramedics arrived soon after, declaring the infant dead at the scene. Hours later, forensic investigators reached a different conclusion. The body was not a baby, they determined, but a hyper-realistic doll. Its blue-grey skin? The result of artistry, not abuse.
“It appeared to be a baby with discolouration consistent with the signs of prolonged death, but thankfully, it was actually a lifelike prop,” the FDNY said in a statement to WABC-TV. To complete its zombie-inspired look, the doll even sported a onesie reading “The Crawling Dead.”
Online, these realistic fake babies are known as “reborns” — a reference to their incredible verisimilitude — and a devoted community has been crafting and collecting them since at least the late ‘90s. Horror-themed reborns like the New York zombie baby are a more recent development, but even when the dolls are a healthy shade of brown or pink, it’s hard to describe them without using words like “uncanny,” “undead,” or “really fucking weird.”
By now, a subculture like the reborn scene isn’t that surprising. We all know how easy it is to find fellow travellers on the internet, whether that path is political, carnal, or (in this case) maternal. More shocking is the incredible cost of reborn dolls. Sure, if you’re happy with a mass-produced fake baby from China, you can get one for a couple hundred bucks. You’ll only have yourself to blame when little Hunter’s skin starts to flake off in chunks. And if your dream baby is more monster than man, a custom job is pretty much the only way to go.
On Etsy, one can find for sale dozens of “fantasy reborns” resembling neonatal dragons, aliens, werewolves and vampires. A handmade baby mermaid can be had for around $750. A miniature Shrek? That will be $580, thanks.
María Álvarez Porto has been making reborns for more than half a decade and now sells dolls like “Mutant Dragon, can drink and pee,” priced at $2,300. She told Gizmodo that her prices reflect the cost of high-quality materials and the extensive work that goes into each doll, which is “never exactly the same as another and in most cases is totally customised.” If a doll is made of silicone, she said, painting alone can take four weeks.
“I believe that the appeal of this type of doll, in the case of fantasies, is precisely that: It is a fantasy baby,” explained Porto. “There are many people who like the dream and fantasy world (the world of vampires, dragons, fairies) or are followers and collectors of movie sagas and here they find another piece for their collection — but with a more real look and feel.”
Porto says that she loves bringing these ideas to life, and a quick glance at her Etsy shop’s reviews suggests a strong mutual benefit from each sale.
“This baby is exactly as described, it shipped on time, communication was great I love love love it ????,” gushes one satisfied customer, who paid more than $1,450 for “Premature Dragon can drink and pee.” If a peeing dragon baby brings someone that much joy, who are we to judge?
At love’s heels, however, scurries the eternal threat of loss. The owner of the zombie baby found in Queens was never identified, and a police spokesperson told Gizmodo there have been no developments in the case. Somewhere in the labyrinth that is the New York City justice system, a doll parent’s undead child may still be sitting in a box marked “evidence.” But evidence of what?