'Creepy Doll Contest' returns for Halloween at Minnesota museum

Creepy dolls on display at Rochester museum
This doll -- called "Victorian" -- is among the contenders in the 2020 version of the History Center of Olmsted County's "Creepy Doll Contest."
Photo by Nate DeBoer, courtesy History Center of Olmsted County

Nothing screams Halloween quite like the faded faces and piercing eyes of antique dolls.

That's the idea behind the "Creepy Doll Contest" at the History Center of Olmsted County in Rochester, now back for its second year after gaining widespread attention in 2019.

Curator Dan Nowakowski has picked nine finalists that are up for public voting through Wednesday. Among the contenders: “Victorian,” from the 1880s. 

“She has glass eyes that are almost lifelike looking," Nowakowski said. "Whoever views (her) on our Facebook page will hopefully be able to see those eyes as they stand out. ... Out of all the dolls, she’s got the ones that look the most human.”

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There's also “Arsenic and Old Lace,” one of Nowakowski’s favorites. She was a fashion trend doll from between 1915 and 1940 who was never played with. And as if having human hair isn’t creepy enough, she is also coated with deadly chemicals. 

“She is made with human hair, (and) they treated the human hair with arsenic,” Nowakowski said. "She is painted with real makeup but then she has been covered with lead paint to keep it preserved and shiny.”

Creepy dolls on display at Rochester museum
"Arsenic and Old Lace" is among the contenders in the "Creepy Doll Contest."
Photo by Nate DeBoer, courtesy History Center of Olmsted County

And then there's "Lady MacBeth," likely the oldest doll in the contest, possibly dating as far back as 1800. 

“All the other dolls are either porcelain, tin or plastics. This is the only wax doll we have for the contest. And wax was not a common material used for dolls," Nowakowski said.

The full line-up of finalists can be found on the History Center's social media pages and viewed at the museum; find more details on the History Center's website.

Creepy dolls on display at Rochester museum
"Lady MacBeth" is among the candidates in the History Center of Olmsted County's "Creepy Doll Contest" this month.
Photo by Nate DeBoer, courtesy History Center of Olmsted County

Nowakowski is decider of the dolls. He sorts through historical artifacts donated by Olmsted County residents, which include about 75 dolls. 

The idea of the contest is to not just highlight the dolls' eerie qualities, but also delve into the history.

“We’ll pull out every single doll in our collection and go look at each one and narrow it down to like 15 or so dolls. Then after doing some research, making sure there is family history tied with the doll, or if there is a significant story, we'll narrow it down more," he said.

Last year's contest drew curiosity from people across the country and around the world.

And it was a hit locally, too. In fact — it inspired an outbreak of “creepy doll” costumes in Rochester last Halloween. So this year, the History Center decided to host a creepy doll costume pageant as part of the event. 

“Along with voting for the creepy dolls, people can dress up as a creepy doll and then submit a short video to us, and our staff will decide on which one we think is the creepiest," Nowakowski said.

The winners of the costume pageant and the creepy doll contest will be announced at a virtual "Creepy Doll Cocktail Party" on Halloween night. 

Amid the pandemic and all the changes it's bringing to the holiday, Nowakowski said he hopes the return of the creepy dolls will help boost the spirit of Halloween this year. 

“We thought, let’s keep this contest going so people who do enjoy Halloween can have something to view and keep them occupied," he said.