[Editor’s note: This article includes some spoilers for the film “Hereditary.”]
Creepy dolls have always been a mainstay of the horror genre — hell, there’s an entire franchise built around one of them and his delightfully murderous tendencies — but Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” takes the kind of props that have long peppered our collective nightmares and makes them feel fresh and freaky as ever. Aster’s twisted film follows a family reeling from a death that leaves them on the brink of something even more horrific, and much of the film’s action takes place within the Grahams’ sprawling, secret-laden house. That house is also filled with two different kinds of dolls: the sterile miniatures that populate mom Annie’s (Toni Collette) artistic works and the more homespun versions that young daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) crafts in her spare time from random junk and scavenged bits (and, yes, even dead pigeons).
Those dolls have been hard to avoid.
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After a midnight screening of the much-hyped film at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, horror-loving cinephiles woke up to some terrifying new “gifts” waiting for them on their doorsteps; even “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins wasn’t safe, nor was IndieWire’s own Eric Kohn, both of whom received their very own creepy creations mere hours after the film freaked out a new audience. “They put a doll outside of Barry Jenkins’ room! That was my favorite thing,” star Alex Wolff recalled to IndieWire recently. “Poor director of ‘Moonlight’ walks out and he got no sleep because of the movie before. And then he gets a fucking doll outside his room. Pretty perfect.”
In the lead up to the film’s release, indie distribution A24 sent out smaller, mass-produced versions of the dolls, which were delivered alongside a business card instructing recipients to check out an Etsy store where “Charlie” is hawking more of her gross wares. Those dolls might not be the exact ones that appear in the film, but they were hand-crafted by the same artist: Sam Demke, who was tasked with getting into Charlie’s mind and producing a number of her, well, unique dolls. It wasn’t easy.
Demke grew up on movies like “Star Wars,” “Labyrinth,” and “The Dark Crystal,” and was always “wowed by the puppetry and just the cool props and stuff that they had in them.” When he headed off to college, his artistic aspirations stuck, though he wasn’t sure it would necessarily lead to a career. “I went to college thinking that I could take whatever classes I wanted and that’s how I would get a degree,” he said with a laugh. “I just took loads of art classes, studio classes, and then I ended up never getting a degree, because I couldn’t find anything that I thought I could make a living doing art as.”
The artist admits he “kind of lucked into” working on film productions, first helping out friends who were also using their skills on film and television sets, before signing on to his very first feature: Jared Hess’ 2009 comedy “Gentleman Broncos.” Demke dabbles in a wide range of artistic disciplines — from large-scale sculptures to set decoration — but Hess’ film gave him the chance to show off his painting skills. Those paintings by “Ronald Chevalier” (played by Jemaine Clement in the film)? Those are Demke’s.
“He kind of just let me do my own thing,” Demke said of Hess. “He was like, ‘Look, I kind of know what your art is like. Just run with it kind of thing, but make it your own.’ You don’t get a whole lot of moments like that in film. Usually, you’re kind of micromanaged and not able to do much. … That was my first film and I got real spoiled with it because I was just like, ‘Man, every director is just gonna let me make my own creations.'”
While Demke soon found that the freedom Hess offered him wasn’t the norm, other gigs have returned him to that same place of creative exploration. Recently, Demke also made a run of props for the indie comedy “Brigbsy Bear,” which chronicles a sheltered guy (Kyle Mooney, who also co-wrote the film) who discovers that the eponymous kids’ show he’s grown up with is not actually real. It’s hard to blame Mooney’s character for buying the ruse for so long, because not only did his dad (Mark Hamill) make new episodes every week, he also crafted a bunch of merchandise to go with it.
Demke made toys, action figures, stuffed animals, even a lamp in Brigsby’s likeness. “It was super fun. I would just work from home, my wife [Demke’s wife, Ali, is also an artist] and I, and just bring stuff out [to set] and it was awesome,” he said. “As soon as you kind of dial in what they like, then it’s like you can just blast through stuff. When they like it, it gives you confidence and you’re in a zone. It’s pretty rad.”
So, yes, the guy who made a mess of totally adorable Brigsby Bear paraphernalia, huggable cartoon bears and a sweet little lamp and all that jazz, was later tasked with making a bunch of dolls that occasionally feature dead animals. It was weird for Demke, too.
Credit production designer Grace Yun for finding Demke; she’s the one who reached out to the artist when the production was struggling to find a capable artist to make Charlie’s devious little tchotchkes. While Demke said he enjoyed his first meeting with Aster and Yun, when he settled down to read the film’s script, he didn’t think it was the right job for him. “I took the script home that night and I read it, and I remember just thinking, ‘Oh, man, I cannot work on this,'” he said. “I’m a religious guy. I’m Mormon. I’m from Utah. I was just like, ‘This is too dark.'”
And that’s from someone who likes horror films. “I love horror films!,” Demke said. “It’s not like I don’t watch horror films, but I don’t know, there were some elements in that one that were just so dark. But now, I’ve kind of inhabited the whole world. … I’m just super excited. Hopefully I don’t get scarred for life and I can keep watching horror movies.”
Demke eventually got up the guts to take on the project, which offered him the chance to further expand his cinematic oeuvre and to take his skills with sculpture into a different direction. Aster and Yun had just one demand: “They were very clear about not wanting it to be over-the-top scary, because you don’t want to just be that cliche horror movie with creepy dolls or whatever,” Demke said. “I totally love that idea, that it’s not just in your face kind of thing.”
While Aster’s script didn’t get into too many details as to the look of the dolls, Aster and Yun advised Demke to get into Charlie’s mindset when it came to gathering materials. “She’s not shopping for these things,” Demke said. “She’s just kind of scrounging. I’m a pack rat. I’m an artist. I’ve got tons of crap in my house. I did like three or four just in a day just to kind of see if they would like them. They liked the direction I was going, but not necessarily the items. … Grace was like, ‘No, they’re too antique-y.’ … I just started reworking it with other materials, more kind of nature stuff, because she had a big treehouse, so I figured we should be using sticks and stuff like that.”
By changing up his materials — and adding in stuff like hair barrettes and buttons, which serve as an eerie reminder that Charlie is still just a kid — Demke found his stride.
“I had done this one that I was really excited about, but in my mind, I was kind of thinking I had gone a little over-the-top, like it was maybe a little too well-done as far as a little girl making a sculptural piece or whatever,” He said. “Ari was like, ‘Oh, man, this is amazing. It’s maybe not what Charlie would do, but I love it and we’re gonna use it.’ When he said that, I was just like, ‘Oh, well, I’m just gonna kind of do what I want to do and I think they’re gonna like it.’ After that, they liked everything that I did.”
Demke estimates that he made about 25 dolls, at least 15 of which ended up in the film. That includes a pivotal one that’s memorably topped off with a dead pigeon head that Charlie discovers at school, after said pigeon crashes into the window of her classroom. Charlie’s retrieval of the head is both gruesome and weirdly funny (just try looking at a pair of safety scissors afterwards), but the importance of the doll it breeds goes way beyond just that scene.
“In the script, it talks about how she cuts off a dead pigeon’s head that she finds at school, then there’s another scene in the script where she’s got some of her little dolls and one of them, I think, had a rabbit head, and one of them had a pigeon head, and another one was a crow’s head,” Demke said. “Each had these little animal heads, and then there was a center figure that didn’t have any head. All of the other animals were kind of kneeling down to the center figure without a head.”
That’s a tableau that will sound familiar to anyone who has seen the film, a clever bit of foreshadowing built right into Charlie’s (and Demke’s) singular handiwork.
About that Etsy shop: it’s real, and Demke made a bunch of new dolls for it. “We did 50 of them, my wife and I, and even my 12-year-old son was helping me,” he said. “It was like a family thing. We were all making these creepy dolls. It was super fun. I mean, I loved it. It’s been one of the funnest projects that I’ve ever done for film.” And, appropriately enough, a family affair to boot.
“Hereditary” is in theaters now.