6 Things You Learn Selling 'Haunted' Dolls To People
Welcome to the new millennium, when we're all genius skeptics but still give $1 billion to a film franchise that makes paranormal heroes out of confirmed frauds. Hauntings always make for good stories, and many of us on some level just want to believe.
If you aren't lucky enough to currently live in a murder house or orphan asylum, the easiest way to buy into this fantasy is to poke around on the web and purchase a haunted item of your very own. We've rolled our eyes at these items before, but we were still curious about just who's behind these things and what goes into selling them. So we sat down with a successful "haunted artifact" seller, and she told us ...
You Don't Need To Film Your Own Horror Movie, But It Helps
I was a broke college student, too sick to work and hungry for food and money. So in what felt like the ultimate move of desperation, I headed over to eBay to learn how much I could get from pawning off everything I owned. The answer: Not much. But while browsing, I also stumbled onto an area most people have never heard of: the Metaphysical section. Tarot cards and Ouija boards cluttered most of it, and then the truly weird stuff was parked in a section marked "Psychic, Paranormal." That's where I saw my first set of "haunted" dolls.
"Possessed doll calls out for 'Mama'. Requires 2 AA batteries."
I knew they were fake. Anyone with half a brain would realize that. But I was intrigued by just how many gullible people there could be out there ... and even more intrigued by the money. A doll could sell for as little as $20, but most go for upwards of $100. The truly evil looking dolls fetch even higher prices; I've seen haunted dolls fool people into coughing up a grand or more.
Not owning any dolls myself, haunted or otherwise, I headed down to somewhere that sold everything, and for cheap: the Salvation Army. I couldn't afford a proper porcelain doll (I was literally on my last dollar), but a $0.50 teddy bear caught my eye. And just in case the bear itself wasn't enough, I cooked up something a little extra for the listing -- my own Paranormal Activity video.
"Hmm. The video effects look nice, but will anyone click on a listing for 'Mr. Snuggles, The Doom Bringer?'"
Over in my apartment, my desk chair had a faulty leg that kept popping out and sending me crashing to the floor. I hadn't got the money to replace it, but now it was going to make me money. I set teddy on the chair, tied a string around the chair leg, set up a camera, hid, and then gave the string a yank. Boom: Footage of a haunted bear bringing a chair down.
People ate it up. I'd bought the bear for fifty cents and sold it for $20, and I knew this was just the beginning.
Though how there's a market for vengeful ghosts willing to break all your furniture I'll never understand.
After that initial listing, I realized I didn't need to be so elaborate. No one else puts video proof on their listings -- they just write a little story. Mine is that I'm the leader of a local paranormal investigation group, and we remove haunted items from locations we visit at the property owners' request. How do I get away with such blatant bullshit? Well ...
EBay Tried And Failed To Get Rid Of These Auctions
You might be wondering, "Surely there's something in eBay's guidelines about being truthful in listings. You can't just advertise an item as haunted when it's clearly not and get away with it." Well, the site has tried to clear out the haunted items. But they always come back. Haunted stuff is spooky like that.
During the high point about five years ago, haunted items were flying off the shelves. I was small time (I'd only sell a few every week), but the big guys were selling 50-plus a week and making huge money. EBay finally noticed and unleashed a huge crackdown, banning any listing with the word "haunted." The new rule was a ban on all "intangibles" -- no haunted items, no curses, no spells, no potions. (Also, no advice, no prayers, no promises of information. Bullshit comes in many forms.)
It's also available for any budget.
The sellers filtered out for a while. I ducked out of the business before I got in any trouble and just lay low. But others didn't get scared, they got creative. They switched to indirect language. Instead of haunted items, they were "spirit" items. They stopped promising ghostly activity and resorted to the seller's favorite ass-covering descriptor: "item sold as-is." The market was still there, and the folks who wanted haunted items learned the lingo very quickly.
It's also an excellent bit of lingo for those looking to unload a beat-up couch for the price of a new car.
I waited a few years to get back in because that water was still too hot for me: One incorrect wording, and I'd have to kiss the sale and possibly my whole store goodbye. But when I resurfaced a few years later, everything was more-or-less back to normal. EBay either gave up trying to clean them out or is biding their time on committing to another sweep.
We Photoshop The Images To Give Them That Haunted Look
I'm not going to link you to any of my current inventory, but here are some pictures from listings old enough that I think I can safely share them without scaring any of today's customers off:
A good haunted image should be indistinguishable from a photo of the inside of your pocket.
As you should realize if you think about it for a few seconds, they're touched up.
I always take the photos in my bedroom, where the light is dim. I lay out a black quilt I have for the background. (I always get less bids when the background is something conventional. You don't want to see a toaster or some socks in a haunted doll's background. Unless you're really kinky, I guess.) I then take shots from every angle -- left, right, shooting from below, shooting from above, a close up, and then a wide shot. Every so often I'll get a "blurry shot" like the third up there, They're unintentional, since I have shaky hands, but they look sufficiently spooky, so I keep them.
Apparently the first sign of a haunting is a mean set of coffee jitters.
Lastly, I take them to a free online photo editor and slap a scary filter on them. I'll cross-process or make the whole thing black and white. Sometimes, I just boost the colors in the picture. It all sort of depends on the story I've laid out for the doll -- if it's a nicer spirit, I'll go with brighter colors overall.
So a photo like this:
Comes from a doll like this:
So trust "haunted" photos like you do "#NoFilter" ones on Instagram.
My point here is that ... uh ... shit. I dunno, on second thought, maybe the untouched doll is the scarier one. Anyone got any Photoshop tips? Drop me a line.
The Stupider The Items, The More People Lap Them Up
During the high point of the market, I got pretty ballsy and started selling a few things other than dolls. People were listing jewelry that was haunted or possessed by other types of spirits. The popular ones were vampires and incubi/succubi (I don't know why you'd want a rape demon around your neck, but hey, that's your business), but there were also djiin (genies), dragons ... the crazier, the better. Some of the craziest ones promise special powers and even the ability to grant wishes. And you gotta admit, three wishes for $129.99 is a hell of a deal.
Pfft. Why stop at three wishes?
I used a method I borrowed from one of my big-name competitors: Buy cheap jewelry from eBay and then sell it right back on the same platform as "haunted." The competitor whose account I was watching didn't even bother to hide their buying habits. I watched them buy jewelry from Japan for a few pennies and then relist it a week later only to get $50 or more for it. I guess maybe it could have gotten possessed after they bought it.
Watching another account was also where I got my most ridiculous idea -- rocks. If you've ever seen the decorative round stones that are put at the bottom of fish tanks, you'll know the rocks I sold. They're incredibly shiny and usually blue or white in color. My competitor was selling these as "fairy stones," imbued with the spirit of the fair folk. They sold for $20 per stone. I undercut them: I sold three rocks for $20, and one of them was a queen fairy while the other two were her handmaidens. Booya!
A 10,000 percent markup may seem a bit steep, but that's what you get for not buying your mystical fairy souls in bulk.
The Customers Are Surprisingly Sane
Well, not all are sane. Some are goddam nuts. One was convinced a doll was secretly possessed by two spirits, a father and son, and needed to know whether my spirit would get along with hers. Some collectors are obsessive and try to latch on to me for life. And here's one typical line of feedback I received, without explanation: "Very good nice shipping great doll once i wake up the demon inside it."
But I run into relatively normal people interested in the dolls. Some just buy the dolls as novelties, and even the ones who really seem to believe in the dolls are sane and stable -- they talk totally normally but then say, "Yeah, I have an inkling this one's haunted. I just feel it" and then move back to a rational discussion with me about shipment speed and packaging.
"So ... do you need the accidental exorcism shipping insurance? Because the post office charges twent- forty dollars extra for that."
So why doesn't a rational customer return the dolls angrily when they utterly fail to haunt the house? There may be a lot of reasons, but one is that we sellers address such complaints with something called "caring for your dolls." We say: Spirits are easily disturbed, so you need to keep the doll in a certain spot and not move it. Don't clean the doll. Make sure to try to communicate with the doll daily. Make sure to give the doll's spirit time to adjust itself to its surroundings, on first purchase. And if people ever say the doll is giving off no weird vibes, I tell them that they must have missed out on the caring regimen. If they pick up the slack, there's a chance the doll will respond, so they should get right on that. This sort of thing works on the customer who's sane (but, well, still pretty gullible).
"You've been wishing in English? Whoever heard of an English Genie? Switch to ancient Sumerian."
I also suspect that many of the sellers are saner than they appear. So if you hear about those sellers who give interviews and swear they believe in the dolls, I'd say they no more believe in the dolls than I do. I can't prove it, and they wouldn't admit it (certainly not in any article with their name and face, where the whole point is to attract publicity to their stores), but I'm convinced that no one who believes in these dolls would sell them. They might keep and treasure them. They might give them to a museum or a research institute. But no one who genuinely thinks they own hundreds of souls of the dead will shove them off for $100 apiece on eBay.
The Dolls Are Exactly As Haunted As You Want Them To Be
So, how am I okay with deceiving people in this way?
Well...yes, but there's more to it.
At first, I felt pretty bad about it. When that teddy bear sold for $20, I couldn't help but think that the damn thing was really only worth half a dollar. I felt like I was scamming people. But I was also pretty hungry that day, so I only sobbed slightly into my hamburger. And over time, I started to relax. My feedback was positive, which meant I was giving my customers whatever the heck it was that they wanted. The hundreds of comments couldn't all be wrong. It didn't feel evil when I had accolades and money pouring in from customers.
Then, I had an experience. I bought my first actual porcelain doll, a girl as big as my torso. She was incredibly pale, almost white, and her brown eyes were weirdly piercing. I laughed as I showed the doll off to my college roommates, and my one roommate was particularly creeped out by it -- so, of course, I named it after her, dubbing it "Ashley."
Which, in retrospect, kinda sounds like a threat.
I stored Ashley in my room and just sort of kept her in the bag I'd carried her out of the shop in. But then one time, I woke up in the middle of the night and swore I heard something shuffling in one corner, the end of the room with Ashley in her nylon prison. I dropped out of bed, stepped up to her, and moved the doll out into the hallway so I could stop panicking and sleep. After that, I got rid of the bag and vowed to treat the doll nicely by laying it in a blanket-lined box. Sure, I was being completely stupid -- the doll wasn't actually haunted. But because I'd shown it off to my roommates and she'd been creeped out by it, I was now creeped out by it. And I couldn't sleep if the damn thing was staring at me like that.
"Haunted" is what you make of it, and peers can really influence your perspective. I've shown these dolls as creepy, paranormal objects, and people's brains made it true. Who am I to argue? It's like those reality TV shows where haunted houses are explored by camera crews who are obviously making that shit up. There's a market, all those people out there who want to believe. So, should I really feel bad for selling a little slice of the potentially paranormal to your average Joe? What is the proper definition of "haunted", anyway? Maybe the dolls I'm selling are actually haunted? Who can say?
Well, since I'm the expert here, I guess I can say: They're absolutely haunted. Totally.
You know all those facts you've learned about psychology from movies and that one guy at the party who says, "Actually ..." a lot? Please forget them. Chances are none of them are true. Take the Stanford Prison Experiment, the one famous psychology study people can name. It was complete bullshit. Funny story actually, it turns out that when you post flyers that say, "Hey, do you wanna be a prison guard for the weekend? Free food and nightsticks," you might not get the most stable group of young men. So join Jack O'Brien, Cracked staff members Dan O'Brien and Michael Swaim, and Psychology Professor Martie G. Haselton of UCLA as they debunk Rorschach tests, the Mozart effect, and middle child syndrome, so soon you can be that person at the party who says, "Actually ..." Get your tickets here!
For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Insane Moments in the World's Most Hardcore Haunted House and 4 Horrifying Realities Of Working At A Haunted House.
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