A Doll Emergency

Victoria Cristofis with rescued "baby"

I read a news item on Gizmodo this morning that I found interesting. Police in Workshop, Nottinghamshire, received a call that a baby was left trapped in a hot locked car. They arrived on the scene and saw the baby in the car and smashed the window to get in and rescue… a doll.

The doll they rescued was a "Reborn Doll", named Sam, and was so lifelike it even has anatomically correct veins. Victoria Cristofis bought the doll for her daughter Chanel’s birthday in June and it not only looks like a real baby, it even smells like one (hmmm). This is not the first time Ms. Cristofis has had people mistake the doll for a baby. She’s been accosted by people while shopping and accused of mistreating it because she was handling it like a doll, she’s had people shout at her because she was allowing her daughter to shake her baby, and she’s had people come up to her and touch it, thinking it was real.

Original and "Reborn" doll

But this brought up a bigger question for me. What is a Reborn Doll?

Reborn dolls are realistic manufactured dolls that have been enhanced to be even more realistic. They are also known as "living dolls" or "unliving dolls" (a term which fits best for me). The hobby of enhancing dolls began around 1990 and has grown into quite an industry in recent years with finished dolls selling for as high as thousands of dollars. There’s also an extensive online community. At first doll collectors were purchasing them, but it has expanded to parents and even to women who "adopt" the dolls and treat them as infants. You can even get a doll customized to look like a particular infant.

Consumers can either buy a finished doll, or they can buy a kit to do the enhancements themselves. Manufacturers have responded by creating dolls meant just for the reborn process.

A Closeup of a reborn doll

The process of "reborning" can be quite extensive involving removing the factory paint from a doll, applying layers of paint for realistic skin appearance, replacing eyes, manicuring nails, drilling out nostrils, adding hair, weighting the body with pellets, weighting the head so the owner must support it just like a newborn, adding magnets for pacifiers, etc., implanting devices that simulate heartbeats or breathing. They can also include an umbilical cord, heat packs (so they are warm), and voice boxes, or anatomically correct genitals.

One problem with Reborning is that it runs the risk of dolls falling into the "Uncanny Valley". Meaning that they become so realistic that they become creepy. As human-like features in robots, animation and such become more lifelike we tend to like them up to a point. Once they start approaching truly lifelike features, they become creepy. Apparently for this reason department stores don’t carry the dolls.

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