Welcome to the (Undead) Dollhouse
Daniel Gipson makes creepy, “enchant-dead” dolls.
Daniel Gipson's Heebie Jeebiez.
Photo by Stephen Texeira
A few years ago, Daniel Gipson stumbled upon a picture of Mexico’s Isla de las Muñecas, or the Island of the Dolls. In the 1950s, the island’s owner became convinced it was haunted by the spirit of a local young girl who had drowned on the island. To appease her spirit, he hung dozens of dolls from the island’s trees and structures. According to some locals, the dolls move at night, and some swear they’ve heard them whispering to each other.
Over time, the dolls degraded. They’re now missing limbs, their bodies dirty and mottled. They’re so eerie that when Gipson saw a photo of one of the dolls, he thought he was looking at a doll purposely designed to look frightening. When he found out it wasn’t, he was inspired. He would make his own creepy dolls.
The idea of macabre dolls appealed to Gipson. He’s a Halloween obsessive who got married on the holiday and throws an extravagant Halloween party for hundreds of friends each year. As a lifelong artist who’s illustrated children’s books, written poetry, and performed as a drag queen, the creative potential of the idea also intrigued him. “I’ve always been an artist, and I’m a bipolar Gemini,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve got a lot to entertain.”
So he started transforming dolls he found at thrift stores into ghoulish versions of their former selves and selling them at local street fairs, where he quickly realized there was a market for his creations.
During the day, Gipson manages Mockingbird restaurant in downtown Oakland. But on weekends and evenings over the last few years, his business has grown. He’s gained more than 3,000 followers on Facebook for Heebie Jeebiez, the name of his doll business, and customers across the country shop his Etsy store. Some buy the dolls as a Halloween decoration, others display them year-round. One woman sent Gipson a picture of her collection of his dolls, their sinister bodies neatly lined up across a dresser.
Other people make scary dolls, but few match Gipson’s level of detail (the problem with most, he said, is that they use too much crackle paint). He spends hours painting and adding tiny subtleties. His dolls have realistic veins creeping up their legs and grotesque new noses he shapes from clay. Sometimes, his husband will contribute a hand-sewn dress if the theme calls for it. The longevity of plastic horrifies Gipson, so he always starts with used dolls. Friends will bring him old dolls they find or he hunts through eBay, flea markets, or thrift stores. He said Oakland thrift stores don’t have a good doll selection; the best finds come from stores near his in-laws’ place in Modesto. He’ll decide what kind of theme he wants, and start painting, adding details—white eyes, fangs, a bloody mouth—as he goes.
Photo by Stephen Texeira
Daniel Gipson gives names, usually punny, and stories to his Heebie Jeebiez.
Gipson’s learned a few things over the years. Disney princess dolls are best for Dia De Las Muertos dolls, since they have enough hair to fit all the flowers he adds. If he wants to include claws, the fake nails found at any drugstore work well. Customers love frightening versions of their childhood favorites, so he’ll always keep an eye out for Strawberry Shortcake, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Care Bears. And most important, he can’t cross the line from creepy to grotesque. Gross doesn’t sell. “My idea is creepy cute,” he said. “I don’t want the grotesque part—peeling faces and stuff like that. I do that for Halloween.”
Sometimes, Gipson will find a doll that doesn’t need his help. “Some of my dolls are so creepy on their own I don’t even want to touch them,” he said. That’s why dolls are such a good fit for his spooky aesthetic. “It’s that humanistic element—the eyes—that they could be possessed or they could have a personality of their own.”
Each doll Gipson sells comes with a name, usually punny (June Cleever, Purgatori Spelling) and a short biography. Zombie Sue Keenie, “an avid organic farmer, was bitten and infected by a colony of rabid rabbits,” while the vampire Carrie Underblood “was bitten and turned by the remaining cast of Hee Haw.”
Writing those mini-stories is one of his favorite parts of the process. Each doll has a little bit of him, he said, and creating an identity from scratch, while incorporating pieces of himself, reminds him of his drag days.
“Part of the reason I became a drag queen was because I could be someone I wasn’t. After a while, she was her own separate personality, she’s her own identity,” he said. “And that’s kind of how I feel about each one of these dolls. They’re a little part of me.”