Deconstructing Dummies

Two new books find fascination in the wacky world of ventriloquism.

Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism, by Steven Connor. Oxford, $35.

How to Become a Ventriloquist, by Edgar Bergen. Dover Press, $4.

In the pantheon of childhood nightmare fodder, ventriloquists' dummies rank right up there with circus clowns, sock monkeys and Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz (and, perhaps less universally, the dreaded Tabu Tikki idol from The Brady Bunch Hawaiian vacation triptych). Something about the dummy's flat gaze, clacking maw of a mouth and eerily frightening ability to channel human voices made it a foregone conclusion that if you had one sitting in your bedroom, come the dead of night, it would inevitably spring from its box, race across the room, and perform absolutely unspeakable acts on your little nerve-wracked body. But of course, the bloom of such silly fears fades with the flowering of adulthood ... doesn't it?

If only things were that simple. As Steven Connor, author of Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism points out, our unease over the venerable wooden dummy is something we never outgrow; it simply worms its way into the deepest recesses of the adult subconscious. In fact, according to this fascinatingly twisted history of ventriloquism, the art of voice throwing has always inspired a primal fear in its eager audiences, and remains, despite its many hokey permutations through the ages, an art form which continues to fascinate and disturb both adults and children on a deeply primal level.

And as if one dummy tome weren't enough, in a chillingly prescient move, Dover Press concurrently has re-issued a seemingly benign, but ultimately terrifying, how-to manual from 1938, How to Become a Ventriloquist, penned by the premiere ventriloquist of the Depression era, Edgar Bergen (father of Candice "Murphy Brown" Bergen).

Because the modern day iconography of ventriloquism so readily lends itself to a camp reading (for primo evidence of "dummy camp," please witness Ann-Margaret breathlessly battling Anthony Hopkin's killer blockhead in 1978's Magic), one could safely assume that a study of the art form would be equally frivolous. While the basic concept of a scholarly examination of the paradigmatic shifts in the cultural representation of wooden dummies is inherently goofy, Connor has bigger fish to fry. While he does cast a sometimes too-humorless eye on the weird world of dummies (come on, it's OK to be both smart and funny), Dumbstruck manages to transcend its rather stodgy tone by remaining unabashedly obsessive about the historical hubris surrounding the troubling concept of the disembodied voice. In fact, it's the book's rigorously serious, un-ironic tone which makes it even stranger than it would have been if written as a lark.

Starting with the first recorded instances of ventriloquism as public spectacle in ancient Greece, Connor hits the history highway. He delves into the form's early Christian critics (many 18th century Christian writers, such as Conyers Middleton, fueled public unease over ventriloquists by linking their seeming ability to channel disembodied spirits to demonic rituals and practices of pagan divination), the various aberrations of voice in mysticism, witchcraft and possession cases (including a creepily documented account of the 1596 possession of 13-year old Thomas Darling that would have made Linda Blair pea-green with envy), and the bizarre Enlightenment-era fascination with the sinister, vagrant figure of the ventriloquist.

By the time he heads into the 19th and 20th centuries to uncover the various myths and practices surrounding ventriloquists in popular entertainment (the hilariously rocky injection of raunchy, foul-mouthed dummies into the rough and tumble world of vaudeville is particularly entertaining), Connor has made it abundantly clear that it is not so much that hunk of wood with the painted-on smile that has always made us so uneasy, but the inherent difficulty humans have in reconciling what they hear with what they see. To illustrate his thesis, the author uses the relatively simple example of people being unable to hear their own recorded voices without wincing and claiming "that doesn't sound like me," to launch into a scientifically-based examination of the mental pretzels we form when confronted with voices emanating from unlikely sources.

While Connor's dense but illuminating wade through the murky waters of demented dummies often feels like it's wooing the academy rather than the general public, Edgar Bergen's profusely illustrated, retro-charming (but still creepy) manual for the voice-throwing novice is aimed squarely at the armchair enthusiast.

Originally published in 1938, How to Become a Ventriloquist lays it on the line in plain and simple lingo ("Dress your doll to look real and human, but definitely not grotesque and exaggerated."), and offers helpful hints on how to not only create a whole range of dummies (including the ever-popular Señor Wenches-styled fist puppet), but also how to cultivate a personality for your new friend (most charmingly exemplified by ditzy country-boy dummy Mortimer Snerd, one of Bergen's most popular creations).

While Bergen briefly addresses the bad rap dummies have received over the years ("In the past, ventriloquism was often employed as an art of black magic ... but that was then!"), he valiantly attempts to lower the fright quotient by maintaining a jovial tone and even supplying sample vaudeville routines for beginners to perform with their new pals, including a hauntingly funny skit in which Mortimer Snerd describes being attacked by a mad cow while trying to apply an electric milking machine to its udder.

So is all of this publishing activity irrefutable evidence that dummies are taking over? Is it time for us to surrender and embrace their disembodied voices and sometimes-homicidal personality quirks? Perhaps not, but as any child can tell you, turning your back on a dummy could be the last mistake you'll ever make.

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