Miniatures by Mary Kay McBrayer. Photos by EWANG for Oxford American
Dollhouse of Horrors
By Mary Kay McBrayer
This obsession starts like most obsessions start. One thought leads into another, cascading, expanding. When I decide to start my dollhouse, I cheat. I had one when I was a kid, fully constructed but empty, so I call my mom. “Yeah, you can get it if you come get it,” she scoffs at me. “I’m not taking my ass up into that attic. The ladder—hang on. What, Daddy? He just got up from a nap. I’m on the phone! It’s Mary Kay. MARY KAY. Yes!”
From somewhere behind her, my grandfather shouts, “Hey, doll baby!” and she says, “Y’all come by this afternoon,” hanging up before I can ask her why Jiddo is sleeping at her house when she’s as paranoid of other people right now as I am.
When my boyfriend Chase and I arrive at my childhood home—an hour’s drive south of Atlanta where we live—I can tell she’s been around only Jiddo lately because she talks too loud. “Oh,” she whispers when I ask her why she’s hollering as we walk up the brick steps of her front porch, hand on the iron banister she installed herself because my sitti, her mother, has vertigo again, and maybe sciatica. We hesitate, wanting to hug, but wanting to be safe. She holds out a palm to stave off the hug as she stands aside, propping the storm screen for us to come inside. Even through two masks I can smell the aerosol disinfectant.
“Where’s Sitti?” I ask after my jiddo breezes through the six-foot radius and kisses me on the cheek. He fist-bumps Chase, having sworn off handshakes years ago, in part from arthritis, in part from loathing people’s germs.
My mom groans as she escorts us upstairs and explains that she went to get Jiddo from his and Sitti’s house before Sitti came back from taking care of her sister who had tested positive. “I can’t believe she went over there. Aunt Totsie had the sniffles, and Mama went over there anyway, even after I cussed her out, and I didn’t want Daddy having to be by himself because she wouldn’t listen to reason.” She continues, irate. My mother has gone deep into the well of half-researching online conspiracy theories, whether she chooses to believe in them or not. I understand the impulse, and I’m sure that if I hadn’t taught people how to write and research essays for five consecutive years, or didn’t understand how to verify a credible source, I’d be as panicked as everyone with good sense who hadn’t consciously reprogrammed themselves to question every single fact they heard. She and I are somewhat reclusive anyway, but the contradictory nature of the news in general paired with the inundation of propaganda from rural Georgia made my family completely befuddled.
She unfolds the attic ladder, and I watch its hinges hyperextend as Chase climbs it. He descends with my childhood balsa wood dollhouse, half painted white, and half bare from where I lost interest. It’s bigger than I remember, even on a 1:12 scale—three stories, if you count the attic. Chase has to crane his neck to see over the roof and around the chimney as he walks it carefully down my mom’s staircase. The dollhouse is a Victorian, of course. My mother has always loved the frills and toiles of the gilded era, and I can’t imagine her choosing another style, not when she cusses modern light fixtures when they remodel on HGTV, or when she throws down a home and garden magazine saying, “It’s all IKEA bullshit now.”
Mama pops the attic ladder hinges loose and it creaks and slams back into position into the ceiling. When I was a child, I knew my mom’s attic was full of Christmas decorations and other stuff she couldn’t bear to throw away, like college t-shirts and wedding announcements for people who divorced decades ago. There were no treasures up there, I thought then, like in the attics in my storybooks, where characters would go to discover some ancient heirloom or sacred amulet. I still don’t know exactly what an amulet is, but it’s hard to imagine one coming out of our attic.
As we trail downstairs behind Chase, Mama tells me that she and my paternal grandfather, who had worked wood as a hobby, bought the kit and put it together for me when I was four years old. My mom wanted to decorate it with me, but I had no interest in decorating (or her) then. I’d rather make my dad play Barbies with me in their already-completed pink villas. I only had imagination for characters then, not settings. The dollhouse, as a result, was now full of dust and cobwebs and rat droppings instead of the Victorian florals and deep wood grains that would suit it best.
Jiddo approaches, and Chase timidly and politely asks him to put on his mask, which won’t stay over his nose. Jiddo is annoyed (“I’m not sick”) and continues to whisper conspiracy theories to my boyfriend. But Jiddo can’t hear well, so his stage whisper renders the scene absurd: Chase’s huge, terrified blue eyes shift from my grandfather’s exposed nose to his MAGA hat while he holds a two-story, half-painted Victorian dollhouse that looks incredibly like the one we’re inside of, but unfinished, waiting to pass out the front door onto the porch as Jiddo is telling him that Trump was God’s beacon of light, that he would go back in for a second term despite his successor having been inaugurated.
“Jiddo! Let him out!” I have to yell at him.
Jiddo yells back at me to take the hair dryer onto the porch and “blow all the rat shit out of the dollhouse,” so I do.
I’m allergic to something in the dollhouse, because I get a fever and aches the day I bring it home. I’ve disinfected it and all its contents, but I get the pain behind the knees, the heat in my eyes. “The dollhouse kind of looks like your mom’s house,” Chase says.
When I get back to my apartment, I try to clean and disinfect the dollhouse again after ripping out the staircase to find a hidden cache of debris, but the allergies take me down. It will pass, I tell myself. Even if it doesn’t feel like it will pass, it has to. I doomscroll. All the clichés that became cliché overnight are true, but I’m tired of seeing the same memes.
It’s not work-from-home. It’s live at work.
Racism is racism’ing so hard, I almost forgot about the pandemic.
I’m a homebody, but DAMN . . . I did like going one or two places.
HOW MUCH DAYLIGHT THEY TRYNA SAVE?? like damn bitch
Ten years from now you’ll put on a jacket and find a mask in the pocket. ‘Oh man, what a weird year that was,’ you’ll chuckle to yourself. Then you’ll pick up your machete and continue across the wasteland, keeping to the shadows to avoid the roving gangs of cannibal raiders.
Or, the most honest one, from my best friend who moved from her nursing job at Grady Hospital’s ICU to Manhattan in March of 2020: A lot of you have never zipped a body bag and it shows.
I want to escape, but it feels irresponsible. Bear witness, my conscience says. So I sit in my discomfort, and I doomscroll. I follow new accounts about dollhouse creations. I find @MulvaneyandRogers, a duo of professional miniature artists. They have reconstructed a dining room with Miss Havisham’s untouched wedding cake, cobwebs and all. Ha! I think. I was just thinking of Mr. Jaggers, how we laughed at his hand washing compulsion when my class read it in ninth grade because we did not understand it, and here’s another Great Expectations character. So life does imitate art. Corie Baker of @Sugarbirdhollow, another miniaturist who focuses on the macabre, constructed a fortune teller’s shack from scratch, and I feel vindicated. The shack is in deep disrepair, sinking into its forest while mildewing inside-out. How did she get it to look so real? How do you make artificial mildew? Is that something I should be doing? Are all dollhouses supposed to be 1:12 replicas? Is it irresponsible to idealize them? What if my dollhouse was just like this world, but a little worse?
Many miniaturists seem to focus on the horrific. It’s probably coincidence that Chase and I are marathoning the HBO adaptation of Sharp Objects when I find Lauren Dodge of @SouthernGothicDollhouse, and her bathroom floor of human teeth. She studied theatre design, and she says she started her dollhouse as a quarantine project. That fact overwhelms me: What happens if she finishes before the quarantine ends? What happens if she doesn’t? I’m amazed that the teeth don’t crack under a jeweler’s saw, especially because they’ve already turned slightly mint-colored with age. They match the green tiles so well that it’s almost like she planned it. Chase and I finish his first viewing of Sharp Objects together, and as the credits scroll and he stares agape, I laugh uncontrollably in my fevered haze. I snap a photo of his reaction with my new/old dollhouse in the background.
At an outside gathering that gets rained out, my friend walks me back to my car and says, “Do you want to see something weird?” and points to a mud puddle by my parking spot. “It’s someone’s dentures.”
“No, no, no,” I say, turning my wine bag inside out to pick up the piece as if it is dog shit, “it’s someone’s bridge!”
When I get home, I soak it in alcohol to prepare to mail it to my friend on the other side of the city who started collecting human teeth. I’m reminded of Ari Aster’s movie Hereditary, when Gabriel Byrne’s character comes into the workshop to find his wife replicating in miniature their decapitated daughter. It was unquestionably disturbing, but my stomach clenched much harder earlier, when he had stepped into their too-manicured corridor to take a call from the funeral home. He said, “Okay . . . and what does ‘desecrated’ mean?”
I can’t remember now if the miniaturist replicated the empty grave, too, but I know one thing for sure: I would have. Then, I would feel like I could control something.
Eventually, after poring over the video blogs of other creators to curate my own dollhouse, I work up the courage to message Lauren about her creation. I also message Corie and a few others. They’re all glad to share their processes, recommend readings, and offer inspiration. I follow so many miniatures accounts that they merge with the interior design accounts I followed before the pandemic, back when I dreamed of buying a house this year, before the housing shortage. Life imitates art. Am I in a dollhouse? I can no longer easily tell them apart from the life-sized houses. How big is that kitchen? I wonder, watery eyes refocusing on my feed. Why would anyone choose to have a galley kitchen? Who would install that artificial bullshit plank over original hardwoods? It’s like these people have no taste or original thought at all. Not only am I redecorating my mother’s house; I am becoming my mother. One morning as I doomscroll, I cave and order six books about miniatures. When one site says it’s a two-week wait for shipping, my cursor hovers over my cart. In a fleeting moment of selfishness, I fold again and pay extra for expedited shipping, telling myself I’m stimulating the economy, fuck ’em all, it’s not like I can go to a restaurant or a bar or a store. I deserve it, even if it is expensive. Even if it is selfish. Regret wells in my stomach as soon as I hit submit. Am I part of the problem? Is me getting this book five days sooner more important than expediting essentials? Like PPE? Is this book more important than a vaccine?
No, I answer myself. It’s not more important, but it’s also not relevant. The vaccines are a distribution issue. Do you think they’re going to ship The V&A Museum of Childhood in a refrigerated can? I rationalize myself to myself when there is no one to talk to.
Every part of our country is ablaze. New heroes emerge daily. So do villains. I am not among either class, but I try to do my part. Or, I at least try not to fuel the flame. Most importantly, I stay my ass at home. I’m always in a liminal space—safe enough to work from home, but vulnerable enough to get fired from my writing job at a liberal magazine and refused any answers as to why. Safe enough to pass as white sometimes, but vulnerable enough to be suspiciously dark-featured to white folks. Safe enough to not be at the CNN Center when the out-of-town rioters set that decommissioned police car on fire, but vulnerable enough that I pass by it on my running route. I withdraw into myself. I read the official guide about Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. Queen Mary of England—grandmother of the current Queen Elizabeth—commissioned the house in 1921. Every artist who was anyone wanted to contribute to it, unless they purposefully did not want to. Sir Edwin Lutyens designed it, and it contains 1:12 scale paintings by 700 artists, copies of 170 notable contemporary works, including contributions by Joseph Conrad, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, and M. R. James; the creators strove to exhibit perfectly life in a mansion in the British 1920s. The official guide says, “When we look at the photographs of the rooms we find it difficult to believe we are not looking at the rooms of a full-sized house, for hardly anything can be seen that jars on the eye by reason of its incorrect size.” That’s correct. Things “jar on” my eyes for different reasons than size in these dollhouses.
The quote from Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House says that it’s hard to tell photographs apart from reality, but by this time, it has reversed. Visuals are hard to distinguish in general. They are all on screens now, so what does it matter their size?
hese thoughts . . . they doom on me at the night,” Chase tells me once when he comes over after several days of being alone. I know I’m not alone with the dreams, or the disordered thoughts. When you’ve been confined for so long, especially when you live alone in a one-bedroom apartment like I do, you don’t get any new stimuli. It makes your subconscious rehash memories from years ago, churning them up like the bottom layer of a compost pile to reveal some strange artifact that still has not decomposed the way it should. Even your metaphors become macabre.
They want to call it a “new normal,” but it is not. It is not normal because not everyone has the same level of fear as you do. You suspect people for not taking the precautions that you have. If someone’s mask slips below their nose, you know that they have not really been wearing a mask, and you glare at them before giving a wide berth. These neighbors and essential workers whom you would normally greet instinctively. Everyone is suspect, now. You do not make an effort to see your friends because if they want to see you, then they’ve been seeing other people, too. The only people you want to see are the ones who do not—for safety’s sake—want to see you. So you zip up the sleeping bag of yourself again. At first, virtual calls were a fun substitute, back when you thought this lockdown was temporary, but then they became even more exhausting than the in-person encounters you already meted out sparingly.
Reading has always been my escape. I remember never looking up from a book, even as I sat in an unfinished house wearing a parka while my mother cleaned up after the builders. She had just divorced my dad, and since she’d been out of the job market for five years, she got a gig from her brother, my uncle, cleaning up after his subcontractors. I’d finished my book, and I started to whine about the cold, so she handed me a razor blade and told me to scrape the paint off the window from where the painters did a sloppy cut-in job. My thoughts drifted to the various ghosts who came to Scrooge, and then Scrooge McDuck diving into his pool of gold coins, giggling aloud as my mom said, “Yallah, did you even hear me, baby?” I had heard her: “One of these assholes shit in the tub! I am not cleaning that up . . . How am I supposed to clean that up?” but I was focused on scraping away the paint in one long white curl.
Now, even reading has become difficult. I slip into reveries like McDuck too easily, so I lean more toward books with pictures. I pore over The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, the book complete with photographs of the miniature crime scene models that Frances Glessner Lee created. They are all gruesome. Somehow, though, the scenes without the dolls in them are scarier to me. The overturned tables and bloodstained dollhouse beds resonate more when there is no body.
I spend entire mornings Adding to Cart on Etsy, eBay, any site that has vintage or vintage-inspired miniature furniture. I learn to read the fine print: not every miniature is built on a 1:12 scale. I learn the hard way that I cannot make my own furniture. If I don’t outright catch it on fire, then it ends up askew in a way that does not seem aesthetically intentional. While I wait for my selected pieces to arrive in the mail, I decide to make tableaux of all my favorite Gothic horror stories. Similar to Sigmund Freud’s notion of the “uncanny,” but specific to domestic domains, Gothic stories depict horror of the home. The home is the domain of women in Gothic stories, which is perfect because I’ll be doing the thing that I’m depicting. I paint the exterior mint green, like the teeth. All the trim I color black, and the roof of the wraparound porch I paint haint blue, to protect from evil spirits. I hang a custom-made mailbox by the front door: 124. As Toni Morrison writes in Beloved, “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” I trace a toddler’s silhouette in the glass of the front door with white paint.
The first interior I tackle is the attic apartment from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” because it is supposed to look deranged. I’ll have the chance to practice my skills before they really count. I cut matchsticks to make the barred windows, use my emery boards to rough up the jaundiced wallpaper—it’s not like I’m using the files for my own fingernails anymore. My appearance doesn’t matter anymore, so I don’t focus on it. Nothing I cared about before really matters now, so I redirect my attention to the house. When the wood stain arrives, I dye popsicle sticks and lay the hardwood floor—none of that disgusting laminate, not in 124. Over my cold, dead body. I video the Yellow Wallpapered attic and share it online with the background of the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ cover of “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” The number of reactions I get astounds me. I’m a hobbyist, not a real artist like Lauren or Corie or Frances or Mulvaney & Rogers and the others I follow. Everything I do is inspired by someone else. It’s nice, going on creative autopilot in the middle of cognitive overload.
The doors of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House all lock, the book says. “The only difficulty is for a human being to turn the tiny keys.” This sentence alarms me. If not a human, then who should turn them?
Chase and I marathon The Wire next, and I pick acrylic paint from under my nails as I predict the gang’s next assassination. Against all odds, or maybe not, the “teddy bear” detective that the task force pulls from the pawn shop unit crafts miniatures while he rides the clock. “You!” Chase shrieks, pointing at Lester Freamon onscreen, watching as he secures the first photograph of Avon Barksdale, the kingpin, for the investigation, and then picks his paintbrush back up.
Later, someone asks Freamon how much his miniature hutch will “go for.” He says, in his smooth baritone, “If it’s mint? Three hundred.” Chase pauses the show with the remote and looks at me, aghast.
“Is that true?” he demands, his eyebrows arching like a cartoon.
I shrug. “My friend said her chandelier cost twelve hundred.”
He laughs dejectedly and scrubs his face. “I am in the wrong business! Wait. What friend?”
“One of my dollhouse friends from online.”
Because Flannery O’Connor is the ultimate Southern Gothic writer, I collect all the things from her short story “Good Country People,” all the things that Manley Pointer, the Bible-selling charlatan, steals from vulnerable women. I make wire-rimmed eyeglasses out of a paperclip and glue them under a bell jar. I fill his leather valise with a deck of dirty playing cards, a tiny whiskey flask, and a hollowed-out Bible. I hang his toast-colored hat on the back of a sophisticated desk chair. I make Joy/Hulga’s prosthetic leg from clay and cheesecloth, and I lean that up against the desk. This is where he keeps his treasures, his trophies, not in the barn loft where he left Joy/Hulga stranded, but in his study. That’s what he does: he studies them.
I build the upstairs bathroom next. I lay tile and grout, hang wallpaper, fashion Roman shades from antique handkerchiefs, make towels from worn out washrags. I build a beehive from twine and fill the sink with my friend’s stage blood leftover from singing in Sweeney Todd. “It’s not like I’m performing right now,” she says.
To get the vaccine, Chase and I take a road trip two hours one way to Alabama. In a repurposed Big Lots, we get our shots, and I’ve never seen anything more efficient in my life. We wait fifteen minutes to be sure of no allergic reactions, and I make him stop at the Michael’s in Opelika so I can pick up polymer clay. When we get home, we sculpt and bake hundreds of bees to put in that bathroom. I glue them around the mirror I mounted over the bloody sink, the mirror whose back I scraped off and to which I affixed a black-and-white photograph of Tony Todd in all his hook-handed glory. This one’s soundtrack will be Kendrick Lamar’s “ELEMENT.” The lines are stuck in my head for days, “’Cause most of y’all ain’t real, most of y’all gon’ squeal / Most of y’all just envy, but jealousy get you killed / Most of y’all throw rocks and try to hide your hand / Just say his name, and I promise that you’ll see Candyman.” True, Candyman is not exactly a Gothic story, but I think it’s only not Gothic because it takes place in the housing projects of Chicago rather than some sweeping manor or plantation. Like Beloved, it has gloom and supernatural comeuppance—vengeance for the community’s aggressive denial of racist horrors. Candyman was an artist in life, lynched for loving a white woman after an angry mob cut off his painting hand. It sounds like any number of Southern lynchings that our history often actively chooses not to remember. It’s happening right now, just across town at that Wendy’s, near the CNN Center, and to the west in the HBCU bubble. Those are just the ones that we know about, the ones that get press coverage because the police were the perpetrators.
I feel so helpless that the systems put in place to protect us actively harm us. I go to protests, donate to civil rights organizations, do my personal part that feels like nothing at all, not even a drop in the bucket. Last summer, after Ahmaud Arbery was killed, George Floyd was killed, Breonna Taylor was killed, Rayshard Brooks was also killed, right down the street, and our Atlanta police chief suddenly retired. If she couldn’t help, and she was the leader of the organization, what am I supposed to do? These are the thoughts that doom on me while I cut out the foam board for the next room of the dollhouse.
People are dying while I craft this dollhouse, is what I think. It’s saccharine, and so the next room will be saccharine. The kitchen will be from Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The first time I read it, it felt so out of joint and removed from reality. It seems apparent to me now that the protagonist, Merricat Blackwood, had obsessive compulsive tendencies, and that her family punished her for them often. They sent her to bed without her dinner, and that was when she had enough and annihilated them all. Well, everyone except her sister, Constance, who feared leaving the house, and who was always kind to Merricat. “I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die,” Merricat says. The kitchen will be entirely 1960s style: candy-pink stoves and lace curtains for the sake of irony. Pink tile, copper pots, and a real vintage rose tea set.
Queen Mary’s official guide says that miniatures should “be fitted up with perfect fidelity, down to the smallest details, so as to represent as closely and minutely as possible a genuine and complete example of a domestic interior with all the household arrangements characteristic of the daily life of the time.” I know that she was the queen, but I’m an American, and I reject that “fidelity.” Sure, with unbounded access to money and artists, an exact replica might be worthwhile, more useful even than the actual artifacts of the time because no one actually uses them. But this is my fantasy; this is my house; this is my metaphor. This is me playing the violin while Rome burns.
I realize what I have been doing. I am the mother from Hereditary. I am Detective Freamon from The Wire. I am Amma from Sharp Objects. I cannot control any of the horrors that happen at me. This dollhouse is my fortress. In life, I do not even own a house. I asked for my apartment’s door to be replaced, went out to get groceries, and came back to four strange men standing maskless with dirty work boots on my living room rug, the door off the hinges, perusing the family photos on my walls. I don’t control anything in the real world. But in my dollhouse, I own everything. I make the horrors happen. I am the one.
For all its fidelity, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House was not without its own horrors, anyway: “Many of the articles in the Dolls’ House . . . will never again be used or seen in a modern house and will even be something of a mystery to young people of today . . . A reminder of the great revolution that has taken place in the treatment of illness is the provision in Nursery Suite of ‘3 pneumonia jackets’ in the days before penicillin and antibiotic drugs robbed this one-time dangerous disease of most its terrors.” An estimated five hundred million people were infected with the Spanish influenza, and at least fifty million died from it. But the next generation still forgot it happened. I hope we get to forget this, our horror. I wonder what artifacts my dollhouse will leave behind.
When I finally look up from laying the tiny mosaic tiles in the upstairs bathroom, my eyes do not want to adjust, and my neck cracks when it unbends from its gargoyle posture. It’s like when I helped my mom clean those houses as a kid. I’d look up every so often, but my eyes wouldn’t focus, so I’d go back to my books. Many an eye doctor has accused me of reading myself into nearsightedness. Thinking of the “one-time dangerous disease” of pneumonia, I wonder, is this dollhouse obsession a cycle? Has miniature making always been a coping skill for those shut in because of disease? Does that explain their popularity in the 1920s, and subsequent semi-abandonment? Because people lost control over their own mortality? I cannot answer this, cannot control it, so I look back into the dollhouse. I plan the next room.