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Creepy Dolls contest is a 'gut feeling'

Caleb Baumgartner loves horror, but picking the "contestants" for the annual Creepy Doll contest at the History Center of Olmsted County can be, well, unsettling.

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History Center of Olmsted County communications coordinator Caleb Baumgartner with past winners of the Creepy Dolls contest on Oct. 19, 2022.
Rebecca Mitchell / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — When Caleb Baumgartner interviewed for his position as communications coordinator at the History Center of Olmsted County, it came with two warnings: the Creepy Dolls contest is popular and you are the face behind the dolls.

He started at the History Center in April 2022 and immediately joined work on the fourth season of the contest. The contest features nine dolls from the center’s permanent collection of dolls. Each doll relates to Olmsted County history, and has one common feature: They’re creepy.

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How do you select the dolls for the exhibit?

We have a selection by committee. We get a couple employees and a couple of the board members, and we go through, we have our dolls in the vault all in a separate area for this kind of occasion. So, I think it was right when I started in April, I came here just in time to get in on the doll selection process, and it’s just a selection by a committee of who feels strongly about these being creepy and then whittling it down to our final nine.

It’s hard to put a specific spot on what makes something creepy, it’s just a gut feeling with each of us.

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I know this is your first year doing the exhibit, but how much do they change each year from what you know?

We have a fresh batch each year which is nice. It’s also going to be a little limiting giving that we only take dolls that are from Olmsted County. So every year while this exhibit is running and for like the month after it, people from all over the country want to send us dolls to be like, ‘We have the perfect creepy doll for your competition.’ And that would be great but we’re the Olmsted County History Center so everything’s got to have a link to the county. So it does kind of put a strain on how many we have and how many can keep coming. But that just means at some point we can do a ‘Best Of’ and all the winners can face each other, right?

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One of the dolls in the Creepy Dolls exhibit at the History Center of Olmsted County on Oct. 19, 2022.
Rebecca Mitchell / Post Bulletin

Do you get kind of creeped out while looking for the dolls?

Yes. Honestly, yes.

It’s a big part of that and then putting them together and working closely with them, putting them in the displays it’s definitely a, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a reason this works,’ and that we can do this. They’ve got those dead black eyes, and you’re working up close with them, and it’s like, it’s no good.

This year the theme is Cult Classics. Can you talk a little bit about what cult classics are included?

We were playing around with doing a noir theme this year, but we ended up with a noir theme for our history mystery campaign. … So we went with Cult Classics because it’s the spooky season, it’s the scary time of year, and everyone loves to bust out their horror movies and get kind of nostalgic about their horror movies this time of year.

We kind of went through with each other talking about movies we loved when we were kids or things that we remember seeing in the theater and stuff, and a lot of those were the ones that we ended up picking for the dolls. It was less about the dolls reminded us of this so much as these are the things that we enjoyed, these are the dolls we have and we’ll kind of put it together.

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Do you have a favorite cult classic then?

Mine’s the “Candyman” one out there. ... I’m a big movie geek. Before I even went to college, I was managing video stores, and then when those all went away it was like I had to get a second life so (laughs). It all worked out.

What are your favorite aspects of the “Candyman?” 

I just enjoy the urban horror take on things. So much horror and cult classic movies they’re all in these really rural, isolating settings, and this is a movie that takes place in a place that there’s not that isolation. There’s many people around and yet you still can’t escape the monster, you know? It’s kind of a fresh take on the horror genre, I guess.

You mentioned the black eyes on the dolls What are some other characteristics that really make your skin crawl?

Well, I talked about this before with some folks about the concept of the uncanny valley, where when something eventually is a little too close to human, but not quite there, yet it gives you just the heebie-jeebies. And that’s the whole thing with these dolls.

When you’re a kid you don’t notice it because you can project your imagination on dolls, and they’re kind of fit for that, but once you get older and start losing that imagination and you just kind of see them as these lifeless things, it’s no thanks. Not a fan.

Is there anything that fascinates you about the dolls?

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Part of the fun for this was having to do the research for the exhibits and stuff, and learning the doll history was really fascinating for a lot of them. We have one in the collection that was a brand of the first art dolls ever, which means they’re wood and they’re fully posable. And we didn’t quite know that about her until we started digging in and doing that research and learning about the history of that. They were a piano company that went into making dolls, and then World War II happened and a lot of doll companies had to stop making dolls for reasons.

And just the interesting histories of them is really kind of fascinating because it’s this mundane, cultural history that I don’t think a lot of people put a lot of thought into. But there’s a lot of work and love and design that went into all those things. So it’s worth preserving and talking about, even in the context of them being terrifying.

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One of the dolls in the Creepy Dolls exhibit at the History Center of Olmsted County on Oct. 19, 2022.
Rebecca Mitchell / Post Bulletin

What are some of the dolls out there this year and how they relate to Olmsted County history? 

Absolutely. We have one of them that is a handmade doll that was made for a young woman, she’s obviously older now and donated it, it was made by her parents and they were some of the first folks that migrated to Rochester for IBM jobs. And the doll was her ‘sad about moving present,’ I guess is a way to put it, and so there’s that like cute personal story to it that this is what my mom and dad made for me when I was scared to move to a new place. And he’s got hearts for eyes and he came with a little heart and a note that says, ‘I only have eyes for you.’ And so he’s got this sweet backstory. He’s also terrifying to look at.

There’s the big following of people that love to come in and see the contest and watch online and all of that. What have you learned from people’s responses to the contest? 

I’m not going to name names, but there’s one that’s definitely out ahead of everybody else so there is a general consensus about what’s creepy. There’s also one that has only received three votes in the whole contest so we definitely whiffed on one of them this year. But I thought for sure all of them were creepy enough to be in the competition but one of them was apparently too cute to be creepy so (laughs).

But it’s almost polarizing because our traditional audience of folks that come to the History Center don’t really care for the Creepy Doll contest as much but it’s a great opportunity for us to reach kind of a younger audience and like elder millennials and below kind of folks. And that was also a big part of picking the Cult Classics theme this year, is just like appealing to that 80s, 90s nostalgia stuff too. And so this is a great opportunity to bridge a gap that we normally struggle with getting between for folks. So that’s a part of the exciting opportunity for us, I guess.

A very important question, are any of the dolls named Annabelle?

No, I have managed to avoid it. That was a big part of the discussion too. We’ve got to go a little bit out of the way to avoid that because I mean we could have done a doll horror movie for every one of the dolls at this point. You’ve got your Annabelles and your Chuckies and all kinds of horrible stuff. So, yup we managed to avoid that.

Anything else people should know about the contest this year?

There’s the Creepy Doll cocktail party Oct. 29 (at 6 p.m. at the Rochester Art Center) and that’s where we’re going to announce the winner of the competition and everything. So we’re really excited about that. And then also after Creepy Dolls is done, we’re going to change them over to Festive Figurines and all the dolls are going to be dressed in Christmas stuff. (Laughs) We’re going to make it less creepy and make it more fun once the holidays are here..

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History Center of Olmsted County communications coordinator Caleb Baumgartner, who is part of the committee for the Creepy Dolls contest, as pictured on Oct. 19, 2022.
Rebecca Mitchell / Post Bulletin

Asked & Answered is a weekly question-and-answer column featuring people of southeastern Minnesota. Is there somebody you'd like to see featured? Send suggestions to  news@postbulletin.com .

Rebecca Mitchell started as a Digital Content Producer for the Post Bulletin in August 2022. She specializes in enhancing online articles as well as education, feature and health reporting.
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