The ground floor of the Holiday Inn is full of babies. Some have name tags. I can see a Noel, a Luciano, a Jennie. There’s a Zachary and a Noya, too. Others are being pushed around in strollers — those posh, stiff old-fashioned ones your super-pretentious friends bought because they thought it made them look like a member of the British Royal Family. What’s weird though is there’s no crying. Even weirder: Most of these babies sit slumped in baskets with a price over their heads: £250, £500, $2,000.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a guy who’s almost six-and-a-half feet tall carrying what looks like a wide-eyed young girl almost the same size as he is, only she’s stiff and her arms and legs stick out.
She isn’t real. She’s a doll and all bets are off.
None of the babies here are real, either. I’m here, in a hotel adjacent to a retail park about 40 miles northeast of London amongst hundreds of mostly female, mostly middle-to-late-middle-aged women, some partners, and a smattering of youngsters, because of my five-year-old daughter. Despite my super-progressive, gendered-toys-are-for-dopes, of-course-you-can-play-with-Star-Wars (‘and if that means I can buy the Millennium Falcon, then, like, fine’) -attitude, my daughter Hannah loves dolls. She also likes watching doll videos on YouTube.
Not just any dolls, though. She’s obsessed with reborn dolls. Reborn dolls are existing dolls that have been transformed into lifelike, artist-rendered children with weighted bodies and skin that often feels real to the touch, especially if you’re prepared to shell out for what I discover is called a ‘full silicone’. Reborn dolls are incredible realistic but also sort of look like Kuato from Total Recall. They breach the uncanny valley, that AI notion where something is so hyper-realistic that it triggers a response in your brain that tells you it’s not real, but startlingly bizarre.
You can’t buy reborn dolls in a toy shop — at least not in England — and they cost a bloody fortune. They’re sold on Etsy and eBay as well as a variety of online shops. So because Hannah has never seen one in the flesh and is desperate to do so, and since up until now we’ve had to hang out surreptitiously by the car seat section of our local department store so she can occasionally steal the baby-slash-eight-pound sack thing they use to demonstrate how the seatbelts fit, I’ve agreed to come with her to a show catering specifically to reborn doll enthusiasts. Quite frankly, I’m a bit scared.
Not, I should say, because of the people. And by that I mean the people we interact with, because some of the folks in this place do seem a bit stark raving mad. One older woman twice points out to me that it’s better people have a reborn than go and kidnap someone else’s child. That got me a bit worried. When I ask a vendor about her clientele, she rolls her eyes and benevolently disses them as “out there”. But the closest I get to someone being mean or scary or demonstrably odd (if you don’t count purchasing a ticket) is when I’m told off for suggesting the dolls are toys. “They’re not toys,” the lady says solemnly, “they’re collector’s items.”
Hannah doesn’t care about any of this. She just wants to hold as many of them as she can. My wife and I have already told her she won’t be getting one today, that the trip is no more than a recce. And she’s cool with that, as long as she gets to snuggle with lots of spectacularly real-looking babies and I take pictures of her doing so.
This is how we spend our day. But the problem is that each time she tries to hoist a nine-pounder into her arms, or swing it over her shoulder, I panic – panic because I worry she might fall over from the weight, because another seller told me they don’t hold up well under heavy and careless usage (you know, like the way normal kids play with dolls), because I see my overdraft limit constantly flashing before my eyes as I wonder how long we can eat only from tins after my daughter accidentally wipes off a fake baby’s pretend eczema blotches and I have to pay for it.
And yet, despite the silicone belly plates that Hannah excitedly notices and the 11-year-old (human) girl with a Michael Kors bag slung over her shoulder nonchalantly carrying a reborn in the crook of her arm and even though it freaks me out when I look at a family next to us in Pizza Hut while we have lunch and start questioning whether I saw their toddler blink, my fear begins to dissipate.
Yes it’s always shocking when I catch sight of a bad effort, a reborn doll that looks like the demonic offspring of Chucky and the baby that crawls on the ceiling in Trainspotting. But a lot of the craft that goes into creating the lifelike visages, I realize, is exceptionally impressive. And it’s hard to dislike people who are going about their business at a convention with like-minded souls, indulging in something they love, even if I might think it’s a weird thing for a grown-up to want to do.
Some of the weirdness even dissipates. A seller tells me her first few dolls ended up at retirement homes as they’re useful tools to calm people down. And reborn dolls, despite my daughter’s obsession, are often cited as being bought by childless people, or those who have lost kids, as a coping mechanism. Upon sale, the transaction is often akin to an adoption instead of a sale. I do understand that. Personally, I don’t really see how someone might consider the babies to be therapeutic. Watching the ticket holders walking round the venue, I get the sense that what maybe started out as therapy can easily calcify into a weird obsession. To me, that’s sad, rather than frightening.
At the end of our day, Hannah ends up deciding what doll she wants, if I’m not cruel enough to keep denying her one — or if I win the lottery, whichever comes first. It has to have its eyes open and have painted hair, rather than prosthetic hair sewn in, she decides. It can be either 15 or 17 inches long and needs to be no heavier than seven pounds. I note the name of the ‘sculpt’ (the body kit from which the reborn doll is built) Hannah likes and the artist who painted the other one she thought was good.
Before we leave, Hannah asks me to take one more picture of her holding some reborn twins. They’re both asleep. I’m pretty sure they also both hate me. But my daughter is so happy.