The Dollhouse Murders – A Classic ’80s Children’s Ghost Story

Classic children’s literature often reflects their young readers’ real-life issues at home and school. But somewhere in the 1980s, the kids in these books started having less ordinary predicaments. On top of their usual concerns were now ghosts and other unnatural threats. And if there was one author who helped launch and maintain this new trend of eerie encounters, it was Betty Ren Wright. Of all the creepy children’s stories she had published during that pivotal decade, her most well-known is undoubtedly The Dollhouse Murders.

The title of Wright’s 1983 novel seems too adult, however despite its target audience and largely young cast, The Dollhouse Murders isn’t exactly juvenile. It’s a good balance of both mature and adolescent content. Wright and her contemporaries knew how to pen a well-formed coming-of-age tale without talking down to the intended readership. Adults reading this book can also relate to the main character, who feels trapped in a life situation she has no real control over.

Amy Treloar is a 12-year-old growing up in a town called Claiborne. And like other kids her age, she has a hard time making friends. Amy thinks her loneliness is all because of her 11-year-old sister Louann, who has an intellectual disability. With this being the ’80s and all, people can be insensitive or plain rude when they meet someone different from them. Of course the author embellishes these messy moments to better illustrate her point. A slight altercation at the mall plays out more dramatically than it possibly would have in real life, but for this story to go forward, Amy needed to be angry.

Louann fortuitously causes a scene at the mall while under Amy’s watch. A potential new friend named Ellen is in attendance as well, and Amy fears she, like so many others, has been scared off by her sister. Resentful towards Louann and her mother, a frustrated Amy flees to her great-grandparents’ old house in a nearby town called Rainbow Falls. Her paternal aunt Clare has temporarily moved back there after going off to Chicago when she was eighteen. Clare is now cleaning the place up so she and Paul, Amy and Louann’s father, can sell it. After hearing what ails Amy, Clare cooks up a plan to get her niece away from home for a week. She thinks Amy and Louann need some time apart.

Much to her surprise, Amy’s parents allow her to stay at her great-grandparents’ house for the next week. Clare explained she was looking for some help and company. Amy’s mother reluctantly agrees, but not without giving her oldest daughter a guilt trip like only she can. “I still don’t understand… I don’t see why you’re so eager to get away from us.” What the mother fails to realize is Amy not only wants some time away from Louann, but also the chance to form her own identity. Having to look after Louann all the time, Amy missed out on being a kid. She doesn’t want her teenage years to be more of the same.

This is a sad place, she thought, as she had before. The sadness was not just upstairs in the dollhouse; it was all around her.

The other main character of The Dollhouse Murders is Aunt Clare, who is even more complicated than her niece. She cherishes her independence and encourages others to have their own. Clare and her sister-in-law naturally don’t see eye to eye about how to raise the girls; the aunt thinks separation can be good for them, whereas Amy and Louann’s mother doesn’t understand her daughter’s sudden desire for individuality. Meanwhile, Amy looks up to her aunt and wants to emulate her life trajectory. What she doesn’t know is how Clare came to be this way. All Amy sees is a woman who no longer answers to anyone. She never stops to ask what caused Clare to be so detached and ultimately alone.

The skeletons in the Treloar family begin to trickle out as soon as Amy feasts her eyes upon the old dollhouse in her great-grandparents’ attic. This custom-designed toy is a spitting image of the house Clare and Amy’s father grew up in after their own parents died. The grandparents took the two in once they were orphaned, but they could never see or treat Clare as a young woman in those few years they lived together. They essentially wanted her to stay a child, which explains why they gifted Clare a dollhouse on her fifteenth birthday. The one room in the dollhouse that doesn’t resemble its real-life basis is in fact Clare’s bedroom. As Clare told her niece, Amy’s great-grandmother had the miniature version of her room “look the way she thought a young girl’s room should ask.” So while everyone else fawns over the dollhouse, Clare sees only the bad memories attached to it.

Amy knows her great-grandparents died in 1952, but no one would tell her how. True to form in vintage YA, Amy finds the answer at the library. There in the obituaries she discovers her great-grandparents were murdered. Not a big surprise considering the title, however the details of the crime are eerie. While Clare was out, someone broke into the house and killed her grandparents. Her little brother only survived because their grandmother hid him inside a closet. The worst part is they never found the killer. The police questioned household employees like the maid and handyman, but eventually this turned into an unsolved case. Now, the book had the opportunity to turn itself into something more plot-driven. Maybe even hackneyed. With both Amy and Clare digging up the past, the author could have made this into a thriller where the great-grandparents’ murderer comes to tie up loose ends.

Thankfully, Wright doesn’t do that.

The Dollhouse Murders sits in the realm of horror, although this book is really more about the characters than what’s haunting them. Yes, the dollhouse’s contents mysteriously move around at night; in the story’s most chilling moment, the dolls resembling Clare’s grandparents are positioned in spots corresponding with where their real-life counterparts died. Clare understandably becomes freaked out, and she accuses her niece of pulling a morbid prank. A suspicious reader might believe Clare is succumbing to a guilty conscience.

Not to tarnish Clare’s character, Wright removes any doubts about her and whether or not she went to great lengths to have her freedom at a young age. Meaning, did she kill her grandparents? Early on, it was mentioned that on the night of Clare and Paul’s grandparents’ death, Clare’s older boyfriend Tom died in a car accident. She had been secretly seeing him against her parents’ wishes; they thought he was a drunken loser. The two were even engaged to be married. Like readers trying to figure this puzzle out, Clare suspected Tom was responsible for the murders. She had no proof of it, and there was no way to confirm her doubts now that he was gone. So for all her life, Clare believed she was in some way responsible for her grandparents’ untimely deaths, and she punished herself.

“If you didn’t move the dolls, who did?”

The outcome of The Dollhouse Murders is a smidge anticlimactic, but that doesn’t diminish the overall value. After pouring her heart out to her nieces, Clare makes a shocking and important discovery. In the dollhouse, the doll of Amy’s great-grandmother is found pointing to a bookshelf in the parlor. Clare takes this to mean something, and after pulling apart the bookshelf in the real parlor, she and her nieces discover a letter inside a book. Written by Amy’s great-grandmother shortly before her death, she identified her and her husband’s killer: the greedy handyman. If you’re like Clare, you feel the weight suddenly lift off your shoulders. It’s unfortunate how this mistaken belief plagued a good chunk of her life, but it’s a relief to know Clare and her grandparents have, in a way, made peace with each other. They can all move on now.

As for Amy, her arc is more subtly handled when compared to Clare’s. Amy was quite brattish when it came to all things Louann; she threw a huge tantrum after an emergency forced her mother to drop Louann off with Clare, right before Amy’s private birthday party. Even so, her behavior makes some sense to anyone who has ever felt like they had to make a choice between family obligations and inner happiness. It’s evident that Amy still feels more or less the same as she did before; she still craves a personal life. But the whole dollhouse ordeal put things into perspective about her family. With Clare’s experience with guilt, Amy came to understand that her mother felt responsible for Louann’s disability. Amy also realized Louann isn’t her burden — she’s her sister.

Betty Ren Wright wrote a compelling story for and about young people without ever sacrificing depth. What this book lacks in pages it makes up for in depth. The supernatural element isn’t as pronounced as one might expect or hope for, but The Dollhouse Murders is a good reminder of how the best ghost stories are sometimes less about the ghosts and more about the living.

There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.

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