Handmade monster babies and the people who love them
When Arend Smith first learned about the “reborn doll” community, he was an investment banker doing fantasy sculptures on the side; after teaching himself to work with Super Sculpey, oven-bake clay, and wire armatures, he quickly became hooked. Soon, his talent began to attract collectors interested in masks, statues, and garage kits. When a client asked him to make a vampire baby, Smith was drawn into a new subculture that would later influence his decision to pursue fantasy art full-time.
“I came up with a character that was loosely based on … Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is one of my favorite vampire designs ever — the bat form that [Dracula] takes in that movie,” Smith recalls of his first reborn doll. “The reborn community … was something that I had not really encountered with the collectors that I was used to.” Today, Smith runs Ravendark Creations, where one of his vampire babies — a posable 16-pound doll made from a master mold — goes for a cool $1,250.
Reborns are lifelike (often ball-jointed) baby dolls, made of silicone or cloth with glass eyes. The community runs the full spectrum of doll collectors, role-players, grieving parents, people who can’t have children, and folks who see them as a form of therapy. Some bring their reborns out in public, keen to see others do an inevitable double-take when they realize that the baby isn’t real. Researcher Emilie St-Hilaire even sees “promising implications” in the reborn-human relationship for the future of AI companionship.
Then there are fantasy (or “alternative”) reborn dolls. These are baby krampuses, elves, bugs, satyrs, fairies, and vampires. There are fantasy reborns based on Pennywise the Dancing Clown and the Grinch, hybrid baby-animals, yetis, and ogres. Werepups are very popular, but are incredibly labor-intensive to make because of all the hair (prospective parents can even use hair from a pet or loved one). Many dolls are made to fit preemie, newborn, or even Build-a-Bear clothes. One of the most popular fantasy models is the blue Na’vi alien from the film Avatar.
It was an Avatar reborn Facebook ad that first drew Rachel, who wishes to only be mentioned by her first name, into the fantasy reborn world. “I thought their soft lifelike bodies looked so incredible and I really wanted to get one for my daughter,” says the collector over Etsy. Today, with her husband’s help, Rachel’s collection includes eight “Vlads” — a vampire reborn by award-winning doll sculptor Noemi Smith — and five “Bipsey” elves.
These are just a few of the DIY kits on the market, which come as blank, unpainted dolls and start at around $120; some collectors learn to paint and stuff their own dolls and improve their skills through YouTube tutorials, while others buy finished dolls. “Each artist I’ve found uses different paint, so some might have a matte finish and others a soft silky finish, but you can see what you are getting by researching their work,” says Rachel. The tactile experience of holding something “real” is often a huge factor in interacting with a reborn — Arend Smith uses matting powder to make the silicone feel like human skin.
Noemi Smith’s DIY fantasy reborn kits are some of the most popular on the market; the latest is Farnus, a satyr. Most people I spoke to owned at least one Noemi Smith fantasy reborn, or got their start with one. Collector DuskKodesh, who was searching for a more “monstrous” alternative to waifish ball-jointed dolls, got her start with one of Noemi Smith’s Vlad dolls.
It didn’t quite turn out as expected — she had aimed for a pale purple color, but the doll ended up in wild Dalmatian-style spots to cover up a splotchy dye job. “You get over that mental bump once you’ve had problems happen … you just breathe and know you can fix it,” she says. “The great thing about these dolls is you can fix almost anything. You cut a hole in a body? Get a new one. You mess up an arm? You can just get another arm.”
While regular reborns have started to seep into cultural awareness through shows like High Maintenance and Servant — albeit as manifestations of anxiety, mental illness, or grief — fantasy reborns have a stigma attached to them even as a purely ornamental hobby. “I kinda got a bad reaction from family, being told they’re far too scary to have around my daughter who is four,” says Rachel, who likes to display them on shelves at home.
For all their passion, fantasy reborn fans are a rather ostracized part of the mainstream doll community. “The customers are a little bit particular … sometimes they take their babies for the real thing, and they treat them like real babies,” Noemi Smith says. “For some people that might be a little bit weird, but they take care of their dolls, they appreciate the art we made.”
DuskKodesh, who used to attend ball-jointed doll events before the pandemic, is resigned to keeping her passion for monster babies alive on the internet. “Some people absolutely love them and some people take it like a slap to the face,” she says. “There’s some sentiment from a minority of the normal reborn community that it’s mocking them or that it’s grotesque, but from talking to others like me, I don’t think it’s ever intended that way. We’re just odd people and we like what we like. No one is going to spend 50 hours making a doll unless they are actually into it.”