This essay is a hybrid, lyrical, southern gothic piece of nonfiction that’s a Key West travelogue and its creepy little-known history, culminating in my chilling encounter with Robert the Doll. Since longform horror travel writing is a niche within a niche, I’ve exhausted all potential publishing avenues in the 6 years since I wrote this piece. Without an editor’s finesse, it’ll remain in this polished draft form. And everything here is true as best to my knowledge. Happy Halloween!
Once upon a time, the scariest thing about the tropical paradise of Key West was the seven-mile bridge that helps connect this 113-mile string of islands to mainland Florida. Gritting my teeth and hands clenched, my stomach drops as we drive along an army corps engineering marvel of concrete jutting out of the ocean and snaking its way south, water stretching far into the horizon on both sides from a precarious perch.
I loathe bridges. As a biracial Sri Lankan American Third Culture Kid, I’ve been a living bridge all my life between cultures, experiences, trauma, and the perils of empathy. Physical bridges are a painful reminder of the work I do every day just by existing and interacting with other people. I am a huge fan of solid land.
But in the end the Overseas Highway and its gauntlets always proves a fair price to pay for the opportunity to spend even a short time in the weird and magical island of Key West, a place that has become my home away from home after repatriating to my husband’s corner of Florida. My Key West pilgrimage became more vital each year as my extreme aerophobia — another unfortunate side-effect of my nomadic life — refuses to abate, leaving my only travel options by train or car. Just a three-hour drive from our home is this fun and funky gem of a spot that people flock to visit from all over the globe.
But that was before I met Robert the Doll. And long before he cursed me.
By my fifth hajj in the summer of 2015 down to Key West I decide it is time to take the ghost tour trolley. I’d heard that the doll who inspired Child Play’s Chucky had a long history in the island. Being a certified scream queen — and someone who spent a great deal of the eighties terrorized by Chucky — I had to meet Robert in person.
The ghost tour congregates after dark on the southern end of Duval Street. July 2016 is one of Key West’s hottest months on record, and the heat is more oppressive with sundown — a common feature of Florida summers — but one that still surprises me. The tourgoers glow with a fine sheen of perspiration, and the moving trolley gives us brief salty kisses of cool ocean air as the bus drives through Key West’s dark places.
I’d never been in an automobile at night on the island, and am shocked at the different intensity of this pitch blackness compared to the bright vibrancy of the days. I’d also never had a bad vibe in Key West, but something is coming over me that makes my skin crawl.
The tourguide is a twenty-something woman wearing a witchy corset, messy upswept hairdo with tendrils at her neck, dark eyemakeup and lipstick the color of dried blood. “Welcome to the Trolley of the Doomed,” she intones into her headset. “I’ll be your host on this frightseeing tour. Now, can anyone guess where Key West is on the list of America’s most haunted places?”
“Haunted places?” I think to myself, confused. “But Key West isn’t haunted at all.” I’d come on this tour thinking it would be a big joke, silly anecdotes of drunken miscapades and boating accidents: A horror comedy. I am wrong.
“Key West, my friends, is America’s FOURTH most haunted city. We’re beat only by New Orleans, Boston, and Savannah, Georgia. We have so many ghosts here it’s like Las Vegas.” She pauses for dramatic effect. “Except that you’re dead.”
Everyone laughs, including my husband, but I’ve gone full clammy in the night heat. There’s a slight tremor in my hand as I take notes on an increasingly bizarre and violent history of my beloved island.
The doom trolley winds its way around the island, the ocean so welcoming in the day now a dark and hostile void. Waves crash out of sight, battering the concrete barriers lining the road with the thick sounds of a person getting their head clubbed in. Our first stop on this scareseeing tour was the Civil War citadel once known as the Gibraltar of the Gulf, now called the East Martello Fort, where 339 men died of yellow fever in 1862 and whose ghosts are said to still roam the barracks, often sighted in full uniform.
“If you’re lucky,” our frightguide says, “you might catch one of them on camera. They mostly appear as glowing balls of light we call orbs. But every so often, a full figure has been known to end up on film.”
I want to chalk up the tightness in my chest to the incredible heat and 100% humidity, but I can feel something more than barometric pressure down on me. Walking through the citadel feels like walking through an invisible, but present, crowd. This is a place of death, I feel it in my bones. More than anything I want to leave. But I got on this tour to meet Chucky’s inspirer. There’s no getting out of it now.
Inside Key West’s East Martello Museum — Robert the Doll’s home since 1994 — the air conditioner blasts freezing air.
I’m dripping with stress sweat and every hair on my body is standing at attention.
On the surface Robert is just an old toy sitting prim on a hand-whittled chair inside a glass case, a cotton doll of well-spun burlap that has held strong since its creation in 1904. His coat and shirt and trousers and shoes carefully stitched and padded by hand. Button eyes and a white sailor’s cap tipped at a jaunty angle. But there’s something behind those eyes. A glimmer. A malevolent glint that suggests they were plucked from the depths of hell now comfortably resting in a puckered cloth face, stained with age and time. Robert has no apparent mouth. Yet, there’s a hum around him that makes my fillings rattle.
The scareguide gleefully numbers the worst things Robert has done to people alone in the room with him. Shifting his head. Crossing his leg. Turning his chair around. Talking. Laughing. Dropping himself onto the floor so his caretaker need open the case to fix him.
Behind and around Robert the Doll the room is wallpapered with apology letters from around the world. “Please forgive me, Robert.” “I didn’t mean to offend you.” “I’m so sorry.” “I beg you to lift your curse.” There is even a letter from George W. Bush, prominently featured.
“Everyone be sure and greet Robert by name. You wouldn’t want your letter to end up on that wall!” the fearguide chortles.
“Hello Robert,” I say through a sandpaper throat and fight the urge to curtsy. I see my face superimposed next to his in the glass case, the crown of flowers in my hair suddenly menacing. An army walks over my grave. I cannot stay in his room longer. In spite of my new and hard-won skepticism winning over magical thinking, I feel something dreadful in that room. What evil feels like when it’s been pickling for too long. There is a dark presence there. Cruel. Robert doesn’t have a mouth, but behind that burlap face I imagine rows and rows of razor teeth, the easier to eat us all up with.
“He’s just a doll. He’s just a doll.” I say to myself over and over, a mantra against whatever malign force fills that room. I blink back tears.
“He’s also the doll who inspired Chucky,” a mean part of me sneers back, like a hard slap across the face. I am a self divided by a monstrous piece of stuffed cloth.
While the rest of the tour group crowds around Robert’s case, I back away to the furthest corner of the room and wait for this to be over.
“Holy fuck,” I scribble in my travel journal, the words almost unintelligible from my shaking hands, “such bad energy in here. Don’t know if it’s the Doll, the myth, or these old walls that hold everything.”
I have felt extreme fear before. The night in Hollywood when a woman thrust a gun in my face for my wallet and next she shot my friend point blank in the head. The night in Prague I got trapped on a tram during a blizzard and began the process of freezing to death. The violent childhood I survived. My first boyfriend, the rapist who threatened to kill me when I wouldn’t get back together with him. My second boyfriend, who raped me to sabotage my next relationship.
Fear is an old friend. But whatever force fills Robert’s room provokes a fear of an entirely different color. They say the doll is haunted. My stomach turns, my head spins. I believe it. And just when the bile begins creeping up my throat for real the frightguide wraps up her monologue.
“Don’t forget to say thank you and goodbye to Robert! You don’t want to end up on that wall.” She doesn’t chortle this time. There is a veiled threat in those words. Obedient, I add my voice to the chorus of, “Goodbye, Robert. Thank you.”
I am the first one out the door. I am the first one back on the ghost tour bus.
Tourmates exclaim over the few photos of orbs that emerged, these ghost lights captured by their excellent cameras. There’s a small bout of disappointed sighs that nobody had caught one of the Civil War soldiers roaming the in full uniform. Frightseeing indeed.
It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d had such a visceral reaction to an apparent thing. Looking out into Key West’s now-ominous nightscape, I recalled the first time I ever walked through La Casa de la Moneda in Seville, Spain. I stepped one foot into the open courtyard and immediately began dry heaving. My body wracked with abdominal convulsions that I couldn’t stop until I was well away. “What happened in there?” I asked my friend, wiping the sweat and spit from my face. Translating to “the house of money,” those few square feet was where African and other slaves were auctioned off until well into the 1800s of Spain’s history. Centuries later, that history lived on those cobblestones. And it was just as terrible as it had felt.
Similarly dreadful is the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, in Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. From the moment I set foot on that once blood-soaked land where hundreds of Lakota children, women, and elderly had been brutally slaughtered by U.S. troops, I am instantly wracked with sobs, tears burning down my face in an acid rain. The intensity of the pain trapped around the few graves threatens to swallow me whole. I almost welcome it.
I also couldn’t help but remember my many years in Prague, with so much of the city off limits to me. I’d feel that drop in my gut, overwhelmed with horrific history still vibrating decades later. And the stories of those haunted places were always as awful as my body’s response. That which looks like an art neauveau apartment complex is where the Communist Party used to torture people. This park is where they used to burn witches. Here is where they rounded up and slaughtered almost all of Prague’s Jewish population.
My time with Robert had already risen high into my list of most viscerally scary places in the world. I wiped my clammy hands on my shorts, tried to ignore the trickles of sweat still coursing from under my arms and down my back, and mentally rejoined the ghost tour I’d insisted my husband and me take on this visit to Key West.
“…Island of bones,” the frightguide intones.
“What did she say?” I whisper to my husband Steve. I’d been lost in my own memories.
“That when the first visitors found Key West it was covered in human bones. That’s why it’s original name is Cayo Hueso, Island of Bones!” He is loving this. Me, not so much as my skin crawls.
“…And to this day, historians and archaeologists alike have no idea where all those bones came from. Maybe this was a burial island. Maybe there was a war. Maybe it was a site of human sacrifice. We have no way of knowing.” If there had been music, now would be a horror movie cue.
I thought nothing could compare to the singular weird that had been Robert, but little did I know that my night (and future days) of Key West horror were only just beginning.
“Oh my gods,” I breathe. “Bones?” I’m clutching Steve’s arm with one hand and furiously taking notes with the other.
“This is Higgs Beach, one of Key West’s most popular day spots,” she continues. “But this perfect blue water hides a terrible secret. Higgs Beach is also known as the African Cemetery. Because here, under this velvet sand and crystal water, are buried the bodies of 294 people, mainly children, from Africa who were bound for the mainland slave trade. They all died in a shipwreck, and they interred them here.”
I feel like I’ve been dunked on and swallowed too much water. “People are swimming on a graveyard,” I scribble in my notebook. The taste of salt rises in my throat. “Do they even know?” Skeletal hands caress my skin in sharp points, and I shudder, rubbing my hands over my arms as if to ward these phantoms off.
“…we have the story of Carl Tanzler, also known as Count von Cosel, and his beloved Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos.” I turn my attention back to the terrorguide, activating various meditation techniques to remain present.
“Count von Cosel’s love died of tuberculosis and after her death he suffered a mental breakdown. So, he broke into her tomb and stole her body. He put what was left of her rotting corpse back together with string, wax, plaster, and glass. He placed her in their marital bed.” Loaded pause as my frightmates murmur in disgust. “And there she stayed for seven years, until the smell reached a level the neighbors could no longer ignore. Count von Cosel was arrested for desecrating a grave — necrophilia was suspected, but he was not officially charged with it — and was quickly freed because the statute of limitations had passed. Maria Elena was re-interred, until the Count stole her again and took her out of state. When he was found dead, years later, rumor has it he was wrapped in her arms.”
“What in the actual — ” I start but Steve shushes me. I tear my wide eyes from the screamguide to follow Steve’s fingers. The trolley of death is in front of Sloppy Joes, one of our favorite watering holes on Duval street, the one where Ernest Hemingway used to drink.
“If you’ve been in Captain Tony’s you’ve probably sat next to Key West’s old hanging tree.”
“Oh no, Steve, oh — ”
“Not only did Captain Tony’s once serve as the island’s first morgue, but that same old tree was used to hang 16 pirates back in the day. And one woman. Elvira Edmonds. Who heard voices that told her to axe her husband. And then her two small children. To death. Nobody hears much from the pirates. But the woman, they call her The Lady in Blue, is said to hang around where she died, looking for vengeance on those who killed her.”
I couldn’t believe it. I’d sat next to that murder tree dozens of times, getting drunk and having fun. I’d probably stumbled into it one night, my hand on its trunk to steady myself. And I never suspected a thing. I’m the one who always suspects the bad. I touch things and they often tell me stories. The bad stories are the easiest to feel. Images flash through my mind, or appear later in dreams, only to turn out that I had in fact seen a slice of awful history. But in Key West I had no clue. About any of this.
My mind drifts again and I wonder how many non-white people had been hanged on that tree. The KKK once had a brief but strong presence down in Key West. The history books probably didn’t keep tally of those other extra-judicial killings. My stomach does a full flip. I take a sip of water to calm it.
And the Key West horror show didn’t stop.
A mass murder here. Another untimely death and haunting there. Suicides and poltergeists. Hurricanes flooding the island and the streets running with cemetery bones. A shootout at the Red Door Saloon that people can still hear on dark nights like this one, even though it’s been a boutique for years.
We pass the lighthouse near Hemingway House I’ve admired dozens of times. I learn it once collapsed during a hurricane, and its keeper Barbara Mabrity only able to save one of her six children. She listened to their screams as they were crushed. It didn’t take long for her to lose her mind, although she kept her post as lighthouse keeper almost until her death.
In just a few dozen minutes Key West goes from being a yearly carnival of joy to a place that would now be the source of many new nightmares. My skin feels hot and itchy, but simultaneously covered in gooseflesh. A goblin spit in my eyes and suddenly I can see everything supernatural around me.
After the ghost tour every shadow has a face. I can’t stop trembling. And I keep asking myself how I never suspected. Key West is one of America’s most haunted cities, and I hadn’t a clue.
I take to my journal to make some sense.
I wonder why I never felt the super hauntedness before. Maybe the salt water? Maybe the tourist energy overwhelms the spirit energy? Is there another explanation? Did I live here in the past? Is that why it feels so familiar here even though I’d never been here before?
Whatever the reason, I am ready to go and thankful that we are heading home just the next day. I’m crawling out of my skin and would have left early if we hadn’t paid a small fortune for our room.
Our drive back north through my trial-by-bridges on the Overseas Highway, including that stress-inducing seven-mile bridge, is even more uncomfortable than usual. But this time instead of my usual carsickness and vertigo shivers over the many overpasses, I am feverish and itchy. My feet and ankles are inordinately swollen, and the 3 hour drive is an agony by the end.
“I really need to go for longer walks,” I say to Steve, thinking my swollen lower extremities are courtesy of all the extra exercise over our five car-free days walking and biking around the island.
Usually I cry every time we left Key West. This time I cry to be back safe at home.
That first night home my dreams are plagued with the ghosts of dead African children, floating in the water while people paddled around them oblivious. The count fucking his dead wife’s corpse, her limp head banging against the headboard knocking off bits of plaster and wax from her pallid skin. Black bodies swinging from Captain Tony’s hanging tree like Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit while people do shots and danced on the bar. My flesh burning, the fire tracing over me in a wicked tattoo.
I sleep for 10 hours, but wake sore and aching like I’d been running all night instead. My legs are swollen huge from the thighs down, and the backs of my thighs itch worse than chicken pox. I stumble out of the room, my legs sausages about to split open.
“Sweety, is there something wrong here?” I hold onto a chair as I turn around to show him.
“Holy shit, Sezin. What. The. Hell. Happened?!”
My husband is one of the calmest people you’ll ever meet. The fear in his voice frightens me.
Scattered across the backs of my thighs are dozens of bites. He counts almost 30 on one leg, and more than 20 on the other, all stacked atop each other in painful ziggurats. I have inadvertently scratched some overnight, so he can’t give an official tally. I look in the mirror to see huge, ragged, red welts running down the backs of my legs, scored with dripping pus and dried blood. The itching is abominable. I can barely bend my knees to sit down. I look like the start of elephantitis, a disease I’d seen growing up in Asia and Africa, and one I’d always been scared to catch.
Whatever had bitten me had done so with a vengeance. I can’t walk. Steve rushes to the pharmacy to get the strongest anti-itch ointment he could find. It smells like pee from the ammonia, and gives me all of five minutes respite before the itching drives me mad again. Neither Steve, nor his retired-nurse mom, or any of the people we knew, had ever seen these kinds of bites, reaction, and the sheer number of them in such concentrated form.
“Hey, are you sure you said hello, goodbye, and thank you to Robert?” Steve jokes, trying to get my mind off the oozing pustules dominating my life.
With just the mention of the doll’s name my stomach drops. I begin replaying the encounter in my head. Yes, I’m sure I said hello. I’m sure I said thank you. I’m sure I said goodbye.
But what if that wasn’t enough?
“Oh gods,” I mused, “What if he’s mad that I didn’t pay him enough attention? I mean, I said the script. But maybe he needed more?”
“You just sat on something infested. Simple as that. So many bites in one place, your body is treating it as an allergic reaction. No biggie.”
But hypochondria and an overactive imagination are a terrible twosome.
“I just happen to sit on an infestation right after meeting a haunted doll I may have insulted?! A doll that is famous for doing THIS VERY THING?!”
My hysteria reaches an apex and explodes into a full-blown panic, feeling my body crawling with Robert’s poison. Is this what dying slowly feels like?, I ask myself. My heart pounds in my chest and I’m sure it’s a heart attack. I’m infected with whatever malignant force surrounds and protects that doll. It’s in my blood. He has put something foul in me and I will never be clean again. All of my skepticism flies out the window and I forbid my husband from ever mentioning the doll’s name in my presence. My mother-in-law monitors my bites from a distance and as the redness abates she’s sure there’s no infection; no need for a hospital visit.
I burn sage. I wash everything we took to the island in hot water, and throw away all our leftover sundries. I consider tearing the pages from my travel journal that speak he-who-will-not-be-named’s name and burning them. I debate writing Him a letter of apology. But what would I say? I followed all his rules. If he demands more, it is not my bad. I do not deserve this level of punishment for not paying Him enough attention, spoiled little shit. I apologize for swearing at him even in my head, and smudge the house again with sage. I drink an entire pot of sage tea to clean myself out.
In a few days the itching stops, the swelling abates, and the grotesque bites heal without even any scarring.
Almost like it never happened at all. The only evidence of the many little nips is the photograph I posted on Instagram. Which makes me suspicious of He Who Will Not Be Named’s machinations more than ever: The rest of my legs are covered in scars from other Florida insect encounters. And not a single one of those incidents were even a quarter as intense as the attack in Key West. If anything should have left a mark, it should have been those dozens of angry bites that almost had me in the emergency room.
And while Key West was horribly battered by Hurricane Irma’s combustive powers — rebuilding efforts will take years to complete — last I heard Robert weathered the storm safe and sound from his East Martello Museum room. The site was one of few that didn’t even have minimal water damage.
As Alice said: “Curiouser and curiouser.”
Once upon a time, the scariest thing about Key West was the Overseas Highway ordeal. As it turns out, I’ve never been back to the Keys, let alone Key West, since my encounter with the haunted doll who inspired Chucky. I don’t see myself ever returning to that treasure island now exposed as a captivating veneer over a rabbit hole of dark history and the ugly forces that still call the place home. The skeletons are out of Key West’s closet, and I’ll leave that wicked doll to rule over them.
Thank you, Robert. Goodbye.