Attract, repel: lifelike dolls are collector cult

EDINBURGH Thu Jul 17, 2008 10:15am EDT

1 of 11. 'Reborn Baby' lifelike dolls are seen arranged for the photographer at the home of Deborah King in Fountainhall, near Edinburgh, Scotland on June 16, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/David Moir

EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Their chests rise and fall and you can hear a tiny heartbeat, but these babies for sale over the Internet are not alive.

"Reborn babies" are disconcertingly life-like baby dolls carefully crafted in vinyl, which have become swiftly popular mainly with collectors, but also with nostalgic grandparents and grieving parents.

Made and collected by an online community of enthusiasts, they are painted several times to create the mottled color of newborn skin, have mohair hair and eyelashes, and are weighted to make them feel as heavy as human babies.

Fans of the hobby, who call it "reborning", are mostly women and increasingly guarded about discussing it since media reports highlighted their purchase by bereaved parents, prompting some to portray the hobby as macabre.

"Cuddle therapy" is what one reborning Website calls the hobby -- the dolls' bodies can be fitted with electronic devices that mimic a heartbeat and breathing.

British department store Harrods -- whose motto is "Everything for Everybody Everywhere" -- describes them as "a bit too life-like" to stock, and collectors themselves say the dolls can cause feelings of intense unease, even disgust.

"I pick them up and I change them and I do hold them like a baby now and again -- it's relaxing," said doll-owner Gill, a 50-year-old grandmother who asked to remain anonymous because of the way reborning has been portrayed in the media.

Reborners say their hobby began in the United States in the early 1990s, with dolls becoming more and more realistic over time. Media coverage helped spread the idea to other countries, mainly Britain and Australia.

Cathy Newcombe, who makes the dolls and runs reborning Website Reborn Babies UK, said counselors were increasingly looking into the therapeutic benefits of holding reborn babies.

"The act of holding the doll may have a role in releasing a 'feel-good' hormone," Newcombe said.

But not all react in this way.

"You get this repulsion from some because it looks so life-like and they just see a dead baby," said Sue, 56, who bought her first doll in June.

"Looking at my reborn I've never seen a dead baby --- she has too much color in order to be dead."

TOO NICHE

The term "reborn" is used to distinguish custom-made baby dolls from those mass-produced in a factory, says Deborah King, who took up doll-making as a hobby three years ago and now sells dolls via Reborn Baby.

"My daughter wanted a sibling and I didn't want to have any more children, so I made her a doll instead," said the 32-year-old mother of two.

King's Web site features lists of baby dolls photographed in cots and dressed in frocks, some of which are described as "premature". Most have girls' names and are described as waiting for "adoption".

She sells the dolls for between 250 pounds to 1,600 pounds ($492-$3,146) and receives 10 to 15 requests a week.

The reborning community says most buyers are collectors.

"To me it's a work of art... I'm not into pushing it around in a pram," said collector Gill.

Newcombe of Reborn Babies UK said most of her customers want to collect the dolls as art: "Between 10 and 15 percent are for ladies who have lost a child."

Others have emotional reasons of a different kind for their purchase: King recalls one client who decided to buy a doll for her mother, an Alzheimer's sufferer, after noticing she spent most of her time looking at baby photos.

Ian James, a doctor at the Centre for the Health of the Elderly at Newcastle General Hospital said the use of dolls in care homes for the elderly can help reduce disruptive behavior.

"There are a number of reasons for the powerful effect of the doll in reducing some of the challenging behavior," he told Reuters by telephone.

"People are comforted and are so much calmer and quieter -- you just have to be there to witness that."

"It's a familiar role from time when they were busy and happy," his co-researcher Lorna Mackenzie said.

But James said it made no great difference how life-like they were.

"In our studies we have used 10-pound dolls from (toyshop) ToysRus --- if you buy three, you get one for free," he said.

Most of King's customers are collectors and grandparents who miss their grandchildren's younger selves, while others just enjoy holding the pretend babies.

But while there are hundreds of reborns for sale on Internet auction site ebay, their mainstream appeal seems to be limited by how realistic they are.

"Everything we sell is with a view to a child owning it or being interested in it, but these dolls are a bit too life-like for our toy department to stock them," a spokeswoman for Harrods said.

"The more realistic a doll is, the more niche the market is."

(Additional reporting by Raissa Kasolowsky, Editing by Paul Casciato and Sara Ledwith)

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