I had a panic attack over a Halloween decoration at work

A reader writes:

I’m writing about a situation that just happened today at my office regarding Halloween decorations. (If this is helpful context, I’m a mid-level manager at a nonprofit).

A few members of my team brought in fun, low-key Halloween decor (think, purple construction paper bats and a few faux pumpkin heads), which I complimented. However, another colleague, who is slightly senior to me (and not in my department), brought in an absolutely terrifying “doll” that stood a few feet tall with a grotesque expression and dressed/styled like the girl from The Ring.

I suffer from automatonophobia—a severe case—for my entire life. I have managed it through therapy and can handle some triggers to a degree, but I was very uncomfortable knowing the doll was anywhere in our building.

The doll was originally hidden in a supply closet as a jumpscare but then was moved from office to office. I was “caught” twice by it in just 18 hours, let out a small (involuntary) scream each time, and immediately verbalized that I did not like the doll and to please keep it away from me. I was so distressed afterwards that I refused to leave my office for the rest of the day to eat or even to use the bathroom.

A sympathetic colleague warned me later that afternoon that the doll had migrated again to a very public area of our workspace. I asked the owner of the doll to come to my office to chat, so that I could privately request that he remove it from the building or at least from the public space. However, the doll’s owner didn’t know that was to be the topic of discussion and … you guessed it … came down to my office with the doll in hand.

After being on edge and close to tears all day, I had a full-blown panic attack — hysterical, loud sobbing and hyperventilating. My coworkers were deeply apologetic (this is well outside my realm of behavior in the workplace) and immediately removed the doll from the building once I explained my phobia. A concerned coworker filled in our boss (she works remotely) and she called me right away to check on me.

I’m worried now that this is becoming “a whole thing”! My colleagues are incredible people and I truly have no ill will towards them whatsoever, but am left with two questions I hope you can help me with:

1) Was it out of line to bring such a grotesque “decoration” into the workplace in the first place? I presume others were unsettled as well (though certainly not to the same degree).

2) How can I, as an ambitious woman who strives for professionalism, move past this deeply embarrassing moment of crazy-crying over a doll in front of my colleagues? Am I forever the hysterical doll lady now? What should I say to my coworkers about what happened (people down the hallway heard my screams and sobs and were undoubtedly disturbed)?

Oh no, I’m sorry.

As a general rule, people shouldn’t bring super macabre or frightening decorations into the workplace. Too many people are unsettled by it. I don’t think I’d say your coworker was out of line to bring in the doll, but it wasn’t wise or thoughtful. And really, once you said you were uncomfortable and asked for it to be kept away from you, that should have been a clue to everyone to stop using the doll to scare people. I’m more bothered that he kept it up after you said something than that he brought it in to begin with. (And he was really out of line to bring it with him when you asked him to come to your office later.)

As for how to handle it now: if your coworkers are at all decent people, their thoughts are probably mainly “Oh no, poor Jane, I hope she is okay, that was clearly awful for her” and not “wow, Jane is prone to hysteria and now I will have to worry that anything could set her off.” That’s especially true if they’ve worked with you a while; their experience with you will tell them that this was an aberration, not a thing that should now define you.

And sure, there could also be a bit of “Whoa — I had no idea doll phobias could be such a thing!” And that’s okay. If they didn’t know, now they do. There’s probably more than one person in your office who will be more aware of phobias as a result and that’s a good thing.

I do think it would be smart to talk to people who witnessed or overheard your panic attack with a brief explanation and apology for disturbing them and some reassurance that you’re fine and don’t expect it to happen again. (As always in cases like these, you’re not apologizing for having a phobia but for the disruption itself, and for general relationship-smoothing purposes.) This shouldn’t be a big thing — it’s just something like, “Hey, I’m sorry about the other day since it must have disturbed you. I’ve had a lifelong phobia of certain types of dolls. By definition phobias aren’t rational so I won’t try to explain it, but it’s not something that has ever come up at work before and hopefully it will never come up again.”

Really, though, the way you’ll get past this is to continue being the calm, professional person you probably were outside of this one incident. I get why you’re embarrassed — big unexpected displays of negative emotion or seeming to lose control are embarrassing when they happen at work — but people know who you are and will see who you continue to be. Keep being your normal self and you should not forever be the hysterical doll lady.

Read an update to this letter

{ 351 comments… read them below }

  1. Jane Bingley*

    I can’t believe people keep doing this stuff. PLEASE keep Halloween decorations G/PG-rated at work. Pumpkins, black cats, tiny chocolates are all welcome. Anything remotely scary belongs at home.

    1. Bird Lady*

      Exactly this! I used to work at a museum that would haunted tours, and we worked incredibly hard to keep all tours but the last one as family-friendly as possible. And then, just to be extra-careful, we would explain before the tour that there were PG-13 scares, and give anyone with second thoughts a refund.

      1. Anonymous 75*

        Likewise if anyone ever wants to bring me a black kitty cat, they are always welcome. Christmas, Halloween, arbor day….I don’t care. and it can be a real one, stuffed animal….

        1. Cats Forever*

          I have a picture of my cat looking completely scary and quite mad, after I got her a new cat tower and she managed to “catch” the elastic holding the ball! She’s a rescue and not yet 1, but she’s gorgeous and so loving. I wish I could attach the picture for you to see! It’s very appropriate for Halloween!

        2. Delta Delta*

          I’m sharing my desk chair with a black kitty cat right now. Her level of evil is limited to opening cabinet doors and climbing screens and harassing the elderly cat.

    2. fine tipped pen aficionado*

      Absolutely. Fear as entertainment is strictly opt in and has no place in environments where people don’t always feel they have the power to choose NOT to opt in. Jobs, schools, healthcare, etc need to prioritize general safety and comfort over festivity. I love love love Halloween but it sucks when people do this kind of thing.

      1. ferrina*

        Fear as entertainment is strictly opt in and has no place in environments where people don’t always feel they have the power to choose NOT to opt in

        Very well said! This is exactly how I feel, but couldn’t articulate. I may need to quote you!

      2. Mr. Shark*

        Fear as entertainment is strictly opt in and has no place in environments where people don’t always feel they have the power to choose NOT to opt in.

        I’ll repeat the emphasis on this that ferrina already put on it. Pranks, jump scares, fear, anything like that HAS to be opt in and HAS to be based on judgment of the person that is on the receiving end. I know my friends know I have low level acceptance of pranks. I don’t find them funny being on the receiving end. I know some people love pranks and can just laugh them off. I’m not that way, and my friends should know that.

        Pranks and in this case, scary stuff, should not be in the office, regardless of whether someone has a phobia or not. Who would expect a doll phobia, it would never enter my mind, but the issue is that brining in a scary doll to work is not appropriate in any case, and carrying it to the LW’s office is completely inappropriate.

        1. single woman in own for many many many years*

          Totally agree as my reaction to “jump scares” is to punch out whatever is “attacking” me. And if that’s a person…well I may be sorry that that’s my reflex, but I doubt that I’ll be sorry that perpetrator experienced a black eye or bloody nose.

          1. GlitterIsEverything*

            Yeah, my husband is the same way. Anyone who tries a jump scare on him will get injured if they’re within arm’s reach.

            There’s enough people out there who respond like this that I’m surprised the doll wasn’t damaged.

        2. Ellie*

          Well dolls that look human are kind of creepy. I had not heard of that phobia before, but I totally get it now. The problem for me is, I’m scared of spiders. Everyone, but everyone, has fake web/spiders decorating their stuff around Halloween, its the cheapest, easiest decoration to use.

          I’m guessing it was the unexpected nature of this one that caused such an intense response. If I know there’s going to be fake spiders in a room before I open the door, I’m somewhat prepared to face them. If I opened a supply cupboard at work to find a fake spider sitting there, I’d completely lose it. I reckon it’s the hiding of the doll in various places at work that’s the issue here, more than bringing the decoration in at all. Celebrate Halloween however you want, but jump scaring someone requires an unaware victim, you have no way of checking with them beforehand if they’re up for that sort of thing (or this specific thing… people might be OK with being surprised by a skeleton, but not a snake, for example). I don’t see what reason this bloke had to bring that doll into the meeting with him, unless it was to scare OP. He should be feeling thoroughly ashamed.

      3. TooTiredTooThink*

        “Fear as entertainment is strictly opt in and has no place in environments where people don’t always feel they have the power to choose NOT to opt in.”

        Yes, please, thank you.

      4. Kit Kendrick*

        I had a co-worker who really doesn’t care for spiders and for ‘some reason’ any time someone had a spider toy (and I ask you, how does this ‘happen’ to occur more than once?) they absolutely needed to go show it to her or leave it in her cubicle or, well, you get the picture. I didn’t have the social capital at the time to shut it down but I did suddenly decide that I thought that spiders were the cutsey-wootseyest things ever and the second I spotted one of the toys I ‘kidnapped’ to my space with over-the-top glee to ‘love it forever’ and refuse to give it back until the squeamish coworker’s shift was over. I shall note that those performances did not result in people leaving spider toys for me in my cubicle for some reason.

        1. Exhausted Electricity*

          one of my coworkers loves snakes and owns several.
          another coworker hates snakes.
          tell me how a the snake loving coworker keeps sending the snake hating coworker photos of snakes “on accident”

        2. Sleve*

          You are an absolute hero, Kit Kendrick. I am filing this tactic away in case my workplace ever needs it.

        3. Good Enough For Government Work*

          Kit Kendrick, that is BRILLIANT and you deserve some kind of award for that idea

    3. Ex-prof*

      Yes. There are other reasons besides phobias that people might react badly to this doll; the death of a child in their lives, traumatic experiences, cultural beliefs about dolls (I’ve run into this one), and other stuff I probably haven’t heard of. This stuff seems really work-inappropriate and insensitive.

      1. Frieda*

        Could you say more about this? I have a small vintage doll as decor in my office (smaller than a Barbie, was my mom’s when she was a kid, has an outfit/costume related to my academic discipline.) I’ve never heard of a doll phobia and wonder if I should take it home in case I’m making someone uncomfortable.

        1. IneffableBastard*

          Doll phobia also exists, but the OP has a different phobia, a fear of human-like figures (such as mannequins, for example). It is possible that your figurine makes somebody uncomfortable someday, but it is less likely (it is not in unexpected, varying places, it is small).
          All I have to say is that phobias are a big pain. I have a phobia of elevators and had to decline a good government job offer when I was in my early 20s for this reason.

          1. OP, Hysterical Doll Lady*

            Yes, you’re correct! It’s not dolls specifically. This one just happened to be a very creepy doll.

        2. oddlyphobic*

          I think this is different. It’s unobtrusive, and not “meant” to be scary. There may be someone who comes into your office who has a phobia of dolls, in which case you would obviously remove it. But phobias can be so random and unusual, that there could be all sorts of things in your office that someone has a phobia of, and you can’t predict and remove them all (speaking as someone with a phobia of elastic bands…my colleagues hide theirs in their desk, I wouldn’t expect you to know to do the same if I visited you)

          1. Sleve*

            When I was young, my father told me of working with a person with a phobia of buttons and separately of meeting someone with a phobia of cushion stuffing. Uncommon phobias are just one of those ‘life with other people’ things we encounter from time to time. The best thing to do is to simply have a default plan to believe the person and react compassionately when informed of a specific phobia, no matter how unlikely it seems. Until then, carry on as normal.

            1. Jasmine Tea*

              “The best thing to do is to simply have a default plan to believe the person and react compassionately”

              Yes!! I have a friend who thought her daughter’s fear of birds so illogical. I reminded her of an adult among our circle of friends, who was very highly educated and terrified of butterflies. Just believe them!

              1. Random Dice*

                Yes, because our collective fear of (checks notes) serial killer clowns is completely rational.

                /thanks Stephen King

          2. Christine*

            I have kosmemophobia, a fear of jewelry. I don’t like to look at it, and touching it can be shudder inducing.

        3. Ellie*

          I wouldn’t worry about your doll, people can be afraid of anything. I used to own a really cute little beagle, many people asked about my dog, many people wanted to see pictures. There are people who are scared of dogs though, it mostly seems to be those who have been attacked before, or people who come from countries where dogs carry diseases and other issues. Occasionally, I’d run into the fear reaction where I could see someone’s eyes sneaking off towards the picture when I was trying to talk to them. I’d just remove the picture for them. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, if you’re mindful of what’s going on around you.

      2. mars*

        I cannot speak for everyone, but as someone whose baby boy has passed, I have never had issues with dolls, even baby ones. Real babies took a while though. But as someone with an usual phobia (balloons) everytime I have mentioned it, people have been very helpful and understanding. I don’t think it’s fair to judge someone for brining in a trigger for an unusual phobia but I do think it’s important how it is handled. Apologies and a swift removal are enough for me.

    4. Beth*

      I will say–it sounds like the problem here was there being any kind of doll present. It being a specifically scary doll explains its presence given the season, and also probably didn’t help, but it sounds like OP would have been really disturbed by even a G-rated doll.

      So yeah, in general office halloween decor should be relatively tame, but that’s not maybe the real point of OP’s situation. This one seems more about how OP and her team can recover from an unexpectedly intense moment and get back to normal. I think Alison’s advice–address the elephant in the room, don’t feel compelled to over-explain or apologize, return to being your normal self, and expect that things will smooth over–is really good for that.

      1. Alas*

        Scariest doll I’ve ever seen in a work situation was a Santa with a half scale body but a realistic full size adult head. It was sculpted holding a tray to hold gifts / snacks / drinks but the manager gave it our KPI charts so it always seemed disappointed in us. It vanished during the Xmas Eve nightshift, probably to get revenge.

      2. Garblesnark*

        If you’re already scared of something, it being stylized to be as scary as possible certainly doesn’t /help/.

        1. OP, Hysterical Doll Lady*

          Yes, this. I would be able to tolerate G-rated dolls. But this was purposefully designed to be scary.

      3. Hannah Lee*

        You’re right that the doll being there in an of itself was an issue.

        But the combination of it being styled to be scary/menacing


        It being moved around through the course of the workdays for added surprise/scariness

        made it all that much worse.

        Person bringing a doll to decorate their own personal workspace is one thing, as long as it isn’t super grotesque, macabre. Anyone with an issue can just avoid that workspace, meet that co-worker elsewhere if they have to work face to face for some reason.

        But person bringing a doll in and purposely putting it into shared workspaces, public spaces, spaces it’s going to pop out at people and toting it to the office of the person who has said, outloud, “I have a phobia of dolls. ” That’s not good Bob, not good.

        1. Observer*

          But the combination of it being styled to be scary/menacing


          It being moved around through the course of the workdays for added surprise/scariness

          made it all that much worse.

          Yes, this is really at the center of this.

          The fact that he then brought the doll to the OP’s office takes it to a point that I have to question his judgement. And setting it up to start with as a jump scare doesn’t help.

          I suspect that the OP was not the only one who wasn’t happy with it, and that Bob was made aware of that. All in all, he sounds like he was being a fair bit of a jerk about this.

          Mostly this is not really actionable for the OP. But I think that it is useful for the OP to know that while she probably does not have the standing to say that Bob was out of line for bringing the doll at all, most people will probably react well if she handles it the way Allison advises, because people also realize that the whole setting was not all that reasonable.

    5. Hotdog not dog*

      Yes, this. I have a pumpkin themed floral arrangement on my desk and am wearing an orange scarf with my black sweater. The scary stuff came out at the costume party on Saturday night. There’s a big difference between office Halloween and home Halloween.

    6. Kyrielle*

      Yeah, when I was still in-office my Halloween decoration was an orange pumpkin cut-out with “3.14159…” on it, which did get me some groans about the pun, but hopefully wouldn’t literally upset anyone.

      1. David*

        Hahaha that’s amazing :-) Now I want one myself, for next year.

        And indeed it’s hard to imagine it upsetting anyone, unless they have a particularly hard time with numbers/math and they feel like that’s rubbing it in their face. Or if they have a fear of pumpkins, but if so Halloween is going to be a rough time regardless.

    7. Marzipan Shepherdess*

      And generic-but-beautiful-and-beloved autumn theme decorations are great, too! Pumpkins, ornamental “Indian corn”, dried wheat bundles and brightly colored autumn leaves (real or artificial0 are all great. They won’t scare anyone and they really brighten up a workplace!

    8. Aeryn Sun*

      Absolutely. I’m a horror fan and like enjoying that BUT I’d be shocked to see anything remotely scary in the workplace.

    1. Anonym*

      I hope some of OP’s colleagues share their own phobias if they’re comfortable. That might go some way to making her feel better. (Not advice, I know, but maybe on the far off chance that someone in a similar situation ever reads this?)

      I’m moderately claustrophobic and would happily share the times I’ve panicked and left a situation other people found to be totally normal. Phobias are common, OP, and very few people will judge! They know you already and this won’t override that.

      1. Anonym*

        And I must add that I love the “so I won’t try to explain it” piece. This is so helpful, and so very right.

      2. StellaPDX*

        I am terrified of spiders. (Incident of a spider crawling in my bed as a small child, and one jumping at me). Cant be in the room. When I worked in an office, I told my co-workers, you can put up any decorations you want, just skip anything spiders.
        I also had a co-worker who had a huge phobia of cows. (the small cans that make moo sounds would make her sweat and freak out). Couldn’t even deal with a cow black and white print. We all respected that and luckily we didn’t work in an industry where we came across anything like that.

        1. Jojo*

          I’m terrified of spiders as well. Years ago, a not very mature coworker found out. I could see the look on his face as the gears started going. I knew I needed to put a stop to whatever garbage he was going to pull so I explained to him, very bluntly, that scaring me with a spider would not be funny. I would scream, and I would cry. Fortunately, he was mature enough to realize not to push it. So nothing ever happened.

          LW, if I had seen or heard your reaction, I would not be judging you. I get it. Like really, really get it. I think anyone with any empathy is going to understand your response and carry on with their day.

        2. SarahKay*

          Daddy long-legs (UK flying insect) do it for me.
          On my first night at Italian evening classes I managed to tip over both my chair and the (shared with person sitting next to me) table as one of them did its crazy random-but-somehow-always-heading-for-my-face flight and I scrambled to get away. In front of about 30 other adults.
          My neighbour kindly caught and evicted it, and the class continued normally. Any adult with an ounce of empathy will sympathise with you OP.

          1. Indigo a la mode*

            How interesting. I’ve never heard this insect referred to as daddy long-legs – I’m pretty sure you’re describing what I know as a mosquito-eater – but we do have daddy long-legs in the US. They’re the spiders with a single-segment round body and, well, long legs. I abhor those. Too much leg on too many legs!

            1. metadata minion*

              Yup, there are at least three different critters referred to as daddy-long-legs or variants in different places :-)

              1. oddlyphobic*

                the other name in the UK is crane fly, I don’t know if thats what they are called elsewhere…

                1. Fruitbird*

                  Kiwi here. I always called them crane flies too. Daddy long legs is the term I most often hear for cellar spiders.

            2. SarahKay*

              A UK daddy long-legs also has a long body and, as oddlyphobics says, they’re a type of crane fly. They are utterly harmless to humans as apparently their mouths can’t bite people, but alas as mentioned above phobias aren’t rational.

            3. Marzipan Shepherdess*

              Ah, yes, the American “daddy long-legs”: my late mother (who was born in 1907) told me that, when she was growing up in New Mexico, children believed that a daddy long-legs would point the way that your cows had gone by waving one of its legs.

      3. many bells down*

        My phobia is helicopters. Sometimes drones will set it off but otherwise I’m fortunate it doesn’t come up 99% of the time.

      4. ScottishVix*

        I did a degree in animal behaviour. One morning at the start of one of our modules the professor asked if anyone was very arachnophobic. I raised my hand. He said “good to know,” and moved on.

        Then in the middle of our afternoon lecture, during a completely different topic, he suddenly flashed up a slide that was nothing but a very large picture of a spider. It was a small classroom and I was in the front row. I jumped, screamed, and hit myself in the face with my folder trying to cover my eyes with it.

        “And that is an autonomic fear reaction,” he announced.

        He gave me a free copy of the textbook as an apology but I never forgave him or trusted him again.

      5. Kyrielle*

        I once popped *right* back out of an elevator when a man with a leashed, elderly dog – a golden, I believe – stepped in. I knew the man: he was a therapist in the same office as a therapist my son sees. We had just left that office. The dog was a therapy dog and I knew she existed. But when she entered the elevator and I hadn’t been expecting her…nope, I’ll wait and go down on the next one!

        And this is a *vast* improvement over how bad my phobia was when I was college-aged, most of the time I would be fine with her, but surprise and an enclosed space was apparently too much that time.

    2. Anon for this*

      I have a pronounced spider phobia which actually I try to keep secret. It may be overkill but even pictures freak me out and I’ve had more experience of people thinking it would be fun to scare/upset me than being understanding.

      Then it happened one day in work. A coworker accidentally disturbed a large spider. I ran from the room. Coworker got quite a fright because I’m normally cool and collected, and he didn’t immediately know why I’d run. My coworkers removed it, but one suggested it would be fun to throw it at me.

      No one threw it at me, but I think it took me a long time to get over it. I would say have a very friendly and professional work persona… so my reactions would have appeared out of character. I’m not 100% sure how I appeared but I’d guess it might have been a murderous expression (and from experience I make sure I know where the spider has been put). If it had been thrown at me I think I would have been hysterical.

      Just saying many of us have been there too! I think just return to your normal professionalism and move on. I like to think I taught those people not to even suggest throwing a spider at someone…

      1. Spider Hater*

        I’ve always had a fear of spiders. When I was In middle school, I went to a week long camp. One of the other girls saw I was afraid of spiders. For the rest of the week, and spider they could find was thrown at me. Including a group of them coming into my platform tent after I was asleep, waking me up with their flashlights in my face, and lifting the mosquito netting over my cot to throw one at me in bed! I am 42 years old now and still absolutely terrified of spiders. My husband knows the spider shriek. I have literally had to ask a vice president to come remove a spider from my office so I could work, and a doctor to remove the spider from my bicycle so I could commute home.

    3. Anonymous was already taken*

      Yep, I’m scared of balloons. Yes, balloons. Yes, I have young children who attend parties. It is very stressful!

  2. Cmdrshrd*

    Alison: “I’m more bothered that he kept it up after you said something than that he brought it in to begin with.”

    LW: “I was “caught” twice by it in just 18 hours, let out a small (involuntary) scream each time, and immediately verbalized that I did not like the doll and to please keep it away from me.”

    I agree the coworker should not have brought it, but I am not sure the coworker was aware that OP did not like the doll.

    OP was caught by the doll twice, but I don’t think it was the coworker/owner who did it or was around when it happened. My take this is a bit of an inference is that other people were moving the doll around the space. So OP might have express their dislike for the doll but it might not have gotten back to the original coworker.

    If I am wrong and the coworker knew OP did not like the doll, I agree it was out of line for them to bring it to OP’s office.

    1. Other Alice*

      That was my assumption as well, especially if LW didn’t speak with the owner of the doll directly or was trying not to show how upset they were (which is understandable!)

      1. I'm just here for the cats!*

        But why didn’t the people who were there that OP told take the doll back to the owner instead of move it someplace else? Everyone but the OP kind of sucks here.

        1. sparkle emoji*

          Yeah, even one “please keep this away from me” should have been enough to return the doll to Bob with the message to keep this in his office/away from LW.

    2. Beth*

      Agreed. I read this as, OP had a couple of jump scare moments in front of random colleagues–not the doll owner, the doll owner doesn’t know at this point that it’s unusually upsetting to her–and later asked the doll owner to come chat, without sharing the topic of the chat, intending to ask them to remove the doll. So when the doll owner brought the doll to that chat, they probably did mean it as a silly halloween moment and didn’t have any way of knowing it would be a problem.

      1. Indigo a la mode*

        That’s exactly how I read it. I don’t think the doll owner meant to be malicious or unkind.

    3. Lilac*

      That was my read as well. It does sound like other coworkers had noticed that OP was genuinely afraid of the doll, and it would have been a kindness for them to mention that to the doll’s owner – but it doesn’t sound like anyone did.

      1. Fierce Jindo*

        Yeah, I’m honestly really judging other coworkers who didn’t think “ok, enough with this” and deal with it themselves after hearing a coworker scream!

        1. Cmdrshrd*

          ” immediately verbalized that I did not like the doll and to please keep it away from me.”

          I think it is understandable that the coworkers might not have gone to “ok, enough with this” from OP’s reaction. A scream and I don’t like the doll keep it away from me is a long way from a phobia (scared it is even in the building) and going into a panic attach.

          1. Observer*

            I think it is understandable that the coworkers might not have gone to “ok, enough with this” from OP’s reaction. A scream and I don’t like the doll keep it away from me is a long way from a phobia

            Disagree. People don’t need to know that someone has a full blown phobia to recognize that this is making someone *deeply* uncomfortable. Which should have been enough to at least keep it out of *public spaces*

          2. Arts Akimbo*

            Interesting, because to me, “I don’t like this, keep it away from me” equals a hard no, a firmly-stated boundary, and I am absolutely floored that apparently some people do not interpret it as such.

            1. metadata minion*

              Ditto. I don’t have a doll phobia, but I have an overactive startle reflex and hate jump-scare type things, and would absolutely have told them to keep the doll away from me. It doesn’t matter if it’s a phobia or just wanting to not have to deal with this while at work. Your Halloween fun needs to be restricted to you and people who have indicated they want to participate.

        2. Longtime Reader*

          Unfortunately, the type of workplace where this sort of prank happens in the first place is often also the type of workplace that would label the “good Samaritan” coworker in that situation a killjoy/wet blanket/etc. Stepping in is really the boss’s job, but with the boss working remotely, everyone else was put in a bad position.

    4. Heffalump*

      I assume that OP’s request to the doll owner to talk in her office was made by phone, email, Zoom/Teams chat, or whatever. Rather than inviting the owner to her office, she could have cut to the chase and said, “The doll creeps me out, please take it home.”

      I had never heard of The Ring and had to look it up, which I suppose dates me.

    5. rollyex*

      Sure. But th ething is, after the first incident, someone should have stepped up to escalate the issue to the person who brought it in. Maybe the OP, maybe an observer, maybe a coworker, maybe more than one.

      If I’d witnessed the panic attack and was not absolutely swamped at work I would have intervened as a bystander – taking the thing, finding out who brought it in, and asking them to put it away because it had caused an incident. “Just put it away and take it home – it caused a serious problem and we don’t want that to happen again.”

      I’m not pointing a finger at any particular person including the OP for not taking action, but it’s a sad statement about the group as a whole that no one did. It’s a collective failure that the OP saw it the second time.

    6. Burger Bob*

      That was what I was envisioning as well. Like LW verbalized at the time to the room in general, but the doll owner wasn’t actually present for any of those times. I didn’t get the impression he brought the doll to her office with the intention of scaring her. It sounded to me like he really hadn’t been looped in and cluelessly brought it along with him when he stopped by as she had asked.

    1. Resident Catholicville, U.S.A.*

      Once the person brought it to the office and it had been migrating across the office without anyone pointing it out to him that it was causing headache, why not bring it to the meeting? The OP doesn’t say if the owner was notified that the OP was afraid of the doll- just that the OP had verbalized, probably the people closest to the jump scares at the time, that they were afraid of it. So, yeah, why not bring along Ring Gal to a coworker’s office for a meeting? They can include her, make a joke of it, etc.

      I’m not saying that’s RIGHT- but after we just had posts about office traditions and people moving stuffed animals/statues around the office, I can see where the owner of the doll felt it was probably fine.

      1. DisneyChannelThis*

        But there’s a huge difference in jumpscares (get scared by doll in closet, move doll to diff closet to scare someone else) and just toting it around like a creepy emotional support doll for a specific meeting.

        I don’t know. I would just be cautious around this guy for awhile, it reads weird and malicious to me to bring it to a meeting.

        1. Dek*

          This. I don’t want to assume malice where there is none, but if his doll-related shenanigans were “leave doll somewhere to surprise people” but now he’s carrying it around, that’s odd. I mean, maybe he was looking for a new place to put it.

          But sheesh.

          I DON’T have that phobia, and I would still probably do a scream. I hate being startled.

          1. allathian*

            Yeah, I also hate being startled, and I absolutely despise pranks. Even supposedly good-natured ones are annoying if they waste people’s time. By “good-natured” I mean things like sticking post-it notes all over someone’s monitor or wrapping someone’s computer in bubble wrap. It’s not malicious, but it’s annoying, and takes some time to fix that could be better spent working, or even socializing in a more ordinary way, like having a coffee in the break room.

        2. coffee*

          If you come at it from the point of view that being scared is a fun activity (which it is for many people), then “Haha my Halloween doll attended a meeting like they were a coworker” just has fun seasonal vibes like having a tea party with your dolls. So I don’t think it means the coworker is weird/malicious. Just that they misjudged the situation.

      2. redflagday701*

        Yeah, it’s not clear to me whether the doll’s owner fully understood, until the ill-fated meeting, just what it was doing to the OP. I can see how “I immediately verbalized that I did not like the doll and to please keep it away from me” might get interpreted as “no more jump scares or trying to creep me personally out” and how the co-worker wouldn’t understand that the mere presence of the doll could set off a full-blown panic attack. He definitely sounds insensitive, but I can’t tell from the information provided if it’s the oblivious kind or something jerkier.

        1. Stipes*

          I definitely would have hoped someone who witnessed OP saying “keep that away from me” would have passed that on to the doll’s owner if he wasn’t present.

        2. Observer*

          it’s not clear to me whether the doll’s owner fully understood, until the ill-fated meeting, just what it was doing to the OP.

          I don’t think it matters. The OP had made it perfectly clear that she wanted that think kept away from her. And even “small” screams indicate that someone REALLY, REALLY does not like something. So he should have been aware that she was at least highly uncomfortable with it. So why would be bring it with him? “Just” doing something that you should know is going to make someone uncomfortable is a bad move unless there is some real need for it. And that is certainly not the case here.

          1. Hiring Mgr*

            I think it’s more that the LW herself says that the coworkers are all great people, we don’t know the guy who brought the doll in knew she was upset, *and* once he did know he put it away, so I think the “malice vs ignorance” line is appropriate

      3. rollyex*

        “Once the person brought it to the office and it had been migrating across the office without anyone pointing it out to him that it was causing headache, why not bring it to the meeting?”

        People have to step up. If something is causing a problem, step up and end it. I’m not saying the person carrying it around was in the right – they’re a reckless idiot. But a group has to protect its members, and it’s disappointing no one tried to put a stop to it.

        1. redflagday701*

          “Reckless idiot” is pretty strong. Without any prior knowledge of the phobia, the average person has no reason to expect a co-worker will have a panic attack over the presence of a doll, even a scary one. I’m certainly not blaming the OP, who had no control over her response and went through something truly awful. And if the doll’s owner understood this was a phobia and ignored that, he’s a jerk. But if he had no idea — I mean, automatonophobia is just not on anybody’s radar!

          1. rollyex*

            Jump scares at work? People drop stuff, pee their pants, fall, etc with sudden scares. Panic attack would not have been on my radar either, but I’ll go with reckless idiot.

            1. OP, Hysterical Doll Lady*

              Yeah, that’s the issue. If it has just been in one place, I could have avoided that space, but once it was brought into my personal office (at the very end of the hall, in the basement–truly cornered) I couldn’t handle it. Once in college a similar situation happened and I actually did pee my pants. At least this time I stayed dry! LOL

          2. sparkle emoji*

            I mean this isn’t a typical doll, it’s a doll specifically meant to look like a horror movie character(I’m not sure if the girl from the ring is the monster but she’s definitely meant to be frightening). Jump scares in the workplace seem pretty reckless and silly even without phobias, so I think considering Bob a reckless idiot is a fair judgment.

      1. DisneyChannelThis*

        But if the fun is in leaving the doll places to surprise people when they’re alone (closet) what’s the point in carrying it into a meeting.

        1. Era*

          Same principle as admitting you’re ticklish makes it more likely people will try to tickle you — people are bad about distinguishing between mild discomfort and a boundary being expressed. “Mild discomfort” makes for an extra fun target of a startling prank, so they assumed that was the case and brought the doll along to get a bonus rise. It probably wasn’t malicious, but it was very thoughtless and a good demonstration on why it’s kinder to take people at face value when they say things like “that bothers me”.

        2. Dolly*

          I think if this guy didn’t know that OP had a problem with the doll, he could’ve thought that it was funny to bring the doll to the meeting. The joke being “we’re here to discuss the budget me and my associate Creepy Connie.” Not a GOOD joke, but one I probably would’ve done or thought was funny, because I like dolls and find it funny to act like they’re people. It’s certainly possible that it was malicious, but I agree that it could’ve just been a joke.

        3. Ticotac*

          Maybe they were going to move the doll somewhere else. Just because he brought the doll to the meeting it doesn’t mean he brought the doll SPECIFICALLY for the meeting.

          1. MsSolo (UK)*

            Yes, my assumption is he was planning to move it, or even put it away, and didn’t think not to bring it with him.

          2. Shay*

            yeah, agreed. i thought he was moving it and not out of malice. it’s not like he knew she had a phobia

        4. becca*

          He may have thought that if OP got to look at it in the light of day, so to speak, rather than being surprised by it in a closet, that she would be better able to tolerate its presence or not be so afraid of it. Which is not the greatest idea in the world, but is at least not “scaring coworker with malice aforethought.”

        5. Usurper Cranberries*

          Could be he realized that coworkers hiding it for a jump scare wasn’t a good idea and was carrying it so no one would sneak it away and hide it while he was in the meeting, not realizing that the doll in and of itself was the problem.

      2. SquarePeg*

        Horse pucky. The only purpose that serves is to absolve people of the harm their actions cause—how could it possibly matter whether or not it was malicious when the result was public humiliation for someone who didn’t deserve it?!

        1. Be Gneiss*

          It doesn’t absolve anyone of anything. I guess it’s just more peaceful going through life thinking that most of the time people do dumb things because of stupidity, instead of thinking they are going out of their way to be an asshole to me specifically.

          1. RagingADHD*


            It isn’t good for anyone’s mental health to reinforce splitting the world into good people who never do anything wrong, and bad people who are always cruel and out to get you. Particularly because it leaves you no way to deal with yourself when you do something wrong, and nobody to turn to when people you love inevitably do something wrong.

            Most people are just screw-ups who screw up sometimes, because that is the nature of being human.

            1. Smithy*

              Yes, I also think this puts out a track for your working life that’s really difficult to maintain. Essentially, there will be incidents of this variety across almost every job you have – and going in with this perspective first, gives a pathway to still being happy in a current job and finding a pathway to resolution/restitution without someone being fired/significantly punished.

          2. Hiring Mgr*

            Honestly I don’t even think the guy did anything *that* out of bounds. It’s a Halloween party after all, and according to LW once people knew she was upset the doll was put away.

            1. Observer*

              It’s a Halloween party after all

              No, it was *not* a Halloween party. It was the workplace, during the workday. And this person’s dummy was out of line.

              and according to LW once people knew she was upset the doll was put away.

              Nope. What she says is that it was taken out of the closet(s) to be used as a jumpscare, but then it moved from office to office, and then it was put in “<i?a very public area of our workspace“.

              In some ways it would have been worse if it had been put away, because then he would have had to go retrieve it from where it was put away specifically to bring to the OP’s office – after she had specifically told people that she did not like it and asked them to keep it away from her.

              1. Hiring Mgr*

                “My coworkers were deeply apologetic (this is well outside my realm of behavior in the workplace) and immediately removed the doll from the building once I explained my phobia”

                I was going by this from the LW regarding the others removing the doll.

                1. Observer*

                  That was not when she originally asked them to keep it away from her.

                  She originally asked them to keep it away from her after she had screamed twice and explicitly said that she didn’t like it and asked that it be kept away from her. It was only after she had a full scale panic attack they they removed it.

              2. OP, Hysterical Doll Lady*

                It was not a Halloween party, it was just regular office hours and the doll had been in the office for two days.

        2. EmF*

          It does matter – the objective outcome, which is “an apology and the lesson to not do the thing again” is the same. The subjective outcome differs between “wow, I really think less of Jimmsephine, what a jerk, I’m going to have to worry about whether they’re going to bring in a different creepy doll and say they only agreed not to bring in particular creepy doll” and “Jimmsephine screwed up and was sorry, and will probably not bring in creepy dolls in the future, I’m a little disappointed but overall am still going to be okay with Jimmsephine”.

        3. Ticotac*

          Because carrying a doll with you to a meeting because it’s on the way to your office and you plan to put it on your desk afterwards is very, very different from carrying a doll with you to a meeting because you know that the other person is scared of dolls and you want to give them a panic attack. Both may have caused a panic attack, but I’m not exactly going to ask for the person’s head on a plate in the first case.

          1. Stephen!*

            Yes. intent has little to no bearing on the impact- regardless, OP was deeply upset. But intent matters in a relationship sense- you can have a good relationship with the guy who didn’t know it would upset you; you’re not going to remain cordial with the guy who knew it would upset you and brought the doll for that purpose.

            1. Observer*

              But intent matters in a relationship sense-

              Also in the sense of how you assess the person’s judgement and character. The guy who didn’t realize how it would hit, leaves you wondering. But still. The guy who does this deliberately? Whoa. What other stupid stuff are they going to pull under the guise of “It was just a JOKE! Lighten up!”

        4. Marna Nightingale*

          Well, because in any relationship, even just sharing a society, but definitely including a work relationship, malice is harm by itself.

          I know people try to pull the “no intent means no harm” nonsense, but that doesn’t mean intent is completely irrelevant. An accident is generally a lot less psychologically scarring than an assault that causes the same level of injury.

          It also matters in this case because it has a huge bearing on what OP can expect of co-worker now.

          Which is hopefully that they’ll go to some trouble repair things, including by making it clear not just to OP but to everyone that they unwittingly but definitely triggered OP very badly, they’re in no doubt at all that it was a completely sincere response, they’re horribly sorry about it, and, crucially, that they don’t think OP’s response was in any way unreasonable.

          1. Bibliothecarial*

            Agreed – intent informs the future relationship (or end of relationship). It doesn’t mitigate or prevent harm but is a useful data point.

          2. Arts Akimbo*

            Right, intent is entirely separate from harm done. It’s the “stepping on my foot” analogy– it doesn’t matter whether you meant to do it or not; the outcome is that due to your actions, my foot hurts.

    2. Keeley Jones, The Independent Wonan*

      Most people who are into the scarier side of Halloween definitely back off once they know someone’s not ok with it. But, there are definitely people who seem to go out of their way to make the person even more uncomfortable.

      As with anything, if someone says stop, freaking stop. If you don’t, you’re a mile wide duche.

      1. Keeley Jones, The Independent Wonan*

        To be clear, I’m not saying the coworker knew OP was uncomfortable. I’m just saying there are people who would definitely take it too far on purpose.

    3. oranges*

      Oh, LW. I’m so sorry this happened to you.

      But if this situation happened at MY job, I’d remember it as the day my a-hole coworker brought an inappropriate doll to work and found a creepy amount of joy in scaring people with it.

      I would NOT remember it as the day another co-worker had a large, but not entirely unexpected, reaction.

      1. Health Insurance Nerd*

        Labeling this person as an “a-hole coworker” is really unkind and unfair. There is nothing inherently inappropriate about the doll, it was a Halloween decoration. And there is also nothing to suggest they found a “creep amount of joy in scaring people”. This is a really disingenuous take on this whole situation.

        1. Stipes*

          I would agree with you about just taking it to work as a decoration, but repeatedly setting it up in varied jumpscares is “I didn’t get enough attention for this and want more” behavior, and taking it along to surprise someone at a meeting is far enough that I think “taking joy in scaring people” is a fair characterization, which, at work, is creepy by default in my book.

          1. Antigone Funn*

            Ooooooorrrrrrrr it’s extending the fun by putting the doll in new places. Characterizing people who enjoy Halloween and spooky stuff as automatic creeps is really over the top.

            1. Stipes*

              I enjoy halloween and spooky stuff! I don’t think I’m a creep, but if I were to insist on scaring people at work then that would be creepy behavior, even by a non-creep acting otherwise out of character.

              Like someone said above: “Fear as entertainment is strictly opt in.” And things that are otherwise fine can be inappropriate in the wrong context. I’m not calling anyone a bad person overall, just their actions here.

    4. wordswords*

      LW says that their coworkers are kind people, and I think we can take them at their word. My guess is that he was having so much fun with the doll that it genuinely didn’t occur to him that anyone wasn’t having fun with his “oooh, spooky!” games. It’s not clear to me if the LW’s reaction to the jumpscares happened in his presence or not, since it sounds like other people were moving the doll around too. And if it didn’t, or if he took the reaction as “please don’t jumpscare me” rather than “please don’t bring that doll anywhere near me,” or even if he just forgot (not great, but not actively malicious), then it doesn’t make him a bad person to have thought “Oh, I’ll bring along this fun Halloween thing to add a moment of levity to the meeting!”

      I fully agree that bringing a large creepy doll to work is… well, not inherently awful depending on the details, but a little thoughtless, and making a whole extended jumpscare game of it instead of just putting it on his desk is more so. But that doesn’t mean any of it, including bringing it to a meeting when he didn’t know about his coworker’s phobia, was malicious.

    5. kiki*

      From my understanding of the situation, it sounds like the doll’s owner didn’t realize LW had such a strong negative reaction to the doll. I can see a situation where the doll’s owner thought he was bringing his fun Halloween accessory to show off, not realizing it could have such a negative effect on someone. I think sometimes folks who are really into scary stuff can be a bit desensitized to how disturbing something that they see as mildly creepy can be to other people.

      1. Mill Miker*

        Honestly, if the guy thought “LW is annoyed at being startled by the doll” instead of “LW finds the doll inherently terrifying”, it wouldn’t surprise me if he got the call for the meeting, figured it was about getting rid of the doll, put two-and-two together (incorrectly) and decided to remove the doll from the public space ASAP (which happened to be en route to the meeting).

        Still not great how it played out though.

  3. duinath*

    honestly i think bringing any kind of doll with you when someone asks to speak to you in their office is …i don’t even know how to put this. oblivious? unprofessional? does not speak well of your judgment?

    moving it around the office all day is also odd, imo.

    1. Happy meal with extra happy*

      I worked at a company where there was a cardboard cutout of a famous actor that tended to migrate to different offices, usually for birthdays or if someone was coming back from vacation.

      1. Dolly*

        My office had a cardboard cutout of a Senator who often opposed our work who also moved around the office. It was always surprising when the Senator showed up in a new place, and sometimes a fright if you saw him at nighttime, but in general, we did find it funny.

      2. Turquoisecow*

        Yeah my old company got ahold of a cardboard cutout of a professional baseball player, made to sell ice cream or something like that, and he was moved around our office for months. It was not uncommon for people to come back from a day off and find him standing in their office or propped up in their chair. Probably scared the crap out of a few people but wasn’t intended maliciously.

        Sounds like the same thing here, it was intended as a low key joke, but given OP’s phobia (and the doll’s extra creepiness for Halloween) it wasn’t funny to them. But I doubt maliciousness was intended.

      3. Yoyoyo*

        We had the same thing at a former job of mine. It was just to bring a bit of levity to our very stressful work. I would have gotten a chuckle if someone brought him to my office for a chat.

    2. Beth*

      Moving a little toy around the office is a common team prank/joke situation. It’s fine to not want to participate, but it’s not a weird thing to do either. The only judgment I’d draw from this is that OP’s coworker is really into Halloween.

    3. Julia*

      I’m guessing he was carrying the doll because he was on his way to put it in a new location. Having a decoration/standee that moves around is a fun thing when it’s not also scary. I’m dressed as Barbie(tm) right now for Halloween. Bringing in a Barbie dressed identically to me and moving it around would be funny and is now something I wish I had done.

    4. Kevin Sours*

      It’s not that *odd*. It’s just an extensions of the “jump scare” dynamic. Once people get used to where it is there is no longer the necessary surprise element. Jump scare pranks are highly inappropriate for an office environment but it’s not hard to follow the line of thought there.

    5. lilsheba*

      Such a shame, because I would *LOVE* to have Samara from the Ring going around the office! It would be awesome.

  4. misquoted*

    I think bringing the doll in the first place was out of line. I have no such phobia but I 100% empathize with you. I strongly dislike anything at all scary. No way could I work at a place where people think it’s okay to do things to intentionally scare their coworkers. This is awful, and I’m sorry you had to deal with it.

  5. Bookworm*

    No advice beyond what has already been offered, OP, just sending you sympathy. I am really sorry you experienced that but do appreciate you being willing to share your experiences with us. I’ve never dealt with anything like this but have worked in places that put restrictions on types of holiday decorations. They were more Christmas/religious concerns but stuff like this is probably not something a lot of people really think about, either, and we really should.

    Hope you’re doing ok.

    1. Elizabeth Bennett*

      Well said. Many people enjoy a fright, and many people abhor them. Let’s not frighten people in the workplace, especially if it makes people scream.

  6. I'm A Little Teapot*

    As one who has witnessed a similar event – your coworkers are not thinking poorly of you. Not if they’re decent people. They’re concerned that you’re ok. Act normally and this will pass in a day or so.

    1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

      Yes once I was scared by a fire alarm and everyone just apologized? ( I actually was unaware that I was scared of fire alarms. I tend to be unaware of my fears because I have so many)

    2. lyonite*

      Yes, if I saw this happen I would be concerned/sympathetic, but I would honestly forget all about it unless something reminded me. It’s a sucky thing to have happen, but as an isolated event it’s not going to change how reasonable people think of you.

    3. All Het Up About It*

      Agree! This just made me remember a time when an old co-worker had to leave a team meeting in tears because our CEO yelled at her and she was on edge after JUST loosing a beloved pet the day before.

      Do I remember it, yes. But more of an example of how not to be a jerk if I’m the boss leading a meeting and to have empathy in the office because people have things going on in their lives. It did not make me think poorly of my co-worker in anyway.

      I’m so sorry you had this experience and I hope you enjoy the end of spooky season.

    4. ariel*

      Yes! I also do think explaining it was a doll phobia is really helpful – I have a colleague whose panic attack I’ve witnessed, and not knowing what I can do or how to helpful has been difficult for me. If I knew it was something straightforward-ish, that would help. And indeed, I don’t think less of my coworker and simply hope everything is okay – with you as well, OP!

    5. allathian*

      Yes, this.

      One of my coworkers has a black cat phobia, because when she was a kid, a black cat scratched her face and she almost lost an eye. She still has the scars. She’s not particularly fond of any cats and won’t touch them under any circumstances, but she can’t be in the same room with a black cat, and even stylized pictures of black cats make her uncomfortable. Needless to say, we don’t expose her to her pictures or video featuring black cats. Two other coworkers have black cats, and during the pandemic they loved to show them off on our Teams meetings. That stopped when the phobic coworker was hired.

      Thankfully my office doesn’t decorate much for any holiday, certainly not for Halloween. Some people decorate their desks with small Christmas ornaments, if they have a named desk.

      My only Halloween decoration (at home) is a spider with googly eyes that my son made in 4th grade that sits on top of my monitor, right next to my camera.

  7. Common Sense Not Common*

    I’m so sorry this happened to you.

    I must say that the continued moving of the doll after you expressed your dislike and requested it be kept away from you was mean. That the person who brought it in brought it into your office with him was cruel.

    This needs to be a reminder that when coworkers express a dislike of something and ask that whatever it is be kept away from them the only proper response is to believe them and comply. No trying to judge how much they dislike something, just believe them.

    Also, the workplace is not the place for gruesome and macabre decorations. There are dozens of decorations that are tasteful and more appropriate. Save the gruesome and macabre for away from work.

    1. Lexie*

      We don’t know if the people who moved the doll were same ones that heard OP say they didn’t like it and we don’t know if that information about not liking it made it to the doll owner prior to the meeting in OP’s office. There may not have been any malice intended. Also if all OP said was they didn’t like it people may have taken that at face value. That they simply did not like it and not realized that it was actually a significant problem.

  8. Throwaway Account*

    I agree with Alison, most people are probably thinking “ugh, phobias suck” and not, “Jane is so delicate we have to worry about her now.”

  9. Exme*

    If I was a coworker of yours, I would not think badly of you and would be shutting down anyone else’s comments otherwise. Especially if you are able to come back with some calm and confidence in your interactions after a difficult incident it would solidify those qualities of your professionalism more firmly in my mind and raise my opinion of you.

    1. bamcheeks*

      This is absolutely what I was going to say. With any kind of immediate acute situation — whether it’s a mental health one like this or a physical health situation or some other significant disruption– people tend to take their cues from you in how you want to move on from it. If you do some brief but calm smoothing over, all the non-assholes will understand that that’s the way you want it handled and follow your lead, and probably respect you for dealing with it that way. If you’re super embarrassed and awkward about it, people will sometimes pick up on that awkwardness and be awkward back. Which is unfair, because it’s super legit to feel embarrassed and awkward about it, but I think it’s just the way people are. The more chill and ironic distance you can be about it, the easier it is for everyone to switch back to normal.

      Good luck!

    2. OP, Hysterical Doll Lady*

      Thank you so much. I saw this comment this morning right when the post went up and it’s stayed with me all day.

  10. Lacey*

    It’s so frustrating when people won’t accept a calm, “I don’t like that”
    Especially over something meant for fun.

    Because it’s calm, they think it’s not a big deal and keep doing it until the person makes a scene.
    Then the person who had already tried to handle it calmly, like the OP, has to feel bad about the results.

    It is unclear in the letter whether the person who brought the doll was around when the OP expressed this. That’s the only possible excuse I can give them.

    1. Sloanicota*

      I can easily imagine that the coworker didn’t know, but someone should have spoken up to this person earlier. Moving it around to scare people was already over the line, in my opinion – work things need to be “opt in” and in this case there was no chance to opt out if you’re just trying to get your work done and get through the day.

      1. Exhausted Electricity*

        at least if it’s in one place you can like, avoid that space. Moving it for maximum scare potential makes it less friendly and “in good fun.”

        1. OP, Hysterical Doll Lady*

          Yes, exactly. When I asked him to come chat with me I was going to suggest the doll be kept in one private office where anyone who wanted to could dress it up, etc. I didn’t want to shut down something that others seemed to be enjoying and figured I could then avoid that particular space the rest of the week. It was when it was brought into my personal space that I could no longer handle it. My office is at the end of a hall, in the basement. I felt truly trapped in that moment.

      2. Ama*

        I don’t think my anxiety around scary Halloween stuff rises to phobia level, but yes the specter of a scary looking doll potentially hiding somewhere in my office would have been too far for me (the anticipation of a potential scare is an anxiety trigger for me, so I control it by not putting myself in situations where I have to deal with that anticipation).

    2. Ellis Bell*

      This is a particular problem with Halloween stuff imo: people yelping in fear or surprise/saying they don’t like something/saying something creeps then out, is sometimes seen as part and parcel of being fun-scared and people don’t always read it correctly as “I’m not kidding, I’m truly afraid and I need this to stop now”. That’s another reason why you’ve got to be extra generic and inoffensive at work – people aren’t going to feel comfortable yelling at you and calling something you’re doing for fun unacceptable, or making a scene if that’s what it’s going to take.

    3. Dobby is a Free Elf!*

      This. I struggle with this a lot. My immediate, knee-jerk reaction to a panic-worthy situation is to get very, very calm. I am the person you want around in a crisis, because I tend to go into “figure the thing out” mode, not “freak out and run around doing useless things” mode. But also, my calm “I don’t like that, please stop/take the thing away” means I’m closer to panic than a snapped “Would you freaking stop?!” (I also use a very polite, sing-song voice with my kids when I’m about to Lose My Crap on them, actually.) But people don’t take the calm “stop it” seriously until I’m either raging or freaking out.

      Grr. Manners, people. Manners.

  11. H.Regalis*

    I’m sorry, LW. That’s awful.

    FWIW, unless your coworkers are huge assholes, I don’t think you’re going to be the Hysterical Doll Lady. They know you and I’m guessing have worked with you for months/years, yeah? They would know this is out of character for you and that you were extremely upset.

  12. Pastor Petty Labelle*

    LW I am very sorry this happened.

    The doll was out of line in the first place. I would have been bothered about it too.

    I don’t think anyone is thinking OMG she is so unprofessional how dare she behave that way. They are more like oh boy poor Jane. Let’s keep creepy looking dolls out of the office now.

    Also if your office is like most non-profits, there will be some hot gossip soon to distract everyone.

  13. HannahS*

    I actually think it’s incredibly out of line to bring grotesque decorations to work, especially when they allude to the suffering of other people (so…dead things, dismemberment, tortured children, etc,) or when the intention is to frighten your colleagues. That said, I agree that the right approach is to offer a brief explanation to the people who heard you and be aggressively normal about it. People will follow your lead.

    1. Sloanicota*

      I do think it’s more thoughtful to stick to banal stuff for the office – black cats, pumpkins, a single hat or something – sure. Like jokes or pranks in the office, you have to keep it way more above-board than you usually would, because people can’t opt out. But the line around this stuff varies really widely. You’re line is dead things, but that’s not a generally agreed upon standard that we all believe puts someone “way out of line” if they have ghost or graveyard decor.

      1. Me...Just Me*

        And, it’s not that the doll was scary because it was Halloweenish — it’s that it’s a doll. The phobia is surrounding dolls not just those that people assume are scary. If I’m the OP, I might make mention of that before Santa, Cupid, or the Easter Bunny appear at future holidays.

        1. doreen*

          I think there’s been too much focus on the grotesqueness of this item – from the descriptions I’ve read of this phobia , that has nothing to do with it. It has to do with any human-like figure- a mannequin, a statue, a robot. Saying that people shouldn’t bring super macabre or frightening decorations to work is fine – but it won’t help the OP when someone brings in a wooden soldier or a life-sized dancing Santa at Christmas. And most people wouldn’t consider those “dolls”. The OP is going to have to be more descriptive than just “doll”

          1. Sloanicota*

            I mean, commenters are generally going to sympathize with OP (unless there’s clearly something weird doing on), and she finds the doll grotesque and horrific so most people are leaning that way in their responses – but I can’t actually tell you if the reasonable person standard would find the doll over the line or not. I can tell you that multiple jump scares from hiding something around the office would get old to me fast and really isn’t something everyone should have to tolerate. It sounds like the joke went a bit too far.

            1. doreen*

              I’m not saying I know if it’s over the reasonable person standard – I have no idea. What I’m saying is that standard doesn’t seem to matter in this particular case – it’s not going to help the OP if people stick to decorations that everyone would agree are not grotesque. Nobody would consider an ordinary scarecrow or a wooden soldier or a dancing Santa grotesque – still, they might all be triggers for this phobia. But if someone told me they had a phobia of “dolls” , I might still bring a wooden soldier decoration in – because it wouldn’t occur to me that a phobia about dolls included that ( and indeed, there’s another name if the phobia is specifically about dolls)

            2. OP, Hysterical Doll Lady*

              After the doll was removed, others shared that they found it disturbing. One coworker actually yelled “F***!” when she first saw it. You are correct in that I’m uncomfortable around mannequins, wax figures, etc. but I have learned to handle it in day-to-day life. This was specifically a Halloween decoration designed to be scary.

      2. Ticotac*

        Yeah, the doll that the OP describes doesn’t sound particularly gruesome, it sounds… perfectly PG, tbh?

        Which isn’t to say that the OP is wrong for having a panic attack, it’s a phobia and it has to be respected. But I’m raising my eyebrow at the people saying that the doll in itself is “way out of line.”

        1. Sloanicota*

          Yeah. The story really doesn’t change that much for me if OP has a terrible cat phobia (“ailurophobia””) and someone brought in a cut-out cardboard cat that most people wouldn’t find scary at all. In fact lots of phobias aren’t scary to others. The point is, OP should be able to raise her issue and expect to be accommodated, since this isn’t a work issue. It doesn’t really matter if the doll was objectively too creepy or not.

          1. Bunny Lake Is Found*

            This is where my head is at. She didn’t have the panic attack when the doll “jumped” out and scared her. She had a panic attack when the doll was calmly brought in the room.

            It wasn’t the “scary” factor, it was the “human like doll” of it all. If someone had brought in a life-size Barbie rather the demon girl from the ring, the results for LW would have likely been the same. So why are we debating how creepy the doll was when the least creepy doll on the planet, if it is human like, would have also triggered the phobia at issue?

            1. Ticotac*

              Because we can’t assume that sometimes accidents happen and everybody involved may be a decent person, if somebody got hurt then there MUST be a villain. It’s not like sometimes things go really wrong even though no one did anything bad, after all.

            2. Hobbling up a Hill*

              It might also have had something to do with feeling trapped in a room with the doll whereas in other situations she could back away and leave the situation, now she’s stuck in a room where the only way out is to go closer to the doll (or yeet herself out the window).

              1. OP, Hysterical Doll Lady*

                Yes, thank you. It was this exactly. I mentioned in other comments that I have learned to deal with this issue in day-to-day life and can tolerate (some) human-like figures in (most) settings. My private office is at the end of a hallway in the basement. I was handling it OK until it was brought into my personal space and then felt cornered.

    2. Dollman*

      If it’s like the doll from The Ring then it’s not grotesque at all. Creepy? Yes. Grotesque, gory or gross? No.

      It sounds like the OP would have the same reaction if someone brought in George’s Mother Lookalike Doll from Seinfeld.

  14. Clydesdalesncoconuts*

    I have 2 very real Halloween costume related phobias that i seriously will have similar reactions as OP when near them- especially if caught off guard- the scream mask costume and pennywise the clown- bith of these stem from instances where coworkers thought it was funny to scare people at work in these costumes.. i agree with keeping it PG for the decor in work places- unless of course your entire office agrees ahead of time that its ok to do next level decor.

    1. Mostly Managing*

      I would actually take out the bit about “unless the whole office agrees ahead of time” because it’s so hard to be the One Person who doesn’t agree.
      Better to have the boundary of “nothing scary” than to have to ask each person if they’re ok with it.

      1. Colette*

        The problem is that “scary” is really individual. A lot of people are scared of spiders – are they allowed? What about paper ghosts? Dolls? Birds?

        1. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

          This is not actually a problem. Also, your framing of “allowed” is really weird here. Presumably you don’t want to be a jerk to your coworkers, so it’s not that you’re being forbidden to bring things in. You’re being a thoughtful person existing in a shared space with other people and proactively not bringing things in that are known to be creepy or scary. Skip the slippery slope argument.

          1. Colette*

            If you read the comment I was replying to, it was talking about having a boundary of “nothing scary” – and I was pointing out that reasonable people disagree on what is scary, so that’s not a useful boundary.

      2. Turquoisecow*

        Yeah based on the description here I wouldn’t think this doll would be especially scary or unsuitable for an office – and I don’t think it is, unless you have a phobia. I don’t think we can assign blame to OP’s coworkers for not knowing they had this phobia before bringing in the doll, nor to OP for not explicitly explaining it beforehand. OP didn’t think there would be dolls setting off their phobias and the coworkers didn’t think anyone would be afraid. Now that everyone knows, they can take steps to avoid making anyone uncomfortable around future holidays.

        But it’s not possible to predict every potential phobia that anyone might have. Maybe no one in OP’s office has a phobia of spiders, so spider decorations are fine, but they do have a phobia of reindeer, which affects Christmas decor. The only way to know is if the person speaks up.

        1. Media Monkey*

          i don’t have a phobia of dolls but this would be very scary for me – that’s kind of the point of it isn’t it? i don’t think it’s suitable at all for the workplace. i would say that if something comes from a horror film, it’s not appropriate for the workplace.

  15. Sloanicota*

    This is awful, I’m sorry. I think if there’s a lesson learned here, it’s that there needed to be more direct and clear communication immediately when you realized the doll was a problem. I don’t think it’s that helpful to ask if the coworker was “wrong” to bring the doll in – there are offices where it probably would have been well received, and there were probably people who enjoyed having it move about throughout the day, just as there are offices like in a previous letter that many people enjoy a day at an adventure center. Someone else on this blog was afraid of a big spider, or someone is probably afraid of ghosts or witches or something else generally thougt pretty harmless. With clear communication it would have been very wrong for the coworker to persist with the doll and certainly bring it to your office, and it would have been actionable if he had – but it sounds like they may not have realized the issue and still thought it was all in good fun. Don’t let your fear of being the “fun police” early on allow thing to get to the point where you’re screaming and crying later.

    1. Turquoisecow*

      Yeah, this. It sounds like OP told the people around them at the time to keep the doll away from them after jump scares, but this didn’t get to the whole office, or to the doll’s owner. It’s not clear if only the owner was moving it or the whole office was a if the whole office was, then more people would need to know. Maybe OP could have said something like “whose doll is that? Please tell them to make sure it stays away from me,” or coordinated with the owner to keep it in a particular area which then OP would stay away from, (IT likes it, I don’t need to go to IT today, keep it over there and we’ll be fine!) and maybe they can do something like that next year. I totally see why that didn’t happen, OP was freaked out and probably not thinking clearly, hoping the message would get out, but it sounds like people didn’t know HOW freaked out they were, so it wasn’t taken as seriously as they would have liked.

  16. Whyamihere*

    I have a phobia of clowns and mascots. I hate Halloween. I told my co workers I am scare of clowns and everyone agreed to not dress as a clown.

    1. Lainey L. L-C*

      Same with the clowns. I have finally gotten myself to the point where I won’t cry or freak out when I see them, but I hate them so much. If people know I hate them, and show them to me, I get angry quick, so you might get sworn at/yelled at. I won’t go to haunted houses – 1. because I’m easy to jump scare and 2. the clowns. And let me tell you, people who dress as clowns can tell you hate them, and seem to navigate toward me, which only makes my hatred continue.

      I have one nice story though – my co-workers knew I hated clowns, and someone doing a charity came in dressed as one to collect donations! I literally stood up and walked to the bathroom, not wanting to be anywhere near it, and one of my other co-workers told them to leave immediately. LOL.

      1. Whyamihere*

        My daughter was getting a fairly serious medical procedure and I made it to her room 5 minutes before she got there when I saw the clown. I abandoned my daughter (she had 2 nurses, a med student, and a patient advocate with her) because of clown. I do not have it under control.

  17. M*

    I don’t have any advice aside from what’s been offered but I can relate! I am absolutely terriffed of mascots/masks in general and I happen to work in the marketing department of a large university. Sometimes the social media team wear the mascot costume for their content and I am absolutely terrified at the giant dog walking around our office.

    One time I was in the elevator vestibule chatting with a very high up executive, think one level below the president, and then dog came right up behind us to get in the elevator. I panicked and ran to the stairs with no explanation to either of them.

    In my job it happens to be unavoidable, but the team member who sometimes dons the costume knows I hate it and tries to avoid me. I hope that your team can do the same!

    1. OP, Hysterical Doll Lady*

      Thank you so much! My phobia extends to masks and (somewhat) to mascots. It’s very much a spectrum of how bad the trigger is. This doll thing was near the end of the spectrum :( I’m very sorry that you have to work around a giant dog so often! I would hate that.

  18. Jaunty Banana Hat I*

    I don’t think bringing the doll by itself was out of line if Halloween decorations are generally part of the office culture–but using it for jump scares ABSOLUTELY was out of line, whether people have phobias or not. And multiple jump scares is just beyond the pale.

    If someone wants creepy decorations, it should be kept in their private office, not put out where everyone else has to encounter it–and honestly, like everyone else says, better to keep office decorations G-rated (in all cases, honestly, not just for Halloween–it would be pretty unprofessional to have a sexy fireman/etc. calendar up in your office for all to see).

    Like, the person who brought the doll probably had no idea LW had a phobia, but as soon as they did find out, they should’ve taken that crap home. I really, really hope that they didn’t know you had a phobia when they showed up with the doll–if they did, then they’re a shitty person. And LW, I promise you, it’s much more likely that people are annoyed by your coworker causing you pain/harm than they are at you for having a panic attack. Everyone is probably feeling bad you went through that (or at least they should be).

    I’m so sorry you had this happen to you.

    1. Sloanicota*

      I agree that the coworker comes off way worse in this story than OP does. If I worked with OP I’d be seriously side-eyeing that guy, not her.

    2. birb*

      There’s no way the owner of the doll didn’t hear about the coworker who screamed twice and communicated to everyone present that it distressed her, then disappeared into her office all day. He then carried it physically to the office of that coworker when she requested a private meeting with him… which I’m sure he easily put together what it was about. He’s a huge jerk.

      1. mlem*

        He could have thought he was in trouble and the LW was confiscating the doll, so he might just have been bringing it along to have it taken away/locked up/whatever. Sure, maybe he’s a jerk, but I don’t think it’s proven.

      2. Angstrom*

        A more charitable explanation might be that he thought showing it close up would make it less scary, as one sometimes does with children. “See? Scary-looking thing isn’t really so scary — it’s just cloth and paint.” Still wrong, but not intentionally malicious.

        1. birb*

          Alternately, knowing someone is frightened of an inanimate object to the point of avoiding the room it is in and deciding to bring it to them to “show them” is some paternalistic, infantilizing BS with no place in the office. Also if that was the case, he absolutely could have responded and asked her if that was ok instead of deciding for her. She communicated publicly and openly that she had a problem and removed herself from the situation, and he actively chose to remove her agency from that situation.

          1. Hiring Mgr*

            It’s just speculation that the guy who brought in the doll knew about OP’s fear and brought it to her office on purpose. Nothing in the letter says that at all. The LW herself says all the coworkers are wonderful people, and that they did get rid 0f it once they knew.

        2. Observer*

          A more charitable explanation might be that he thought showing it close up would make it less scary, as one sometimes does with children. “See? Scary-looking thing isn’t really so scary — it’s just cloth and paint.” Still wrong, but not intentionally malicious

          No, malicious and disrespectful. Because although he probably was not expecting her to have a full blown melt down, what you describe almost by definition requires making her really uncomfortable and there is simply no good reason for it. So that’s malice, even if not as much malice as deciding to trigger a panic attack. And, assuming that the OP is just a child who just “doesn’t understand” that this is “just cloth and paint” is disrespectful.

        3. Colette*

          Or that he thought her involuntary screams were because she was startled but not scared, and that she wsa in on the joke. (Or that he didn’t hear about them at all.)

    3. Irish Teacher.*

      I don’t think bringing the doll by itself was out of line if Halloween decorations are generally part of the office culture–but using it for jump scares ABSOLUTELY was out of line, whether people have phobias or not. And multiple jump scares is just beyond the pale.

      This is exactly where I land too. The doll may not have been the best choice of Halloween decor, but the line between Halloween kitch and actually scary is rather wavy because what is considered frightening is so personal and honestly, I wouldn’t consider bringing it in and putting it on a desk say that much beyond the ouija board earrings from a few posts ago (except that it is larger and therefore more likely to be noticed by those who find it creepy).

      But bringing it in and putting it on a desk (and removing it if somebody does express discomfort) is a pretty different situation to what happened here. The moving it around and hiding it and continuing to do so after somebody expressed discomfort definitely brings this into the inappropriate for the office category.

      1. Sloanicota*

        Unfortunately, it’s not clear to me that the person who brought in the doll or was presumably moving it around, was aware of OP’s reaction or how serious it was. I do think they displayed poor judgement but I can’t say they’re a jerk just from this.

        1. Jaunty Banana Hat I*

          I just think that using anything for jump scares in the office is the behavior of a jerk, or at the very least, someone really unprofessional. That’s where this ventured into “wtf, stop doing that” territory.

          1. Kyrielle*

            It may have been impacted by the Five Nights At Freddy’s film released this weekend, if it’s in the US. That franchise is all about the jump scares (the games almost exclusively, the movie somewhat less so), so it may have made the idea of jump scares more top-of-mind for more people.

            1. allathian*

              Possibly, but it still doesn’t excuse behaving like a jerk.

              I have a pretty hard line on this, I don’t think intentional jump scares are professional or appropriate in any office, certainly not during working hours. If it’s an after-hours event held at the office that’s truly optional in the sense that people can opt out with no questions asked and no silent judgment on those who decline, then the line’s just a bit less hard.

              I hate pranks, and I despise pranksters. Granted, I also hate surprises, even supposedly happy ones. I want my life to be as predictable as possible. I’m very glad that in my culture people are expected to host their own birthdays and surprise birthday parties don’t exist here. If someone organized a surprise party for me, I’d walk out and leave them to celebrate without me, although thankfully my friends know me well enough that they’d never do anything like that. When my husband and I got married, I was 8 months pregnant and only immediate family attended our wedding and reception, which meant that I never had to worry about a hen night.

  19. Kay Emm*

    I’m globophobic (balloons) and recently had to ask for some very gorgeous and elaborate balloon decorations to be removed from an office party being thrown in my honor, in front of the person who kindly created them and tue entire staff. It was embarrassing, to be sure, but people were extremely understanding. I’m sure OP will find the same.

  20. Exhausted Electricity*

    They had to ban automatons in a previous job because someone thought it would be hilarious to interrupt client meetings with those. They moved to an “agreement” that automatons could ONLY be used during the scheduled party, and then someone like Doll Dude kept up the client meeting interruptions. When I left that job, everyone still blamed Doll Dude for ruining the fun, not the people who were scared of the automatons.

  21. What’s In a Name*

    I’m sorry you were put in this position, OP! I have a terrible phobia of animals that have been taxidermied (I know, it’s a weird fear). Was at a museum with some friends and accidentally wandered into a room that was adjacent to the animal displays, and I could see them through the doorway. I was starting to panic and tried to quietly leave when what I assumed was a statue of the museum’s founder suddenly started talking – unbeknownst to me, it was animatronic. I screamed – a full “I’m in a horror movie” scream – in an almost silent museum. Over a decade later and I’m still embarrassed by it. But no one else even really remembers it, and your co-workers will forget about this too. You didn’t do anything wrong – we are all afraid of something. Most people will only think about how awful that must have been for you, and no rational person will change their opinion of your work or contributions based on it.

    1. Hrodvitnir*

      Oh boy, walking into one of those rooms would be a lot if you were phobic! And most people would be alarmed by unexpected animatronics!

    2. workswitholdstuff*

      Taxidermied animals isn’t that weird a fear.

      It’s not one I have, thankfully given I work in a museum with an entire room of them, but you are certainly not the only one.

      (we find adults are creeped out more by them than the kids though).

      The unexpected animatronic would have made me yelp though and I’m not phobic, if that’s any consolation at all!

    3. Random Dice*

      That sounds so scary!

      I find taxidermied animals deeply unsettling. If one started moving, I’d pee myself for real.

  22. birb*

    Maybe it wasn’t terrible to bring it to the office without knowing, but to bring it to YOUR SPACE was absolutely because you had a reaction before that he thought was funny. You communicated several times it made you uncomfortable and had a strong public reaction. He brought it to scare you knowing that. I would have some serious concerns about his behavior as a manger.

    1. K8T*

      There’s no indication he knew she was scared of the doll – OP clearly stated they never told him the reason they wanted to speak to him.

      1. birb*

        It was well known enough that she was afraid that an unrelated coworker warend her it had been put back in a public space.

        He brought it to scare people. He continued hiding it in places where it was most likely to scare people. There is no way he didn’t hear about the MOST SCARED PERSON, who others were clearly already concerned about. It seems incredibly unlikely that he both didn’t know the meeting pertained to the doll and also brought the doll (that he brought to scare people with) to the person who had the biggest reaction fully by accident.

        She removed herself from the situation after communicating publicly to the point that a coworker was concerned and warned her specifically, and he “accidentally” brought the situation TO her when she requested a private meeting? If I were their manager I’d be looking into it.

        1. DisgruntledPelican*

          It was well known by that one particular coworker. That doesn’t say anything about what the owner of the doll knew.

  23. HonorBox*

    OP, I want to just chime in to say that even without Alison’s suggested apology, you would in no way be seen any differently by me if I was in your workplace. Your response may have been out of character for you within the office setting, but was certainly understandable. While it is a different situation, I would classify this as similar to someone who is normally calm and cool having a very emotional response to a call about a family member being involved in a car wreck or something else that is very upsetting. People can feel emotions and no one should think twice about you having an emotional response to something like this.

    1. FrogFriend*

      Seconding this! If this had happened in my office, it would not factor into to how I viewed you at all. I may not have your specific phobia, but I know how it feels to be scared and thus have nothing but empathy for you. Hope you’re on the mend from this, it sounded like an awful experience.

  24. Essentially Cheesy*

    Dear LW,

    I would be 1000 times more likely to think poorly of the coworker bring in the obvious creepy doll than of you.

    I do not have any phobias but I really don’t enjoy intentionally creepy/blatantly scary things. Put down my vote for “they don’t belong in the workplace”. I can appreciate whimsy though!

  25. Lola*

    I hate jump scares. Just like I said yesterday – people shouldn’t have to disclose their traumas, sensitivities and/or phobias because of work Halloween decorations. Keep it at home!

  26. Lea*

    Any normal, compassionate person will not hold this against you or think you’re the hysterical doll lady.

    I so sympathize with this because I have an animal phobia of an animal that you’d think would be easy to avoid in office life, and somehow it still becomes A Thing once every couple years. Once it was a group hike I had to bow out of. Even if I didn’t see the animal, I would’ve been worried all day. Another time, similar to OP, it was a rubber one in the office that induced a panic attack. I nearly fainted. I felt humiliated.

    To my knowledge, this has never hindered my professional relationships. The people who saw the meltdown felt badly and the “prankster” just took the thing home. After a couple weeks, I felt a little less embarrassed about it as long as I didn’t dwell for too long.

    I’m still friends with the people from the panic attack incident even though I’m not at that job anymore, and it’s never even been brought up.

    People will move on. I promise.

  27. Tammy 2*

    I’m sorry, OP. I don’t think I have a true phobia but I’m scared of dolls, too, and I would also have been pretty upset.

    I once worked with someone who had a balloon phobia. I had a hard time wrapping my head around it, but I’m glad I and our other coworkers took her a her word and kept balloons out of the office.

    1. higheredadmin*

      I didn’t realize how much of an issue I had with balloons until I was attending a kid’s birthday party with my son in a very hot, loud and too small for the number of people venue – when of course the magician starts with the freaking balloons. I was on the side but near the front, and ended up having a bunch of balloons rubbed on my head. I don’t know how I didn’t faint, but it was pretty bad. I have spoken up for myself on this going forward as I never want to go through that again. OP, I’m sure a lot of people have something similar and they can understand. (I also have a very low tolerance for scary stuff, so I would have already been fuming.)

      1. Freya*

        I had a phobia of shiny lifts for most of my life. I know exactly where it came from – hospitals have them, and I woke up in one as a very disoriented post-anaesthesia toddler – but that didn’t mean it was any easier to work through with my psychologist as an adult. Before I spent the years wrestling the fear into bear-ability, I’d use the stairs on a bad knee rather than spend the appointment upstairs dissociating with reaction; on a bad day, I still will, rather than risk it (Covid poked that phobia and the back of my brain decided that lifts were killboxes again)

  28. ILoveCoffee*

    no, just no. I do not have a phobia but this would have made me very uncomfortable even before we get to the part where it was set up to jump scare people. This kind of behavior, on the part of the person who brought it in, is rude and unprofessional.

  29. But Not the Hippopotamus*

    While I agree that it’s not obviously wrong to bring it in, I’m surprised Alison didn’t address the hiding of it. I can’t imagine anything, even a cartoonish ghost being set up to startle people being appropriate. That would make me really upset. I would be really angry with that kind of prank. and that’s what it was, a prank.

    1. birb*

      Jump scares in the office are also incredibly unwise because of medical conditions. I’d have to take emergency medicine if someone hid something scary where it shouldn’t be and it genuinely caught me off guard.

  30. desk platypus*

    These sort of reactions are exactly why I hated the “prank” my job did this year. I didn’t even know it was happening until I reached under my desk for something and found a doll with with creepy hands and a withered crone face. I personally didn’t have a screaming reaction and just left it there since I didn’t know who did it. Someone came around later to coax me into looking under my desk thinking I hadn’t seen it yet. I flatly said oh, no, I saw it, I’m just busy. I was supposed to “pass it on” but I straight up declined and said I didn’t like these type of things.

    I may not have been scared by it but it’s just so mean spirited, because someone could have really gotten shaken up by it.

    1. Observer*

      I was supposed to “pass it on” but I straight up declined and said I didn’t like these type of things.

      Thank you for breaking that chain.

      1. allathian*

        Yeah, me too.

        I hate pranks, and I don’t think there’s any place for them at a professional office.

  31. Smithy*

    OP – while the phobia space is certainly relevant for this moment right now for you, going forward thinking about this a little more broadly in the “healthcare incident at work” hopefully can be helpful. In the sense where the incident certainly left you feeling embarrassed while not being your fault, but also impacts how you want to be thought of going forward.

    I’m someone who is prone to fainting (vasovagal syncope), and during one job was have more incidents than usual and one that in my private life that resulted in an expensive ambulance ride to be told nothing was wrong. So, I did want to tell my employer that should I faint at the office not to call 911, but also to be mindful that I had thoughtful coworkers who wouldn’t want to see me faint and “do nothing”.

    With that in mind, I’ve found that at work there are two pieces of the conversation that people find helpful – the part where they are allowed to say some comforting or sympathetic, and the part where there’s an “action plan”. In your case, it may just be how to approach next Halloween and have a phrase you can tell your manager/HR that signals you need support at a surprising time. But affording your a supervisor, or someone who cares that space to be human and a low lift ability to give help in future can provide a nice transition back to a workplace dynamic.

    1. Spreadsheets and Books*

      I’ve had to do similar things. I have epilepsy that’s generally well controlled, but if the worst is to happen and I seize in the workplace, please do not call 911 unless I appear to be injured in some way. Just keep an eye on me, and let me be while I get back to a mental place where I’m prepared to go home. Most people are very understanding when you explain things.

      And while I am not afraid of dolls, this one sounds awful and I would not like being around it.

  32. Anon (and on and on)*

    I can’t help but get the icks from the idea of the LW apologizing to her coworkers. I get where Alison’s coming from in terms of clearing the air about disturbing the office, but the LW was totally, 100% NOT at fault for that disruption! Honestly, LW could come back to work and never mention any of this again and it would be completing appropriate. If someone asked about it, a short, matter-of-fact explanation is all that’s really needed, followed by changing the subject.

    1. Observer*

      but the LW was totally, 100% NOT at fault for that disruption!

      True. And Allison’s language doesn’t take blame. And when you are talking about relationships that you really want to keep smooth, this kind of acknowledgement is useful. So is letting people know in a low key and matter of fact way, what the deal is.

  33. OhNoYouDidn't*

    As someone who also has a phobia, I’m sorry. People just don’t get it. I recently lost patience with a friend who kept insisting that if one just goes into a situation with the right mindset, the phobia will be negated. She just kept going until I finally let her know she didn’t know what she was talking about.

    1. Observer*

      She just kept going until I finally let her know she didn’t know what she was talking about.

      People like this really, really baffle me. Especially when the phobia is not of something that really has to have an impact on someone’s day to day life. Like if you have agoraphobia to the point that you can’t leave your house to go shopping, then you really, really need help I can see people with good intentions trying to push you. Sure, they are wrong about “just tough it out”, but they are (possibly) genuinely trying to deal with a thing that is a real problem for you. But if it’s spiders? Or Dolls, dummies, bears, etc. who cares? Why on earth would anyone be pushing this. You can live a very full, enjoyable and productive life without ever interacting with one of these things.

      Just soooo weird.

    2. OP, Hysterical Doll Lady*

      I’m sorry that happened to you! It’s really difficult for those who don’t suffer from it to truly “get it”. It’s not rational–it’s an involuntary physical reaction.

      1. Sleve*

        A commenter here a few weeks back (I forget who), referred to a phobia as the brain version of an allergy, and I think it’s a great analogy for those who don’t have phobias. A person with a peanut allergy can’t tell themselves to stop swelling up after they eat a peanut, and a person with a snake phobia can’t tell their body not to release adrenalin and cortisol after they see a photograph of a snake. Autonomic systems see a threat, they react.

        Some people have success in training their brains not to see their phobia triggers as threats, thus preventing the threat response from starting. This is the same principle as immunotherapy, and both have varying success rates. But no matter what, once a threat has been detected by the body, there’s no way to end the response short of ending the threat. ‘Mindset’ has nothing to do with it.

        You’re not somehow failing just because all your systems are working as intended, OP. You’re a highly functional threat response machine! The neural net running the threat detection algorithm just had some non-standard training data, that’s all.

        1. allathian*

          Yes, this. Human reactions to perceived threats are on a spectrum from mild discomfort to a full-blown panic attack.

          I dislike enclosed spaces, but I don’t say I have claustrophobia because I can still enter an elevator without experiencing anything worse than a slight discomfort. I do have some degree of cleithrophobia, the fear of being trapped, so if the elevator stopped and I couldn’t open the doors, I’d probably panic. The fear of being trapped is also the main reason why I won’t go to my office gym, because it’s 3 stories underground (the secondary reason is that I simply don’t want my coworkers to see me unless I’m fully clothed). When I started my current job and my boss showed me around, just being underground made me want to get out ASAP. As a student I had a job in a fast food kiosk inside a railway station. Most of the storage space was in the basement, and at the time, the lights were on timers rather than motion sensors. I went there alone once, and finding some stuff I needed took longer than usual, and the lights went out. I got lost between the shelves and couldn’t find either a light switch or the exit. Some 20 minutes later my shift manager missed me, and they found me whimpering in a heap on the floor. Thankfully this shift manager was reasonable, he just took one look at me and sent me home. I started carrying a keyring-sized flashlight in my pocket just in case it happened again, but I was never comfortable going to the basement again.

          I don’t like heights much, but I don’t say I have acrophobia just because I wouldn’t want to step on the glass floor of a high-rise viewing balcony.

          I don’t like crowds, but I can deal with being in one as long as they’re reasonably organized and for a good cause, like when I’m standing in line to enter a concert venue. That said, mob-like crowds are something else, so I probably have ochlophobia. When I went out with my friends to celebrate the millennium, I got stuck between two very big guys, and when my friends went one way, the guys went another, and I had to follow so I wouldn’t fall and be trampled on.

        2. 1LFTW*

          I really like the framing of phobias as “the brain version of an allergy”. Like you said, it works on a couple of levels: the involuntary, possibly severe reaction to something that’s harmless to most people; and the fact that if you’re gonna do desensitization therapy, it has to be done in a controlled clinical setting. The workplace is not that, despite what coworkers might think.

  34. Hiring Mgr*

    I’m sorry this happened – but depending on your general office culture I don’t know that it was out of line for him to bring the doll.

    I wasn’t familiar with this phobia, but from reading the link it sounds like any type of doll like this might trigger it (not just the grotesque kind) so if he didn’t know you have this condition it probably just seems like typical halloween stuff. Plus you mention he got rid of it once they realized you were extremely uncomfortable.

    I doubt this will do any harm to how you’re perceived though. Someone I used to work with had a balloon phobia and had a mild freakout at a conference once and nobody remembered a week later.

    1. Clefairy*

      I agree- I think in most offices, something spooky like that doll would be fine. What’s not fine is that after expressing multiple times to not bring the doll around OP, that the doll owner still brought the doll. People like the doll owner ruin things for everyone.

      1. Ticotac*

        To be fair, we don’t know that the doll owner knew that the OP asked not to see it. We don’t even necessarily know that the doll owner was the one moving the doll around, for all we know he put it in the closet, somebody found it and put it on somebody’s else’s desk, that somebody put it on another person’s desk, and so on and so on, creating a chain of pass-the-doll that most people saw as good fun.

    2. constant_craving*

      In some offices bringing it might be fine, but it really shouldn’t be ok to have things jump out at people in basically any office.

  35. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

    I’m so sorry LW! This is my nightmare!

    I have a very, very intense phobia, of a thing that is really random and not often seen nowadays but not totally out the realm of Things People Reasonably Bring To Work. (Please do not guess, I cannot even bear to write the word and often have a massive freak out if I even see the word.)

    I constantly dread this happening to me. And my thing isn’t even common enough that I know the word for it. People often find it funny because it is so ridiculous. Honestly, I don’t blame them and I would find it funny myself if it wasn’t so anxiety making and panic inducing and just generally awful.

    Thank you so much Alison for your response, it has reassured me a little that if I ever do encounter this object in a work situation, hopefully people who have worked with my for a while will respond with compassion.

  36. Anon Again... Naturally*

    OP, you did nothing wrong. You had previously expressed that you didn’t want anything to do with this doll and the person who brought it deliberately ignored that. Judging by the fact that one of your coworkers warned you it was back in a public area, you weren’t the only one who found the thing extremely unsettling. Your reaction was strong, but you’d been repeatedly confronted with the thing and then it was brought into your office where you should have had control of the environment. The only one who should be embarrassed here is the person who brought the thing.

    I also wanted to let you know that this is not really as uncommon a phobia as you may think. The whole ‘uncanny valley’ thing is just a lower level of this. For context, I collect dolls, and my living room has multiple display cases. Enough people find this upsetting that I warn anyone who hasn’t been to my house before in case I need to cover them up. And none of my dolls are designed to look creepy!

    1. workswitholdstuff*

      I work with a conservator who absolutely detest dolls.

      We’ll joke about from the point of view of him telling us how much it creeps him out and how they’re the work of the devil… But we’d never leave a doll that needed to be repair just out in his lab, it’s always in a box and packaged until he’s ready to deal with it.

      His wife is also a colleague and a pal – I did snap an image of a particular disturbing book on costume dolls to send to her with the comment ‘I bet X would find this particularly horrifing’ (because the dolls were *awful* – and I knew she’d laugh, but he’d never see the image….

      1. An*

        Like I said, it’s much more common than you would guess- many people have a low level of this but don’t realize it because they don’t come face to face with it normally. Seeing a bunch of dolls in the same place gets to people who didn’t realize it would bother them- I started asking because I’ve had people who came over who didn’t know they would have an issue and had to ask me to cover them up after a little while. I’d guess at least one person in 20 has some kind of negative reaction to them, even if they didn’t think they would. I assume if someone *knows* they have a problem with dolls it would be absolutely awful for them, and I don’t want to upset anyone!

        1. workswitholdstuff*

          And even if you don’t have a phobia, some of them are proper creepy anyway! (we, er, have a few of those)

  37. Analytical Tree Hugger*

    LW, when my coworkers have had human emotions of stress, sadness, etc., my thought process has been pretty much:

    1) Oh no, that sucks.
    2) What can I do to help?

    After time has passed, my thoughts on the incident are:

    1) …

    (Nothing, because I recognize we’re all human and that doesn’t conflict with us being capable and reliable).

    I’m sorry this happened. And I don’t think your colleagues will think about this incidemt in the future, except to note what is suitable for this office.

  38. Cats Forever*

    LW, I’m so sorry that you went through this! I don’t believe that you will be thought of as the crazy crying lady at all! I do think that the person who brought the doll in should be given a telling off.

    Yes it’s All Hallows Eve, but not everyone ‘celebrates’ it, perhaps because of religious reasons, or because they’re superstitious or just because they don’t want to!

    I have to agree with pp; chocolates and pretend spiders, live cats, and chocolates (oh, did I mention that twice?!) should always be welcome and brought in but not much else!

    It’s been nice seeing the children dressed up, and their creative outfits but I’m glad there’s only 6 minutes left of Halloween (I’m not in the US).

    Please give yourself some grace! I suspect that you’re well liked in your workplace and nobody will give what happened a second thought!

  39. Alan*

    You’re not alone. My doll phobia isn’t as bad but I was cleaning out my parents’ home after they passed and found two large dolls and let me tell you, I’ve never been so creeped out in my life. I think I threw them in the trash but part of me still expects them to come after me, years later. I feel your pain.

  40. Calamity Janine*

    okay this is going to sound weird but trust me a second here lw:

    sometimes for people who don’t struggle with this sort of stuff, it takes having a really bad day to convince them it is indeed real.

    should this be so? no. but sometimes it still is. from the “surely they aren’t THAT allergic, right?” to the “i’m sure they’re exaggerating a little about needing to use that cane on bad days”, it happens.

    you didn’t have a panic attack on purpose just because you thought it was fun. you had a legit reaction. panic disorders are good at telling you everything is ruined forever, but it’s not something to be ashamed about. just like you wouldn’t be ashamed about having hives after someone thought “i know she’s allergic to peanuts real bad but it should be fine if i eat my peanut butter sandwich at my desk, right?” then forgot to wash their hands before shaking yours.

    thankfully it sounds like they course corrected quickly and respectfully! but please do not be ashamed. what you’ve done here is let people see that it’s not just a mild dislike, but a real thing that they should be mindful of. it’s on them, not you.

  41. JustKnope*

    I agree with Alison’s point that it wasn’t thoughtful. I see a lot of comments calling the guy cruel or mean-spirited, but that’s most likely not the case. Most people aren’t out to be super mean colleagues. I think for people who like creepy/scary stuff, it hasn’t occurred to them that some people are genuinely upset by it. If liking Brussels sprouts is your default, you might assume everyone likes Brussels sprouts. I’m not saying it was a good thing to do, but we don’t need to ascribe ill intent toward this guy – most likely he thought it was in good fun and was thoughtless about how it could be received.

    1. Ticotac*

      Yeah, I understand that it’s possible the guy was trying to be mean-spirited, but I can also easily see a situation in which he just wasn’t aware that his doll was a problem at all. The description of the doll makes it sound like a pretty tame decoration, so he brought it in because he didn’t assume that somebody in the office had a fear of dolls. It sounds like he wasn’t there when the OP saw the doll the first two times, so if he heard anything about her reaction it may have been just, “yeah OP didn’t like the doll, she didn’t expect it to be on Colleague’s desk and it spooked her” which… well, call me insensitive, but it wouldn’t make me think there’s a problem to fix there, sometimes you enter a room and you see something that surprises you. I know I’ve been startled by more than the occasional hanging coat. And then he was called in for a meeting and brought the doll with him. Was it to scare OP? Was it because OP’s office is between the doll’s resting place and the guy’s office, so he just had it with him? Maybe we can say that it’s unprofessional to just hold the doll at a meeting, but idk man, sometimes you just carry random stuff with you.

      I don’t know, maybe it’s possible that the guy wanted to scare his colleagues. Maybe he was fully involved in the wandering the doll did. Maybe his colleagues didn’t think it was a delightful little thrill, but were actually all incredibly angry and annoyed with it and the guy kept going out of spite. Maybe his colleagues did tell him that OP was actually genuinely frightened and asked to never see the doll again, and he thought it was funny. Maybe when OP called him for a meeting he brought the doll to rub it in her face.

      But also, maybe he’s just a guy who acted in a normal way and inadvertently crossed paths with someone with a doll phobia.

    2. Common Sense Not Common*

      But after LW had voiced her displeasure and requested that the doll be kept away from her “the guy” and several other of her coworkers continued to move it where she would go by it and “the guy” brought it into her office.

      That is where the meanness comes in. Not in that it was brought to the workplace to begin with, but in that even after LW stated she didn’t like the doll/was uncomfortable around it/didn’t want it near her, her coworkers continued to subject her to having to be around it.

      Cut “the guy” and the coworkers slack for not thinking it would be a problem – okay. Cut them slack for continuing with it after LW spoke up – not a chance. The first was an oversight the second was a deliberate act to continue after the LW had spoken up.

      1. Joron Twiner*

        As many others have said, it’s not clear the coworker heard LW’s reaction to the jump scares. That is why it might still be ignorance not malice.

  42. RVA Cat*

    This reminds me of a former workplace where there was an extremely tall manager who’d come in costume (think Jason with the hockey mask) and jump out at his direct reports.

    1. Mill Miker*

      I had a boss try this once. Luckily (I guess?) I was one of the first people in the office that day. I don’t scare easy, but I startle easy, and I startle big.

      I was talking to someone, and she trailed off mid sentence to look at something behind me. I turned, saw the creepy mask, and then yelped (Something like “YEEAGABLUBLE”, jumped a couple feet in the air, flailed all my limbs, and landed on my butt.

      I say “luckily” above because he got to see a “worst case scenario” of sneaking up on people with someone who recovered pretty quickly. (It was a bit embarrassing, but we all had a good laugh about it). I don’t think he tried to sneak up on anyone after that.

  43. Sunflower*

    There’s a reason horror movies involve dolls, jump scares, and why some people refuse to watch them. Which is why I’m sure everyone at the office understands. The doll’s owner probably feels bad now that they understand how extreme your fear is.

    We’ve all had experiences that we think are embarrassing (I suddenly cried in front of the entire office for no reason except hormones). Just keep acting nice and professional and the incident will fade.

  44. Garblesnark*

    I’ve had many panic attacks in public, some at work and many at school. (Thanks, CPTSD!)

    All but the absolute worst people end up responding ok. Sometimes there’s a need to apologize (for, eg, screaming during someone’s exam or important meeting; not for panicking).

    The only people who have ever held a panic attack against me for more than a day or two were extremely awful in other ways.

  45. Not A Manager*

    OP – You had a physical reaction to a trigger. Treat this *exactly* the way you would if you’d had an allergic reaction and needed an epipen, or if you’d eaten something and gotten food poisoning. Briefly explain your condition to the witnesses in a calm, professional tone and tell them that you realize that witnessing it might have been upsetting to them. I would stay away from anything that sounds at all like an apology.

    I can tell that you feel some internal shame about this, and that you fear judgment, but don’t bring that into these conversations. Maintain your workplace persona of a competent, confident professional (which is what you are), who happened to experience a medical situation at the office.

  46. ee*

    Hey LW – just wanted to say, your office sounds big enough that you’re probably not the only person with a phobia. You might be the only one who was this scared of the doll, but there’s a good chance that at least one of your coworkers is scared of bugs or rodents or reptiles or something and totally gets it. I would remind myself of that when interacting with people over the next couple days as a way to feel less self-conscious.

  47. Chauncy Gardener*

    OP I am so sorry this happened to you!
    I am quite sure your coworkers are not going to think any less of you at all. They sound very nice and reasonable. This is so outside your normal behavior, I’m sure this won’t be A Thing going forward. So please don’t worry about that or beat your self up over it.
    It will all be OK!

  48. LucyGoosy*

    Ohhh I’m so sorry, OP. I *personally* wouldn’t think much of someone having a panic attack due to a phobia at work (aside from being very concerned for them, of course). This may be a rare *phobia* but I also think it’s pretty normal to not want creepy dolls in your office…I think your colleagues will understand and not see you as “the hysterical doll lady.” I hope you’re feeling a bit better given all of this!

  49. Annie*

    I am extremely claustrophobic. I was once taken on a tour of a concrete building with long, narrow, windowless hallways as part of my job. I had a very similar reaction to the LW – sobbing and hyperventilating. Claustrophobia is better known than Automatonophobia, but still not ideal. My colleagues and the outside stakeholders who saw my complete breakdown were all understanding once I’d had a chance to collect myself and briefly explain (breezily, “I know, it’s wild, just comes over me so quickly and then passes! All good now.”). I think generally people are more inclined to rely on what they know about you generally (professional, collected) and chalk it up to a weird quirk.

  50. Skytext*

    Regarding bringing the doll to the meeting—my thoughts went a different way: according to the OP’s timeline, it seems the meeting was pretty late into the workday. I wonder if the coworker was planning to head on out after the meeting, and so just had it with him, or maybe just corralled it up on his way to the meeting so that he wouldn’t have to go hunting for it afterwards. Especially as people have been moving it around the office! I could see him thinking to himself “I need to leave (soon/right at 5/in 45 minutes/whatever) I don’t have time to spend hunting all over the office for Scary Sally, so I’ll just keep it with me”.

    1. Marna Nightingale*

      I honestly have a hard time, given that OP nowhere says that she has any reason to believe that co-worker is malicious or mean or even generally insensitive or cursed with a vile sense of humour, coming up with reasons to think it was deliberate.

      It seems way more likely that coworker didn’t get the word that someone was genuinely upset by the doll, or got the word but didn’t know WHO it was. Or, possibly, thought it was the jump-scare, not the doll that was the problem.

  51. Daisy-dog*

    A few years ago, my boss (the CFO) brought in a skeleton that had a motion-sensor activated scary noise. I don’t even remember what the noise was, but it caused a jump scare of whoever walked by it and was really intrusive to those working the area. I was actually HR, but was still new in my role and didn’t feel comfortable confronting my boss about this unless someone else complained. Thankfully, our CEO (who traveled frequently) was in-office that day and advised him to turn off the noise portion.

    The skeleton lived on the CFO’s door until practically Christmas with a sign that said, “Didn’t turn in expense reports.”

  52. ThisThat*

    This reminds of a similar incident I had at work.

    One time for Halloween, I wore spider earrings to work. The office already had halloween decorations up, including cobwebs with big cartoony spiders, so I hadn’t thought much of it but my earrings, while not super realistic, were small enough to seem so at a glance.
    Anyway, one of my coworkers let me know via email that she was slightly arachnophic and the earrings were bothering her, so I removed them for the rest of the day (I had noticed that she had been avoiding me, but not quite connected the dots). And while I later moved on from that company, I continued to have a great relationship with that coworker for the rest of my time.

    So yeah, I just wanted to post this to reassure OP that reasonable people will be understanding of she her phobia and that it’s not a big deal. :)

    (personally I have a slight phobia of elevators myself haha)

  53. Ellis Bell*

    OP, you’re allowed to be a human being who is afraid of things, you’re allowed to have phobias or any other type of condition, and no; no one gets to extrapolate from that and turn it into you being hysterical in general. I think so reasonable was your objection, that you could have messaged the person who brought in the doll, and anyone else with clout to remove it, and just said “I realise that this wasn’t the intention but I’m seriously unnerved and finding the doll too distressing and distracting to work while it’s in the building. Is there any way to put it outside the building for the rest of the day?” I don’t think you should have had to, and I think the bringing in of it was a huge lapse in common sense, but I think you *could* have just asked for this, especially because it was a scary Halloween doll, without even mentioning your fear of dolls/figures in general. I think if the same thing were to come up again, with a not-scary doll or figure, you should at least be able to confide in your boss and ask them to deal with it, if you don’t want to get into it. Dolls are not necessary at work and you are; your needs definitely outrank people’s need for dolls and figures.

  54. Nuke*

    I can’t believe people still do things like this. I mean, I CAN believe it, I just… ugh. I’m REALLY sensitive to any horror-type stuff or violence. I can’t even watch horror movies (no matter how Classic(tm) or how amazing you tell me they are! Sorry!!) so I really sympathize with this. I also have a severe phobia of spiders, so some realistic halloween decorations can upset me. Not as severe as this phobia, but still.

    I have like, the opposite of a doll phobia (my favorite fictional character of all time is a wooden doll!), where I really like them – my sister-in-law does too and she collects ball jointed dolls. But like… we recognize that lots of people find them “creepy”, and to have a horror-themed one MOVED AROUND THE OFFICE TO SCARE PEOPLE(!!!!!!) is so wildly inappropriate. I mean this gently, but some people like OP’s coworker are just very self-absorbed to the point that they don’t ever consider how their actions might affect others. “I like scary stuff, so everyone in my office should be subjected to it!” Ugh. It would be one thing if they just kept it at their desk, but the moving it around puts it WAY over the edge of anything that should happen at an office IMO.

    I don’t even like when people decorate their houses with the gory, frightening decorations. I would always avoid them as a kid. It will never be my thing, and it’s frankly exhausting to try to enjoy Halloween when people assume it should all be knives and murder. Feels a little disrespectful sometimes, too. Let me enjoy my goofy skeletons and my pumpkin carving in peace, please.

  55. Contracts Killer*

    I had a huge spider phobia for a long time (shout out to All Bugs Go to Kevin’s Facebook page for helping me get better), and I’ve screamed so many times when a (often microscopic) spider was in my office. Like running out to get someone else to remove it kind of panic. No one batted an eye. Bug phobias are more common, so most people weren’t surprised, worried, or judgmental. I think a decent amount of people are leery of dolls, even if it’s not a full blown phobia. All that to say, I think most of her coworkers won’t be judgmental and will empathize with what happened.

    1. Random Dice*

      My sister has a snake phobia. She also started doing exposure therapy, I want to say also through Facebook. Now she can actually take photos of snakes, from afar!

      I’m really proud of how hard she’s worked, and how brave she is.

  56. Jane Fiddlesticks*

    Hi LW, sorry this happened to you! I don’t get why people can’t let work be work. Just get some mildly Halloween-like things like a little pumpkin decoration or some treats like pumpkin-spice bonbons and leave it at that!

    And don’t worry about your image, I’ve seen people come back from much worse. I don’t even think you need to apologise like Alison suggested, but if you do you could make it short and upbeat, like “Whoops, I can imagine that this gave you a fright, I do not like dolls but they are my only kryptonite!” and move on.

    If you make sure to be a super level-headed coworker overall and treat this incident as an odd quirk, something that just happens to be a part of the amazing package that is you, I’m sure you’ll see that people will shrug it off.

  57. stk*

    Oh, LW! I really sympathise – I’ve cried at work more than once and always for much, much stupider reasons than that. Your genuine distress is so clear. It’s hard not to feel stupid and embarrassed but I really think your colleagues, unless they are horrible people, will understand that even if it wasn’t that bad for them (and the Ring girl is deliberately very creepy!), it truly was that bad for you, and I think they’ll also understand that that doesn’t change your professionalism or how good you are at your job. This stuff happens to lots of people. Reasonable colleagues don’t expect professionalism to mean not a human being, and just keeping on doing your job should mean it fades in people’s memories very quickly. Good luck.

  58. thelettermegan*

    I love Halloween, but I firmly believe that scary things do not belong in the office. The walls and cubicles are a boring gray color for a reason!

  59. Ash*

    I’m so sorry OP! I too have an irrational phobia (think something you encounter in your everyday life). I now tell ppl I will immediately remove them from my life if they try anything about it, like putting 1 on me. If they can’t respect a simple request like that they don’t deserve your time. I’m sure many of your coworkers won’t remember it’s the day you freaked out, but as the day that annoyingly immature guy brought a doll into work to scare ppl.

  60. i drink too much coffee*

    One time I had a guy threaten to spill my blood on the floor of the lobby and I… panicked. It was (probably) an empty threat but I managed to keep my cool enough to tell someone much higher up than me (a front desk admin assistant) that they needed to handle it, and then I hid. Literally hid. And sobbed. I wasn’t super proud of how I handled that tbh.

    For the record yes, police were called and he was removed and banned from the premises.

  61. Torgo takes care of the place while I'm away*

    OP, I’m so sorry that happened to you. Also, why do people only stop doing something only after someone else has a meltdown? Calm, reasonable ‘no please stop don’t’ never works with some people– one must always lose one’s composure in order to get them to pay attention. I hope the co-worker took a valuable lesson home with them that day.

  62. Andromeda*

    oh nooooooooo. I do not like the idea of an office where freaking each other out, even momentarily and in jest, is the kind of prank you have to watch out for. OP, you had the bad luck of *showing* people why that is.

    I don’t blame colleague for not knowing that the doll, when taken out of BOO-scared-you context, would still freak you out to that degree. I side-eye the “hiding it around the office to startle people” much more, because you just never know how people are going to react to being spooked.

    Maybe having a quiet, kind chat with Doll-Bringer-Inner, explaining your reaction (but not in a way that suggests you need to justify your phobia) and discreetly agreeing to no future dolls, would help? That might at least set your own mind at rest.

  63. Random Biter*

    Dolls *and* clowns are creepy af for me. And even plastic spiders will set off hyperventilating. I think we probably all have some type of trigger event, OP, so don’t let this make you feel badly about your reaction. That was nothing compared to the time some idiot attempted to chase me with what I thought was a real spider. Even Google had trouble trying to locate him after that slap.

  64. nervous wreck*

    Ohhhhhh no I’m so sorry. Just wanted to express the deepest sympathy – I feel embarrassed about reactions to my phobia in front of my partner sometimes, I can’t imagine if I encountered it at work.

  65. Rainy*

    LW, I don’t think anyone reasonable is going to give this even a second’s thought except to make sure they’re not parading more of the object of your phobia around you. It doesn’t reflect on you professionally at all. Many people have phobias, and kind, reasonable people can separate those phobias from your work.

    If you worked in some kind of role where you were expected to interact with the objects of your phobia, it might be a bad fit, but it doesn’t reflect on you as a professional.

  66. Turtlewings*

    OP, for what it’s worth, if one of my coworkers had a reaction like yours, literally my only thought would be concern for their welfare. No more judgmental than if they were screaming because they fell down the stairs and broke a bone. I’m SO sorry you had to go through this.

  67. Scott*

    Ooof. LW, please accept my sympathy. I have my own phobia, and I know I would be a TOTAL MESS if it unexpectedly showed up at work.

    I echo Allison that one isolated incident (especially around something deliberately designed to frighten) is not going to tar you as a crazy, hysterical woman. Hopefully it will be a slightly cringeworthy episode soon consigned to the dustbin of memory.

  68. Dawn*

    If I’m reading this correctly – and feel free to correct me – it was “the expression on the doll’s face” that you found “grotesque” and not that the doll itself was actually what most people would categorize as such.

    If that’s the case then, no, your coworker was not actually out of line to bring it and your impression is (reasonably so) being informed by your phobia, although hiding it as a jumpscare when everyone hasn’t bought into that is out of line.

  69. Kevin Sours*

    Honestly the doll, as described, doesn’t seem to be out of place in a “PG” rated decoration environment. And not bringing decorations because somebody might have a phobia of them translates to no Halloween decorations pretty fast (and maybe that’s the answer). Spiders are both a common phobia and a staple of even “G” rated Halloween displays. I’m sure there are people with phobias of cats and witches.

    That said, it’s best if there is a way for people to quietly indicate ahead of time if some things should be off limits. Moreover, jump scares are just highly inappropriate for an office environment and keeping that out of isn’t going to kill the spirit of the season. I also think moving things around in general is bad form — a lot of people can manage tolerably for a day by avoiding things that bother them but now they can’t even do that effectively.

  70. Kermit's Bookkeepers*

    I want to join the portion of the commentariat pointing out that there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence here to suggest that anyone in this office was being willfully malicious, not even the guy who brought the doll to the meeting (as others have pointed out, the letter leaves open the very real possibility that he was just carrying it with him on his way to a) put it in his car or b) put it in a new hiding spot, and wasn’t necessarily purposely bringing it to scare the LW.

    In no way do I mean to invalidate LW’s experience, nor their right to ask for a trigger-free zone at work — it just feels like there’s always a portion of the comments that lean towards the most catastrophic interpretation of events, and this reads to me more like an accident of thoughtlessness rather than a toxic work environment or a work nemesis.

    1. Kermit's Bookkeepers*

      But LW, I’m so sorry you had to deal with this, and I think Allison’s advice is spot on! Reasonable people will be worried about your well-being, NOT your competence — and acknowledging that your reaction was disturbing and you don’t expect it to come up at work again will give everyone permission to resume business as usual.

  71. RebeccaNoraBunch*

    Honestly this is why I hate Halloween. I hate creepy stuff. I believe in NOT inviting anything malicious or of ill-intent into one’s life. LW, that figurine (I know the kind you’re talking about and I would say “doll” is too nice a word for it) would creep me TF out and I collected porcelain dolls all growing up. I have zero phobias and I hate those figurines. Why is essentially a replication of a corpse considered a decoration?

    Like someone else said, I would also just be concerned about your welfare. And I’d be annoyed at the coworker who brought it in, too, because of how it affected you and also, uh, how it would have affected me. Get out of here with that thing.

  72. Melissa*

    If it makes you feel any better, I’ve been at my new office for about 6 months and my back faces the door, and I jump and scream every time someone comes up behind me. At least once a day. And I still haven’t become “the crazy screaming lady” after 100s of times. Everyone has just filed it away under “that scares Melissa” and they try to approach me loudly. I’m sure the same thing will happen for you, and I’m sorry you had such an awful few days.

  73. Mrs. Hawiggins*

    This also makes me hate Halloween to an extent. Not all the way but pretty close. Doll Dude wasn’t cool and I once punched and broke a prop someone brought in for a jump scare. Think mostion detected plastic skeleton wearing a top hat jumping up behind a cubicle wall. Straight up punched it and suddenly he wasn’t singing “Good Ship Lollypop,” or whatever the hell it was. No one got mad at me.

    I’m sitting in my office right now with cross eyed Frankensteins, Mummies wearing glasses, and pumpkin shaped cookies. Sorry, keep the gore, and the jump scares at the haunted houses you have to pay 30 bucks to get into.

    I feel bad for OP and would back them up 100. Doll Dude clearly didn’t take it serious, or did, and wanted to be a cheap ass roll. Subract cheap and roll. Phobias are real, people’s feelings are real, and crap ass Halloween gags in the office like this, are stupid.

  74. Ashley*

    I have a phobia of wasps, and the nature of my work has me occasionally in areas where wasps are… Commonplace (think outdoors, In environments with ready access to things wasps like… Food, water, and a place to nest). If it’s just one and he’s clearly avoiding everyone, I can deal (uncomfortable but not upset) but if there’s multiple, they’re landing on people, and I can’t get away easily, I will have a meltdown.

    Responses usually range from “it’s ok it won’t bother you if you don’t bother it” (like I’ve NEVER heard or thought of that before, cue massive eye roll), to people who tease me by pretending it’s on me or tickling the back of my arm with something, to one person who killed one, picked it up, and flat out chased me with it. Needless to say, I have no tolerance for harassing people over their phobias.

    I absolutely do NOT want to be having a meltdown like a child just because of a stupid wasp, but my brain doesn’t seem to comprehend the difference between the wasp and grim reaper come to claim my soul.

  75. OP, Hysterical Doll Lady*

    Hello! I am the OP and had a busy day at work today but just saw that my question was posted and spent time reading through the comments. Thank you all SO much for your support. It really helped to hear that others were able to sympathize. I felt very alone after it happened and it was so helpful to hear that I was not, either in my fear or in having an emotional moment at work.

    A few things I can clear up for those who asked–

    1) no, Doll Dude did not know that I was afraid of it. He was not there when I first got jump scared by it and word hadn’t reached him that I was uncomfortable. It was just bad luck that he happened to bring it with him to meet with me. He was intending to be playful and it backfired. He was instantly horrified by my reaction and brought me tissues while apologizing profusely and immediately taking the doll out to his car. Another coworker sat with me and calmed me down, even walking me to my car afterwards so I wouldn’t have to walk through the halls alone. They are good people.

    2) re: other dolls in the office, I would generally not enjoy them and attempt to avoid them, but I would not be triggered to nearly this degree by, say, a baby doll or the “George Costanza’s mother” doll (great example from the comments). It would not send me into a panic attack. This doll was intentionally designed to be scary as a Halloween decoration and others vocally expressed they found it “f****** creepy”

    3) I have been at this company for almost 3y. Doll Dude has been here about a year, and those who witnessed my panic attack have also been here at least 18 months. So this was luckily not an early impression of me for them!

    4) the Update: I ended up taking a personal day the next day (very common at our company, we have generous PTO) and met with my therapist but worked at a work event that evening. When I arrived at the event, I did almost exactly what Alison (and my therapist) suggested. I arrived in a professional manner and handled my immediate tasks. Then when the group was gathered, I broke the tension by asking “and has this (event space) been swept for evil dolls?” Everyone chuckled and was very nice about it. I apologized directly to the coworkers who had overheard the panic attack and all of them said to not worry at all. One woman even kindly said she thought we were all “just laughing in my office” (probably a lie, but very sweet). Doll Dude and I checked in in person the next day at the office and we are good. At this point I don’t think anyone will be mentioning it anymore and I am so relieved!

    Thank you Alison for sharing my story, for your kind advice, and for the support of the commenters!!!!! I have been reading AAM for a decade now but this is my first time ever interacting with you all.

    1. coffee*

      I’m glad to hear this update! It sounds like you handled it very well – I liked your joke, that was a smooth move. And you have good coworkers.

      Hope you are feeling better about the whole thing now. It is very understandable.

  76. Light Dancer*

    LW, you wrote that “I suffer from automatonophobia—a severe case—for my entire life. I have managed it through therapy…” It’s great that you’ve tackled this through therapy, but it doesn’t sound as if your automatonophobia really IS under control or that you really HAVE “managed it.”

    This is NOT because you’ve failed to address it (clearly, you have!) but because all of us vary tremendously in our response to different forms of therapy. When it comes to mental health treatment, there’s no such thing as “one size fits all”! It may well be that another form of therapy would yield greater benefits for you; it might even be possible to overcome your phobia altogether.

    Please, LW, ask yourself how much this is interfering with your life. If the incident that you described is an isolated one that almost never happens, then you may decide that you can live with a barely-controlled phobia. But do recognize that it really isn’t under control. That’s the first step towards evaluating the role it’s playing in your life.

    1. CLC*

      This probably affected her because who expects to see this at work? There was also the jump scare prank aspect to it and moving it around the building—she could not avoid it and it was presented in a way meant to cause stress.

    2. But what to call me?*

      Having a panic attack after being repeatedly confronted with a deliberately frightening version of your phobia does not mean it’s a barely-controlled phobia. Nor does it mean that OP’s therapy isn’t working. Under control doesn’t always mean cured – sometimes it just means bringing the problem down to a level that doesn’t keep you from doing what you want to do. Sometimes managing a phobia means deciding to minimize your interactions with a known trigger that usually isn’t that hard to avoid and then having strategies to get through it when you can’t avoid it. Sometimes certain situations go beyond what those coping strategies can handle, but unless creepy doll jump scares are a regular part of OP’s life it’s going a little far to question their judgement on how well they are managing their own phobia.

  77. Techno Support*

    OP I just want you to know that if you were my coworker I would feel nothing but sympathy for you and if I heard anything otherwise from anyone else, I would shut that down right away.

  78. Mmm.*

    I wonder where it stops. To be clear: I have a similar phobia to moths, which are increasingly a part of Halloween decor. I’m talking crying, hiding, the works. I run from the room if they’re in there.

    At the same time, I absolutely don’t want to be the reason a person can’t enjoy the holiday or (worse) the reason decor gets banned or highly regulated.

    I feel like the best way to handle this would be a private email to the person saying I have a phobia and asking them to keep it in their workspace. If it’s an open floor plan (ugh), then maybe ask them to slide it under their desk or something when they see me out and about.

    The thing is, you can have a phobia of literally anything. There are people with baby and pregnancy phobias, but it would be unreasonable to accommodate those with banning baby photos or hiding pregnant employees. There are people with phobias of Santa (or people in such costumes) and fire, too, so images of Santa or Menorahs could end up off limits.

    This brings me to the question of where it stops.

    1. But what to call me?*

      For one thing, it should definitely stop before jump scares. It’s one thing to just encounter something that happens to be your phobia and another thing to set it up deliberately to surprise and scare people who may or may not enjoy being surprised or scared, whether or not anyone realizes a phobia might be involved.

  79. CLC*

    It wasn’t even brought in as a “decoration”—he put it in a closet to jump scare people so the intent was really to be a prank! I hate pranks and don’t think they are appropriate in the work place unless they are very benign and take place between individuals who are generally on board with pranking. Jump scaring random colleagues who happen to open the closet is not ok.

  80. SlothLover*

    So… stupid phobia admission here… I absolutely HATE regular, air-filled balloons. Possible theory is that my brothers popped one too many right next to me when I was young, but there is NO proof of that, and my brothers have both grown into fine gentlemen. It is to the point that I actually let people at work know… “Please, do no fill my office with balloons for any celebration.” I’m fine if they are in other people’s office, even if I’m in there (but I’ll stay away from the balloons and shudder a bit) and I can even handle them in small quantities in public/general access areas. Just don’t put them in my office, please. Even then, I’d just remove it. But thankfully, my co-workers are amazing, didn’t bat an eye (especially when I came at it from a “This is a bit embarrassing and almost funny” angle). Those videos where a senior prank is to fill an entire hallway with balloons? Oh, I’d be running the other way! I always try to say that I’m not sure it’s really a phobia, since I can handle it in certain situations, but… yeah.

    So OP, please don’t think of this as a “stupid” phobia. I’d be freaked out by that too! There are phobias that are even… sillier than one of freaky dolls.

    (And yes, I understand that no phobias are trivial, stupid, or silly. But it can still feel that way to those who have phobias with “mundane” things.

    1. SlothLover*

      Okay. Replying to my own comment, since I can’t edit/add…. It’s only latex (or similar) air filled balloons for me. Helium filled are “okay” and Mylar balloons I actually love. I know. It’s weird. But it looks like I”m not the only one with this unusual phobia here.

    2. Hedgehug*

      I hate latex balloons too. I’m always scared of them popping, I hate the squeaky sounds they make, UGH. All of it. They make me anxious. Like you, foil balloons are not a problem.

  81. Shay*

    @LW: maybe it would be a good idea before next Halloween to bring up general do/don’ts for office behavior and decorations to management? this way, you can get ahead of it. and, if it’s general rules like “no horror movie inspired decorations” or “no jump scares,” people will just assume it’s general reasonable rules vs. “can’t have dolls because of OP”

  82. Hedgehug*

    OP I don’t have a “fear” of dolls the way you do but I definitely hate them, I hate mannequins, I hate monkeys, etc and I would have hated that stupid friggin doll being in the office as well. You have my support!

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