update: I had a panic attack over a Halloween decoration at work

It’s a special “where are you now?” season at Ask a Manager and I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

There will be more posts than usual this week, so keep checking back throughout the day — there’s more to come today.

Remember the letter-writer who had a panic attack over a Halloween decoration at work? Here’s the update.

Thank you all so much for your support in the comments. 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.

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!

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

1. Doll Dude did not know that I was afraid of the doll. 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 three years. 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!

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.

Update to the update

I ended up leaving that job just after the new year for unrelated reasons — I was head-hunted to fill a role with higher pay and a much better work/life balance (so hard to come by at nonprofits!) for a different organization, so I no longer have to worry about any potential longterm effects from the Halloween episode at my previous company. Hoping that this new workplace also remains free of creepy dolls!

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Clorinda*

    Perhaps you might consider preemptively requesting “no scary dolls” before your new workplace decorates for Halloween–or even just asking around to see if Halloween decorations are part of the office culture.

    1. HailRobonia*

      Now that I think of it, a good question to ask when you’ve gotten a new job is to ask about the protocol for holiday decorations… “do people decorate for the holidays? Do people decorate for Christmas? Where on the spectrum of cute/fun – scary/creepy is Halloween generally?”

      1. Anon for this*

        This would be a good thing to know about Halloween decorations.
        I rode into Alise in a few years ago about the Halloween decorations at my previous job. My boss loved Halloween so much and was way, way over the top. He turned our office suite into a haunted dungeon with dim lights, figures and toys that were activated by motion sensors, rats and spiders along the edges, creepy music… If you can think of it, he did it.
        I have PTSD from abusive parents and found it triggering. Also, I never liked Halloween or creepy things. If I hadn’t had an office with a door I could close and play upbeat music, I wouldn’t have been able to work there.

  2. New Jack Karyn*

    What a great update! I’m glad you were able to come back, address the tension and defuse it, and move on. Super glad that everyone there (including Doll Dude) were kind and supportive, without becoming weird or overly solicitous. Good work all around, team!

  3. Goldenrod*

    This was a fascinating letter – I learned something from it, as I had not ever heard of this particular phobia. Thanks for helping me learn something new!

    I’m guessing that the reason the doll wasn’t immediately put away after the first bad reaction is that others – like me – didn’t understand right away that this was an actual phobia. Sometimes, in the spirit of fun, people will dramatically “act scared” of something, without actually being scared. That’s a whole different thing (as I now know).

    Thanks for the great update, OP!!

    1. Elsajeni*

      Yeah, looking back at the original post, I see a few comments that are like “Why wasn’t the doll IMMEDIATELY put away after the first time it scared you and you said you didn’t like it?” and I think the answer is: because jumping, screaming, and saying things like “oh I HATE that doll” is also within the range of “fun scared” reactions and unfortunately it’s not always easy to tell the difference! I think the OP’s plan to take Doll Dude aside and tell him explicitly “hey this is not fun-scary for me, this is actually-scary, please get it out of here” was exactly the right way to handle it — it really is just bad luck that he brought the doll TO that conversation.

  4. Butterfly Counter*

    The woman who thought you were laughing probably wasn’t lying. It might be a tic with me and others like me, but if I can’t see a person’s face, I have frequently mistaken sobbing for laughing. Especially when it’s very loud, probably because most people I know are quiet criers.

    Once, a roommate’s boyfriend broke up with her and she was sobbing on the phone to her sister. For about 20 minutes, I thought they were laughing over a particularly hilarious joke.

    Another time, at the vet’s office, I heard what I thought was hysterical laughter from another room. This time, I was only mistaken for a minute or two because of context clues.

    But based on my experiences with this, I likely would have mistaken your noises for laughter. I’m probably way more likely to expect laughter on a festive day than sobbing.

    1. Louisa*

      I saw my sister come “laughing” out of the surf with a fit guy on each arm, and called to her “That looks like fun!” It wasn’t. She was spluttering for breath and they were lifeguards who had just dragged her from the undertow.

    2. Smithy*

      I definitely think the expectations without any visual cues are part of it. While I’ve certainly seen people get choked up/teary at work over the years – loudly crying has only happened to me once. And even then, I wouldn’t necessarily say I behaved in the most prompt manner to sobbing.

      In this case, it was a workplace with a shouty boss and becoming upset after a meeting with her wasn’t wildly uncommon. So when someone in the cube right next to me started crying at her desk, my immediate assumption was that she was having a bit of a cry for those reasons and it would pass. It was definitely a while before it clicked that this was not a “bit of a cry” and she was quite upset. Turned out a family member has passed unexpectedly, but truly all of my initial instincts were around this being something she wouldn’t want to be a big deal and to use every excuse in my head to minimize it.

      In situations like work or other public spaces, I do think there can be an impulse to either minimize or normalize the situation.

      1. Chas*

        Yes, it can be quite hard to notice someone crying if you’re not expecting it. I once spent at least 5 minutes quietly sobbing (probably the hardest I’ve every cried in my life) over a videogame I was playing in a pretty full cafe, and no one noticed at all.

    3. Dahlia*

      Oh, it’s not just you. That’s a very common thing in media, where you think a character is crying but it turns out they’re laughing.

    4. Snatland*

      I do think without visual cues the two can very often sound similar, especially if somewhat muffled. I definitely remember a couple of occasions when I lived in uni accommodation trying to figure out if the sound I could hear was someone laughing uproariously or sobbing their heart out.

  5. Slow Gin Lizz*

    And has this (event space) been swept for evil dolls?

    Way to own it, OP, that’s a fantastic response! Glad your coworkers and especially Doll Guy had sympathetic reactions to your phobia and panic attack. It’s really nice to hear that, given how many terrible coworkers we hear about here on AAM. Congrats on the new job, too!

  6. H.Regalis*

    This is great! You handled this so professionally, OP, and I’m glad your coworkers were all good people and not jerks. Best of luck in your new job!

  7. Louisa*

    No dolls at all for me, please. I find them to be hideous little human effigies, every one. Growing up in the original Barbie era, my room was full of stuffed animals ONLY. Dolls just creep me out.

    1. allathian*

      Dolls don’t creep me out, exactly, at least unless they’re intended to be creepy (like Chucky), but I can live very well without any dolls in my space. (I hate clowns, though, and as a kid I refused to go to our local McDonalds until they finally removed the Ronald McDonald statue from the entrance.)

      My sister loved dolls as a kid, especially Barbie. She must’ve had 20 different ones, as well as a Cindy and a Daisy doll. I had exactly one Barbie doll and rarely played with it. I much preferred building stuff out of Lego or my dad’s old Meccano set. That said, we managed to work out a compromise because I often built stuff for my sister’s dolls. She had a “space Barbie” in 1982 or so because I built a spaceship out of Lego for her. Granted, the doll didn’t have a space suit, but you can’t have everything, I guess.

      1. kicking-k*

        My daughter is like you – she’s been very creeped out by displays with figures in them and has preferred cuddly animals to dolls her whole life. But strangely she loves Lego minifigs and uses them for every kind of play you’d do with dolls. Maybe they’re too little and stylised to be creepy?

        She does have one phobia which has proved problematic: taxidermied animals. You’d think this would be easy to avoid but she had a panic attack on a school zoo trip, and we are currently trying to make a plan for school camp, which is at a former hunting lodge with at least one mounted deer’s head. I am hoping they can cover it or take it down.

        1. Jan Levinson Gould*

          I was also a stuffed animal and Lego kid. Furbie was a little after my time, but that creeped me out too because of the eyes. Taxidermied animals is an interesting and understandable fear. They’re creepy too. Hopefully the camp will cover the mounted deer head for your daughter. I read irrational fears can be hereditary – I hope my daughter doesn’t inherit any. I’m also terrified of wasps and scorpions (they live in my region), but that’s more rational since I’ve experienced painful stings from both.

  8. Jan Levinson Gould*

    I can’t believe I missed the original posting in Oct. I too suffer from a fear of dolls – I always referred to it as pediophobia, but automatonophobia is also applicable. My uneasiness is related to dolls with eyes that open and close. I’m cringing thinking about those dolls as I’m typing this. I too would’ve lost it if I discovered a scary hidden doll. Fortunately most people in life have been accommodating of my irrational fear and many others have irrational fears (clowns seems to be a common one that is similar). I think fear of dolls is more common that we think, although folks suffer from it to varying degrees – most seem to be just mildly creeped out. It’s always comforting to meet others who share pediophobia / automatonophobia. Now I just have to keep scary dolls out of my young daughter’s hands.

    Nice ending all around for the OP (colleagues understood and she even moved on to greener pastures).

    1. Tammy 2*

      I feel exactly the same way about dolls with open-and-close eyes. I feel so validated (resisting the urge to say “seen”) by this comment!

      1. Jan Levinson Gould*

        Haha – I’ve been afraid of them since my preschool days. Apparently I once told my aunt and uncle I hated the (scary doll with the eyes) they bought for me. My mother was mortified. I’m now terrified of my niece’s American Girls dolls. I hope they keep those dolls away from my daughter and don’t influence her into wanting one!

    2. allathian*

      Yes, I had one of those as a kid and I didn’t like it. I can’t remember ever playing with it much. It basically lived in my doll pram, on its back and with its eyes closed.

      Clowns creep me out, and as a kid I refused to go to our local McDonald’s for as long as they had a Ronald McDonald statue next to the entrance.

  9. goddessoftransitory*

    Hooray for good updates!

    I remember this letter and the comments, and am very glad everyone was so understanding. The thing about scary decorations, even during Halloween, is that context is paramount.

    It’s one thing to go to a haunted house or other venue that’s designed to be scary–that’s the selling point, it’s up front, and the good ones describe the kind of scares that are likely to happen. It’s quite another to have that creature from The Ring suddenly appear in your workplace with no warning!

  10. lilsheba*

    Oh you would hate me I have haunted dolls, creepy dolls, doll parts and antique dolls all over my house, I just love them!! I love to take the doll parts especially and photograph them with props.

  11. La Triviata*

    I’m glad it worked out. I don’t have a phobia, but I have been seriously frightened/creeped out by movies with evil dolls.

  12. HR Friend*

    Between this update and the update earlier this week about the zip-lining employee, there needs to be some serious intervention in this comments section.

    In this original Halloween letter, LW’s coworkers were absolutely hammered in the comments for being malicious, juvenile jerks who don’t understand phobias, but oops! They were actually kind and understanding. In the zip lining letter, the original comments came for LW and the adventure center for being ableist and insensitive, but oops! They actually acted fine and did all they could in the moment to remedy the situation.

    As funny as it is to read updates where the LW comes back to correct the massive speculation that happened in the comments section, it’s gotten so bad. There’s this weird impulse for commenters to totally martyr or demonize someone in every letter and not.back.down even when presented with information that contradicts their narratives. Most comment threads devolve into baseless what-ifs and tangents that add nothing to the conversation in which a real person is seeking real advice.

    1. Lab Boss*

      Oh I totally agree. I saw the zip line update too late to engage but I couldn’t believe how many people were still hanging on to trying to make the facility out to be terrible even when the affected employee understood what they did, and why, and wanted to keep going back

    2. H.Regalis*

      Agreed. There’s always been a bit of that, but it feels like in the last few years, it’s gotten worse (hello, “your coworker must have an identical twin” comments from 2020).

      Honestly, I was looking at the comment section on this post waiting to see stuff like, “Not buying it. Doll Dude was definitely being a huge secret jerk by bringing OP tissues and apologizing. This is clearly all part of a big plot to gaslight OP into leaving because Doll Dude is gunning for their job.” It’s crappy for the people who write in to have a good-sized contingent of the readers instantly assume that they’re a liar and/or can’t accurately assess a situation they’re directly involved in and the readers are not.

      1. SnackAttack*

        It seems like all online comment sections have gotten worse since Covid – people seem quicker to rush to judgment and project their own experiences and beliefs onto situations, rather than taking the LW at their word. I’ve noticed that in general, there’s a lot less room for nuance and personality differences, whether it’s here or on some toxic subreddit. Idk, I think the pandemic and everything that followed has generally made people harsher, more judgmental, and quicker to anger – here included.

    3. Saturday*

      I think most comments are good and aim to be helpful, but I do remember the insistence that doll dude was nothing but malicious and horrible. Something like that is quite an accusation to make when none of us were there.

    4. nnn*

      Welcome to the internet? I’m impressed this one is as civil as it is much of the time. But most comment sections are what you describe.

    5. allathian*

      You have a point, and I’m not claiming to be completely innocent myself, either.

      I’m glad Doll Dude was a decent guy and took the doll to his car when he realized how bad it made the LW feel.

  13. kicking-k*

    This was a lovely update to hear. It was an unfortunate incident but it seems like everyone concerned reacted just like you’d hope they would. As the parent of a child with phobias, I know how hard it can be to negotiate, especially when it’s something that other people consider fun or harmless (such as dogs, or toys) so I have great sympathy for the OP.

  14. Mel T*

    I went back and read the original and found out what the doll was and that is a big nope for me. For reasons I don’t understand, I have a phobia of that movie and its imagery to the point that I might have punched the doll as a reflex and probably damaged it. I feel so bad for the letter writer. No one needs jump scares at the office.

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