Danny Elfman hasn’t always been drawn to strange things. In fact, he used to be frightened of all sorts of seemingly innocuous items, like broken doll heads and ventriloquist dummies and hands. “I used to have nightmares of being chased by an amputated hand,” he recently told me over the phone, citing the Peter Lorre movie The Beast with Five Fingers, where a disembodied hand torments the star. But over time that fear morphed into fascination, and soon Elfman was drawn to the objects that once haunted his dreams. As an adult, he now owns roughly 40 dismembered hands of different variations (“skeletal hands, anatomical hands, real hands, silly doll hands, mannequin hands”), around 15 ventriloquist dummies, and more dolls than he can count. “The things I have around me now are all the things that scared the crap out of me as a kid,” he explained with a laugh.
You probably know Elfman first and foremost as a musician. The former Oingo Boingo member carved out an illustrious career as a film composer after teaming up with Tim Burton on his first feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The two continued to work together on everything from Beetlejuice to The Nightmare Before Christmas to Batman; Elfman also wrote the theme music for The Simpsons, did the scores for two of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, and continues to work on compositions for orchestras around the world. But through it all, he’s nursed a passion for collecting oddities—a passion he’s now able to share with fans thanks to his recent foray into the world of social media.
On Instagram, Elfman posts photos and stories of the toys and other collectible items he’s picked up on his travels, an obsession that began when he was 18 years old on a trip to West Africa. There’s no real cohesion to his now-expansive collection, he told me; he’s not drawn to items for their value or history or manufacturer, but for how they speak to him on a personal and aesthetic level. “I don’t collect from the point of view of a collector,” he told me. “I see things, and I’m drawn to them, and I pick them up.”
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His love for these objects, which he doesn’t consider creepy (“What we’re calling creepy are not to me creepy; they’re just the things I like to live with.”), is infectious. He spoke of them like friends, sign posts of a career that has taken him around the globe and exposed him to many beautiful, unique things. From toy shops in Paris to flea markets in New York, he’s assembled a bounty of artifacts that speak to his taste and experience. He’s created stories around these objects, stories that he now shares with the world on his social media accounts.
Perhaps his most famous and recognizable toy is his ventriloquist dummy Buddy, whom he poses with regularly in pictures and videos on Instagram. The two do a bit about Buddy’s tendency to take credit for Elfman’s compositions. “When I started out as a composer, I went through many years of nobody thinking I wrote any of my music,” Elfman explained. “It was kind of a constant thing. So Buddy insists that he’s the one that everybody’s been looking for, but it’s not true.”
This tendency to create stories around his objects is a habit that formed when his kids were younger, and their friends were curious about the strange items in their home. He told me one story about spooking his daughter Mali’s friends by conjuring a tale about a bunny toy in a bell jar. “One of the guys asked, ‘Why’s he under the bell jar like that?’ and I made up a story that if he gets out, you’re dead,” Elfman said with a laugh. “I spent ten minutes going through a tale of how dangerous this bunny is and how they should never, ever open the bell jar.” The story effectively spooked the teens, which Elfman said he took a lot of pride in. “You don’t want to creep out a little kid, but creeping out a 17 year old… I felt like a great success.”
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Rezso Rabbit Technically he’s not a doll, but who’s counting really? What’s important is that he’s the most dangerous toy in my vast collection. His history is as tragic as his slowly rusting tin body. He used to be good. In the long-ago days. He called himself “Peter Cottontail” for a time to remain anonymous, as many superheroes have done. In those days he fought for Santus in the Darius Realm alongside other heroes of the helpless and downtrodden. Then, in the famous battle of Zantor-Kiln, something happened. Something no one has ever been able to explain, though many have tried. . No one expected Zantor to possess the power he wielded that day. Many died, including Rezso Rabbit’s best friend, the great Knight Poldor… a battery powered metal chipmunk of extraordinary agility, strength and fortitude. At that very moment while coming to Poldor’s aid, fighting fiercely, Rezso lost an ear. Some say he lost his mind, others claim that his “goodness” was somehow contained in that ear. Either way Rezso was never the same. From that day on, with his insidious grin and cold dark eyes, he was forever lost to the light and began a killing spree that left a trail of misery from the Vaseltine Mountains to the Great Eldarian Sea. Eventually a witch from Hazeldash was able to stun him into a deep sleep using an ancient and powerful spell. From there he seemed to simply disappear, seeming forgotten… until I found him buried deep in the bowels of an antique store I frequent– and whose name and location I shall not reveal. He had one ear then. Fortunately I recognized him and was able to transport him home safely where I encased him in this bell jar that was made for just this purpose. To contain Evil! . There he stays today. Asleep? In a waking state… waiting? I know not. . Update: 2019. His 2nd ear disappeared mysteriously in recent years during his containment. That’s why I monitor him more frequently. I fear that he has managed a way to molecularly “transport” himself one bit at a time to a hidden location outside of this safety containment glass. I watch. . . . #dannyelfmansfriends
Elfman said he’s most drawn to items from the late Victorian era, although he doesn’t adhere to any rules when he purchases new things. That said, he is trying to add a little more slowly these days, due to the high volume of objects and a lack of places to put them. “Every time I buy something new, I have to retire something old,” he explained, adding that while he’ll never pass up the opportunity to buy something he’s drawn to, he also has to be practical.
But that practicality hasn’t hindered his interests. On a recent trip to Toyko, Elfman picked up some new antique robots. He’s also currently going through an infatuation with antique anatomical books, some of which date back to the 17th century. (He even plans to turn some of the art from these books into tattoos.) He’s also drawn to old cameras, tin toys, prosthetic arms and legs, scientific instruments, dinosaur artifacts, and so much more. Looking through his Instagram is like stepping into a museum, albeit a museum with no interest in formal curation.
Elfman’s collection isn’t just limited to what he finds in antique stores; he also has a few items from the films he’s worked on, including an original, full-functioning model of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. (Elfman performed Jack’s vocals in the 1993 stop-animation film.) “These puppets were not designed to last,” Elfman noted, saying that he has to keep his model of Jack restored. In addition to Jack, he also has models of characters from Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie.
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@clownwax asked if I dress my dolls myself or if they come that way. I would never dream of dressing or changing any of my dolls or toys in any way. They stay exactly the way I found them. The one exception is the stop motion puppets from Tim Burton shows. Jack Skellington in particular needs much regular maintenance as they were simply not meant to last… as is the unfortunate case of all stop motion puppets from the time of Harryhausen. . . . #dannyelfmansfriends
Though he’d like to devote more time to Instagram and telling stories, Elfman’s work sometimes keeps him from updating as regularly as he’d like. That’s understandable when you consider all of his projects; in March, Sony Classical released the album for his first concerto, Eleven, Eleven. He also finished a percussion quartet that will premiere in October at the Days & Nights Festival in Big Sur, California, and is currently working on a symphonic piece for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. He also continues to work on film scores; he recently did the music for Burton’s Dumbo and is working on The Voyage of Dr. Doolittle, which will star Robert Downey Jr. and is due out in 2020.
In the meantime, we can enjoy Elfman’s presence on Instagram, Twitter, and his new official website, DannyElfman.com, where he posts project updates and upcoming appearances. As long as Elfman’s collection persists and continues to grow, he’ll always have a new story to tell. “When I got into Instagram, I decided I was going to do it my way and have fun,” he said–and he’s been doing just that. We’re lucky to have such a window into his unique, eccentric, and magical world.
Feature image: Margaret Malandruccolo