In a way, the woman got exactly what she asked for.
She had contacted Unsettling Toys—a year-old Portland business dedicated to removing creepy antiques from places they’re not wanted and reselling them to more appreciative owners—and requested to purchase its “most unsettling” item. Co-owner Sara Derrickson was happy to oblige her with an old-timey baby doll whose broken neck caused its head to perpetually flop over on its side.
Once the customer got it home, some strange, undisclosed phenomena took place. So she did what anyone in a horror movie about a possessed doll would do: She set it on fire.
“Many of our clients want our toys because they want it to have some sort of attachment,” says Derrickson, 39, “some sort of spiritual something.”
The rest of them? They just like being surrounded by spooky stuff.
Derrickson and her boyfriend, Brian Jillson, fall into the latter category. Jillson, a bartender at the A&L Tavern on Northeast Glisan Street, had joked about starting an adoption agency for disturbing ephemera in need of a forever home. So for his 50th birthday, Derrickson surprised him: She set up a website and social media channels, and made stickers and business cards.
It was mostly a goof. But it didn’t take long for the public to take it seriously.
“I think everyone has some sort of weird thing they grew up with that just unnerved them as a child,” Jillson says. “We get all those.”
Indeed, most acquisitions are family heirlooms someone got sick of having stare at them from across the room. Others have more mysterious origins. One turned up in someone’s yard, and seemed to inch closer to the front door each day. Another—a ventriloquist’s dummy with a broken jaw—was gifted to them by a local cleaning company that found it sitting in an attic while on a job.
So far, Unsettling Toys has “rehomed” 70 objects, while dozens more wait in limbo in Jillson’s house in Northeast Portland. There’s Creeperton, a flat, furry piece of felt resembling demonic roadkill a friend found under her child’s bed. And Grace, a doll that went into a storage box clean and came out with bloodstains on its dress. Derrickson admits a few have creeped her out enough to move them down to the basement.
Early on, Jillson was willing to part with anything for the right price. As their collection has grown, though, it’s become increasingly hard to pry many of them away.
“I sort of love them all now,” he says. “They are all my children.”