Chucky. Annabelle. Robert the Doll. Just a few of horror’s more memorable dolls that have terrorized countless people. There’s one doll that rarely – if ever – makes that list. He isn’t found in a horrifying film. He isn’t even found within a horrifying universe. He can be found in Chicago, IL on two separate Halloween nights in the nineties at the residence of Carl (Reginal VelJohnson) and Harriette (Jo Marie Payton) Winslow. Yes, this evil doll can be found on ABC’s hit sitcom, Family Matters.
How can such a terrifying bit of doll horror culture be found within a family friendly sitcom from the nineties? Good question! Because this doll, a ventriloquist’s doll, was the basis of a few nightmares for 11-year-old me. What makes that even sillier – or perhaps more terrifying – is that the doll is based on Family Matters‘ most popular character, Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) – the polka loving, cheese eating, Laura Winslow (Kellie Shanygne Williams) adoring nerd that captured the heart of America.
On October 25th 1996, families sat down to watch the new Halloween episode of Family Matters. The episode began with a warning from Urkel stating that the episode may be a little too scary for some viewers, and to proceed with caution.
“Helloooo Halloweiners!” Urkel proclaimed as he came downstairs holding something covered in a white cloth. The Winslow family are all present as Urkel unveils his new ventriloquist doll that is a carbon copy of him right down to the outfit. The Winslows are instantly terrified. Perhaps it’s the doll, or perhaps because of the Urkel resemblance. After a failed attempt to make the family laugh with his jokes, and at his failed attempt at throwing his voice, a defeated Urkel retreats upstairs. As he lies down for nap, he wishes that he could “just make that dummy talk.” Urkel gets his wish as a lightning bolt hits the doll, animating it.
What follows is 15 minutes of “family friendly” horror. You know, family friendly.. as in a demonic puppet chasing around a screaming Urkel. Whatever has possessed the doll has dubbed itself Stevil, Steve + evil. Appropriate. After what is supposed to be comedic shenanigans (terrifying nonsense), Stevil reveals his plan to Urkel. He will get rid of the Winslow family, one by one, so that Urkel and he can go on the road and become famous. Stevil knows that Urkel would never leave if the Winslows are around so that’s why he must destroy them all!
You think that Stevil would “rid” of the Winslows in comedic ways, right? And yeah, some of them he does. Richie (Bryton James) and 3J (Orlando Brown), the two youngest of the family, are chased on their bikes by Stevil, and then are placed into a poster above Urkel‘s bed. Laura, the love of Urkel’s life, has been split in three, and each three parts of her body have been stored in different shelves in the kitchen. The matriarch of the family, Harriette, has been turned into a Jack in the Box. They’re all alive, though! Just placed in very precarious and totally creepy situations.
What happens to Carl and oldest son, Eddie (Darius McCrary), is what really threw me as a kid. Eddie is the first to be attacked by Stevil. It’s in a creepy bit where Stevil pops out of the living room’s fireplace, pops back in, and lures Eddie with cries for help. As Eddie looks up the fireplace, Stevil proceeds to pull him right up! Stuff straight from a horror film! Not what you’d expect from a family sitcom! But Eddie got it easy compared to Carl..
Later in the episode, Urkel finds Carl sitting on the couch in the living room, all chill and complacent. Unbeknownst to Urkel, Stevil has made Carl his own “personal puppet“! It’s a scene reminiscent to the creepiest scene from Killer Klowns from Outer Space where one of the klowns turns a cop into a ventriloquist dummy by manipulating his spinal cord. Stevil pushes Carl to the side to reveal this, and continues to use Carl as a dummy to terrorize Urkel. You know, that would be fine if he had only taken control of Carl – but after Stevil is done with Carl, he just pushes him aside. Carl stays inactive with his eyes wide open! He’s freaking dead. Again, eleven year old me sat terrified.
This leads to a final girl style battle between Urkel and Stevil. After a few blows and comedic turns between the two, Urkel literally tears Stevil apart, limb from limb. Stevil isn’t done yet, though. His limbs and head magically pull back together. Not in a “Ooo how neat” kind of way, but in a legit possessed doll kind of way. He then proceeds to jump on Urkel and strangle him. Strangle him! This is happening on a sitcom that is known for teaching lessons every week!
As most horrible situations end in a sitcom, the screen goes all loopy, and we learn that all of this was just a nightmare of Urkel‘s. A very much alive Eddie wakes up Urkel. It isn’t time to breathe just yet, not before one final scare where Eddie promises a surgical procedure will be done to Urkel which includes using a mixer to complete the surgery. Loopy screen. Another nightmare! “I just had a horrible Halloween nightmare with a false ending!” Urkel proclaims upon being awoken again by Eddie.
Stevil is nothing but a figment of Urkel‘s nightmares (but holy crap if he didn’t go on to be a figment of my own nightmares for a while). Watching it now, the episode is actually pretty funny. It’s an obvious love letter / satire of the string of killer doll movies that had come before it. When I say “love letter”, I mean it. Director, Rich Correll, and writers, Gregory Thomas Garcia and Fred Rubin, captured a lot of the insanity of those films as well as successfully parodied them. The usual Family Matters score and zingers are replaced with a score straight from a horror film with influences of Urkel‘s love of polka music. Stevil was portrayed via actual puppets for close-ups, and by an actual little person for wide shots. Having been filmed in front of a live audience, the “Ooo!”s and “Aaah!”s in response to the shenanigans occurring on-screen only made what has happening even more fun.
There is a sequel that aired the following year. Not only does Stevil make a reappearance, but there is a Carl doll, named Carlsbad. The sequel episode is a bit more hokey, and doesn’t come off quite as demented as the original did.
The effects of the original Stevil episode stayed with me as it’s an annual Halloween staple for me. Each year, I enjoy it more and more as it weirdly gets better with age.
Never seen Stevil in action? Family Matters is on streaming on Hulu! The first episode, Stevil, is season 8, episode 7. The sequel episode, Stevil II: This Time He’s Not Alone, is season 9, episode 7. Add this odd little slice of nineties’ nostalgia to your Halloween watchlist this year!