Adorable, cuddly… evil? How the Furby took over the world

‘It wouldn’t shut up and must have been possessed’: The almighty Furby (iStock/Shutterstock)
‘It wouldn’t shut up and must have been possessed’: The almighty Furby (iStock/Shutterstock)

In 1999, the US National Security Agency (NSA) became aware of an impending security threat, one involving potential espionage, and perhaps on an international scale. Officials had caught wind of a walking, talking “device” they feared could learn and record any secrets uttered within close proximity to it.

The device was so fluffy and innocent-looking that it could infiltrate even the most secure of locations. Terrifyingly, it had already invaded homes across America, a must-have with designs on world domination.

So they started to ban it – first from its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, as well as from the US Navy’s Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia. According to some reports, they even banned it from the Pentagon. And this terrifyingly clever device that spooked the highest levels of intelligence in the US government? None other than… the Furby.

Kristin McKay, vice president and general manager of global brands, fashion and preschool at Furby makers Hasbro, laughs off the whole saga. She says the rumour that the toy was capable of espionage was quickly debunked, but it was only after a concerted effort by Tiger Electronics, the toy’s original manufacturers, that the agency lifted the ban. “[It] is probably the biggest misconception Furby has seen over time,” she adds. “In reality, Furby does not have the technology to record what people are saying.”

For millennials, the Furby needs little introduction. For everyone else… well, it’s the strangest toy in modern history – a hybrid owl-hamster-bat creature that can sing, talk, dance and even “learn” language from its owners. When Furby was first released in 1998, it quickly became a phenomenon – children adored its interactivity, and parents liked that it was basically a pet, but one that didn’t produce a mess and didn’t, if we’re being honest, need a ton of attention to keep alive. If you had a Furby, you were cool.

Further down the line, though, Furby gained notoriety for being a bit of a menace. First of all, it had no off switch – the only way to deactivate it was to take out its batteries. Even then, some people swear that their Furby would continue to speak and sing gibberish despite having nothing to power it.

London-based writer and researcher Marianna Michael recalls being a child of eight or nine, and being woken by a garbled electronic voice singing a song and repeating: “I’m hungry. Chomp chomp.” The voice was emanating from the Furby she owned at the time, whose batteries were dying. When the toy finally ended its tirade, Michael says she picked it up and ran to her parents’ room to wake them up and tell them of her terror. “My parents still take the p*** out of me… I’m 30!” she says, joking that she was “traumatised” by Furby.

Kaeli Conforti, a travel editor based in Washington, DC, says her Furby “randomly started screaming in the middle of the night”, causing her whole household to wake up and descend into chaos. Her father removed the batteries and threw the toy in the back garden, but he claims to this day that it “wouldn’t shut up and must have been possessed”.

It became human in a way that other products hadn’t been... And people thought that was scary and weird and freaky

Caleb Chung, co-creator

Others give weight to this theory. Furby has been said to go dormant, sometimes for years, before suddenly “waking up” at the most unexpected of times. Jacqueline Dole, a 33-year-old from Maine, says she discovered her childhood Furby languishing in a storage unit and couldn’t bear to throw it away. She left it in the backseat of her car, in peaceful slumber. Then horror occurred. “When my partner went to drive to work at 4am, [the Furby] woke up after 20 years and started to talk at him. He nearly jumped out of his seat.”

The creators behind Furby never thought their amusing little robot would be the stuff of nightmares – but they did have an inkling that it would become a hit. Dave Hampton, Caleb Chung and Richard Levy brought it to life after being inspired by another Nineties toy craze: the Tamagotchi. This was a small virtual pet simulation game, released by Japanese toymaker Bandai, that graced the keychains of children all over the world. It proved that children of the era loved nothing more than a mechanical robo-pet, but Hampton and Chung were also convinced they could add elements absent from the plastic and decidedly un-cuddly Tamagotchi – namely fur and feelings. Plus, unlike the Tamagotchi – which required constant care to keep it alive – the Furby didn’t need to be fed or cleaned up.

Since Hampton, Chung and Levy (who was brought onto the team after the initial design stage) sold the Furby license to Tiger Electronics, a subsidiary of Hasbro, there have been six generations of the chatty companion. More than 40 million Furbies were sold in the first three years of production, but by the mid-Noughties its popularity began to decline sharply as other pet toys hit the market and children’s attention was pulled elsewhere.

Tiger Electronics’ Dana Munshaw shows off the very first incarnation of the Furby at the American International Toy Fair in 1998 (AFP via Getty Images)
Tiger Electronics’ Dana Munshaw shows off the very first incarnation of the Furby at the American International Toy Fair in 1998 (AFP via Getty Images)

Chung also thought that the toy became a bit too “alive”, which in turn drove its market away. He told director Gregory Green in a 2014 YouTube interview: “Furby was a big hit because it, on purpose, was made to let you believe it was alive. All electronic toys up to then were, ‘Squeeze my hand, I’ll count to 10’… a very self-centred toy. And so, it became human in a way that other products hadn’t been. It became human and present… And people thought that was scary and weird and freaky, because it encroaches on being human.”

Despite the sharp decline in interest since its launch, each iteration of Furby has had more hi-tech features than the last. Novelty Furbies have been released, such as a Furby-style Gizmo from the 1984 horror film Gremlins; others have been given LCD eyes with a wide range of motions to make them more expressive. Some iterations have been given a simpler on-off button. But each generation has only had marginal differences in appearance compared to its predecessors. That is, until now: Hasbro has just launched its latest version of Furby, its first in 10 years, and it looks drastically different.

Gone are the signature buggy eyes that protrude from Furby’s face. In their place are anime-style peepers with irises so large that it looks like a cat about to pounce. This iteration has also swapped Furby’s classic soft, bat-like ears for transparent plastic ones with hearts at their centre. It is shorter and rounder, and can put on its own light show via the heart-shaped “gem” on its forehead. Perhaps much to the chagrin of parents everywhere, Hasbro has also got rid of the on-off button again in a nod to its original incarnation. The glow-up makes Furby almost unrecognisable: in a word, it’s been yassified to the nth degree.

Sparkly new look: The 2023 Furby (Hasbro)
Sparkly new look: The 2023 Furby (Hasbro)

Hasbro hopes the new Furby will become the must-have toy of 2023, the way the original became such a hit. But it doesn’t appear that the toy’s makeover has anything to do with the company trying to shed Furby’s terrifying reputation. In conversation, McKay, the Hasbro rep, happily points to the various uncuddly forms we’ve seen Furby manifest in popular culture; from an angry mob of them surrounding Maggie Simpson in The Simpsons’ garage; to the villainous Furby crew in the 2021 Netflix animated film The Mitchells vs the Machines. A gaudy, jewel-encrusted Furby pendant on a thick gold chain was also featured in Adam Sandler’s 2019 film Uncut Gems, and seemed to revive the toy in the public consciousness. “What’s the saddest, dumbest thing that existed in the Nineties?” asked co-director Josh Safdie upon release. “It’s the Furby… Because they didn’t really mean anything – they were just kind of these things.”

The new-look Furby is just as nicely meaningless, and seems much less likely to give children the same kind of nightmares that befell its owners 25 years ago. It’s painfully cute, and while it doesn’t have an off button, it can be laid on its back as though it’s sleeping, which will prompt it to snore and eventually time out. I don’t think the craze that came with the first Furby can ever be truly recreated, especially considering how there are numerous similar animatronic toys that have come out since, such as Hatchimals and FurReal toys. But Furby will always remain close to the hearts of millennials – despite, or maybe because, they scared the ever-living crap out of us.