Dr. Laura Pinto, whose research focuses on educational policy and practice, was among the first to shine a light on one of the strangest and most disturbing toys on the market, the Elf on the Shelf. Starting with a video connecting the toy to Foucault’s writings about surveillance, her 2014 article (co-written with Selena Nemorin) for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives became that rarest of creatures: a largely academic paper about ideas that entered the cultural narrative.

The Elf on the Shelf is a recent creation, and its story is so specific to this era that none of it—the product itself, the dialogue about it—would make any sense in any other time. The Elf on the Shelf is a book of branding, self-promotion, the surveillance state, educational philosophy, social media, and performative parenting. It is a goddamn nightmare and it should freak you out.