Journey Into "The Uncanny Valley"

Journey Into "The Uncanny Valley"

No person can claim they weren’t slightly disturbed by the near-human animation of the children’s film The Polar Express. Lucy hunter explores the mystery of something being both strange and familiar or, simply put, what it means to get "the creeps".

Imagine coming home and putting your key in the lock, and feeling like something is different – the key turns more easily than usual and makes a different sound. You go inside and something seems off – everything is the same, but you feel uneasy. Opening the cupboards, you stare in. Something is up. There is total silence. You boil the kettle to make coffee. You are filled with a sense of dread. Nothing is different exactly, but your familiar things seem weirdly unfamiliar, as though everything in the house has been replaced by an exact copy. Your flatmate walks in and speaks, but you freeze. It’s her, but there is something in the eyes that isn’t quite right. She’s smiling, but her face looks dead. She’s not moving normally. Or is it your imagination? What the hell is going on?

Please excuse my terrible attempt at fiction. Stephen King gives the example I used of everything in your house being replaced by an exact replica to explain the feeling of terror. Terror is different to just being scared. It’s creepy. You can look at a picture of a shark or an avalanche and not get the creeps. A person pointing a gun at you is not creepy. The feeling of “the creeps” is our mind’s reaction to the uncanny. It comes from observing something that isn’t obviously dangerous, but has a sense of vagueness and ambiguity that makes us uneasy. An unmoving figure staring silently out of a window with a rabbit mask on is probably not going to hurt you. There is no immediate threat. Probably. Yet we feel like backing away, but don’t have a real reason why.

“The Uncanny,” what Freud called “Das Unheimliche,” or “the unhomely,” is the sensation of something being both strange and familiar. It helps explain the reason why some things scare us, while others just creep us out. The uncanny is not simply a matter of the mysterious, bizarre, or frightening: it involves a kind of duplicity (both in likeness and deception) within the familiar. A disturbance of the familiar. The word comes from the Latin “familia,” or family – and we all know how weird families are. Keeping something “in the family,” or something that “runs in the family” has a sense of both familiarity and strangeness, something both known and secretive. Freud explains: “Certain things within the boundaries of what is ‘fearful’ [...] nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been restrained only by the process of repression [...] something which ought to have been kept concealed but which has nevertheless come to light.”

Dé-jà vu. Doppelgangers. People acting like machines and machines acting like people. The thought of being trapped in a room with the last person on earth you want to be left alone with. Your favourite pet, just the same, but staring at you and making a noise like a new-born baby crying ...

It is troubling.

Though seemingly incidental, The Uncanny permeates our lives in ways we may not often think about, sometimes with devastating effects. Humans have often done awful things to each other just because we can’t deal with being creeped out.

Where did The Uncanny come from? Why is it here? The feeling of “the creeps” is probably a result of evolution. We are hyper-aware of oddities and changes in other humans that make them seem not quite right. This is helpful in avoiding disease and pathogens that may be causing a person to look or move strangely. Repeated or jerky movements or strange speech patterns can be a sign of problems with the nervous system or mental illness. In the past, a sense of uncanniness in a person was enough to have them labelled a witch and exorcised, ostracised, or murdered. Many countries have a tradition of “changelings” (children or adults who have been taken and replaced by fairy replicas). Belief in changelings endured in Ireland until late in the 19th Century. An Irish woman called Bridget Cleary was killed by her husband in 1895 because he believed she was a changeling. Babies born with physical deformities, congenital illness, or even some who had a sudden radical change in temperament could also be called changelings. Many of them were killed or left to die as a result. Repetitive movement such as the head-nodding sometimes seen in autistic children could also be the sign of a changeling. Cruel methods were often employed to try to recover the “human.” In Scandinavia, children thought to be changelings were whipped or burned in an effort to bring the “taken” child back. Sadly these beliefs persist in some cultures. Religious extremists in America perform torturous exorcisms on people they believe are possessed by demons. In Kenya, elderly men and women are sometimes burned alive as witches. In Nigeria and Angola, thousands of children have been blinded or injected with battery acid among other tortures in an effort to purge them of their demons. Much of this awful practice is spread in the name of Christianity. All because humans find it so difficult to deal with people who act or look a bit different to what is culturally normal.

The uncanny sensation may also be a reason for (hopefully, old-fashioned) racism, sexism, and homophobia – mistrust of people who don’t look or act like you. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, English coloniser Marlow describes a group of Congolese people, saying “No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman.” Marlow can’t bring himself to realise the Congolese people are human just like him. Thankfully this horrible book was written over 100 years ago, and the world has changed. But it shows how we used to creep each other out. The uncanny could be part of the reason why humans have been such dicks to each other for so long.

And there still remains a surprisingly universal stereotype of a “creepy” person – someone who isn’t necessarily dangerous, but has certain habits and mannerisms that make people uncomfortable. One self-labelled “creepy” man says of his social effect, “Some people just react to me and I’ve not even said anything. It’s just my appearance.” Francis T. McAndrew and Sara S. Koehnke of Knox College in New Orleans did a study on what makes someone creepy, rather than simply frightening. Imagine a creepy person. The person is probably male, and may be in the habit of standing too close to you. He may be very thin with pale skin and greasy, unkempt hair. He may be unwashed and have bags under his eyes. His smile may be odd and he could have bulging eyes. He may have long fingers and a tendency to lick his lips a lot and laugh at unpredictable times. He may stare at you without blinking enough, or avoid all eye-contact. He may not let you leave the conversation, which he insists on steering toward a particular subject, possibly to do with sex. As a hobby he may enjoy collecting things, such as bones, knives, stuffed animals or dolls, or maybe he likes watching things like birds or photographing people. And for a job he could be an undertaker, taxidermist, sex-shop owner, or, creepiest of all, a clown. These stereotypes may point toward possible threat of physical or sexual attack by an undesirable, socially incompetent male who is preoccupied with sex and death. Or he could be totally harmless. Maybe.

Extreme versions of our horror of the uncanny can manifest in devastating illnesses such as Cotard Delusion, where sufferers believe that all or part of their body is dead, or that they have died and gone to hell. One man’s mother moved him from Scotland to South Africa after he received brain injuries in a motorcycle accident. He was convinced he had actually died of septicaemia and gone to hell, with his mother’s spirit as a guide. In a similar vein, “Capgras delusion” is like a real-life invasion of the body-snatchers – sufferers believe that people close to them have been replaced by imposters. A woman temporarily affected by this delusion explained, “One Friday night I came home and instantly knew my boyfriend had been replaced by an alien doppelganger. He looked the same ... but somehow off. I knew it was impossible and screwed up and wrong. That’s one of the things about mental illness they don’t show you: you can know what you’re thinking is abnormal as you’re thinking it.” These real-life versions of Stephen King’s definition of The Uncanny are usually incurable, and can lead to depression, malnourishment, self-harm, suicide, or death by self-neglect.

Sufferers of these disorders are rare, but modern technology has created an entirely new version of creepiness that we can all enjoy. In between lovable cartoonish simulations of humans in animation and robotics, and those indistinguishable from real humans, lies “The Uncanny Valley.” It is a term invented by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori to describe how our affection toward animations and robots increases along with their human-like attributes – up to a point. When they get too human-like, we are suddenly disturbed by them and our affection turns to repulsion. On a graph this is mapped as a deep, sudden dip in affection which only resolves when the perceived thing is fully human. This dip is “The Uncanny Valley.”

If our brain initially thinks something is human, we get really freaked out if it turns out to not be human. On a scale of human-ness, we go from seeing an adorable robot with gorgeously human attributes (think Wall-E), to seeing a revolting, freakish human with horrifyingly unnatural mannerisms. At worst, an animated humanoid reminds us of a zombie, and an inanimate one, a corpse. Their eyes look dead. Their mouths look like they are going to bite you. Their smiles look sinister.

Attempts to “jump” the “Uncanny Valley” have so far been unsuccessful. Even the very best photo-realistic digital simulations of people are unnerving and uncanny. We have an extraordinary knack for picking out even the tiniest deviation from natural facial movement. Animated movie The Polar Express was poorly received because the characters looked too much like creepy humans, earning it the nickname “The Zombie Express.” Pixar animators manage to “dodge” the valley, making their characters cartoonish rather than risking them turning out as humanoid creeps. Some people deny the Uncanny Valley exists, or that some animators and roboticists such as Hiroshi Ishiguro have successfully “jumped” it. I looked up Ishiguro’s robot, which he has made to look like a perfect Doppelganger of himself. Though very convincing while sitting stationary or in a photograph, it looks creepy as hell when it moves. Valley not jumped, as far as I’m concerned.

Despite this horror and revulsion, there seems to be a trend for humans to move themselves backwards away from humanity into the Uncanny Valley with the death-robots. There is the real-life manipulation of dramatic plastic surgery, with some people turning themselves into living Barbie-dolls or anime characters. did an article on “Ulzzang” or “best face.” It is a Korean sub-culture where girls and women digitally alter their faces to have enormous eyes, tiny mouths, noses and bodies, and flawless white skin. Some use eyelid glue and illegal contact lenses to give them huge irises. The contact lenses are illegal because they prevent oxygen getting in your eyes, frequently causing eye infections.

They can also perforate the cornea, causing blindness. Moldavian-Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova is famous for her resemblance to a Barbie doll, achieved through plastic surgery, dieting and makeup effects. These people are not aiming to mimic a Hollywood actress, model, or any human at all. They are mimicking drawings and dolls.

Speaking of dolls, increasingly realistic sex dolls are becoming the preferred sexual partners to certain men who treat them as if they were real people. Some men who struggle to maintain relationships find alternative companionship in their sex dolls. “Real Dolls” are marketed not just as masturbation aids, but alternative partners, providing some owners with the love and companionship that real women cannot. The original Real Dolls were inanimate, but new models come complete with moving parts for a more “realistic” love experience, and can even talk with their own sexist stereotypes of “female” personalities. The BBC documentary Guys and Dolls follows some Real Doll owners, some of whom treat their man-made friends as their wives or girlfriends. One man takes “family photos” with his two beloved dolls. Another wants to be buried with his. It is nice that some lonely people can find companionship by artificial means. But it is unnerving to watch the hyper-realistic rubber women being propped against walls or hooked upright by loops on their necks to make them look as though they are actually alive.

Doll-lovers and dramatic plastic surgery recipients are the extreme end of our fetish for The Uncanny, but the Uncanny Valley may be a lot closer to your own life than you think. Photoshop makes models look flawless and desirable up to a point, but push it too far and you risk slipping down the side of the very steep slope toward horror and nightmares. Smiling models with dead eyes. Limbs elongated and waists narrowed to deathly proportions. Bodies poorly over-manipulated so that limbs twist out at unnatural angles, extra joints are accidentally added, creases are smoothed to waxy death-masks, body-parts can even appear or vanish into thin air. These Photoshop mistakes are reminders of how creepy our image of perfection actually is. Super-humans or sub-humans? Beautiful or terrifying? When did striving for beauty turn into this horror?

So while horror movies and fairy-tales have traditionally used The Uncanny as a way of scaring us, uncanniness seems to be evolving into new kinds of humanoids who are in some ways superior and more desirable than regular people. While humans have historically avoided uncanny differences in other people by extreme measures – prejudice, torture, ostracisation, and murder – the “Uncanny Valley” of animation, robots and modified people seems to be blurring what we think of as natural and human. Perhaps in the future we will have Bladerunner-like humanoid replicants alongside humans so altered and roboticised that the concept of normal and natural will not seem so real and important to us, and the “Uncanny Valley” will no longer exist.
This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2014.
Posted 7:01pm Sunday 30th March 2014 by Lucy Hunter.