Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Uncanny Valley

This highly technical term, coined in the 70s by the Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori, could just as well be the title of a Hollywood horror flick, nar’mean? What Mori-san meant, though, was that sudden dip in a graph measuring the “appeal” of humanoid robots, that occurs when The Thing looks both Too Human, yet Not-quite Human, and the observer gets freaked out.

Dr. Christian “Jeepers” Jarrett’s article, “The Lure of Horror,” in the Halloween issue of The Psychologist, tries to account for the apparent predilection among current cinema-goers [it’s a British journal] for being freaked out. Despite what you might gather from the weekly Box Office grosses listed in The Hollywood Reporter, not everyone craves creepiness. In fact, it’s mostly males aged 6 to 25 who really dig “trips” to the Uncanny Valley. The rest of us get quite enough of that eery sensation, thank you very much, from our nightmares, hypnogogic illusions [in that twilight state between sleep & waking], and the weird coincidences of everyday life.

The concept predates modern film-making. Freud & his contemporaries were writing articles about Das Unheimliche [the Uncanny] in the early 1900s, pondering the scariness of dolls with missing eyes [remember the cartoons of Orphan Annie?], clowns, and anyone hiding their face behind a mask [or veil]. The limbic explanation, then and now, is that we vulnerable mortals need all the visual cues we can get, to determine whether a stranger poses a threat or not. If we think someone is PLU [People Like Us], and suddenly the mask slips, to reveal that they are [gasp!] non-PLU, our visceral response may be so dramatic that we get vertigo.

Back in the day, when I was a VA Trainee, I was interviewing a young “woman” veteran, to assess whether the first government-funded sex-change operation would increase or decrease his/her suicidal acting out. I had lived in Greenwich Village, the mecca of glamorous transvestites; but the individual before me looked and acted more like an Amish farm girl. When I asked about an incident from adolescence, the person’s voice, body language and facial expression morphed into the 16-year-old boy he had been; and I nearly fell out of my chair. It wasn’t scary; it was uncanny. We both had a good laugh about it, and carried on with the interview, in the safe surroundings of the Manhattan VA hospital. As a transsexual individual trying to live a “normal” life in 1970s NYC, however, the uncanny feelings my patient evoked in macho men often turned violent. [ See The Crying Game, not so much Tootsie.]

In this regard, Jarrett reports a startling finding from my least favorite research tool, the fMRI. 40 subjects watched creepy clips from scary movies and also boring clips from the same films. The researchers expected the amygdala to light up during the creepy bits; but, no, the intracranial wolf did not howl. What lit up were the “visual cortex, the insular cortex (a region involved in self-awareness) and the thalamus (the relay centre between the cortex and the sub-cortical regions).” I hate to admit it, but this is heavy. It suggests that members of that coveted demographic, males between 6 and 25, do not seek out horror films to get scared. They are there to get schooled. They are practicing [in what they are quite aware is a safe, pretend setting] vigilance. They’re getting good at discriminating the PLU from the non-PLU, innit?

Their motto is not, “Jeepers, creepers!” It’s “We won’t be fooled again.”

Leave a comment

Filed under attribution theory, limbic system, sharks and jets

No Teddy Bears’ Picnic

If you’re familiar with Harry Hall’s 1932 recording of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, ” you’re in distinguished company. For more than 30 years, BBC sound engineers used it to check frequency cycles before broadcasts, because of the fidelity of the recording and the wide-ranging pitches of the little ditty. Tell you something else that was wide-ranging: Irish lyricist Jimmy Kennedy’s various attributions of the danger posed by Teddy Bears in the woods. For a supposedly light-hearted children’s song, it’s as full of dark foreboding as a Twilight flick. “If you go into the woods today, you’d better go in disguise…you’d better not go alone. It’s lovely out in the woods today, but safer to stay at home.” And why all the angst? “Today’s the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic.”

I’m not a big fan, never was, of sending mixed messages to children about safety hazards. Seems to me there are enough truly scary things and situations out there “in the woods” to worry about, without setting up “straw men” like picnicking Teddy Bears, nar’mean? But that’s me being literal-minded, rather than Poetic, about it. I’ve read [and recommended] Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, the point of which is, that Grimm fairy tales [and zombie films, and their ilk] afford a less amygdala-setting-off, more reassuringly metaphorical way of facing our fears.

About 2 months ago, as Chris & I were walking Lili into the thick of the woods, a middle-aged woman [I should talk!], clad in a brown velour track suit which the 80s wanted back, jogged up to us and said, “Better be careful! There are police in the woods!” Intrigued, Chris & Lili forged ahead, while I stumbled behind them [my ankles suddenly turning to jelly from anxiety]. “A dead body? An armed & dangerous felon?” I wondered. What did their presence betoken, that had so freaked out the Lady in Velour? When Chris saw them, he asked “What’s up?” They said, “We’re looking for hunters.” They were U.S. Federal Special Police Officers, from the Smithsonian Institution Office of Protection Services [Did I mentions that “our” woods are a Smithsonian nature preserve?], acting on a tip that hunters had been spotted in the area. So we regaled them with anecdotes of our many encounters with [apparently illegal] hunters in the woods over the years, and they admired Lili, and gave me a business card with their phone & fax numbers, asking that Lili & I be their “eyes & ears” on our daily rounds. “Our office is just around the corner, and we’ll be waiting to hear from you.”

Talk about an official seal of approval! It was as if Lili had been transformed from a ravening beast, to a Deputy Dawg! I may continue to experience fear, intrusion, and even pain & suffering when I trip over a hidden tree root; but I think my days of humiliation in the woods are over.

But what, we wondered, was Brown Jogging Lady so spooked about? Was she a superannuated Hippie, who still regarded the Fuzz as the foe? [This was before OWS, mind.] Had they advised her not to wear deer-colored clothing in the woods during hunting season, or she could get shot?

Like Jimmy Kennedy, she manifested ambivalence about the threat level in the woods that day. I do, too, of course, always dreading my next encounter with Skipper the Unleashed and his insouciant owner. As it happened, the very next day Chris, Lili & I were once again menaced by the appalling pair; and I just happened to drop the name of the Smithsonian Police.

Haven’t seen them since. Still, with other free-range dogs about, newly fallen lumber every day, and muddy footing, it’s no picnic.

Leave a comment

Filed under ambivalence, attribution theory, limbic system