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.”

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Filed under attribution theory, limbic system, sharks and jets

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