Too, Too, Human for Comfort

Two witches, a devil and a Pikachu sat together in a clearing of pine trees, listening to the devil’s father speak. Their lips, sticky from the piles of candy they had just consumed, were glued together in grim, flat lines on their faces. “The story begins, not too far from here, in Tarrytown, New York, with a young man named Ichabod Crane…”

As the man recounted “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the witches and devil listened, enraptured by the chilling tale. The Pikachu, on the other hand, was on the verge of tears throughout the story, and didn’t sleep for a week after that.

Anyone want to guess who the Pikachu was? It was 10-year-old me, of course. At the time, my greatest fears were the dark, anything supernatural and the basilisk in the second “Harry Potter” book. And to this day, I still run from scary movies like a bat out of hell and I still get the heebie-jeebies watching “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

But why? I’ve always wondered. Why the heck am I, a rational person who doesn’t believe in ghosts or goblins, still so easily spooked? Stephen King divides fear into three different categories: gross-out (guts on the floor, organs in a jar), horror (being grabbed and dragged into a dark hall) and terror. I’m going to focus on terror: the prickle on the nape of your neck when you’re all alone late at night, or the eerie sensation that something, or someone, moved your things around when you weren’t watching. In oh-so-scientific terms, it’s the creeps. 

There are many theories that attempt to describe what makes things creepy. Claude Levi-Strauss asserted that facial disguises (clown masks or gimp suits—”American Horror Story” fans will know what I’m talking about) are creepy because they hide the facial expressions beneath. The formation of trust in human interaction depends heavily on facial expressions. Studies have suggested that people with plastic surgery are trusted less because the surgery reduces their facial muscle mobility, so they are less expressive and less trustworthy. We can’t see the person’s face under their distorted clown mask or full-body leather suit, can’t read their intentions, can’t form trust, and can’t know if they’re a threat to us or not. 

There is also the uncanny theory, which seems to provide an explanation for what makes things creepy. In 1970, Dr. Masahiro Mori found an interesting correlation between a robot’s realism and the human response to the robot. As the robot became more lifelike, subjects started to like it more. But at approximately 80 percent realism, response to the robot plummeted. When robots look almost, but not quite, human, we find it eerie or uncanny. Mori called the dip at which people had the most visceral negative reactions the “uncanny valley.” Zombies, corpses, prosthetic hands and, strangely enough, the characters in the movie “The Polar Express” all fall in the uncanny valley.

“The Polar Express” freaked many people out because, apparently, the animation rendered the characters simultaneously too lifelike and not lifelike enough. Google images of “The Polar Express”; those endearing kids that are supposed to capture the Christmas spirit look more like gremlins you’d hit with a broom while you screamed bloody murder. Our reactions to zombies, corpses, prosthetic hands and demon Tom Hanks reveal what makes some things creepy: that feeling that something’s almost, but not quite, human. A corpse or zombie is human in that it is anatomically like us, but because it is no longer alive, it gives us the creeps. So it’s human in that looks like us, but it isn’t human because it lacks humanity.

Being watched by someone or feeling breath on the back of your neck are all human experiences, but your rational brain knows that no one’s around to watch you. That cognitive dissonance between what you know to be true and what you are experiencing creates the effect of creepiness. 

Just like mostly everything else in the world, there is an explanation for the creeps. You’re not irrational to cry like a baby at the thought of a human man whose head is a pumpkin. You’re just acting on a very normal and human discomfort with seeing the human and inhuman mixed together.  

So, to all those fraidy-cats out there, arm yourself with science this coming Halloween season! When your friends force you to watch “Chucky” and you want to pee your pants as you look into his beady dead eyes, know that you’re only scared because he falls into the uncanny valley, mixing human features with a non-human deadness. And, hey, it’s just a movie, right? It’s not like he’s going to crawl into your room at night when you’re alone and asleep, right? Happy Halloween, everyone… 

Helena Shannon PO ’18 is a cognitive science major who, despite her own advice in this article, probably won’t be able to fall asleep tonight.

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