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Why Are Things Creepy?
July 6, 2013 3:36 AM   Subscribe

"Between the mountains of safety and danger there is a valley of creepiness, where the limits of our knowledge and trust and security aren't very clear." (SLYT).

A closer look at the science behind the third element in Stephen King's taxonomy of scary stuff: terror. Which is coming home to find that everything that you own has been replaced with an exact copy.
posted by moody cow (33 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's all, apparently about classification (librarians take note!). We like to able able to put things in conceptual boxes, when we can't, we are flustered and respond with anger, fear, or, occasionally, fascination. I remember reading some years ago that children go through a developmental state (maybe 4-5?) where their notions of classification become very rigid -- I wonder if that has anything to do with responses to creepiness.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:00 AM on July 6, 2013


But not everything that's hard to classify (e.g. duck-rabbits, El Caminos, emus) are creepy, right? And take the teddy bear with teeth... I know how to classify it (Teddy bear, stuffed animal, thing with human teeth...)... But it was pretty creepy... And I know how to classify spiders (arachnae, arthropoda...) but...

I liked this, though I don't see that his take on creepiness is clearly true. I wish people were better at saying "hey, here's a hypothesis about x," rather than speaking as if they were just laying down the obvious truth. A step forward, perhaps, with respect to the burning question "what is creepiness?"....but doesn't quite seem to me to be the final answer.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 4:52 AM on July 6, 2013 [6 favorites]


If someone came in here and replaced everything with an exact copy, I'd be annoyed. All that trouble, the least they could do is find some less exact, but slightly nicer copies: a couch with five fewer cat scratches, a microwave with a marginally cleaner glass tray.

It's like nobody cares about etiquette anymore.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 4:57 AM on July 6, 2013 [19 favorites]


That wasn't bad.

I want to be skeptical of his argument, but I think it's essentially correct.

There's fear and then there's unease/anxiety. The difference between them involves uncertainty and deliberation. Fear can and often does short-circuit will — it's an impetus. Even when the fear response is paralyzation, that's an irresistible impulse toward an absence of movement, a kind of nothingness. Unease and anxiety, though, are about awareness and imagination and deliberation. It's not an impetus in itself, it doesn't move us in any particular direction. Anxious movement is a dithering and uncertainty, a kind of alternation between possibilities that results in random motion or no movement at all.

This is to say, fear creates a response that is directly in relation to the object of fear while anxiety creates a response that is in relation to anxiety itself.

This is a different way of saying what he's saying because, as he puts it, fear is about our explicit awareness of being in danger while creepiness is about the ambiguity of the possibility that we're in danger. With fear our focus is on the danger itself, it holds our attention and demands a response. With anxiety our focus is on the anxiety because we don't have an unambiguous target to identify as dangerous. We respond to the anxiety by being aware of it and attempting to connect it with something dangerous in our environment. Until we are successful at this, we exist in a state of anticipated danger.

I recall watching a psychological horror film in the early nineties — I really wish I could recall what it was, it was sort of a version of The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street — and somewhere during the early part of the film I was seized with this tremendous desire to make a film where nothing apparently bad ever happens and everything seems to be normal and yet somehow managing to skew everything just slightly off-kilter such that the audience would have a growing sense of unease but never really understand why. I realize now that this is basically what many writers/filmmakers are sort of attempting, but they usually have to be fairly blatant about it with most audiences.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:09 AM on July 6, 2013 [10 favorites]


"I woke up this morning and discovered that everything in my apartment had been stolen and replaced with an exact replica. I told my roommate, 'Isn't this amazing? Everything in the apartment has been stolen and replaced with an exact replica.' He said, 'Do I know you?'"

- Steven Wright
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 5:33 AM on July 6, 2013 [16 favorites]


a film where nothing apparently bad ever happens and everything seems to be normal and yet somehow managing to skew everything just slightly off-kilter such that the audience would have a growing sense of unease but never really understand why.

If you succeeded your name would be David Lynch.
posted by localroger at 6:19 AM on July 6, 2013 [18 favorites]


Reduplicative paramnesia aside, it sounds like a plausible theory to me, though I concur with FoF above about theories and conclusions. So many, sometimes including me, seem to have an insatiable need for the latter, which feels so...I don't know...desperate.

Still! Thanks for posting! The next time I run into Señor Creepy (which, I now realize, is probably just an alias) I'll try to apply this knowledge patch.
posted by Empty Planet at 6:22 AM on July 6, 2013


"If you succeeded your name would be David Lynch."

Yeah, it's funny because Mulholland Drive came most strongly to my mind when I wrote that paragraph but I didn't mention it because there's a lot of obvious things off-kilter in that film. Twin Peaks is among the few things of his I never watched, but I'm thinking that it was more often wrong in subtle ways (but often wrong in unsubtle ways, too)?

The realization of my conception would be if we all watched The Straight Story and felt wonderful afterward, like we all did, and told each other how unexpected it was that Lynch made such a heartwarming film. And then about a week later we all begin to wake up with night terrors and the certainty that there is something terribly, terribly wrong with Alvin Straight and his lawnmower but we can't articulate what it is or why we feel that way.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:28 AM on July 6, 2013 [9 favorites]


But not everything that's hard to classify (e.g. duck-rabbits, El Caminos, emus) are creepy, right? And take the teddy bear with teeth... I know how to classify it (Teddy bear, stuffed animal, thing with human teeth...)... But it was pretty creepy... And I know how to classify spiders (arachnae, arthropoda...) but...

You are conflating a lot of things here. I'm not sure I am getting your reference, but if the duck-rabbit is the famous illusion, I would suggest, like many illusions, it can be creepy (although it can also be fascinating/wonderful*). Frankly, I am a little creeped out by those illustrations, but it may just be that all Victorian-era illustrations are creepy on some level. Anyway, no idea about the El Caminos, but emus are not hard to classify at all (unlike, say, the platypus, which has generated its share of outrage).

The problem with the teddy bear is not that it cannot be classified, but that it fits comfortably into several mutually exclusive classifications -- "teddy bears" and "things with full sets of human teeth." You have to pick one, your brain tells you, but, if you do, you leave out the other, which causes tension. Similarly, I had a friend who worked at a sandwich sop. One night, it was his turn to clean the meat cutter, but he had cut his finger early in the day, and the construction of the cutter made it impossible for him to clean it with his injury. So, his manager sensibly had him swap shifts and go home a little early. However, the manual said that you could only leave early "in the case of serious injury." Since he was being told to go home early, therefore his fairly minor cut was a "serious injury," and he found himself becoming very anxious about it -- the injury fell into two categories -- "very minor" and "serious." The conflict between the two cause my friend some problems, even though he knew it was silly.

Lastly, you are likely afraid of spiders at least in part because some of them are dangerous to humans, and, like most of us, you can't be bothered to learn which are which. That is a lack of sufficient classification, not a tension between classifications. There could be, I suppose, some tension in the "living things move like this" and "living thing that doesn't move like this" going on, too, but I see the first more than the second when I talk about spiders.

*The video explicitly addresses the way that unease and wonder work together to create a second tension. It's I suppose one reason why modern rather saccharin "guardian angel" stories don't resonate for a lot of people -- angels are supposed to be awful/awesome, not sweet.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:29 AM on July 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is actually a way to frame this which is much more exact, using a lot fewer words.

We all build a mental model of the world which we use to predict how our actions might be calibrated optimize our future situation. Because the world is complicated and we are finite, none of our models are better than crude approximations of the truth. Nevertheless, our model is really all we have; we spend our lifetime honing it, sometimes making corrections and sometimes holding on to it a bit too tightly when reality comes into conflict with our expectations.

Fear is our model telling us that we are in danger.

Horror is our model telling us that we are fucked, and we cannot avoid the danger.

Terror is the world not making any goddamn sense with respect to our model.

Elsewhere I've written of the account that convinced me consciousness is a function of matter which should be duplicable and extendable. In an experiment to determine whether the Bee Eating Wasp used vision to locate its home, a hole in the ground, researchers moved all the nearby landmarks a few inches in the same direction. The wasp came home from its hunt and plopped down exactly the same distance from its hole. Brilliant.

But then the wasp went on a frantic, sputtery search, finally locating its home by chance, and then spent several minutes flying around looking at the landmarks.

The wasp was experiencing terror.
posted by localroger at 6:35 AM on July 6, 2013 [43 favorites]


Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet are Lynch's most subtle off-kilter works. Both start with an overt, simple, obvious narrative which is plagued by minor but troubling inconsistencies. In both cases the inconsistencies resolve perfectly when you realize that the good guys are actually the bad guys and the heroes are in the process of being corrupted.
posted by localroger at 6:40 AM on July 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah. I really need to watch Blue Velvet again. I don't think I've seen it since the early 90s.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:48 AM on July 6, 2013


Das Unheimliche
posted by thelonius at 7:00 AM on July 6, 2013


The wasp was experiencing terror.

What the researchers did not realize is that wasp had spent a pleasant time getting mildly inebriated with their wasp buddies, and this was a really mean prank! When the wasp figured it out, they told their buddies, and they all had a good laugh. After they stung the shit out of the researchers. Wasps are assholes; don't mess with them.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:04 AM on July 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


The realization of my conception would be if we all watched The Straight Story and felt wonderful afterward, like we all did, and told each other how unexpected it was that Lynch made such a heartwarming film. And then about a week later we all begin to wake up with night terrors and the certainty that there is something terribly, terribly wrong with Alvin Straight and his lawnmower but we can't articulate what it is or why we feel that way.

That is the take away from The Straight Story, Alvin Straight is an alcoholic who destroyed his family and is a horribly unreliable narrator. His story is nothing but straight. The folksy awwshuckness is just a way of dealing with his demons and history, and most people just accept that surface cause it's easier and more comforting.
posted by The Whelk at 7:43 AM on July 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fear is our boss telling us that we have a long Friday afternoon meeting coming up.

Horror is our supervisor telling us that it's "important," and we cannot avoid the meeting.

Terror is the meeting.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:47 AM on July 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


"That is the take away from The Straight Story, Alvin Straight is an alcoholic who destroyed his family and is a horribly unreliable narrator. His story is nothing but straight. The folksy awwshuckness is just a way of dealing with his demons and history, and most people just accept that surface cause it's easier and more comforting."

Someone kindly memailed me a link to this Film Quarterly piece from 2000 about this. It blew my mind. I really, really want to accept this analysis of the film but I will reserve judgment until I watch it again. It's pretty damn convincing, though. Both internally and within the context of the rest of Lynch's work.

"...and most people just accept that surface cause it's easier and more comforting."

Nah, not in my case. I vastly prefer to be disturbed. Apparently, I'm just dumb.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:00 AM on July 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


and most people just accept that surface cause it's easier and more comforting.

I believe the main reason Lynch started making overtly incomprehensible movies like Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire is that he got tired of people taking the surface story at face value and not even attempting to penetrate the film's real mystery.
posted by localroger at 8:00 AM on July 6, 2013


You are conflating a lot of things here.

Always a danger...but I don't really buy the case for that you make below...

I'm not sure I am getting your reference, but if the duck-rabbit is the famous illusion,

That is, indeed, the creepiest f*cking duck-rabbit I've ever seen...

The more standard version is much cuter...

I would suggest, like many illusions, it can be creepy (although it can also be fascinating/wonderful*).

I don't think that the standard version of the d-r can be creepy... Nor El Caminos nor Emus, nor ligers... Granted, there is a creepy version of the duck-rabbit, as you demonstrate...but the point is that not everything that isn't clearly classifiable is creepy. What the hell is bamboo? (to the layperson) A tree? A grass? Is a moped a motorcycle...or what?

Frankly, I am a little creeped out by those illustrations, but it may just be that all Victorian-era illustrations are creepy on some level. Anyway, no idea about the El Caminos, but emus are not hard to classify at all (unlike, say, the platypus, which has generated its share of outrage).

You're kidding about emus, right? Platypuses: creepy though...

The problem with the teddy bear is not that it cannot be classified, but that it fits comfortably into several mutually exclusive classifications -- "teddy bears" and "things with full sets of human teeth." You have to pick one, your brain tells you, but, if you do, you leave out the other, which causes tension.

That seems like a step in the right direction... But also not quite right. I can stick, say, nerd glasses or running shoes on a teddy bear, or give it flowers for ears, or Vulcan ears, or wings and, though it might be incongruous, it isn't creepy. I can grow flowers out of my computer case or grow a tree so that it forms into a chair...and so on. The teddy bear's creepiness depends in part on the kind of incongruity, doesn't it?...not just any type seems to do the trick. It seems clear that you could make the bear creepy just by distorting its features--so that it doesn't fit into more than one standard category. That might kick us back to something like the original hypothesis... But it would nuke the "fits well into two different categories" hypothesis, wouldn't it?


Lastly, you are likely afraid of spiders at least in part because some of them are dangerous to humans, and, like most of us, you can't be bothered to learn which are which.


Nope. I have better-than-average knowledge of which is which, and I still find the harmless ones creepy as hell.

That is a lack of sufficient classification, not a tension between classifications. There could be, I suppose, some tension in the "living things move like this" and "living thing that doesn't move like this" going on, too, but I see the first more than the second when I talk about spiders.

Isn't this an attempt to save the hypothesis by making it so expansive as to be virtually valueless?

I don't know, though... There's something about the biological stuff here that's confusing me...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 8:01 AM on July 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was disappointed that it rambles through overlapping definitions. Perhaps, I'm biased into wanting a SLYT version of Freud's essay on the uncanny, which, to me, is the best foundation for exploring our society's version of the abject, horror and/or terror:

The subject of the “uncanny” is a province of this kind. It undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror; it is equally certain, too, that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread. Yet we may expect that it implies some intrinsic quality which justifies the use of a special name.
posted by noway at 9:14 AM on July 6, 2013


Terror is the meeting.

Terror is going to the meeting and finding out that all the other attendees are wasps.
posted by localroger at 11:57 AM on July 6, 2013 [13 favorites]


Poking around, I found that lots of the stuff people intuitively classify as creepy can be construed (not always completely naturally) as involving problems with categorization...but not all by a long shot.

For example:

Creepy house/road pic.

Creepy graveyard.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 12:17 PM on July 6, 2013


I could see that creepy-house picture as being partially a problem of categorization. People have a tendency to maintain an overall conception of "houses" as 1) safe and 2) inhabited; a house that appears uninhabited and/or unsafe is jarring to that conception.

Anecdotally, I have an impossible time seeing an abandoned or dilapidated house without my brain attempting to superimpose its likely original (clean, functioning, inhabited) state. And then I am forced to confront the process of decay and abandonment and death and am thoroughly and irretrievably creeped out and depressed.
posted by like_a_friend at 12:29 PM on July 6, 2013


I agree with noway on the overlapping of terminology, which is problematic. There are subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences between aspects like 'fear', 'terror', and 'uncanny'. There are essential differences between being scared and feeling unease.

What King describes as 'terror' is, at least academically, much closer related to the uncanny, which includes concepts like ambiguity and vagueness. This also includes aspects of cognitive dissonance.

Bringing language into the discussion (the way a word looks/is structured) creates further problems, as this introduces the concept of structure and rationalism, which is directly opposed to notions of the uncanny.

Also, stating that there hasn't been much research on the uncanny (or even the subject of terror) is a pretty uninformed statement to make.
posted by New England Cultist at 2:16 PM on July 6, 2013


What a strange and creepy man.
posted by Decani at 3:53 PM on July 6, 2013


There is certainly no one behind you right now. There is no need to turn around and check behind you. You would have heard them come in. The light at this hour always makes that shadow like that.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:17 PM on July 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Stephen King's taxonomy of scary stuff: terror. Which is coming home to find that everything that you own has been replaced with an exact copy.

My cats do this every time I leave the house for more than 24 hours. Which is fine -- I just make sure all the interwebs are still working with the copies and start scooping up the piles of cat puke.
posted by hippybear at 4:17 PM on July 6, 2013


That is, indeed, the creepiest f*cking duck-rabbit I've ever seen...

The more standard version is much cuter...


I dunno, man, those soulless eyes get to me.

I don't think that the standard version of the d-r can be creepy... Nor El Caminos nor Emus, nor ligers... Granted, there is a creepy version of the duck-rabbit, as you demonstrate...but the point is that not everything that isn't clearly classifiable is creepy. What the hell is bamboo? (to the layperson) A tree? A grass? Is a moped a motorcycle...or what?

None of those things violate categories significantly -- an emu is a large bird, bamboo is a plant, a moped is a vehicle, no idea what the problem with an El Camino would be. The point is that none of these violate categories enough to make the average person worry about them -- hell, the ability to breed ligers shows that they are not sufficiently category-crossing. Now, if you had a bamboo with emu feet and a liger head, we would be talking. I was talking to a geoscientist a while back about how certain geochemical processes work pretty much like simple cellular processes; now that's crazy to think about -- wonderful and disturbing.

That seems like a step in the right direction... But also not quite right. I can stick, say, nerd glasses or running shoes on a teddy bear, or give it flowers for ears, or Vulcan ears, or wings and, though it might be incongruous, it isn't creepy.

But again, there is a well-understood subcategory of teddy bear that is "teddy bears dressed up as things," so this doesn't really follow -- "teddy bears with full sets of human teeth" does not fit into any of the understood subcategories, so it creates unease (or, possibly, humor).

I can grow flowers out of my computer case or grow a tree so that it forms into a chair...and so on. The teddy bear's creepiness depends in part on the kind of incongruity, doesn't it?...not just any type seems to do the trick. It seems clear that you could make the bear creepy just by distorting its features--so that it doesn't fit into more than one standard category. That might kick us back to something like the original hypothesis... But it would nuke the "fits well into two different categories" hypothesis, wouldn't it?

If the teddy bear was manipulated enough, though, the category issue creeps in through not fitting into multiple categories ut failing to fit into any (his teddy bears don't do this, but cyriak's cows are a good example). Growing flowers out of your computer could be creepy (again, category violation can result in humor or wonder rather than fear) the same with a tree that was a chair, although, since they are both made of wood, that's not quite as violating as the computer/flowers idea). In fact, someone in my neighborhood has been surreptitiously fitting the stumps of cut down trees with chair backs. They are pretty surprising when you first see them.

me: That is a lack of sufficient classification, not a tension between classifications. There could be, I suppose, some tension in the "living things move like this" and "living thing that doesn't move like this" going on, too, but I see the first more than the second when I talk about spiders.

Fists: Isn't this an attempt to save the hypothesis by making it so expansive as to be virtually valueless?

I don't think so, and that was a pretty hypothetical guess. After more consideration, I expect most people find spiders creepy because they have been taught to do so. Or possibly had a bad experience as a child and carried it forward.

Obviously, this isn't a great forum for really developing the idea, but classification-violation is definitely a thing to which people react strongly. There is a lecture by an archeologist talking about Lovecraft who discusses how people get very strongly attached to largely mythical "racial identities" (in his example "Angle" or "Saxon") and how these people react very badly to research that shows that the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, etc did not really exist as strongly distinct cultural groups, especially after they moved to England. The fact that worrying about precise cultural organizations of people from 1500 years ago is kind of silly does not prevent the feelings. For another example, think about how quickly you react to a person talking loudly to themselves on the street as you try to classify them as "disturbed and possibly dangerous" or "fitted with a bluetooth device and definitely irritating."
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:13 PM on July 6, 2013


And then about a week later we all begin to wake up with night terrors and the certainty that there is something terribly, terribly wrong with Alvin Straight and his lawnmower but we can't articulate what it is or why we feel that way.

"This movie is about how a mean drunk named Alvin Straight lost his daughter's children to the state because he let one of them get burned in a fire."
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:29 PM on July 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


But again, there is a well-understood subcategory of teddy bear that is "teddy bears dressed up as things," so this doesn't really follow -- "teddy bears with full sets of human teeth" does not fit into any of the understood subcategories, so it creates unease (or, possibly, humor).

Also, teeth are aggressive, symbolically. Biting, eating, the baring of fangs. "A toothy grin" isn't a description of a pleasant smile. Contrast to a cuddly and safe teddy bear.
posted by rifflesby at 7:11 PM on July 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wanted to see the argument, but the delivery style was too off-putting to watch for long.
posted by Edna Million at 8:58 PM on July 6, 2013


Yep. Plus, baby toys are symbolic babies, typically, and babies don't have teeth. And bears don't have human teeth.
posted by windykites at 9:32 PM on July 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


"This movie is about how a mean drunk named Alvin Straight lost his daughter's children to the state because he let one of them get burned in a fire."

This is one of the most amazing close-reading criticisms of a movie ever, and it makes me want to see The Straight Story again right away.
posted by hippybear at 12:26 AM on July 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


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