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Uncanny Valley
October 24, 2002 12:38 PM   Subscribe

Making huge leaps between memepool and Stanislaw Lem (all in one day), I stumbled upon an interesting connection. This link describes an extremely interesting phenomenon that I find tangentally represented in Solaris. Simulacra of all kinds in literature and film has always interested me, from Blade Runner, to A.I. As Halloween approaches, I'd like to know what other MeFiers have seen or read that has hit them in the deepest part of their 'uncanny valley'.
posted by oflinkey (66 comments total)

 
That would certainly explain why I continue to be creeped out by this thing.
posted by poseur at 12:48 PM on October 24, 2002


This also might explain why some people have such a visceral reaction to clowns - distorted human faces, often in bizarre arrangements, nonetheless meant to invoke levity. But some people obviously see them as just human enough to be disquieting, but not enough to evoke significant empathy. Fascinating link.
posted by risenc at 12:51 PM on October 24, 2002


Thanks oflinkey. Fascinating article on Dr. Mor's thesis.

It goes a long way to explain my fear of primates, clowns, puppets, dolls, and people dressed up as Disney characters (with the big heads). I absolutely HATE things that are humanoid but not quite. So creepy...
posted by mariko at 12:52 PM on October 24, 2002


Holy crap--that thing is creepy. And you don't even need to water it.
Tangentially related--I just finished "Memoirs Found In A Bathtub" and it was great.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:52 PM on October 24, 2002


This theory also explains all those early 90s Tool videos.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:53 PM on October 24, 2002


Aha! This will help me explain why I find movies such as "Babe", "Princess Bride", and "Willy Wonka" creeeeepy....while most of my family, friends, and acquaintances find them cute and funny. My Uncanny Valley lists to the right!
posted by rainbaby at 12:58 PM on October 24, 2002


See also Dr. Takanori Shibata's
artificial emotion creatures, robots in the form of seals and cats, designed to interact with children in hospitals.
posted by SealWyf at 12:59 PM on October 24, 2002


Fabulon - I adapted "Memoirs" into a stage play. I love that book.
posted by starvingartist at 1:05 PM on October 24, 2002


My sister works for Major League Baseball, as a producer for This Week in Baseball. At the end of the show, they have a clay puppet of the former announcer for TWIB when it was on in the 70's and 80's. It is by far the most eerie and disgusting thin I have seen in a long time. They call it Meaty Mel (Allen).
posted by oflinkey at 1:07 PM on October 24, 2002


Mythago Wood and the other novels by Robert Holdstock about Ryhope Forest, where Jungian myth archetype characters get extracted from your id, modified to meet your own personal specs, come to physical life, and start shooting arrows at you. Scary, to me, in the worst possible way, by which I mean deeply attractive.
posted by jfuller at 1:10 PM on October 24, 2002


Great link! When was the last time someone referenced McGruff the crime dog! Ha! Help take a bite (crunch!) outta crime!
posted by archimago at 1:20 PM on October 24, 2002


Wow. What a great post, oflinkey.

The Uncanny is indeed truly disturbing. The idea of the almost human (but not quite) scares us because it makes us question what it is that makes us human. Maybe it also represents the loss of emotion, and opens the possibility of soulless doppelgangers among us, that look human but have no compunctions about murder, no concept of right and wrong.

Homunculi and golems, grown in a petri dish, doing their works with no thought of the evil they do, or even a concept of it.

An idea that has also been dealt with extensivly in SciFi is the idea of a hive-mind society (like in Sterling's The Swarm), that thinks only of the hive as a collective and does not understand the concept of an individual.
posted by Kafkaesque at 1:24 PM on October 24, 2002


Irrevocably creepy:

posted by The Jesse Helms at 1:27 PM on October 24, 2002


What's particularly, um, uncanny about this is that the article is just a quantification of Sigmund Freud's brilliant (and quite old) essay, "The Uncanny". Freud's idea is that the feeling of 'uncanniness' stems not from the alien, but from the deeply familiar rendered alien -- definitely more than worth a read. Sadly, I can't find the whole text online.

Freud's paper cured me forever of all superstitions and almost all creep-outs. Great stuff.
posted by josh at 1:28 PM on October 24, 2002


Lots of good sf-related stuff on MeFi recently -- thanks, oflinkey! This sentence:
A carefully crafted species of artificial life form, tailored specifically to hit the aforementioned peak of appeal, could act as go-betweens, easing humans through the initial contact process.
reminds me of an old sf story, by William Tenn perhaps, in which various animals (including a donkey, if I remember correctly) talk to the protagonist, eventually revealing that they are surrogates for an alien who didn't want to appear in propria persona right away; anybody know the story?
posted by languagehat at 1:28 PM on October 24, 2002


He maintains instead that a prosthesis or a robot should be visibly artificial, but smart and stylish in appearance...

Or, as I would put it: the only good robot is a sexy robot. Yeah!
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:30 PM on October 24, 2002


Gosh. Explained at last - those graphs are used to illustrate the song Animated Doll on Peter Blegvad's 1987 Downtime album, and here's an explanation at last. Ooh.

This is often where David Lynch's films are so scary - things like the backwards technique in Twin Peaks or the strange stilted performances he often requires from his actors push the films into this Uncanny Valley.

Can I also put in a bit of a hurrah for Stanislav Lem, a wonderful writer who ought to be better known beyond Solaris.
posted by Grangousier at 1:34 PM on October 24, 2002


convince imaginary whores your face is a shop with this clever head-mounted disguise!
posted by quonsar at 1:52 PM on October 24, 2002


Ghosts in Japanese literature often have no facial features, just a blank visage; like stumbleboy only more so. Maybe not so creepy in description, but visually it is chill inducing.

Off the top of my head, one of the creepiest things I've ever seen is a human being with a mouth that nearly encircles the entire head. Anyone know which movie that was in? It was a woman, that's all I can remember.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 1:56 PM on October 24, 2002


What gets me is a human figure where you can't see it's eyes. Or worse, someone without eyes at all.
posted by chill at 2:00 PM on October 24, 2002


AL GORE: ARE YOU READING THIS?

Sorry, a cheap shot, I know. Couldn't help myself.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:04 PM on October 24, 2002


How about Whitley Streiber's "Communion" alien? The one with the big black eyes. That one creeps me out to no end.
posted by gen at 2:10 PM on October 24, 2002


What a provocative link. That bit about the go-between creatures reminds me of Spanish attempts to colonize the New World. The colonizers beginning with Columbus would abduct Native Americans to Christianize them and teach them Spanish, then bring them back to act as intermediaries. Columbus laments in his journals that in early attempts by the Portuguese in Africa, the go-betweens would repay this kindness by wandering off into the undergrowth and disappearing forever once reintroduced to their native lands.

I mention this because of my deep-seated belief that so much science fiction is a response to the legacy of colonization. I have little trouble imagining where the natives of the New World would fit on Mori's chart in the eyes of early European colonists (and vice versa, come to think of it).

On another note, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in its three versions, does an amazing job of exploiting Mori's (and Freud's) uncanny valley. What could be creepier than human simulacra assembled by alien microorganisms?
posted by smrtsch at 2:10 PM on October 24, 2002


I've just thought of an example about my non-eye phobia. In the original Japanese version of Ring (I've not seen the new US version so I don't know if it's the same there),
---SPOILER (ish)---
pretty much every time you see Sadako, young and old, her face is completely covered by her hair, and it just freaks me out. The only time I don't find her scary is when you actually see her eyes at the end.
---END OF SPOILER---
Also, the girl on the cover of the Blue Jam CD definitely falls into the uncanny valley. It's just wrong.
posted by chill at 2:19 PM on October 24, 2002


Interesting, but strikes me as over-generalized and over-stated. I, myself, am largely unshaken by not-quite-human forms, since I tend to view all people as simulcra anyway.

the possibility of soulless doppelgangers among us, that look human but have no compunctions about murder, no concept of right and wrong.

I see this every day. /shrug

On another note, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in its three versions

Off-topic, I was startled to discover the other day that this book (upon which the original 1956 movie was based) was written by Jack Finney of Time and Again fame. Who knew?
posted by rushmc at 2:23 PM on October 24, 2002


I recently finished reading China Mieville's "Perdido Street Station" and it's sequel, "The Scar". I have never encountered a more thoroughly imagined alternate world. Creepy simulacra, humans refashioned into "Remades" combining man and machine. The meeting between the city elders and the Ambassador from Hell (ie. , the Underworld) still haunts me.
posted by waltb555 at 2:28 PM on October 24, 2002


the feeling of 'uncanniness' stems not from the alien, but from the deeply familiar rendered alien

it's the horror of everyday life :D (via abuddha s memes :)[notes on double (via alamut :)]

EYE SCREAM!!i
posted by kliuless at 3:03 PM on October 24, 2002


Threads like this restore my Internet faith.
posted by samelborp at 3:06 PM on October 24, 2002


I was startled to discover the other day that this book (upon which the original 1956 movie was based) was written by Jack Finney of Time and Again fame. Who knew?

Me. Go read Danse Macabre right now!
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:11 PM on October 24, 2002


Like waltb555, I was completely drawn in my Mieville's novels, but I was revolted - and I mean, really, deeply, revolted - by the descriptions of some of the Remade, particularly by the man who has tentacles embedded in his chest in Scar, only to discover that under water, they become useful limbs. I've read every kind of speculative fiction there is, but to this day the only characters that disturb me are those that are only part human - doesn't matter what the other part is, but when it's mechanical, it's worse than animal. Mieville's Remades are also the victims of deliberate human cruelty, which is something else I can barely read about without getting angry or disgusted or both. I don't know where that puts my "uncanny valley," but I do know those part-human, part-fish, part-steam engine characters are goin' somewhere down in it!
posted by JollyWanker at 3:28 PM on October 24, 2002


Oh, another one that bothers me (and is in some way Pre-Borg) is Cordwainder Smiths' "Scanners Live In Vain " habermen. They are the ones not allowed to use the cranching wire. Martel's wife bugs me out because she married one.
posted by oflinkey at 3:41 PM on October 24, 2002


reminds me of an old sf story, by William Tenn perhaps, in which various animals (including a donkey, if I remember correctly) talk to the protagonist, eventually revealing that they are surrogates for an alien who didn't want to appear in propria persona right away; anybody know the story?

languagehat, I know that the aliens in Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand appeared as animals (and sundry things) in order not to intimidate the protagonist. I don't know if that's what you're thinking of. I bet there's a bucketful of stories that use this idea, though.
posted by Hildago at 3:54 PM on October 24, 2002


The movie with the robotic grandma - she shoots O.J. out of her index finger - always scared me. I don't even think she did anything bad, like kill the family or something, but it never seemed right! NO ROBOT GRANNIES!
posted by hellinskira at 3:58 PM on October 24, 2002


But what is disturbing about the Remades: their "otherness" or, as JollyWanker touches upon, the fact that they have been subjected to cruel and unusual punishments that have reshaped them against their will? Are the distortions of the Remades inherently more disturbing than those of Lin or the garuda?
posted by rushmc at 3:59 PM on October 24, 2002


One of the creepiest books i've had the pleasure of reading is mark danielewski's house of leaves , which is right up uncanny alley. In fact, it's partially written as a research paper, in which there are many references to the concept and bundled emotions the uncanny brings. He defines that sense as "unhomelike" and when put into the context of a simple country home expanding into a never-ending, impenetrable labyrinth, it makes you wonder just how real your own world is... how it could expand or contract at any given second. The uncanny, when it slips into the delirium of our days, keeps us on our toes and our toes on an ever shifting ground.
posted by moonbird at 4:10 PM on October 24, 2002


Is it just me, or is the thesis pretty much made up (much as my senior thesis was, I recall)? I didn't really see any supporting evidence, aside from the graphs which seem to imply they did a study. After skimming the article, I think they didn't, right?

Not that it's bad, it's still a very interesting idea, I just think it's presented a bit more... uh... scientifically than it might really be.
posted by daver at 4:23 PM on October 24, 2002


Great link, and true in my experience as well. Vampires. Ugh...

Robert Jordan uses the same formula very effectively in his Wheel of Time series. Nearly all the minions of evil are artificially-created beings, partially human with an inbred urge to kill. The most terrifying of them, the Myrdraal, can see without eyes and are sometimes known as the Soulless. And these fun critters show up in my nightmares all the time.
posted by hippugeek at 4:45 PM on October 24, 2002


to this day the only characters that disturb me are those that are only part human

Or more than human. Perhaps some people are bothered by the idea of being obsoleted by someone with tentacles.
posted by kindall at 4:47 PM on October 24, 2002


You mean, More Than Human?
posted by languagehat at 5:01 PM on October 24, 2002


Nobody's gonna mention The Father-Thing?
posted by adamgreenfield at 5:29 PM on October 24, 2002


Soft scientists using graphs to pretend they are doing real science are always amusing here.

Can some hard scientists here maybe come up with some even more interesting lines to fit those three points in the "overall" graph ?
Extra points if you can make it seem like something that is *obviously true*, but it's taken until now to *prove it*, with graphs and that.

Bonus points for fitting it to a psychological profile of the next sniper.

Hint: He might be interested in guns.
posted by godidog at 5:35 PM on October 24, 2002


rushmc: Are the distortions of the Remades inherently more disturbing than those of Lin or the garuda?

For me, absolutely. Lin and her khepri sisters are almost comical characters to me - the body of a woman, with an insect's head, coughing up clay balls and eating the menfolk - and as I'm personally fascinated by birds and flight, I find the garuda to be a positive image (despite how some of them behave). No, it's definitely the "created" aspect, and the brutal, almost s&m-like language Mieville uses to describe their "creation."

kindall: Or more than human. Perhaps some people are bothered by the idea of being obsoleted by someone with tentacles.

I don't think that's it; I for one welcome our Jellyfish Overlords... It's not the tentacles, or the gills he actually chooses to have created later on. The tentacles were quite attached to his chest as a punishment, and described as dead and lifeless and clammy and... Yeeech. Never mind. Read it for yourself!
posted by JollyWanker at 5:46 PM on October 24, 2002


Off the top of my head, one of the creepiest things I've ever seen is a human being with a mouth that nearly encircles the entire head. Anyone know which movie that was in? It was a woman, that's all I can remember.

Secret Life of Gravy, you may be thinking of the horrifying grin of the protagonist's girlfriend in one scene in Jacob's Ladder She's got way too many teeth. Sorry I couldn't find a screenshot. The good Professor got it right when he said that movement was even more disconcerting than appearance. Watch that movie and try not to be freaked out by the blurry rapidly moving faces he sees.

Also interesting is that Mori neglected to mention that there are ways to go score higher than "normal human" on his graph. Just like baby seagulls will be more likely to peck at a really big stick with a yellow dot on the end than they would at a real beak, humans are more likely to find some exaggerated characteristics appealing. Breast implants and lip implants are good examples.
posted by Samsonov14 at 5:46 PM on October 24, 2002


Another post on this, sorry - different subject.

Pllease consider whether you think the world will be a better place because this work will still be under US copyright ( at least ) 91 years after it was written.

2052 AD.

Would Mr. Lem not have written it if it became public domain on his death ? Would his publishers have thought twice about printing it ? Would you have thought twice about buying it ?

If you think world culture loses badly from the nonsense that vested interests have pushed through as copyright law, then please help stop this nonsense, and email your local politicians to ask for their views on it.
posted by godidog at 6:02 PM on October 24, 2002


Uhm, does this count at all?
posted by jimmy at 6:15 PM on October 24, 2002


That reminds me of films the Butthole Surfers used to screen behind them as they played: multiple, overlapping, deeply biological images.

Like exotic fish in a tank/a goat giving birth/sex-change surgery, all at once, all squamous and amorphic. Or, indeed, like some of the imagery in Aphex Twin's Come to Daddy video.

Mmmm, squamous.
posted by adamgreenfield at 6:19 PM on October 24, 2002


Philosopher Noel Carroll makes a similar hypothesis about horror movies, talking about what makes something horror as opposed to such a thriller. The crux of it is that horror requires a monster, and a monster requires a "categorical violation" (search on this page) — the living dead, cat people, etc. If something exists comfortably in a natural category, it's not a monster, and not horror, so Psycho is out, as is Slience of the Lambs, etc. But Cujo, which is a dog that's too smart to be a dog, is in. It's an interesting distinction to make, and I have a couple of friends who swear by the definition.
posted by blueshammer at 6:24 PM on October 24, 2002


I think that only someone rather blindly committed to a limited definition of "normal" can be deeply disturbed by the surreal (as opposed to simply being challenged and/or made uncomfortable by it). One can't posit a "categorical violation" without clinging to categories as though they were somehow absolute and implying that they somehow have a moral component. To deny such violations is to deny the potential for change.
posted by rushmc at 7:25 PM on October 24, 2002


The opera-singing orange on Sesame Street. I'm getting the chills just remembering it.
posted by runtina at 7:32 PM on October 24, 2002


godidog, This story by Spider Robinson is a great sci-fi copyright parable.
posted by anathema at 7:41 PM on October 24, 2002


blueshammer: thank you so very, very much. Me and my friends have used this notion of category violation for years without ever knowing from whence it came; we've actually shortened it, conversationally, to "ooh, violation!" (Although I could have sworn it was a woman who first proposed it.)

So, rushmc, I have to disagree. The point isn't so much about socialization to ideas of the "normal" but the transgression of deep cognitive categorization structures. (George Lakoff has a great book on these, "Women, Fire and Dangerous Things.")

We are, to some degree, wired to associate certain qualities, properties or attributes with membership in a given category, and it's unsettling and disturbing to us when these attributes (a lack of sharply circumscribed borders, morphological disproportion, etc.) appear outside the categories we expect. What's more, this stuff is so deep that it can be difficult to put a finger on just why something is disturbing, it "just is."

Like clowns.
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:42 PM on October 24, 2002


We are, to some degree, wired to associate certain qualities, properties or attributes with membership in a given category, and it's unsettling and disturbing to us when these attributes (a lack of sharply circumscribed borders, morphological disproportion, etc.) appear outside the categories we expect.

Again, I think that way overstates the case. Certainly, we are "wired" to note and make use of such discrepancies in categorizing the chaotic world around us. But I think the "feeling" that something is "disturbing" is simply an indicator of relative unfamiliarity (and an initial assumption that something unfamiliar may be a threat in some way is certainly an adaptation for survival). However, we are also capable of adapting to an extremely broad range of stimuli and circumstance, upon repeated exposure.

And clowns have never bothered me in the slightest. Well, perhaps a little for their lack of dignity.
posted by rushmc at 7:59 PM on October 24, 2002


Dear God, somebody please tell me that Aphex Twin clip is a total computer-generated fabrication...I'm going to have nightmares tonight that even that burn victim couldn't cause.
posted by alumshubby at 8:09 PM on October 24, 2002


Homunculi and golems, grown in a petri dish, doing their works with no thought of the evil they do

Mwahahahaha!
posted by homunculus at 8:17 PM on October 24, 2002


Excellent link, oflinkey!

This explains why I spent many nights of my childhood (and, um, the occasional night as an adult) sleeping under my covers, terrified that this puppet (scroll to bottom) was hiding in my closet.
posted by DakotaPaul at 8:27 PM on October 24, 2002


Mori's charts of the valley of the uncanny are not dissimilar to those in E. C. Zeeman's book on catastrophe theory . Whatever its merits, it was certainly hopped on by every airy fairy New Age namby pamby as innumerate--or worse--as me in the 80s. But there's your valley of the uncanny in topological form. These may be Zeeman's overhead lecture sheets, for what it's worth. Well, anyway, that's my 2 ¢s.
posted by y2karl at 8:35 PM on October 24, 2002


Re: Danielewski: "unhomelike" is just a literal translation of the German "unheimlich" which is regularly tranlsated "uncanny" as in Freud.
posted by shabrem at 8:55 PM on October 24, 2002


Unmoglich!
posted by adamgreenfield at 9:20 PM on October 24, 2002


If something exists comfortably in a natural category, it's not a monster, and not horror...Cujo, which is a dog that's too smart to be a dog, is in.

To me, this also explains Poe's The Black Cat, which is by far the most terrifying thing I've ever read. At least seven years after I read it, the combination of physical mutilation and evil becoming settled in an unconcious animal still gives me nightmares. Part of my brain is firmly convinced that my cat will someday attempt to kill me.
posted by hippugeek at 10:58 PM on October 24, 2002


Finally, a thesis to quote when I'm trying to explain why children freak the fuck out of me.

"They're like people, only liiiiittle. It's creeeeepy, man."
posted by Zoot at 11:09 PM on October 24, 2002


Thanks for the very interesting link.
People with Capgras Syndrome could be said to live in the Uncanny Valley...
posted by misteraitch at 12:33 AM on October 25, 2002


Occasionally, I would come across Marilyn Manson CD covers at the music store . They never fail to spook me. It also makes one wonder whether it's a case of Life imitating Art or vice versa.
posted by taratan at 3:01 AM on October 25, 2002


Pin totally freaked me out. Synopsis: A doctor has a lifelike, anatomically-correct medical dummy, with muscles and organs visible through its clear skin, named Pin (after Pinocchio). Via ventriloquism, Pin explains bodily functions in a way kids can relate to. When the over-strict doctor and his wife are killed in a car crash, his repressed son (Leon) starts to turn schizophrenic, transferring his alter-ego into Pin, who he always believed was alive. He starts using Pin as an excuse to over-protect his sister (Ursula) from admirers and deflect unwanted intrusions, even to the extent of committing murder.
posted by freakystyley at 6:29 AM on October 25, 2002


off the top of my head, of the creepiest things i've ever seen is a human being with a mouth that nearly encircles the entire head. anyone know which movie that was in? it was a woman, that's all i can remember. posted by secret life of gravy at 1:56 pm pst october 24

Secret Life of Gravy, perhaps you are thinking of Fright Night (1985) , starring Roddy MacDowall, Stephen Geoffries , etc.? There is this lovely lady
posted by frisky biscuits at 10:36 AM on October 25, 2002


Secret Life of Gravy, you may be thinking of the horrifying grin of the protagonist's girlfriend in one scene in Jacob's Ladder

Samsanov14, Thanks. I'll have to screen that movie again and see if that is the terrifying scene that I remember.

Secret Life of Gravy, perhaps you are thinking of Fright Night

Yikes Freaky Biscuit! That might be it as well!

This goes hand-in-glove (heh heh) with a spooky story that my dad told me one time that freaked the bejezuz out of me. The story was about a sailor that picks up a lady of the night and goes back to her place. They get in bed and then he objects to the light that is still on in the next room. So the lady stretches out her hand....and turns off the light.

Ladys and their big parts...some kind of personal heebee-jeebee inducer.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 2:09 PM on October 25, 2002


That would explain why (despite feeling happy for him) I was really freaked out by news footage of Christopher Reeve walking. He was on a treadmill and wearing a neck brace and his movement was just so very off somehow.
posted by tyro urge at 4:59 PM on October 25, 2002


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