Happy holidays from The Popular Uncanny.
Happy holidays from The Popular Uncanny.
“[Zombies] seem to encapsulate a perfect storm of repulsion. First off, they have horrible, glazed dead eyes. And eyes appear to be the crucial thing we look out for when assessing how human something is… “
Narrator Cam Robinson gives a good, general overview of uncanny valley theory and raises several other psychological issues related to horror gaming (like desensitization and, essentially “theory of mind”). Not only is the overview good, the very existence of the video itself reveals just how popularized “uncanny valley” theory really has become in gaming culture.
But what struck me most was the discussion of dehumanization in zombie shooters. At one point Robinson discusses that zombies represent “the outgroup,” drawing from an article called “Mind and Morality” by Steven Morella, from the Neurologica blog…an article which claims that “we have a hard-wired ability to dehumanize people — to reduce our emotional assignment of mind and therefore morality to individuals or groups.” In making this claim, Morella references an essay by Tarrant, Dazeley and Cottom on “Social Categorization and Empathy for Outgroup Members” which outlines an empathy-study which essentially drew the conclusion that people will have more empathy for someone in distress who belongs to an “ingroup” — and reduced empathy for those in the social “outgroup.” The point, then, is that zombies in a video game are the “same as us,” but different in that they belong to an “outgroup.”
It stands to reason, I think, that the phenomenon of the uncanny in this case is a psychological signal that recognizes there is no difference. That the borders between “in and out”-group (like “self and Other”) are not so distinct after all. Rather than using uncanny valley theory to justify shooting enemies or zombies, perhaps the uncanny is revelatory that the fight is a defense mechanism (that would protect the rationalizing ego or ingroup). Literally, a defense mechanism, when we’re talking about games. Moreover, my reading of Tarrant, et. al, reveals a telling facet to this experiment that Morella’s thesis seems to neglect: part of the authors’ experiment revealed circumstances in which the ingroup can develop social norming of morality for outgroup members, leading to “the expression of more positive attitudes towards the outgroup.”
Something I’d like to see videogames — even zombie shooters — more often try to explore. (The BioShock series seems to be doing this a bit, in my opinion).
Zombies have saturated our popular fiction, film, games, toys and advertisement culture. There are zombie children’s books and zombie musical comedies and zombie candies. You can see them all over the toy section of Wal-Mart…and there even is a new “Walking Dead” edition of a car (the “Apocalypse-Ready 2014 Hyundai Tuscon”). We are saturated with the image and icon of the zombie. They are already part of the ingroup — they are already normed — as a somewhat contradictory ideologeme — icons of the threat of massive, unthinking conformity — which are themselves now massively popular and domesticated.
In zombie games the affect is not the uncanny so much as a fantasy of resurrection: the aggressive desire to make the now-dead icon feel like a living threat again.
As a side note, I should mention that my interest in horror in video games is widening. I’m now curating a collection of curious horror gaming artifacts on tumblr, called Playful Dead.
In the following audio capture, author China Mieville delivers a keynote address entitled “On Monsters: Or, Nine or More (Monstrous) NOT Cannies.” It was presented at the 33rd Annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, Florida, in Spring 2012. Mieville performs an entertaining and trenchant re-examination of the term “uncanny” and offers a sly critique of its slippery value as a taxonomic tool.
Download: Mieville-OnMonsters-ICFA33.mp3 (.mp3 format; 88.25mb; 38 mins)
A transcript of the speech is available in the just-released Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Volume 23, No. 3, 2012. It is posted here with the permission of both China Mieville and the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts…and my deep appreciation.
You should attend the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.
You should also read more China Mieville, a multi-award-winning author who seamlessly synthesizes theory with genre fiction to explore new imaginative territory. His latest book is Railsea. You can discover his work online via his publisher, his blog, his amazon page in the US. Scholars of the uncanny might want to pursue his excellent article on the hauntology of the “weird” in Concept Horror: Collapse Vol. IV from urbanomic.com.
I just learned about the “Strumphosentanz” (panty hose dance) through a neat, brief article by Robert Gonzalez on i09, and after being mesmerized by the video, learned that this optical illusion dance is relatively common. A YouTube search reveals numerous performances, but I like the fact that the one sampled above is also SHOT in black-and-white, echoing the uncanny way that photography and video are inherent re-presentations — doubles for reality — and capable of giving life to something that is inherently not there, not present, at all.
All film is uncanny by that logic. But in the Strumphosentanz, there is also a peculiar way in which the automation of the bodies, the subordination of the human to the inhuman, and the multiplicity of the dancers as a sort of “paper people chain” of identical doubles… all contribute to the uncanny effect of this folk dance.
The legs almost move of their own accord. But what’s more disturbing is that the interstitial body — the imaginary one between partners — is missing its head.
Many thanks to my friend, Dr. William Hamilton, Neumann University (near Philadelphia, PA), and Dave Bullis of BullWitt Media for inviting, hosting and producing the video for this lecture last October. It turned out fantastic! You can watch the entire event above or full-screen it directly on youtube.
The video is almost an hour-and-a-half long, but you might find it entertaining. In short, my talk raises the question whether or not icons of the uncanny (the double, the living dead, deja vu, etc.) in popular culture (particularly TV advertising) still have the capacity to frighten, or if they are achieving some other ends? I provide an overview of the theory of the uncanny, an analysis of some quirky advertisements (several of which first appeared here on this blog), and engage in an open conversation with the good students and faculty at Neumann U, during my visit last Halloween season. You can visit my original coverage about this trip or see my photolog for copious weird images captured during my enjoyable visit.
Thanks again to the fabulous folks at Neumann for allowing me to talk about these issues and share them now here in a streaming video. Your comments and shares are certainly most welcome!
Boing Boing recently posted a great link to another vampire oddity that not only appropriates the popular uncanny icon of the vampire, but also that subgenre of “dolls” that for some are beautiful little darlings and for others are just too disturbingly close to real living babies — those uncanny valley dolls known as ‘reborns’. See Spooky’s article, “Vampire and Zombie Reborn Babies” at Oddity Central for coverage, or head directly to the source: The Twisted Bean Stalk Nursery, where artist Bean Shanine’s “Babies Grow on Their own Twisted Little Vines”.
This may be uncanny or creepy, but I really admire Shanine’s art!
While such matters might be termed “uncanny” in the most orthodox sense of that term, one of the interesting elements of these particular reborns is the artistic inspiration drawn from the Twilight series of books. Vampire kids are not an invention of the 21st century — we’ve had them in The Vampire Lestat, and in cinema one is reminded of creatures like the infant monsters from Cohen’s film, It’s Alive! and even Rosemary’s Baby. In the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, there is a classic scene where Lucy herself consumes infants for their blood, in a dark reversal of maternal symbolism. Here we have something of a re-reversal of this anxiety in a representation related to the child that must be nurtured by literally feeding off its mother — here made safe — and inorganic — both dead and yet newly born — through reassuring plastic.
I think this one — a photo of “Gummy Vampires” candy that I took at the grocery store the other day — speaks for itself. I don’t associate gushing or oozing or even “gumminess” with vampires…but with their victims. Indeed, the first thing I think of when I think of vampirism is “teeth” not gums. Although this product is clearly targeting children, it still reflects the typical transference we see in uncanny packaging, where the act of consumerism is projected into the product, fraught with contradictions and fantasy.
This has been in the back of my mind lately. Inspired a creepy twitter poem, even:
“Vampire Gums”: he looked down with strange relief and terror — / a loose tooth left behind / weirdly twitching / still gnawing in her neck
— Michael Arnzen (@MikeArnzen) January 20, 2013
The Onion’s AV Club ran a great list of “23 Ridiculous Horror Movies” called “Night of the Killer Lamp” back in 2007. It’s actually a great list of films that would make for a fun marathon night of creepy-kookie horror films. What it proves, too, is that a) the horror genre is rife with “uncanny” objects at the center of their narratives (e.g. possessed dolls, plants and animals that have human agency, inanimate objects that move of their own accord, etc.), and that, b) the uncanny is often funny…especially when it fails.
One of many on the list is Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive, which is hilarious but in my view also a very important film in the pantheon of the uncanny (see my essay in the book, The Films of Stephen King). For a quick example, here’s the soda machine scene, from youtube.
So how does it fail? Is a killer soda machine not scary? If not, what makes it inherently goofy?
I won’t go into a close reading of this particular scene. It’s easy enough to understand through the theory of the uncanny itself. One answer might be that the uncanny — like all fiction — requires a willing suspension of disbelief…but that the ideas here are so ludicrous that we are unwilling to do so. If our mental mastery remains in charge of our experience, keeping the “belief” in animistic actions at bay, then we invest no autonomous power or agency into the object.
In other words, we know they are puppets on a string. We must genuinely believe that the string has been cut when the puppet starts to dance in order to truly experience the uncanny.
Special effects are always attempting to cut that string. The low budget nature of these films (or simply their datedness, as effects have evolved) may prevent us from believing in their magic.
Even so, it may not be fair to entirely dismiss all the “killer lamp” films as simply “ridiculous.” There are moments in each of them — some more than others — where the uncanny can be experienced due mostly to the power of cinema technology to animate inanimate objects and thereby bring them to life. Hardcore realists might be too steeled up against the ludicrous to really suspend disbelief, but there remains something regressive about these films that might account for their sense of being ludicrous in the first place. They are aggressively regressive. They force us to engage in a childlike belief in the worlds they project. They work hard to resurrect our childish (or as Freud put it, “surmounted”) beliefs in a world where anything can potentially hold life and move on its own. Our laughter may very well be a defense mechanism against this return to our earlier beliefs — an attempt to affirm that our adult selves have surmounted them, in collective laughter.
Freud: “…a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and…there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.”