Happy holidays from The Popular Uncanny.
Happy holidays from The Popular Uncanny.
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 have a short story in the new issue of Diabolique magazine and was excited to see that it also includes a good feature story by Brandon Kosters called “Toys of Terror” — a good overview of the appearance of “scary dolls” as baddies in horror film (from Chucky in Child’s Play to Corky in Magic). Kosters cites Freud’s theory of the Uncanny as central to the attraction of this trope: “…children in their early games, make no sharp distinction between the animate and the inanimate, and…they are especially fond of treating their dolls as if they were alive.” He goes on to suggest that it is not only the “return” of these surmounted beliefs from childhood that make the dolls uncanny, but also that these films are “uniquely upsetting because there is an element of betrayal when we surrender to the adult world.” This may account for the violence associated with these particular dolls…I hadn’t really thought about it that way before. Kosters provides a good overview of this classic icon of the uncanny in horror cinema since the 60s.
Kosters, Brandon. “Toys of Terror: Dummies, Demons and Dastardly Dolls.” Diabolique 13 (Nov/Dec 2012): 38-45.
I like to think I’m good at keeping up with research on the Uncanny, but somehow I missed an important event this June: IEEE Spectrum published the first complete English translation of Masahiro Mori’s highly influential article on “The Uncanny Valley” (originally published in what they call “an obscure Japanese journal called Energy in 1970,” and circulating in the robotics community and popular culture in only partial form. This current translation, by robotics experts Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki, has been authorized and reviewed by Mori himself.
Here are my initial notes as I read Mori’s article in full:
+ Movement has a more significant role in the theory than I think people who work with this theory really recognize. In the introduction to the essay, he makes the stunningly simple point that “many people struggle through life by persistently pushing without understanding the effectiveness of pulling back. That is why people usually are puzzled when faced with some phenomenon that this function (an algebraic equation for “monotonically increasing” or accelerating forward movement) cannot represent.” In other words, the “uncanny” is referring to the “puzzling” phenomenology of feeling “pulled back” from a situation where we expect forward motion. I like this, as it gives me another way of thinking of the “double-take” that I associate often with das Unheimliche.
+ Death is conceived as the end of movement. In the end of Mori’s article, he associates this “pulling back” with death itself: “into the still valley of the corpse and not the valley animated by the living dead.” He even goes so far as to theorize that the repulsion of the uncanny is “an integral part of our instinct for self preservation…that protects us from proximal, rather than distal, sources of danger.”
+ One shouldn’t forget that the “Valley” is always symbolic, a metaphor for a sensation. I am struck by Mori’s reliance on metaphors throughout the article…and reminded that the very idea of the “valley” is really a geographic analogy for a dip in his infamous graph. The “sinking feeling” one associates with a dip in the road or the sudden plunge of a roller coaster might be just the right sensation he is after in this. He directly compare the “uncanny valley” to an “approach” of a hiker climbing a mountain who must sometimes traverse “intervening hills and valleys”. Mori thesis statement encapsulates this in a nutshell: “I have noticed that in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear like a human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley which I call the ‘uncanny valley’” (emphasis added).
+ Aesthetics and childhood factor into this theory as much as Freud’s. Mori notes that the trend for designing robots that look human really started to pick up in toy robots, rather than in the (perhaps more frightening) factory robots that replace human workers. Obviously, the aesthetics mean more than the instrumental functions of these toys, which are like Freud’s puppets or uncanny dolls. Interestingly, Mori writes that “Children seem to feel deeply connected to these toy robots” and puts them on the top of the first “hill” before the chart dips down toward the deadly “uncanny” valley. What I would note here is that Freud conceives of the uncanny as a return of a repressed or infantile belief that such objects as toys and dolls have life all their own. After the dip of the “uncanny valley” Mori returns to toys by citing the “Bunraku Puppet” as an example. So perhaps Mori’s chart actually follows Freud’s logic to the letter — the dip or valley is the return of the repressed, insofar as it follows the same chronological structure of childhood belief, followed by its later return in adulthood.
+ The focus on hands, rather than faces or heads, is intriguing. Mori focuses on the robotic hand as his primary example: “we could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness…the hand becomes uncanny.” Later Mori develops this by describing a robotic hand as prosthetic limb: “…if someone wearing the hand in a dark place shook a woman’s hand with it, the woman would assuredly shriek.” Note that Sigmund Freud’s original article on the Uncanny (1919) features examples of dismembered limbs and hands that “move of their own accord” as well. The hand is a particularly loaded body part: it is a way we communicate by sign, it is one of the ways that “human” is separated from other members of the “animal” kingdom (by opposable thumb), and it is something we look to as a signifier of intention. Language is rooted in the hand. And it is a metaphor for control (i.e. having everything “in hand”). The Uncanny, as I think of it, is often a phenomena that disorients us and — often as if by an “unseen hand” — reminds us of our lack of mastery in a situation where we normally would presume we had it.
+ As Mori progresses to unpack his theory, the more his descriptions of prosthetic devices become akin to horror fiction. Indeed, he makes the comparison himself: “Imagine a craftsman being awakened suddenly in the dead of night. He searches downstairs for something among a crowd of mannequins in his workshop. If the mannequins started to move, it would be like a horror story.” Indeed, the surprising movement where one expected stillness from the inorganic objects would be startling and felt as uncanny. It would not merely be identity confusion. It would feel as if the robots were attacking. The boundaries between “story” and reality would become blurry. Science would become science fiction “made real.”
I’m sure I’ll return to this article again in the future. For now, of equal interest is Kageki’s contemporary interview with Mori himself also published in the 2012 issue of Spectrum, asking him to look back on the theory. My favorite moment is the when Kageki asks him, “Do you think there are robots that have crossed the uncanny valley?” Mori suggests that the HRP-4C robot is one of them. But then he doubles back and says “on second thought, it may still have a bit of eeriness in it.”
I am so thankful to Mori and the translators for re-releasing this version of the article in English for scholarly review. It has been relatively frustrating to see the essay referred to so often in both the design and gaming community — as well as in scholarly circles — without having access to the complete source, and now that it is available I hope others will continue to test and explore its legitimacy as a way of thinking about horror aesthetics and anthropological design.
I’ve written often about the Uncanny Valley elsewhere on this blog.
Pea Green Boat is an online magazine of curious and compelling miscellany, publishing issues that collect articles and snippets on unique themes. The current issue of PGB (Spring 2012) focuses on The Uncanny.
I should say up front that one of my articles, on “Eyebombing,” is reprinted from this very site. But PGB’s Uncanny issue includes a diverse mix of variations on the topic, which makes for a compelling if not downright entertaining and thought-provoking read. There are plentiful discussions of robots and cinema (Tintin, Tron, Metropolis, Real Steel), interviews with relevant figures and creators (a new interview with author Tanith Lee is a headliner here, along with interviews with bio-ethicist James Hughes and owners of a museum of automata, Michael & Maria Start), and samples of poetry, research, reviews, humor and more on all things uncanny, from the proverbial uncanny valley to the creepiness of dolls and optical illusions. It even includes a reprint of Freud’s seminal essay on “Das Unheimliche” and a nicely-illustrated version of ETA Hoffman’s “Der Sandmann,” which Freud copiously analyzes in his essay.
My favorite contribution in the Uncanny issue of Pea Green Boat is the historical article on “The Uncanny Valley of the Cabbage Patch Dolls,” which traces the frenzied events surrounding this weird-headed phenom from the 80s, citing a book by William Hoffman on the subject that really got me thinking, paired up with a great discussion by Ramona Creel on “Babyland General” — a Cabbage Patch theme park in Cleveland, Georgia that sounds genuinely fascinating. [See Roadside Attractions for more on this real world 'patch' -- or better yet, drop by the Cabbage Patch Kids website for information on how to set up a visit or to 'adopt' your own doll, fresh from the sprout!]
“Eyebombing” is the art of sticking “googly eyes” (a.k.a. “wiggly eyes” — the glue-on sort of craft store kind) onto an inanimate object in the public sphere in a way that cleverly lends the object the appearance of a living creature.
The purpose? According to eyebombing.com, it’s “humanizing the world, one googly eye at a time.” A wee bit subversive in nature, like drawing a mustache on a billboard celebrity. Take a snapshot of this public (de-?)facement, post it to eyebombing.com, link to it on a facebook group or flickr group or some other social network, and you have a mounting trend that — while nothing new, really — is emerging as a cute internet “meme.” We could possibly also call this meme an instance of the popular uncanny. But maybe not in the way you might, at first, suspect.
Sure, it’s just anthropomorphizing. Such gestures — which give the attributes of life to an inorganic object — often are “uncanny” because they confuse the assumed boundary between what makes something an object and what makes something — anything — a subject, capable of “returning the gaze.” We might feel an aura of weirdness for just the first moment we look at the object and see that it is “looking back” when it’s not supposed to. This reaction harkens back to what Freud once termed the “surmounted” childhood beliefs in an animistic world, in this case rendering everyday urban life as fantastic as the trees that talk in fairy tales or the Muppets of television childhood. Only now Oscar the Grouch doesn’t live a trashcan — he IS the trashcan. From guard rails to postal boxes, as the result of eyebombing, the objects of everyday life become doll-like with those cheap stick-on “googly” eyes so familiar to us from craft stores.
But googly eyes are plastic simulacra to begin with. They do not “move of their own accord” per se — in fact, it would probably be far more uncanny and disturbing to see human beings with plastic eyes like these on their faces instead. In other words, this is a representation of the gaze, a plastic staging of the uncanny, rather than a genuinely haunting act of defamiliarization.
Yet it is still — at least at first glance — a little uncanny. Indeed, it is the eyes themselves, far more than the objects they transform, which I would say are the harbingers of the popular uncanny. Is it not the familiarity of the googly eyes — not of the defamiliarized postal box, but the plastic eyes themselves — used in such a strange way, that makes them seem so odd, if not haunting? The googly eyes themselves are displaced from the faces of dolls and other crafts and are now potentially looking at us from anywhere, especially places where we would not expect to encounter them. The “bombed” site — a guard rail, a trash can, a light switch — is surprisingly looking at us when we turn around, precisely like those eyes on the GEICO dollar bill stack from advertising (“I always feel like somebody’s watching me.”)
Of course, this is not really scaring anyone. Disturbing a few, momentarily, perhaps. But we remain “surmounted” because we are not fooled by the eyes — they are not realistic the way that, say, fantastically customized contact lenses or the eyeballs from a “reborn doll” are. No — these “craft” items are virtually two-dimensional in all their clitter-clatter spinning disc glory, and are located more in the realm of concepts than animals. Indeed, they seem to make a statement more than talk for themselves. The subversive act of rendering a public, hard object as a personalized and personified object is still potent; it can defamiliarize in a very palpable manner, like all good art — but it does so in a way that is not felt as threatening. Its unreality is domesticated — which, while seemingly lacking in the haunting power of the uncanny is nonetheless a a defining element of many items of the “popular” uncanny, which sublimates but never entirely buries repressed desire in its attempt to make the unfamiliar more familiar — often by employing the tactics of childhood fantasy.
Eyebombing is the Fozzie-Bearification of the community property — the Jim Hensoning of the public square. There is a return of the repressed invoked here, but it very well may a repressed belief in the power of folk art, which has been increasingly “surmounted” by technology — or even just a psychological reawakening of some relationship to a children’s puppet from days gone by — which here returns with a twinge of uncanny recognition.
“These adorable pets offer a real pet ownership experience without the hassles and expense. Say goodbye to feedings and vet bills. Say hello to lots of love and cuddles. Perfect Petzzz – the ultimate pet.” — Perfect Petzzz website
“It is not a toy,” [VP of Marketing] Clarkson says, “but this is the closest you can get to real pet ownership without the hassles or responsibilities of owning a real pet.” — journalgazette.net
“In 2005, Perfect Petzzz® generated more than $20 million in retail sales in its first full year of operation. In fact, the Perfect Petzzz cart program was named the most successful new product concept in 2005. With the overwhelming demand for these lifelike puppies and kittens, we’ve seen other companies try to produce imitations.” — CD3 Press Release to PP Mall Dealers
Perfect Petzzz are stuffed animals that breathe. The autonomous movement of their fur — controlled by a battery-powered engine you don’t expect to be there — is enough to trick the eye into presuming that the puppy or kitten curled up on the floor is actually a living, breathing, pet. Cute, and perhaps attractive to your hand’s caress, until you touch it and realize it’s not real. Then you are startled and the toy enters the already doll-crowded realm of the popular uncanny.
Of course, the Perfect Petzzz (the ”zzz’s” are for snoring) are plastic. And therefore the animal it represents is literally as dead as it looks, with its eyes closed and body stiffened into a disturbing fetal curl. It should not move, but it does, and it is this representation of death-stirred-to-life — of the presumed inanimate object surprising us with its animation — that gets our reaction. The tricky switcheroo of statuses between familiar and unfamiliar spin the roulette wheel of certainty: the domesticated animal is rendered un-familiar (stuffed, inanimate) then restored to a heimish (cozy) status of sleeping and napping..
It is surely cute, and there is little difference between a breathing stuffed animal and a toy doll that burps or blinks. Of course, even the cutest of dolls are inherently uncanny in the way they are semblances, pale imitations of life…but the creepy thing in this case is not so much its status as automaton, as the fact that this “sleeper” never wakes up. These are comatose pets…and that, perhaps, is what makes them so “perfect.” Like the commodities these organic creatures have become, our domesticated pets are “perfect” when they are behaved, controlled, and easily replaceable after they expire. Even more, these plastic pals are simulacratic forms of taxidermy (and surely a savvy taxidermist has already borrowed the motor or at least the concept for an experiment or two). Another form of death, fantastically alive through the magic show of animism, nostalgia and fantasy. Living, breathing, death.
I am currently teaching an online horror literature course in “Psychos and the Psyche” for graduate students in our MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill University. This month we are studying Freud’s article on “Das Unheimlich” and reading a fascinating new anthology of horror fiction called The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease, edited by Sarah Eyre and Rah Page (Comma Press, 2008). The book features some of the best British horror authors alive, including Ramsey Campbell, Nicholas Royle, A.S. Byatt, Christopher Priest and many more…even Matthew Holness (whose double, Garth Merenghi, is echoed here). The book definitely deserved the 2008 Shirley Jackson Award for “Best Anthology” for its ambition, and it makes for an interesting study in all things Unheimlich.
The book, essentially, is a literary experiment. All its contributors were challenged to read Freud’s seminal essay on “The Uncanny,” and then write a fresh fictional interpretation in order to explore what the Uncanny might mean 100 years later — today — in the 21st century, “to update Freud’s famous checklist of what gives us the creeps.”
The introduction by Ra Page is an excellent survey of “The Uncanny” in its own right, discussing how Freud provided a “literary template…a shopping list of shivers” that horror writers have managed to return to again and again over the past century. Page explains Freud’s essay in one of the most clear and careful ways I’ve ever seen in print. When discussing the tales in The New Uncanny, Page notes that the majority of the stories feature either the double or the doll most often, and turns to another essay on the Uncanny — Rilke’s “Dolls: On the Waxwork Dolls of Lotte Pritzel” (1913) — to discover convincing reasons why. I love the way Page concludes the introduction: “[The Uncanny] puts us on edge — that place we really should be from time to time — and reminds us: it’s us that’s alive.”
Keeping with the experimental spirit of this book, I thought I’d ask my “Psychos and the Psyche” class to review the book as a group. I have assigned each classmate a specific story in the book, and asked them to write a response (in a comment to this blog entry) that addresses the following three questions:
1) How does the author try to “update” the Freudian Uncanny in this story?
2) Does the story succeed as a work of uncanny literature?
3) What does the story teach us about the Uncanny in today’s culture?
[Warning: spoilers are inevitable! SURPRISES WILL LIKELY BE GIVEN AWAY. And all rights and opinions belong to the commenting students themselves. They will appear intermittently between now and the deadline of Oct 6th.]
Update: You can read MY review of this book (with fewer spoilers) on The Goreletter here: “A Double-Take on The New Uncanny” — MAA
You can order The New Uncanny directly from Comma Press online (be careful to note the different options for overseas orders).
“On a distant Ag planet, there are robotic scarecrows to mind the vast farming fields…” — From toy designer “Cozy Rampage”
There was a particularly uncanny moment last night on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. Wait for it:
The wax/flesh boundaries are blurred in unexpected ways in that video that leave even Conan himself speechless about the “horrifying” result. Wax figures may be inherently uncanny on their own, but the status of these figures as pop celebrities — on a pop celebrity show — placed in a men’s room, shifts the ground of the moment enough to render things even more unstable than they otherwise might be.
While searching for this skit online, I came across a classic Conan video featuring “The VentriloChoir in Budapest” that also was quite funny, with hilarious mockery of the human/puppet divide. The band is great, but something about the “mass” of ventriloquists, singing in harmony, generates an unusual response — felt as uncanny, but perhaps touchingly beautiful, in its own way. Another instance of popular folk art turning the uncanny toward alternative ends: