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!]