Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

Monday Musing: The Uncanny Valley

Written By: Tracy - Aug• 29•11

Recently I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as research for. Podcast for broad universe on the creation of the story that made Shelley the mother of science fiction (the podcast can be found here, in case you are curious).

One interesting thing that jumped out at me was Shelley’s description of the monster:

“His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!-Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath: his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriences only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips”

This is a far cry from the popular image that we associate with the monster from the movies. That of a green skinned giant with bolts on the neck. Frankenstein’s monster looks pleasing to the eye. to make him horrifying, Shelley described him as almost human looking, but not quite right. In 1970, robotocists coined a term to describe the
unsettling feeling that we get when we see something that looks almost, but not quite realistic. They called it the uncanny valley.

According to the exact theory (as it applies to robots) humans have a generally positive reaction to human like robots that approximate human forms (think C-3PO from the Star Wars series). But at some point, the robot becomes too realistic (Google “Muppets With People Eyes” for a good example.) This prompts strong feelings of revulsion in an observer. This feeling of revulsion is only lifted when the design of the robot becomes indistinguishable from real humans. At that point, the robot becomes appealing again.

Another good example of uncanny valley is the way some cgi movies turn people off because the animation is almost, but not quite realistic.

Uncanny valley isn’t always a conscious reaction. Some psychologists think that it may be an ingrained and instinctual, lizard brain type reaction. something about seeing something not-quite right triggered our sense of self preservation by making the lizard brain think “this thing might hurt me.” It may have caused ancient humans to steer clear of corpses and prevented the spread of diseases.
Some good examples of Uncanny Valley used in literature include:

Pennywise, the creepy clown in Stephen King’s IT.

The resurrected cat in Pet Cemetery.

The zombies in World War Z, which do not blink and threes ore have milky eyes. zombies in general fall into the uncanny valley, but zombies that behave differently than we expect them to Are even more horrifying because we are not used to them.

The fairies in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Series, which seem too perfect. “fairies are terrific, they inspire terror.”

Although Uncanny Valley is a term that applies to robotics, the theory can be applied to writing to inject a subtle sense of wrongness and horror into literature. The transformation of vampires and werewolves from Victorian nightmare fuel into urban fantasy Don Juan is a good example of a character moving from the uncanny valley into appealing character. On the flip side, clowns and creepy children fit in the uncanny valley. Which may be why toddlers scream and cry when you set them on Santa’s lap for Christmas photos.

If you inject the things that horrify you into your writing, you can help to create that sense of horror in your own fiction.

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