What creatures in sci-fi or horror films and literature do you find really creepy? What concepts make your skin crawl? Chances are it’s not something radically inhuman, according to a study by Doctor Masahiro Mori, a roboticist. His hypothesis involves a curve describing our emotional reaction to creatures as the creatures are more and more human-like. At one end of the curve is a theoretical creature, completely alien, that bears no similarities whatever with a normal, healthy human being. At the other end is said normal healthy human being*. Doctor Mori says that the curve between the two is not just an upward progression, but that it dips suddenly into a severe trough somewhere toward the human end of the curve. This is the “Uncanny Valley”, where monsters live.
Mori (and every good horror writer out there) says that the creepiest monsters are the ones that are similar to humans, but “off” just enough that we know, sometimes on a nearly subliminal level, they obviously aren’t. A shambling zombie, its very human face looking pleadingly into the distance as it sinks its teeth joylessly into someone’s neck. Frankenstein’s monster, frustratingly close to human, raging against its inability to be quite human. A RealDoll, very human-looking but unbreathing and with eyes staring straight ahead: just inhuman enough that it’s impossible to pretend that it really is one. These are the sorts of things that really squick us out.
There’s another point on the curve that is of note. See, before the curve dips into the Uncanny Valley there is an apex. This is the ultimate point of “just human enough” that roboticists strive for. Here are creatures that are obviously not human, but that exhibit enough human traits that we tend to react favourably toward them. This is the domain of Asimo, much good anime, and a lot of anthropomorphic animals. Think of McGruff, the “take a bite out of crime” dog. He’s a great mascot because he’s humanlike enough that we can believe he has something relevant to say, yet he’s not encroaching on our sense of self and humanity like the human-animal hybrids on Doctor Moreau’s island, or werewolves.
I recommend you read the original article. It’s a good read, and short enough to read during a quick break from Important Stuff: The Uncanny Valley
Also, leave me a comment and tell me what sci-fi or other monsters squick you out the most.
* Obviously each individual will have a slightly different concept of “normal” and “healthy”, but we’re talking about averages here :o)
On a technical note: I would just like to mention that my browser crashed while I was writing this, and I was able to fire up a hex editor, search through the memory dump and recover all the text, sparing myself much anguish. I am so l33t!