Why Lifelike Dolls and Robots Creep You Out

What explains our squeamishness about things that look too much like us?

Posted Sep 04, 2019

Wikimedia Commons
Child's Play
Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the earliest accounts of the thing now known as “creepiness” comes from Freud (1919) in his discussion of “The Uncanny.” For Freud, The Uncanny represents things that are familiar to us, but also somehow frightening to us. Freud’s ideas were the precursors of what would later come to be known as “The Uncanny Valley.”

The Uncanny Valley

The concept of the Uncanny Valley was pioneered by Masahiro Mori, a Japanese professor of robotics, and it is well known in the field of aesthetics. As an inanimate object comes to look and act more like an actual human being, it usually becomes more attractive to us. That is, until it becomes almost exactly like a humanbut not quite. Things that reach this level of proximity to humanness often prompt feelings of revulsion rather than attraction. The uncanny valley refers to this narrow band between “cute but not human” and “fully human.”

The uncanny valley informs our squeamishness about corpses — just like a normal human, except not alive — as well as the fascination that we have with zombies. Unlike many other monsters that haunt our imaginations, zombies were once normal human beings – which makes their current state of being all the more creepy and sinister.

Hence, the fact that mannequins, ventriloquist dummies, and lifelike dolls frequently show up in horror films is no accident. This may also explain our ambivalent feelings about wax museums.

Philosopher David Livingstone Smith proposed a “Categorical Ambiguity Thesis” to explain why we are so repulsed by things that are eerily human.  According to Smith, objects that are not easily categorized combine features that do not usually occur together -- and this makes us uneasy because we cannot properly make sense of them.  This results in a cognitive paralysis, and it is this paralysis that gets described in common parlance as feeling “creeped out.”

In other words, we are prompted to react to something as if it is a human being, but consciously register the fact that the object in question is not human. The simultaneous triggering of these conflicting responses is usually unpleasant.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Evil Dolls

Smith’s theory captures an important aspect of creepiness and it helps us understand the horror appeal of films featuring antagonists such evil dolls.  It seems as if each generation has been terrorized by its own flavor of creepy dolls. The Twilight Zone’s Talking Tina scared the bejeezus out of the black-and-white TV generation in 1959,  just as a murderous doll named Chuckie did in a 1988 movie. And of course, we all know that Annabelle Comes Home in 2019.

Even when they aren’t murdering us, lifelike dolls can be very disturbing, especially when they gather together in large numbers. Writer Linda Rodriguez McRobbie described a common reaction of visitors to a room full of porcelain dolls at Pollock’s Toy Museum in London:

     "Some visitors to the museum, however, can’t manage the doll room, which is the last room before the museum’s exit; instead, they trek all the way back to the museum’s entrance, rather than go through. 'It just freaks them out,' says Ken Hoyt, who has worked at the museum for more than seven years. He says it’s usually adults, not children, who can’t handle the dolls. And it happens more often during the winter, when the sun goes down early and the rooms are a bit darker."

Recently, lifelike dolls have been produced for no other apparent reason than to make our flesh crawl. And by the way, a fear of dolls actually has an official name: pediophobia.

Creepy lifelike robots can have a similar effect on us, and the potential for technological innovations to provide future creepy experiences for us is foreshadowed in movies such as Her where the character played by Joaquin Phoenix develops a romantic relationship with the operating system of his computer.

So, next time you feel yourself getting a little creeped out by something that is not quite human, remind yourself that you must have inadvertently strayed into the uncanny valley.