Michael here. Fear gives us life.
Being afraid of the right things kept our ancestors alive. It makes sense to be afraid
of poisonous insects or hungry tigers, but what about fear when there is no clear and
obvious danger? For instance, a Teddy Bear with a full set of human teeth…or a smile.jpg. There’s something a little off about these images. Too much mystery, and strange-ness,
but no obvious threat, the way there is with a gun or falling rock. But, yet, they still
insight fear, because they are creepy. But why? What gives us the creeps?
What causes something to be creepy? We are now in my bedroom, the bedroom I grew
up in, in Kansas. Like a lot of children my age, I was terrified of “Scary Stories to
Tell in the Dark.” But the very first book that ever scared me was “The Curse of the
Squirrel.” To this day, I still haven’t finished the book…but that’s just me. Psychologist James Geer developed the “Fear
Survey Schedule II,” which he used to find out what scared us the most. Combined with
the results of a more recent Gallup poll, these are the things that scare most of us,
the most. All of these things are scary, but are they creepy? Let’s get more specific. I love the way Stephen King delineates three
types of scary stuff. The first is the “gross-out”. This is something disgusting, morbid, diseased.
The second is “horror”. Horror, to King, is the unnatural: a giant spider, or being grabbed
in the dark when you thought you were alone. The third, “terror,” is different, creepier.
He says terror is coming home to find that everything that you own has been replaced with
an exact copy. Terror is feeling something behind you. It’s breath on your neck. Knowing
that you will be grabbed, but then turning around to find that there was never anything
there in the first place. Not a lot of research has been done on that feeling, the creeps.
But many theories and ideas involve vagueness, ambiguity.
For instance, masks, and why clowns are creepy. Claude Levi-Strauss wrote that the facial
disguise temporarily eliminates from social intercourse the part of the body, which reveals
personal feelings and attitudes. Part of the reason even a neutral or happy mask can be
creepy may have to do with ambiguity. A mask hides the true emotions and intentions of
the person underneath. I don’t know if the person wearing that mask is a threat or not. Vagueness is creepy when it comes to the human
form. This is the famous Uncanny Valley. On a chart of humanness, there’s a zone where
something can be almost entirely human, but off by just a little. Not so wrong that it’s
clearly fake or funny, or so good that it’s indistinguishable. Instead, it’s just troubling. The creepiness of the Uncanny Valley is wonderfully
demonstrated by John Bergeron’s Singing Androids. Watch these videos when you’re alone. A similar, uneasy feeling comes from ShayeSaintJohn,
a character created by Eric Fournier. Funny to some, nightmare fuel to others. Uncanny humanoids, like all creepy things,
straddle a line between two regions that we can understand and explain with language.
Francis T. McAndrew and Sara Koehnke describe being “creeped out” as an adaptive human response
to the ambiguity of threats from others. Creepy things are kind of a threat maybe,
but they’re also kind of not. So, our brains don’t know what to do. Some parts respond
with fear, while other parts don’t, and they don’t know why. So, instead of achieving a
typical fear response, horror, we simply feel uneasy, terror, creeped out. Between the mountains
of safety and danger, there is a valley of creepiness, where the limits of our knowledge
and trust and security aren’t very clear. Will looking at this cause you to die one
week later? Impossible, right? Maybe that’s the terror of ambiguity. We don’t do well with ambiguity. When it involves
our own intentions, it can make us lie. And when it involves danger, but no recognizable
threat, it can make us think and feel some pretty weird things. Have you ever peered
over a ledge, a railing, way high up, like, so high up it made you nervous and dizzy
and felt something pushing you? Maybe even an urge to jump? Have you ever stood on the
ledge with a loved one and realize that you could push them? It would be that easy.
You really could do it, and maybe you do want to do it, or maybe it’s just cognitive dissonance.
The fact that your brain is having to deal with ambiguity. A recent study by Jennifer Hames at Florida
State University dubbed this the High Place Phenomenon. When approaching a ledge and a
dangerous drop, your survival instinct kicks in and you pull yourself away. But, your balance
and motor systems don’t get it. Nothing is pushing you and you don’t normally fall or
leap randomly. So, what’s going on? The part of your brain that processes intention might
resolve this by determining that something must be pushing you. Or, that you might actually
want to jump or push your friend, even if none of that is true. Now, we’re not done with ambiguity yet because
our language reflects the gray area of terror and creepiness. Take a look at the word “terror”
itself. We have “horrible” and “horrific.” “Terrible” and “terrific.” Why is that?
Well, through history, we never really figured out what to call powerful experiences, because
they’re both. They are full of awe…awesome. And, they are full of aw…awful. We need
them to survive. We need fears and the creeps, to understand our size, our weaknesses.
But, on the other hand, avoiding them is pretty great too…The creeps is a physical reminder
that the world is vague and full of ambiguity, but that we are cunning, always trying to
figure things out but, nonetheless, fragile. Is that terrible or terrific? Well, it’s both.
Which, as a creepy ghost would say, is kind of boo-tiful. And as always, thanks for watching.