Odds and Dead Ends : Scaring Ourselves Silly | Monsters and the Uncanny Valley

We all love a good monster. Be it Godzilla or King Kong, werewolves or cenobites, we can’t get enough of them. Guillermo Del Toro has made a living out of them, and nobody in their right mind would begrudge him that. But when we think of being scared, perhaps what touches the nerves more than anything else are not the big, lumbering beasts towering above us. It’s those fiends that come close to being human, just one step away from actually being us.

This concept is known in the field of robotics as the ‘uncanny valley’. Coined initially by Masahiro Mori, the basic idea of it is that there is a distinct, graph-able curve in people’s emotional responses to the verisimilitude of a robot to people. Essentially, when you start to make a robot look like a person, people view it more favourably. Then, suddenly, as you keep going, there’s a point where it’s not completely robotic, but not completely human, and it’s in this stage when we have a strong feeling of revulsion or disgust. When it gets close to being indistinguishable from us, it becomes so lifelike that we view it favourably again. This dip into disgust is the uncanny valley.

The theory of the uncanny itself was used by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay The Uncanny as a way to explain why we’re so creeped out by dolls and waxwork figures and the likes. He goes back to the original German for uncanny, unheimlich, and its roots in the word heimlich which roughly means to conceal or hide. He proposes that we find something uncanny because it is a revealing of social taboos and ideas which we try to hide in everyday life. This eventually gets linked on to concepts of the id and the subconscious, which is really the subject for another article altogether.

But what does all of this mean for our monsters? How can we link these concepts together in a way that impacts our understanding of our favourite horror villains?

Well perhaps this doesn’t apply for the big Kaiju as such, but maybe it helps explain why we’re still chilled by vampires, ghosts, and ghouls. The brain sees their general shape and recognises them as human, or at least, very human-like. Yet there’s always something just a little bit off, be it the pallor of their skin, or the sharp claws or teeth, which sets them apart and makes them disturbing to us. Going back to Del Toro, think of The Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth. He’s got a recognisably human shape (based off Saturn in the painting Saturn Devouring His Sun by Francisco Goya), but with the skin stretched over the frame, the nostrils flared with no bridge, claw-like talons, and eyes in his hands. He’s started off human but been warped.

Even cursed or possessed dolls have something off about them; the animation of a human avatar is almost the very concept of the uncanny valley, with the robot being substituted for a doll, but the basic principle remaining. Toys are essentially us, preserved in miniature, and when they rise up against us, the human part of their design strikes a chord with us.

This is perhaps why we find masked killers a distressing concept. The shape is human, and the mask is human-like, but it doesn’t change, and as humans learn to see the face as the main projector of emotion when it doesn’t alter during extreme acts of violence, we slip down the slope of the valley. Masks such as those belonging to Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers, fairly blank and devoid of emotion, would, therefore, represent something uncanny. Also very often the mask represents a demon or spirit (thinking of films such as Onibaba or Scream) which conjures up concepts of possession by an unseen force. This might explain why we’re so focused on the killer’s mask in these films, because they are themselves imbued with that uncanny quality which makes them memorable beyond the killer behind them.

Think of the Scream franchise, where the mask comes to represent something much deeper, a force of evil in itself. When you see someone without the mask, they’re normal, but as soon as the face is obscured, they become terrifying, a body for the murderous will of the mask. And the mask and the murderous intent has the power to transfer its ownership from one person to another, like a spirit darting in and out of its possessed victims. Even think of the numerous killers that take on Jigsaw’s role in the Saw films. As soon as you come into possession of Billy, leading the charge of the traps, you become Jigsaw, the embodiment of John Kramer and his will to put people to the test of their drive to survive. We dip from being too human to being something slightly removed.

The idea of the uncanny valley even feeds into ghosts. Think of Kayako and Toshio from the Ju-on films. Though it sounds funny, how many of us were deeply disturbed when Toshio, a pale little boy, opened his mouth and meowed? When Kayako came crawling down the stairs, her throat croaking like a door very slowly opening? This concept of uncanniness transfers over to the sounds we make, affecting us when someone’s voice is not what it should be. This is something obviously well known to anyone who has watched The Exorcist in their time.

And so whilst the big monsters from The Ritual and Cloverfield might scare us, they don’t get anywhere close to instilling that distinct feeling of unease which those humanoid villains which nestle in the uncanny valley have the ability to do. When vampires flash their fangs, with blood in their eyes, we see something hiding inside the human form. When we see Schwarzenegger doing his own repairs in The Terminator, we find lines between humanity and inhumanity blurred. From now on, he looks just like us, but we know he isn’t.

And when we transfer over to imitation narratives such as The Thing or The Body Snatchers, suddenly we’re even more scared, because any one of us could be them. Now the uncanny transfers into paranoia, and we have to rely on looking out for the uncanny to alert us to danger. We have to fall back on something terrifying to keep us calm. In a way, we hope for something uncanny to confirm our fears. And that, more than anything, is scary.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: KJudgeMental

Bibliography

Cloverfield. 2007. [Film] Directed by Matt Reeves. USA: Bad Robot.

Finney, J., 2010. The Body Snatchers. Great Britain: Orion Publishing.

Freud, S., McLintock, D. & Haughton, H., 2003. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin Books.

Friday the 13th. 1980. [Film] Directed by Sean S. Cunningham. Unites States of America: Georgetown Productions Inc.

Godzilla. 1954. [Film] Directed by Ishiro Honda. Japan: Toho.

Goya, F., 1819 – 1823. Saturn Devouring His Son. [Art] (Museo del Prado).

Halloween. 1978. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. United States of America: Falcon International Productions.

John Carpenter’s The Thing. 1982. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. United States of America: Universal Studios.

Ju-On: The Grudge. 2002. [Film] Directed by Takashi Shimizu. Japan: Pioneer LDC.

King Kong. 1933. [Film] Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack. USA: RKO Pictures Inc..

Onibaba. 1964. [Film] Directed by Kaneto Shindo. Japan: Kindai Eiga Kyokai.

Pan’s Labyrinth. 2006. [Film] Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Spain: Telecinco Cinema.

Saw. 2004. [Film] Directed by James Wan. USA: Twisted Pictures.

Scream. 1996. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. United States: Dimension Films.

The Exorcist. 1973. [Film] Directed by William Friedkin. USA: Hoya Productions.

The Ritual. 2017. [Film] Directed by David Bruckner. UK: The Imaginarium.

The Terminator. 1984. [Film] Directed by James Cameron. United States of America: Hemdale.

 

Batty for Bats – No, Really!

Batty for Bats – No, Really!

By Kristin Battestella

 

 

I knew I couldn’t stay for the whole program, but when the Free Public Library of Monroe Township posted about a special presentation called Batty for Bats, well I knew I had to take a gander!

Ms. Mary, a naturalist from the Rancocas Nature Center, 794 Rancocas Road, Westhampton, NJ 08060, quizzed local children at the library on what they knew about bats and tested them with some true or false statements. When I asked Ms. Mary if the kids attending these programs were usually creeped out, she said that the snakes and reptiles were actually quite popular – and the youths tonight agreed that bats were “cool.” After all, bats groom themselves just like cats do!

The children – and let’s be honest the parents there, too – were curious to see some of the bat materials on display. Facts on bats such as wing span and heartbeats per minute were hit home for the kids by donning some costume wings to test their own wing spans and putting on stethoscopes to hear their own heartbeats in a “How a Bat Compares to Me” activity. Everyone had a good laugh while learning the basics about bats from Ms. Mary – who confessed to not actually being a bat expert because she prefers bugs.

Based in Burlington County within the 200 acre Rancocas Park and formerly part of the New Jersey Audubon Society, The Rancocas Nature Center puts on a variety of nature and educational programs in South Jersey. For more information, visit rancocasnaturecenter.org or follow facebook.com/FriendsofRNC to support their programs.

 

And no, there are no vampire bats in New Jersey, thanks for asking.

 

A very special Thank You to Ms. Mary, the Rancocas Nature Center, and the Monroe Library for allowing me to stop by the program and take a few pictures!

Creepy Possessions: The New Orleans Doll

The only thing I knew for certain about the doll was that I received it as a gift.

My sister brought it back with her from a high school choir trip to New Orleans. It was a trinket really—a miniature jester wearing a leopard print costume, the face and hands made of porcelain. It wasn’t expensive, just a mass-produced souvenir. The heavy makeup on her painted face nearly tripled the size of her dark eyes. I had never liked clowns, never feared them either, so the doll was a strange thing for me to develop an attachment to. If she hadn’t been a gift from my sister, I never would have liked her much at all.

Odd as she was, I kept her for years, always in a prominent place on my desk or bookshelf. I suppose after a while I simply stopped thinking of her as strange. Whenever anyone asked about her, I proudly told them of my sister thinking of me while away and bringing her back.

I kept a number of art, trinkets, and toys on my bookshelves, mostly gifts from friends. That was where the doll sat since I first lived on my own. Despite being made of fragile porcelain, she survived four moves to and from college and three adult apartments. Occasionally, she would suffer an accident, when a cat or errant breeze pushed her off her perch, but she remained unharmed, now decades older and just as new as the day she arrived.

Then my sister came to visit.

“Jesus, Daphne, where did you get that thing?” she asked. “It’s creepy as hell.”

She could have been referring to anything (I own a number of things Wendy considered spooky, including my Ouija Board phone case), but was pointing at the doll on the shelf, where she sat guarding my reference books on vampire lore.

“You bought it for me,” I said, with all the confidence I had from years of telling the story.

“Why would I give you that?”

“You brought it back when the choir went to New Orleans.”

“When did the choir go to New Orleans?”

I tried to remember. She had gone to New Orleans. She had brought back the doll. Those were facts, as secure in my mind as my own birthday. She had given me the doll… but when had that been? She must have been in high school, but then why did I remember the doll from before then? And why would Wendy, who was notoriously frightened by anything remotely occult, have gone somewhere in New Orleans that sold an item so strange? It was a mystery that, I’ve admitted to myself, was unlikely to ever be solved. And without the special honor that came from having been gifted by my sister, my decades-long attachment and care for the doll no longer made sense.

The doll still sits on my shelves. I’m not one to get rid of a gift. And I am still certain that she was a gift, even if I don’t know who gave it.

Horror Artist Profile: J.E. Richards

One of the benefits of being on the HorrorAddicts.net Staff is you get to talk to some talented creative people that have a love of horror. Here is an interview I recently did with artist J.E. Richards. J.E. is someone who was inspired to draw by the comics and magazines he grew up with and when he got older he used that passion for art as a way to express his feelings about the area he grew up in:

Where are you originally from?

I was born in Milwaukee and grew up there until I was 11. Our family then bought a 7-acre farmstead in Fon du Lac Co., just north of Auburn Lake and east of Campbellsport. We stayed there until I was 17, then moved back closer to the Milwaukee metro area living in Menomonee Falls, which is where I graduated HS in 1985.

When did you start drawing?

I started drawing about the age of 3 or 4 if I remember right, about normal for children I would guess. I just never gave up! My brother and dad were collectors of the magazines at the time, early to mid ’70’s, there was always a lot of Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella and the Savage Sword of Conan laying about and of course, I read them mainly for the artwork. I collected a lot of Spiderman, Conan the Barbarian, John Carter Warlord of Mars and various other titles and spent countless hours at the kitchen table with loose leaf paper and pencils. The magazine Starlog and then later Fangoria were influential as well, along with Star Trek, Quark, Space 1999 and of course Star Wars. Pretty much a very fertile ground for imagination. Halloween and vintage black and white horror movies were a mainstay, and I spent hours building Aurora monster models besides the PMC line of Pirates of the Carribean series (these things had rubber bands you could attach to the arms of the skeleton pirates, they called it Zap! Action, it was great because they could swing a cutlass or pop out of a treasure chest.) In HS I took several classes on basic art and drawing and learned how perspective, shadowing, shading and composition worked

What inspired you to draw?

I was inspired to draw because I really liked and respected the way an illustration could augment a paperback story or tell a tale in sequential art. Comic artists are among the most talented yet underrated individuals because they have to command anatomy, facial features, landscapes, vehicle, buildings, equipment and everything else in between and be able to organize those images in a way that would flow and make sense even without the script and writing. I have always loved concept art and rough storyboarding as well (Starlog always had good features on those), and the ink drawings that Frank Frazetta accomplished were inspiring. Somewhere along this timeframe, I decided I liked black and white ink work.

What do you use to draw with?

When I draw I start with a basic #2 pencil on white paper, do a thumbnail, and once it’s good I’ll move onto 11 x 14 or 11x 17 Strathmore Bristol and take it from there with either Micron markers or even Sharpies. I tried the Kohinoor Rapidograph pens for a while, but though they are an excellent product, I ended up taking too much time cleaning the tips out, replenishing ink, cleaning up spilled ink and so on, so I’ve streamlined it a bit now.

How long does it take for you to do your art?

On the average, it will take me about 3 to 4 hours to complete a piece. The images that are on the Deviant Art website were all about that time span once I knew how it was going to look. That’s the most time-consuming aspect, meaning I can have a nebulous idea that I want to make a reality but I’ve learned that if I force it, it will turn into a labor and will look wrong. However, if someone approaches me with a rough idea that they have I can create a few options fairly quickly.

Can you tell us about your book The Last Breath?

The first book, A Last Breath, was conceived one August night back in 2011 when I was feeling that slight chill in the air as autumn was beginning to surface and it reminded me of the years spent on that farm in Wisconsin and all of the memories associated with it. I sat down at my dedicated drawing table ( no more working from a chipped formica and brass legged kitchen table for me) and started to do rough sketches of how those years made me feel : the fields at dusk, the smell of hay in the barn, the shadows between the silos and the splintery wreckage of barbed wire, fence posts and rusted tools, and above all the magic I always felt in a pumpkin patch or rows of endless corn stalks as the daylight faded and I knew there were things that moved about in the dark places while the world slept.

Knife Jack was the first character, soon followed by Chop Block, which kind of gave me the creeps because I had never created something like him, and in the months that followed I kept up the momentum to address every memory and imaginative musing I had out there on the edges of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Unseen things, noises in the night that you were sure was no opossum, deer or raccoon, but at the same time not alarmed because I didn’t pose a threat and so they passed me by.

However, I started to develop the idea of folklorish characters specifically created to balance the scales and make the bad guys afraid of what lives out there, and so the one-page flash fiction began for each of the 13 new entities. (I wasn’t trying to be trendy and cool by having 13 characters, my original intent was to do a set of 20 images because I like even numbers, but after Crone, my creative visualization literally shut off. This was now in Feb 2012, so I had been putting pen to paper for months trying to capture what was trying to be expressed, and it finally ran its course).

So I wrote. I wrote the words and quick vignettes I have always wanted to read but could never find. They were of cause and effect, action and consequences of a sort. If a question is asked or guidance sought, there may be a price to pay or if an individuals’ actions caused harm to others through malicious intent, well, they just might have to face something they only heard about in whispered campfire tales. Thus A Last Breath was born.

The photo on the cover is our house on the hill where I lived for those formative years, right off of Hwy D or DD, I don’t know what it’s called now, I just know I can still find it on Google Earth and it looks pretty much the same, not far from New Prospect and Mauthe Lake.

The stories were fine tuned a bit and I looked for self-publishing options which led me to Amazon and Create Space. This proved to be a good decision and since then we have established our business front of Last Breath Studios. In the last few years, we have participated in local venues, Halloween vendor shows and the fall festivals in Apple Hill, CA.

The second compilation of art and writing has been published under the title of “Cailleach Teine”, translated as Witch Fire in the Gaelic language, and is more traditional with longer stories and less artwork but still retains the feel of the first book with references to the original. In this work, I established the foundation for a third book, now a novel, The Moths Of Autumn.

How long did it take to bring it all together?

To bring all of this together takes a bit of time and effort, but depending on the project size the Last Breath Team can make ideas a reality in record time. The original artwork took 3 months from beginning to end, the flash fiction stories another month. In Cailleach Teine, the process was reversed in that I wrote the stories first and completed artwork later, but there is always a bit of crossover and flexibility.

What are you currently working on?

Currently, I am working on a project dealing with the Undead in Railroad era late 1800’s
Western America.

A new stylized theme of retro-modern Halloween characters is also on the drawing board and pencil concepts are in progress as of this writing.

In addition, there is a great amount of work being done on a joint venture with Travis Jensen and Jed Lean, co-creators of the newest children’s Halloween tradition, Harvest Jack: 13 Nights of Hallow.

Where can people find you on the internet?

The internet presence is:

 

Review: Dreamchild, The most disturbing Alice movie ever?

Although Dreamchild (1985) was supposed to clear up some of the mysteries behind Alice in Wonderland, its creator Lewis Carroll (Rev. Charles Dodgson), and the real Alice, it does more to disturb viewers in my opinion.

 

dchildStarring Coral Browne as the elder Alice, and Ian Holm as Carroll, the movie follows Alice as a young girl. Carroll is portrayed as a creepy (perhaps pedophile?) man who fixates on a young Alice, featuring her in his little tales. The mother in the film seems suspicious of him, but doesn’t really do anything. Skip ahead to an old Alice, her wandering memory and strange flashbacks that make it seem as though she might have been abused by the kindly Carroll.
dreamchildscaryAlthough the film released to much critical acclaim, citing Carol Browne’s performance especially, I still can’t help watching it with a cringe. In my eyes this is a creepy film about a man obsessed with a little girl who infected her imagination with sinister creatures. The creatures in the film are disturbing puppets that seem to terrorize her in visions and you aren’t sure if she is reliving childhood traumas or experiencing dementia.

Are the visions just the madness of an old lady? Or are they the manifestation of symptoms from being molested as a child? Either way, they are driving the old lady mad as a hatter!

You can now watch a large portion (especially the disturbing parts) on YouTube.

What do you think? Creepy old man? Or brilliant author? Both? Do you believe the tales of Rev. Dodgson’s nature? Or was his stuttering and epilepsy a reason to believe him guilty of things he never did?

Horror Addicts Guide to Life Author Spotlight: J. Malcom Stewart

13798345J. Malcom Stewart is an author and journalist who has written several articles about horror movies. For Horror Addicts Guide To Life  J. Malcom wrote an article called Horror Movie Marathon which gets into what horror movies you should watch on Halloween night. To read J. Malcom’s article along with several other articles on living the horror lifestyle, pick up a copy of Horror Addicts Guide To LifeRecently J. Malcom was nice enough to tell us what he likes about horror:

What do you like about the horror genre?

I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid, starting with the less scary monster movies and then eventually graduating to classic horror. From there, I started in with horror books, horror comics and short stories and the interest kind of grew up with me. I like horror as a format to tell stories because I find it tells the truth more often than other genres. Fantasy, SF and other formats tend to want to talk about the world and people in a wishful thinking or idealised fashion. Horror takes people and things as they are: the good, the bad and especially, the ugly. No sugarcoating.

What are some of your favorite horror movies, books or TV shows?

Oooh, narrowing things down is hard. I wrote a whole book, Look Back in Horror, on the films and TV that were23200641 formative for me. If pressed, I will cite films like Poltergeist, Alien and Evil Dead as seminal influences. Along with that would be the work of Stephen King, Clive Barker and Peter Straub. Horror comics probably had more impact than anything else. The EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt and those books, Warren Comics’ Eerie and Creepy, work from 70’s and 80’s DC and Marvel Comics by Len Wein, Bernie Wrightson, Marv Wolfman, Alan Moore, etc…

In what way do you live the horror lifestyle?

The lifestyle thing is subtle for me these days. I don’t know if there’s anything outwardly horrific about me, but if I see a kindred spirit, then it’s hard to shut me up on the topic. I can talk till the cows come home and are drained by the vampire bats about horror…

What are you currently working on?

Too many things! I am currently working on the follow-up to my full length novel, The Eyes of the Stars, and prepping to start writing my second essay collection, Look Back in Horror II: Life After Dead (yes, that’s how it should read. LOL)

Where can we find you online?

and I’m also at Twitter @sabbathsoldier
Come by and say hi! ( or is that “Boo!”)
My stuff is available on Amazon and at Double-Dragon-ebooks.com