Jagannath and the Power of the Uncanny Valley

Over in the world of computer animation and robotics, they have this awesome term for how the more human things seem, the more attractive they are, up until the point when something seems unsettlingly almost human but not quite, at which point, we become repulsed by the almost-human thing–the uncanny valley. The valley has a far side, where the thing looks exactly human and our revulsion is overcome and we like it just fine.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the notion of the uncanny valley helps clarify a lot about how our broader popular culture works. Remember good old-fashioned vampires, like Count Orlock or the New England vampires? They were gross and terrible, especially when they were beloved family members come back from the dead to feed on you. They were like humans but recognizably no longer human. In other words, vampires resided in the uncanny valley, close enough to human without being so that it creeped us out.

But, as we’ve lived with the vampire and its traits have become codified and known, it’s become less creepy. Not only in the sense that vampires now sparkle in the sunlight, but in the sense that, even when you’re watching a scary movie–let’s be honest–once you recognize that it’s a vampire, it’s not quite as scary anymore. I think this is a clue that recognition is a part of the mechanism for moving something out of the uncanny valley.

I just finished Karin Tidbeck’s amazing collection of short stories, Jagannath. And one of the reasons I think her stories are so damn good is her skill at navigating the uncanny valley, of using it to her advantage. Her stories are full of things that are unsettlingly almost human–a baby/locomotive that talks in a train-whistle-y voice, a tiny blooming plant man, distant relatives who are born from pupae, and a baby made in a tin can from salt water, a carrot and menstrual blood–that never quite resolve into something recognizably human.

Her story, “Pyret” has this great moment where one of the characters is describing her encounter with two of the titular characters.

I peeked into the grocery store and saw someone standing behind the counter, and a customer on the other side. Just what you might expect. But the customer would put some groceries on the counter, and after the cashier rang them up, the customer put the wares back on the shelves again! Then they started all over again. I looked while they did it four times. They were still doing it when I left.

See how it works? It’s not clear in the story what these things are exactly, but here we are, viewing them doing something that seems to be normal human behavior–a cashier checking someone out.  She’s leading us toward recognizing them as something human and then she slips that little weirdness in there of them repeating their actions. Even out of context, it’s strange. In the story, it’s a moment that gives shudders, precisely because it’s just not behavior that adult human beings would engage in for fun (though this does raise the question of how often children do stuff that creeps us out and whether we can understand it as being creepy because it strikes us as almost but not quite human).

I think there are social justice implications here, too, which I hope we can discuss when we talk about Lovecraft, tomorrow. Don’t worry if you’ve never read any Lovecraft. Every story is about how there’s something unspeakable thing that is worshiped by people unlike Lovecraft and that is, in some way, corrupting the narrator and touching him with its slimy tentacles.

I’m really happy and honored to be here–thanks for asking me, Alyssa–and so I hope it’s fun and interesting for you guys, too.