The Uncanny Valley

As this theory is quite a central part of my ideas in how to produce horror themed works I decided to just recap it again, just in case I’ve forgotten any of it.

The concept was identified by the robotics professor Masahiro Mori as Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) in 1970. The term was first translated as uncanny valley in the 1978 book Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction, written by Jasia Reichardt, thus forging an unintended link to Ernst Jentsch’s concept of the uncanny, introduced in a 1906 essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny.” Jentsch’s conception was elaborated by Sigmund Freud in a 1919 essay entitled “The Uncanny” (“Das Unheimliche”).


In an experiment involving the human lookalike robot Repliee Q2, the uncovered robotic structure underneath Repliee, and the actual human who was the model for Repliee, the human lookalike triggered the highest level of mirror neuron activity. Mori’s original hypothesis states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, some observers’ emotional response to the robot become increasingly positive and empathic, until it reaches a point beyond which the response quickly becomes strong revulsion. However, as the robot’s appearance continues to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once again and approaches human-to-human empathy levels. This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely human” and “fully human” entity is the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that an almost human-looking robot seems overly “strange” to some human beings, produces a feeling of uncanniness, and thus fail to evoke the empathic response required for productive human–robot interaction.

Although about robots and our reactions to them, I feel like this could be transfered onto objects that look too lifelike, as in the diagram accompanying the theories stuffed toys and corpses are brought in as examples. I can connect this to the horror themes I’m planning, dismembered limbs, bones bare of skin and more. I also think that this is how horror movies work, they play with the familiarity of a human, then change that human into something demonic like, or they just skip the familiarity of a human, eg. IT in which the antagonist is a demon who takes the form of a clown to kill children. He looks friendly and kind, like a clown would be expected to be, and then shows the horrific side through his sharp razor like teeth and the misplace of trust when he kills his young victims.



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