Erin Bow explains “The Uncanny Valley”

Erin Bow

Today we welcome Erin Bow whose novel Plain Kate (which I loved) made our BEST OF 2010 list. Her second YA novel, Sorrow’s Knot was released this week and I can’t wait to read it. Since it’s Halloween, Erin’s here to talk about creepiness and to give away a copy of Sorrow’s Knot to one random commenter with a U.S. address.

Happy Halloween, fantasy readers and writers! Let’s talk about how to make monsters creepy.

There’s a curious thing I call the Sauron paradox, after the Dark Lord from THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Now, Sauron is powerful and should be terrifying. He has twisted into shape whole categories of malign creatures: orcs and goblins and fell beasts and trolls. He’s blighted half a continent. He’s (if you read the backstory) a rebel angel, a godling walking the earth: immortal, and would-be-invulnerable, except that he stored so much of his power outside himself in the titular Ring.

And yet, a paradox: Sauron is not scary. Within the book, characters are scared of him, and for good reason. But what of us readers? Is he a figure that will stalk your nightmares after you read the book? No. Will you, indeed, think of him at all? Quite possibly not. In the recent film, he’s personified as a red eye on top of a dark tower, and he’s, well… silly. Like an evil lighthouse. If the Teletubbies were evil, Sauron would be their evil lighthouse pinwheel god.

The Uncanny ValleyHere’s the thing I want to suggest: Sauron (and other monsters) are more creepy as they become more human.

Stick with me for a second, because I have a complicated analogy that might help. There’s an idea in robotics called “the uncanny valley.”

Say you’ve got a robot, and you want it to look human for some reason. A robot that’s, say, 90 per cent human-looking (however one measures that) is a robot doing a pretty good impersonation. People are likely to respond well to it. Ninety-one per cent: even better. Ninety-three: clever robot, clever you! But suddenly, somewhere in here, something goes wrong. You make your robot, say, 95 per cent human, and people no longer respond well to it. They find it, frankly, creepy.

Ninety-four per cent is a robot doing a good human impression. Ninety-five per cent is a human being gone terribly wrong. It’s a corpse walking. A zombie. A psychopath. We tag it as human because it looks human — but its responses fail to measure up. It’s the discord, the little-bit-wrongness, that gets us.

Sorrow's Knot by Erin Bow

Freud called it the uncanny, the thing that is both known and alien, both uncomfortably strange and uncomfortably familiar.

It’s a matter of taste, of course, but the monsters that have always scared me are the uncanny ones. Dracula, looking human but climbing face-first down the wall. A werewolf at sunset. Zombies in the moment that they turn. And in the real world: the flash of shark-flatness in a human eye. These are truly the things of nightmares — the things of the waking world twisted and darkened. But just a little.

So the next time your monster isn’t quite making you shiver, and you’re tempted to turn it up, turn it down instead. Give it a flash of something familiar. Emphasize its most human quality, then depart from it. Forget Sauron, and channel Freud. Because that’s scary.

Erin Bow is the author of Plain Kate, which has a creepy rusalka in it, and the just-released Sorrow’s Knot, which has an undead monster made of clotted shadow, but with birch-white human hands. 

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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  1. Karen Joy Fowler mentions the “uncanny valley” theory in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and website IO9 had a nice article on it as well. It makes sense. Thanks for extending it to this discussion! I agree that in real-life, that person next to you on the plane, with the dead eyes, is the scariest of all.

  2. Yes! This happens with computer animation too. Sometimes they get too close to human-like and they are no longer attractive and interesting but seriously creepy.

    The ‘birch white hands’ reminds me of a scene in some novel, (the name of which is completely escaping me at the moment – maybe a Sword of Shannara book?) where the protagonist and crew are on a ship that has to travel through a mountain and encounter these sickly white humanoid beings with no eyes…totally creepy.

  3. I wonder if this is why I find ventriloquists’ dummies so creepy? And clowns??

    I’m going to share this post with the students in my Human Sensory Perception classes. Thank you, Erin!

    • Ventriloquists dummies are creepy, but I’m not sure the uncanny valley is ALL of the reason why. There’s also something irreducibly creepy about dolls. I wrote another essay about the fact that children’s games, and while I didn’t even touch on dolls, surely they must fall under that heading. Someone told me that the word “doll” is related to the word “idol.” I strongly doubt that — and yet it rings quite true, doesn’t it?

      Here’s that essay:

      • Maybe that’s why the movie Chuckie is so scary for me. I know it’s not real but the fact that it’s suppose to be something so innocent turned evil is what gets me.

  4. Sandyg265 /

    This explains why I find clowns so creepy.

  5. Melanie Goldmund /

    Agatha Christie wrote in her autobiographie about a game that she and her older sister Madge used to play, called The Elder Sister. The Elder Sister looked exactly like her sister Madge, only her voice was different, softer and oilier somehow. And Agatha admitted that she felt indescribable terror whenever the Elder Sister came to visit, even though she knew it was only Madge … but was it really? That sounds exactly like Freud described; known and alien, uncomfortably strange and uncomfortably familiar. Uncanny indeed — and very creepy!

  6. Savannah /

    Just got this book. Awesome so far.

  7. Sandy, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of Sorrow’s Knot!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!


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