Have you ever been alone in your room, when out of the corner of one eye you think you notice a shape move? You turn to look around and there’s nothing there, but you feel the hairs on the back of your neck prickle as you start to wonder whether there might be someone – or something – in the room with you.
As your mind begins to run riot with possibilities of ghosts you decide you can’t take it any more: you’re going to bed. Thus you need to turn off the light in the living room, so you tentatively get up to go to the room. As you do you notice a silhouette outside the window and scream loudly before you realise it’s just a tree. A creepy, creepy tree…
The worst part of all though comes when you have to flush the toilet. As the toilet begins to make a racket you race to your bed and hide under the duvet. For no particular reason you are terrified, and for even less reason, you believe that you will be safe under your duvet… (Trust me, ghosts don’t care about duvets…).
What’s Going On
This is undoubtedly an unpleasant experience and it’s one most of us would rather avoid if possible, but at the same time it is also a rather fascinating one. For the scientifically minded, the question is: what’s going on in your brain to make you feel that way?
Now of course we all know what happens when we feel afraid. We see something that we think poses some kind of threat to us, and so our body responds by triggering the well-known ‘fight or flight’ response. Here our bodies pump out adrenaline which results in an increased heart rate and sweaty palms but also gives us the energy and reactions we need to hopefully get away from whatever’s chasing us. This is normal and easy to understand, even if it is a little unpleasant.
But getting ‘the creeps’ is not quite the same as being afraid. When you get the creeps for instance you don’t get quite the same rush of adrenaline or that ‘fight or flight’ response. Likewise, it is not predicated on a potential threat. You can get the ‘creeps’ for absolutely no reason, or they can be set off by the faintest sound or sight. What’s the evolutionary purpose behind that?
Well according to researchers, the answer might be to do with ‘ambiguity’. When you see something that is clearly dangerous, you know how to react: with fear. Conversely though, when you see something you’re unsure of, your body doesn’t know quite what to do, and so it creates that feeling of ‘the creeps’. While ‘fear’ is designed to make you run away, ‘the creeps’ is designed to make you take serious caution – it may be dangerous but it may not be, and so your body will be put on high alert to help you stay safer as you find out.
Types of Ambiguity
So what is meant by ‘ambiguity’? Essentially this means anything that your brain can’t quite work out and that seem just slightly ‘off’. A perfect example of this is ‘faces that aren’t quite faces’. This is the reason that clowns can sometimes be creepy in the right context: while they look like people, there’s something slightly off about them that makes them appear a little inhuman. And the fact that they have a fixed grin that’s too large is only going to set this off further.
The same goes for people wearing masks – which is another thing that often sets off our ‘creepy factor’. Here we feel ill-at-ease often because we can’t make out an expression or an identity. We don’t know who this is and we can’t tell whether or not they are friend or foe.
This explains many of the common ‘creepy’ things that we experience: from faceless bad guys like ‘The Slender Man’ to ‘Greys’ (the popular depiction of aliens) to demons – all of them humanoid, but not quite human.
You may have noticed though that Mickey Mouse is not scary. He’s a humanoid mouse and certainly not something we’d see in real life… so why isn’t that creepy? The answer is that he’s not quite ‘real enough’ to trigger that uncertainty response that is known by researchers as ‘the uncanny valley’ (the idea being that it’s a ‘valley’ between the normal and not-quite-normal). Studies have also shown that it’s the way these beings move that can set off the biggest alarm bells in our brains – something that moves in a slightly inhuman fashion is much more terrifying than something that sits still or bounces around as cartoon characters tend to do.
It’s not just creepy looking humanoids that can trigger this reaction though: the same can go even for a tune that sounds happy but with an undertone of something sinister. It’s the juxtaposition that’s creepy…
This isn’t all that’s at play here though, and others have come up with a different interpretation of the ‘uncanny valley’ suggesting that we find it disconcerting because it reminds us of our own mortality. At some point in our lives, we may look human but no longer be ourselves. And what if that condition is contagious and we should catch it off of the person we’re looking at? We might know consciously that we can’t catch ‘androidness’ off of an android, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling as though we can (this is also why ‘The Borg’ present such effective antagonists in Star Trek). In a way this might describe a similar effect to the ambiguity idea: we’re afraid of something abstract: death. Now running is futile, so the response we get is slightly different…
Now type ‘uncanny valley’ into YouTube and prepare to be utterly spooked…