While the larger focus of an article by Jennifer Palmer called “Zombie Apocalypse” is deconstructing our weird zombie fetish in entertainment, the best part is the discussion of a curious term: the uncanny valley. The term finds its origin in robotics (in 1970, according to the Wikipedia article). Although purely theoretical and lacking scientific support, even the soft science of psychology, it goes a long way toward explaining a wave of revulsion we typically feel as objects of our own creation approach realistic human likeness just before they become indistinguishable from real humans.
The theory states that as an object begins to acquire human characteristics, those characteristics stand out from its nonhumanness and we empathize with it. As it begins to look too human but is still recognizably nonhuman, the nonhuman characteristics stand out and we feel revulsion. Once we can no longer tell the robot or doll from a human, we again feel empathy. The valley between the tops of the two empathetic curves is uncanny precisely because humanness is too closely yet imperfectly imitated. The theory draws inspiration from an essay by Sigmund Freud called “The Uncanny.” This graph, unscientific as it is, plots the effect and several objects:
I draw attention to the lack of science to support the theory, but it nonetheless deals with some very real effects we experience and witness with dolls, animation, robots, corpses, and yes, even zombies. Artists who create life-like human forms that blend into crowds at art museums play on this effect. In animation, styled human movement (or animal movement, as is often the case) poses no trouble, but purely CGI characters (as in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, I Robot, etc.) cause varying levels of discomfort. Those of us who contemplate a possible future with very life-like robots find the idea of it more than a little bit ooky. (more…)