The face was projected onto the screen above the dais.  It was a man’s face but not a man’s face at the same time.  It was wrong – very wrong.  The smile was off.  The spacing of the eyes was just a little too wide.  The way they stared out of the face was also just – wrong.

The people looking at the face on the screen were instantly gripped by a feeling of deep revulsion.  They hated the face.  They couldn’t explain why they hated it, but they did.  They shut their eyes to keep from looking at the face.  They wanted to run.  Some men looking at the face balled their fists in preparation for violence.  A young woman in the front row began to shake and looked like she couldn’t decide whether to scream or vomit.

“That’s enough,” the man at the lectern said.  He pushed a button on his remote and the face went away, replaced by a graph.

There was a murmur in the audience, clearly a sound of mass discontent.

“Ladies and gentlemen, what you just experienced was the uncanny valley.”  The man paused, looking out over the audience and surveying their faces before he continued his lecture.

“Human beings like faces.  We are a gregarious species; we communicate our emotions with our faces. It is one of our earliest developmental steps.  Before we have the ability to talk, we communicate by mimicking facial expressions.  Babies smile at their parents expecting that the parents will smile back.  Studies have been conducted on babies where parents were told to stare deadpan at their children.  The children smiled at their parents, but the parents did not smile back.  Very quickly, the babies became agitated and began to cry.”

A rustling noise filled the small hotel meeting room as the audience shifted uncomfortably at this anecdote.

The man continued.

“Our love of faces causes us to anthropomorphize objects.  For years, people developed theories about the presence of an alien intelligence on Mars because one picture of a rock, from one perspective, sort of looked like a face.”

The man pushed the button on his remote again, and the famous Face on Mars picture appeared on the screen.

“We see faces in the grills of cars and the facades of buildings and houses.”

The screen changed to images of the fronts of vehicles and homes.  The red dot of the laser pointer fell onto the grill of one car in particular.

“Everyone in this room would agree that this car ‘looks angry.’”  The man emphasized the last two words of the sentence.

The audience murmured in agreement.

“Our love of faces is so vital that we actually evolved dogs from wolves by breeding them to have faces.”

Again, a murmur from the audience, this one signaling skepticism and bemusement.

“Dogs have a different facial musculature than wolves.  Dogs are capable of mimicking human facial gestures.  The proverbial ‘puppy dog eyes’ are real.  It is believed that the wolves that could make facial expressions that were interpreted at friendly by humans were selected to be companions and were eventually bred into dogs.”

“So, what explains the phenomenon of the uncanny valley?”

The screen once again displayed the graph from earlier.

“Let’s examine this graph.  The X-axis is resemblance to humans.  The Y-axis is feelings of comfort and familiarity.  Data here, on the far left of the graph, represents low resemblance to humans.  As you would expect, we feel little to no comfort or sense of familiarity with these objects.  You don’t attribute human characteristics to a vending machine or ATM.  As we go to the right, even small increases in human like qualities can elicit feelings from people.  In 2007, there was a General Motor Superbowl ad in which an assembly line robot dropped a screw, was fired, and eventually committed suicide.  The robot was given two screws above its grip that gave it somewhat an appearance of having a face.  That was enough for people to feel empathy for the robot.”

The screen changed once again.  This time the aforementioned video of a yellow assembly line robot jumping to its death from a bridge played for the audience.

The man continued.

“This robot prop was later used as the comic relief in the 2008 Iron Man movie.”

With a button click, another video played.  A clip from a movie of the robot from the ad spraying a superhero with a fire extinguisher with comedic timing.  When the video finished, the man pushed the button and the screen once again showed the graph.

“The more the object appears human, the more feeling we have for it.  We love our cartoon characters and our children’s stuffed toys.  That continues until we get to here.”

The red dot dropped into a dip in the graph near the far-right end of the x-axis.

“This is the uncanny valley.  Objects here are very close to looking perfectly human, but rather than elicit strong positive feelings, they elicit extremely strong negative feelings.  Of course, when we see actual human faces and go all the way to the right of the X-axis, our positive feelings go right back up.  For the purposes of this lecture, we are going to focus on the low spot of the graph, the uncanny valley.”

The man pushed the button on the remote and the screen showed several disconcerting animatronic characters.  A near palpable wave of uneasiness came over the audience.

“This is where we most commonly experience the uncanny valley in the modern world: animatronics, robots, computer generated images of people, prosthetic limbs.  These are artificial constructs that are intended to appear human, but they are imperfect.”

The man cycled through several more images, making the audience more distressed, then ending back on the graph.  The audience breathed a collective sigh of relief.  The man continued.

“The interesting thing about the uncanny valley is that it seems like a paradox.  Why is it that we are more comfortable with things that are less human than things that are more human?  What is the evolutionary advantage of this?”

The man took a long pause to let the audience digest the question.

“Other people have postulated that this was a way of identifying those who had diseases to prevent the transmission of pathogens.  But our bodies have a different mechanism for dissuading us from things that can make us sick – disgust.  We smell rot, decay, or feces; we see pus, infection, or gore, items that will transmit disease, and our bodies feel revulsion.  The smell will make you gag.  That is different than the feeling from exposure to the uncanny valley.  That is described as creepy, deeply unsettling, and scary.  It must be something else.”

The man pushed the button and the next image on the screen was an old European woodcut.

“The word in German is doppelganger.  It means double-walker.  Doppelgangers from folklore are duplicates of living people, but are evil or harbingers of bad luck.”

Again, the button was pushed and the image on the screen changed to a Native American artwork.

“The Navaho of the American Southwest tell tales of creatures called naaldlooshii.  The term we borrowed into English is Skinwalker.  These creatures are shape shifting witches that can make themselves looks like people.  Many cultures around the world tell stories of supernatural beings that look like people but are not people.  These creatures are almost universally intelligent, evil, and prey on people.”

The man continued, his tone of voice becoming more emphatic.

“What evolutionary adaption would benefit human development of the uncanny valley, except the presence of a predator that is nearly indistinguishable from humans, where only the slightest differences signal a threat?”

“No such predator is known in nature; however, the near universality of creatures like vampires, changelings, shapeshifters, or others that exist in folktales and myths suggest that such threats once existed, and so far back as to affect the evolution of humanity.  The evidence that I have gathered indicates that there are, in fact, potentially several types of beings that preyed on man by mimicking us since our earliest days as a fully sapient species.”

The man began to cycle the screen through images of art dating back to antiquity, from around the world, of humanoid monsters and creatures that tricked, manipulated, and feasted upon man.  The commonalities and differences between them, and how they were ultimately identified and vanquished by heroes of legend.

The audience was engrossed.  Nearly all of them were familiar with the various mythical beasts and cryptids the man discussed but had never had the connections between laid out this way.  The man’s presentation was thorough and thought provoking.  Even the more skeptical members of the audience, the ones who didn’t believe in alien abductions or bigfoot monsters but came to the convention having been dragged along by friends, found themselves being won over by the evidence the man presented.

The man’s presentation was coming to an end.

“We can even see evidence of this used in contemporary entertainment.  It is quite common in modern horror movies for directors to use makeup, special effects, and specially trained stunt actors to create monsters that initially appear human and then reveal themselves by way of the uncanny valley.  One, an actor by the name of Troy James, has made a successful career as a contortionist, playing very convincing monsters by simply moving his body in ways that are unnatural for most humans.  These movie monsters are quite successful because they target our evolutionarily honed fear response.  But again, it makes us ask, why would we have such a deep-seeded fear of something that appears nearly human, unless there is a reason for us to need to fear something that appears nearly human.”

He drew a deep breath, a preamble to his closing remarks.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the point that I am trying to make is this.  Trust your instincts.  When you see something that gives you the willies, that makes your hair stand up on end, that makes your skin crawl, but you cannot explain why; do not brush that fear away.  It is your primordial instincts telling you that what you are looking at is not friendly. It is a danger to you.  We don’t know exactly what creatures used to prey upon man disusing themselves as us. What we do know is that the evidence of their existence is embedded in the myths of our history and in the deep recesses of our minds.  One day, we may need to rely on those to defend ourselves once again.”

The audience was pleased and stood for a round of applause.  This was clearly one of the better presentations given at this convention.  The people who came to these conventions to talk about aliens or cryptids were quite often crackpots.  Their theories went far beyond the tinfoil behatted into outright outlandishness.  This man’s ideas were cogent, even plausible.  Plausible enough for the sorts of people that attended conventions at airport hotels to talk about aliens, cryptids, spirits, and the otherworldly.

As the man began to pack up his laptop, the audience shuffled for the door – all except one man in a suit.  The man in the suit walked towards the dais.

“That was a very interesting presentation.”

“Thank you,” the man who had been presenting said.

“May I ask you a question?”  The man in the suit was now standing on the dais.

“Yes, of course,” the man who had been presenting said, as he finished putting his materials in a laptop bag.

“What do you think happened to these creatures?  You said that there was evidence of their existence in the past, but you did not say if there was evidence of their existence now.”

The man who had been presenting stood up, face to face with the man in the suit.

“I don’t know.”

The two men were now alone in the conference room.

“If you had to guess, do you think they left?”  The man in the suit asked.

The man who had been presenting thought about that for a moment.

“If I had to guess? No, I don’t think they left.”

“Then what do you think happened to them?”

“Most likely, they would have improved their ability to hide among us.  Their disguise, their mimicry, have developed past the uncanny valley to the degree that they would not trigger that fear response in people.”  The man who had been presenting said.

“So, you believe that these creatures are still here on Earth, preying on humans, but undetectable by them.”  The man in the suit said.

“I would say that is the most probable conclusion.”  The man who had been presenting said.

“Good,” said the man in the suit, slowly.

The man in the suit smiled broadly.  A little too broadly, showing just a few too many teeth.  As he smiled there was the briefest flash of white as a nictitating membrane shot across his eyes.

“Good,” the man in suit said again.  “Good.”



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By J. Kb

7 thoughts on “Uncanny”
  1. And tigers have false eyes on the back of their ears to scare away predators. What preys on tigers?

    Of course, there was a time when multiple homo species were around at once. Neanderthal, Dinosovian, Florensis, and hints of a few more. While the first three interbred, who knows what the general attitude towards them was?

  2. Years ago, I saw a picture in a newspaper of some young Chinese girls standing on a street and smiling at the camera. For some reason the image made me incredibly hostile towards the girls but I didn’t understand why. Showing it around the office, several of my coworkers got the same feeling. They just didn’t look ‘right’. I showed it to a photographer friend of mine and we took a magnifying glass to it. One of the girls’ smiles had been photoshopped to give her serrated teeth.

  3. Good story. Ending was a small bit predictable, but I was convinced the man presenting was going to be the on mimicking, not an audience member.
    Very well done.

  4. Liberals give me the willies, chills, gag…. To me they are the shining example of evil… out wardly “kind, tolerant, compassionate…. Inside filled with hate and loathing for everything that isn’t like them…

  5. I could feel the end coming and couldn’t stop reading to find out how you’d do it. Its like looking at a horror movie where you have an idea where the monster is but don’t know exactly how its going to come at you.

    The choice of words and dialogue painted a very clear picture of the people and setting and let this play out in my head like a movie so that was great!

    It also helps that the uncanny valley ‘where did it come from’ is one of my absolute favorite topics. Good on ya fella I hope you have more in this vein maybe build on it.

Only one rule: Don't be a dick.

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