A Brief Tour of the Uncanny Valley

Scott Luddin

“When you work long enough in game development or as a writer of fiction, you begin to see things in a totally different way, you begin to see yourself in a totally different way."

It’s not an actual place. It’s a state of mind: specifically the disgust or revulsion you feel when observing a human figure—say, a doll, puppet, dummy, robot or computer animation—that is amazingly realistic, but not realistic enough. “Valley” refers to the sudden dip in emotional response from “ah!” to “ugh!” “Uncanny” is the cognitive dissonance that explains the dip: something is simultaneously strange and familiar—an unresolvable uncertainty from which the mind recoils. In many ways, the uncanny is similar to déjà vu, a discrepancy in recognition when we experience something as new and familiar at the same time.


As a game designer, I see the uncanny as a problem of digital design. Our goal is always to squeeze the technology to achieve ever higher levels of simulated reality. At the same time, we must make sure that the fantasy is never compromised by actual reality. Heroes don’t have to look handsome and villains don’t have to look ugly. But neither can betray their artificiality once it has been established and accepted as a given by players of the game.


The concept of the uncanny has been known for some time—as early as 1919 when Sigmund Freud discussed it in an essay, where, not surprisingly, he traced it back to the id and repressed impulses. Later writers took a different path and decided the uncanny was, at bottom, a form of existential angst, basically the result of two conflicting mental states. For example, watching yourself in a home movie, you might suddenly find that the unfamiliar (but real) image on the screen doesn’t quite jibe with your familiar (but unreal) notion of yourself—an uncertainty that suggests that the self and its claim to autonomy is a fiction. The subsequent feeling of discomfort, or angst, is what follows.


It was Freud who first pointed out the presence of the uncanny in literature (specifically in E.T.A. Hoffmann), but others after him, beginning with Jacques Lacan, have found it a ubiquitous trope in fiction and film.


In Year of the Slug, a novel by James Cortese, the uncanny valley turns into a chasm when a software magnate named Randy comes to believe that his body has been taken over by the consciousness of a sad sack named Charles, an assistant textbook editor and the husband of Randy’s lover. The hostile takeover happens when Charles attempts to shoot Randy, but in a struggle for the gun, Charles is shot and killed instead. Initially Charles has difficulty dealing with the fact that he has died, but soon realizes that his new life as Randy is a vast improvement over his previous one and, even better, Randy is not around to spoil it. Charles is now very rich, handsome, charismatic, and has a beautiful wife. He should be able to enjoy his new life, so why can’t he? It’s because Charles is now Randy, but not quite. Charles has stumbled into an uncanny valley. Soon the plot becomes more complicated and turns into a bizarre love story when Charles falls for a woman who is just like him, a person trapped in someone else’s body, but in her case, the original inhabitant is still very much around. As it turns out, this character has what she and many other similarly afflicted people believe is the explanation for their predicament. It makes logical sense but also has the look and feel of delusion, another uncanny dissociation.


Alfred Hitchcock’s films are a virtual catalogue of doppelgangers, split personalities, and alter egos, as well as themes focused on the conflict between the perceived and real, the familiar and the strange, the affirmed and the denied—all of which are fertile soil for the uncanny. In Psycho (1960), it verges into full-blown psychopathy. At the center of that film is Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who is both a son and his own mother. The mother is deceased and famously embalmed but is very much alive, running the show inside Norman’s head. As a horror film, where unease and dissociation are the stock in trade, there are many scenes that rely on uncanny juxtapositions.


One in particular stands out. As Lila Crane (Vera Miles) snoops around the creepy Bates manse, almost every object shimmers between innocent and sinister. At one point, Lila sees her kaleidoscopic reflection in two facing mirrors, as if catching herself in the act of catching herself. It’s a jolting shock for her and for the audience. Though somewhat standard fare in a horror movie, here it’s woven into a larger thematic web.


That web is completed at the end of the film when Norman is sitting in a jail cell, wrapped in a blanket. As the camera dollies in on his face, we hear Mrs. Bates in voiceover addressing her son, who begins to smile as she tells him no one would ever believe it was she who murdered Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam). She tells him that the police would say, “Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly.” As she speaks this line, a skull is superimposed over Norman’s face—an image that captures both the tangled moral irony of the situation and the macabrely comic relationship between mother and son. It’s a  moment bristling with the uncanny as we struggle to make sense of the film’s many contradictions. At the most obvious level, the scene is a classic horror-film trope. But on another, following as it does an over-long explanatory speech by a psychologist, it’s the capstone of Hitchcock’s satire of Freudian psychology—or if you prefer, on an even deeper level, a criticism of any attempt to make sense of human rationality, where both lunacy and evil can so easily take root.  

If Psycho is high horror, then Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is high romance. But both films deal with forms of mental derangement and the uncanny effects that result. Both films also feature characters with multiple personalities, although Vertigo does the earlier film one better by including the possibility of reincarnation.


In Vertigo, the story unfolds almost entirely from the point of view Scottie (James Stewart), who falls in love with Madeleine (Kim Novak), the wealthy wife of Scottie’s friend, a shipping magnate. Madeleine, who believes she is the reincarnation of another woman, commits suicide and Scottie, whose mental state is already troubled, has a nervous breakdown. Sometime later, he sees a woman on the street who bears a resemblance to Madeleine. This is Judy (also Kim Novak), a sales clerk. Scottie is so taken with her that he goes to elaborate lengths to transform her into Madeleine, changing her clothing and the style and color of her hair, not knowing that Judy (as the audience has become aware) is in fact Madeleine herself. Through sheer will and determination, Scottie attempts to cross the uncanny valley in the famous transformation scene when the recreated “Madeleine” enters the hotel room where Scottie is waiting for her. They embrace. They kiss. Bernard Herrmann’s romantic score soars to new heights. The camera spins in a vertiginous circle around the couple as the background is filled with images from Scottie’s memories of the time before Madeleine’s death. It’s a hallucinatory, deeply uncanny moment when the familiar and the strange mix in a mad dream of doomed love, tragic irony, and willful self-delusion.


In his fiction and especially in his often misunderstood novel, Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov was as much a devotee of the uncanny as Hitchcock, especially when it came to doppelgangers. Lolita features Humbert Humbert and Claire Quilty, dueling pedophiles. Pale Fire has John Shade and Charles Kinbote, dueling authors. A confounding and intricately constructed novel, Pale Fire is the supreme example of Nabokov’s use of parody, which he has famously called “a springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion.” This is not the usual way people think about parody. For most, parody is just poking fun through imitation, or as Earnest Hemingway saw it, “the last vestige of the frustrated writer.” Whichever way you choose to look at it, parody is essentially a literary expression of the uncanny, a clash between two different ways of seeing the same thing. The point is to arouse ridicule not revulsion, although revulsion might very well be the response of the writer whose work is being parodied.


Nabokov’s book is a parody of literary criticism/scholarship consisting of two interconnected parts: a 999-line poem called “Pale Fire,” along with notes and commentary by Charles Kinbote, a mad scholar who uses the poem to tell his own story. The commentary as a parody of incompetent literary scholarship is matched by the poem as a parody of incompetent poetry. Written in the manner of Alexander Pope, the poem’s defects are readily apparent, beginning with the poet’s questionable choice to write in a style over three centuries out of date. Moreover, the poem doesn’t sound like a poem. It mostly has the rhythms of prose as it stampedes along, unconstrained by its many enjambed lines—prose gerrymandered into heroic couplets:


They both were ornithologists. I’ve tried

So often to evoke them that today

I have a thousand parents. Sadly they

Dissolve in their virtues and recede.


The mock heroic was standard fare in the eighteenth century (Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” is a good example), but in Shade’s poem the mock heroic is self-inflicted, with the poet tripping on the hem of his robes, as here:


Sybil, throughout our high-school days I knew

Your loveliness, but fell in love with you

During an outing of the senior class

To New Why Falls. We luncheoned on damp grass.


Not only is this patently bathetic, but it’s also humorously ambiguous. Did young Sybil and John sit on or consume the damp grass? Even the celebrated opening lines of the poem,


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the window pane


present a picture, though exquisitely stated, of something that at best is pathetic and at worst ludicrous: a bird flying into a window. It’s analogous to a man slipping on a banana peel and then falling to his death off a cliff.  And yet this is the central image of the poem, and in fact of the entire book—the collision of the imagination into the mirrored walls of reality that encloses us in the prison of space and time. To breach them is to die, as the bird does, as Shade and his daughter do, as Kinbote presumably will. Here, in its essence, is the uncanny: the absurd and the profound bound together in a brilliant verbal artifice. Antithetically, the same thing occurs in Kinbote’s commentary—a doppelganger parody functioning as a kind of funhouse mirror but containing in prose an elaboration of the themes first laid out earlier in the poem. Here the low comedy of parody brilliantly demonstrates how, in Nabokov’s own words,  it can become “a springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion.”


The use of parody and satire comes up in another frequently mis-understood book, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Without the rose-colored glasses of uncritical adulation, the novel appears to be a satire of expatriate life in post-war Paris of the 1920s, populated by shallow poseurs and wannabee artists who spend their time in non-stop boozing, carousing and banal conversations, all of which is conveyed in prose consisting of simple declarative sentences set down, as if in a diary, by the book’s narrator. The story lacks a plot, a hero, a dramatic conflict and an apparent structure, its chapters betraying the same randomness and lack of focus as the actions of the characters, most of whom were thinly disguised friends of the author.


All of this makes sense if the novel is as thorough-going and brilliant a satire as Pale Fire. But that was not what many readers and critics thought, and certainly not what the author thought. Hemingway pointedly rejected the notion that his novel was a “hollow or bitter satire” and instead saw it as a kind of romantic tragedy and something having to do with “the earth abiding forever.” As we ponder the question, “So then which one is it?” we’re torn between two opposed possibilities: either the book was brilliantly conceived or it was fatally misconceived, “a parody of itself,” as Katheryn Clegg, my colleague at Arachnid Games, has noted. Put another way, is this a case of a calculated uncanny valley or an inadvertent one? It’s the same meta-fictional uncanniness that lies at the heart of Pale Fire: is the poem a great poem or intentionally (or perhaps unintentionally) poor poetry?


Katheryn Clegg, struggled with such questions as she worked on developing a computer game based on The Sun Also Rises. The game conflates the novel and the real-life events on which the book is based, and the player assumes the role of Jake Barnes, the first-person protagonist and stand-in for the author. The unique feature of the game is that it incorporates the metafictional uncanniness of the book. The player must manipulate the action on two levels: the fictional one as portrayed in the novel, and the real-life one as Hemingway lived it. The goal of the game is, as it was for Hemingway, to get a novel “published” by meeting both literary and non-literary criteria. For example, re-garding the content and style of the book: does the novel break sufficiently with literary tradition so that it’s perceived as new, but not so new or “experimental” as to throw up difficulties for the typical readers of bestsellers? Similarly, regarding the business end of publishing: has the author garnered enough testimonials and inside connections to motivate a publisher to take a chance on an unknown writer? “The game,” Clegg has said, “tries to capture the cognitive dissonance at the heart of a fraught alliance of art and business, and then turns it into an engine of creation.”


In her recent novel called River Run, Clegg has tried to do something similar to what she accomplished in her game. The book is a kind of detective story in which a man named Travis loses his memory and identity on page one and then spends the rest of the novel attempting to recover them. At the same time, his amnesia is accompanied by episodes of dissociation in which he feels pulled out of himself into another plane of existence and a higher level of awareness where the notion of “self” has an entirely different meaning. Is he merely a helpless victim of the vagaries of chance, or is there an unseen force manipulating his course and progress through life? At the end of the novel, when his original identity is restored, he discovers that he is a person very different from who he was prior to his amnesia. The moment of revelation becomes a moment of revulsion.


Clegg has expanded on this idea by creating a website that is an adjunct to the published book, an extension of the novel in breadth and depth, adding new information, alternatives, and elaborations, while drawing the reader into the mind of the author, her own in-fluences, passions, and doubts. It’s a back story as well as an inside story, working on multiple metafictional levels. “The point of the website,” Clegg says, “is to take you to places not accessible via the conventional novel. It enlarges your experience of the story not just by stimulating your imagination but by making you a party to its creation.”


Once readers have finished the novel, they are directed to the author’s website, katherynclegg.com. From there, a link (see the screenshot below) connects the reader to “Playing God,” where the site becomes a game of increasing difficulty as the reader/player strives to uncover more and more information and attain a final revelation, a final uncanny valley—the ultimate existential contradiction that lies at the center of our own world. Clegg has said writing the book was a difficult undertaking: “When you work long enough in game development or as a writer of fiction, you begin to see things in a totally different way, you begin to see yourself in a totally different way. And the moment of realization—when the irony of being both the creator of, and a par-ticipant in, a simulation hits you—the feeling can be something akin to nausea. Not of the stomach but of the soul.”

Vertigo Theme - Bernard Herrman
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