A theory of creepiness

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A bear chasing you is simply scary but a guy with a big mouse’s head can give you the creeps. What’s the difference?

by David Livingstone Smith is professor in philosophy at the University of New England, and director of the Human Nature Project. His latest book is Less Than Human (2011).

Imagine looking down to see a severed hand scuttling toward you across the floor like a large, fleshy spider. Imagine a dog trotting up to you, amiably wagging its tail – but as it gets near you notice that, instead of a canine head, it has the head of an enormous green lizard. Imagine that you are walking through a garden where the vines all writhe like worms.

There’s no denying that each of these scenarios is frightening, but it’s not obvious why. There’s nothing puzzling about why being robbed at knifepoint, pursued by a pack of wolves, or trapped in a burning house are terrifying given the physical threat involved. The writhing vines, on the other hand, can’t hurt you though they make your blood run cold. As with the severed hand or the dog with the lizard head, you have the stuff of nightmares – creepy.

And creepiness – Unheimlichkeit, as Sigmund Freud called it – definitely stands apart from other kinds of fear. Human beings have been preoccupied with creepy beings such as monsters and demons since the beginning of recorded history, and probably long before. Even today in the developed world where science has banished the nightmarish beings that kept our ancestors awake at night, zombies, vampires and other menacing entities retain their grip on the human imagination in tales of horror, one of the most popular genres in film and TV.

Why the enduring fascination with creepiness? What lies at the core of this special form of dread? The psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke of Knox College in Illinois try to get at the essence in their paper‘On the Nature of Creepiness’ (2016), where they propose that a person is creepy if we are uncertain about whether he or she is someone to fear, which leads to psychic paralysis. To test this idea, they conducted an online survey in which more than 1,300 respondents were asked to imagine that a trusted friend reported meeting a person whom they characterised as ‘creepy’. Participants were then asked to select characteristics that they imagined the hypothetical creepy person to possess, to rate the creepiness of a list of occupations, to name two creepy hobbies, and finally to evaluate the truth or falsity of 15 statements about the characteristics of creepy people.

The results of this survey are for the most part unsurprising. Participants pictured the creepy person standing inappropriately close to their friend, displaying a peculiar smile; having greasy or unkempt hair, bulging eyes, abnormally long fingers, very pale skin or bags under the eyes. The imagined creepy person wore dirty or peculiar clothes, often licked his or her lips, laughed unpredictably, and obsessively steered conversation towards a single topic, making it difficult for the friend to break it off. Clowns topped the list of creepy professions, followed by taxidermists, sex-shop owners and funeral directors.

When it came to hobbies, collecting dolls, insects, reptiles or body parts (such as teeth, fingernails and bones) were rated as especially creepy. Answers to the 15 questions revealed that creepiness was most often regarded as an innate characteristic of the person rather than merely a feature of their behaviour; that creepy people elicit fear or anxiety in others; and that people whom we regard as creepy can harbour sexual desires towards us (this might have to do with the fact that more than half of the respondents in the study were women, who mainly imagined that the creepy person in the vignette was a man).

The results suggested a core concept of creepiness: people whose behaviour or appearance deviated from the norm, making them unpredictable or possibly dangerous, triggered the so-called ‘creepiness detector’ – the intuitive sense that danger could be in the offing. Call this the ‘Threat Ambiguity Theory’ of creepiness, or TAT for short…






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