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Saturday, September 8, 2012

The New Uncanny: Robots, X-Men and the House of Leaves


Among all the physical uncertainties that can become a cause for the uncanny feeling to arise, there is one in particular that is able to develop a fairly regular, powerful and very general effect: Namely doubt as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate.

Ernst Jentsch, On the Psychology of the Uncanny


You may be familiar with the Uncanny in terms its common application in popular culture, represented in the diagram of the Uncanny Valley.


This diagram and the accompanying concept were introduced by roboticist Masahiro Mori to explain why the closer we come to the human-like robot, the more humans come to fear them. His reasoning was that anything that reminds us of the familiar without behaving as that familiar thing behaves triggers fear and distrust in us. He mentions that this aversion to unnatural things that resemble the natural also explains our inherent fear of zombies.

Mori was not the first to introduce popular culture to the concept of the Uncanny, although he was the first to apply the spirit of its origins directly to the modern world. Comics creator Stan Lee was actually the first to popularize this more or less obscure concept (so that children such as myself would be familiar with the term whereas we otherwise would not have been) by applying it to his mutant super-team, The Uncanny X-Men.


While this just seemed like another hyperbolic adjective not unlike those he delighted in assigning to other Marvel Comics characters like The Incredible Hulk or The Fantastic Four, the use of the term Uncanny had a brilliant connotation when given to the X-Men. While Uncanny may seem at first to have been chosen mostly because Lee had run out of adjectives, its use is actually much less sensational and arbitrary than those terms used to describe his other creations. Unlike standard superheroes like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Invincible Iron Man, who were loved, The Uncanny X-Men were feared and hated. They came into the world in the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where our fear of the bomb, the unknown and each other was a permeable part of American culture. While The Extraordinary X-Men may have been a more appropriate comic book title for your standard issue superheroes, our heroes were not considered fantastic or amazing like their peers. Their powers were not the product of some scientific accident or cosmic adventure, but were an aberration brought on by genetic mutation.

One may wonder how the common man in the Marvel universe could instinctively tell the difference between Spider-Man and Wolverine, without having our omniscient understanding of their back stories or origins, but here again the use of the term Uncanny explains this to us in the very title of the book. We always know, and have a natural aversion to, anything that is fundamentally unlike us despite its familiarity of appearance. Looking to create a metaphor for the xenophobia and misoneism of the time and to directly address the pitfalls of prejudice, Stan Lee not only introduced children to the concept of the Uncanny, but he actually helped to change its negative connotation.

But before we get into that, let’s look at the origin of the term, which greatly predates Lee and Mori as much as it predates zombies, robots and superheroes. The concept of the Uncanny predates even the word itself.

Uncanny is a poor English substitute for the German Unheimlich, which specifically translates as “Un-homely”.  While the English usage of the term “homely” is not comparable to the “homelike” definition of the German term, the most accurate way of literally translating the term would be “Un-homelike”. At some point the English term Uncanny was used as a substitute, deriving from an Old English term for the unknown that had long been used to describe anything of a supernatural quality. But the elegance of the German word is lost in translation, because in that language the Uncanny refers not to anything that is generally unknown, but specifically to that which should be familiar yet feels distinctly unfamiliar.

The defining work on the Uncanny was written in 1906 by Dr. Ernst Jentsch in his essay On the Psychology of the Uncanny (Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen). You may have heard of Freud’s contribution to the subject, which dismisses Jentsch’s work as “rich in content”, but “not exhaustive”. While Freud seems to consider his own work to be the comprehensive statement on the subject, his examination of the Uncanny begins with a semantic examination of the word itself, which is so tediously exhaustive one gets the impression he’s getting paid by the word. Then he shifts gears to go into long examples of the Uncanny in fiction, citing the work of ETA Hoffmann in such detail that Hoffmann can be considered as much a contributor to the psychology of the Uncanny as Freud. This makes the piece worth reading just because it is such a rich endorsement for Hoffmann’s work, even if it is not as kind in its acknowledgement of Jentsch. What’s funny about this is it’s Jentsch who first mentions Hoffmann’s work, so Freud’s exhaustive analysis of Hoffmann is, like much of his essay, simply an expansion on Jentsch.

Jentsch’s influence is more appropriately applied in Mori’s essay, in that he strips the concept down to its sublime cause. Jentsch states up front that he has no intention of defining the Uncanny itself, because it is subjective to the person experiencing it. He focuses on the effect this “lack of orientation” has rather than its cause.

But Jentsch isolates what is probably the most important factor in what we consider to be uncanny, specifically as it applies to our fear of zombies. He relates it to movement, which is certainly a distinction that becomes a defining element of Mori’s mathematical formula.

Simply put: When something that is supposed to be alive doesn’t move we find it creepy. Hence our aversion to corpses. Mori suggest that as we grow older and our movements fall out of step with the majority this also occurs, leading many people to be creeped out by the elderly as well as the dead. By the same logic, anything presumed to be dead that continues to move also challenges our fundamental sense of the familiar.

Mori had the benefit of applying this to the concept of zombies and robots, but Jentsch was simply predicting a phenomenon he had no way of observing himself (except in prototypical works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which served as the progenitor of the classic zombie as the reanimated dead).

Mori took it a step further by saying that the more animated the device is, the more uncanny the effect (so long as the movement is designed to mimic that of a human). Industrial robots are not designed to look or act like people so they do not produce this effect, but prosthetic limbs and one day fully android robots will creep us out because they are human enough to seem human but lacking humanity just enough to mock the effort.


I can honestly say I feel this myself when watching computer animation. Stylized animations with exaggerated features and movements don’t bother me, but “photorealistic” characters animated with motion capture effects are just real enough to emphasize the vast differences between them and us. It triggers an uncanny dislike in me and makes me not want to watch the movie.

It’s also a survival instinct to recognize and fear when something isn’t behaving the way it should (or, more objectively, the way it normally would). In this way certain misoneistic tendencies are healthy and, in some cases, necessary.

This is why we’re much more afraid of home invasion than most normal crimes, because it directly mirrors the zombie fear. We are supposed to be safe at home. Something inside our home that is dangerous is profoundly unheimlich, which is also why most people have a primal fear of ghosts. Another world that overlaps ours in a way that prevents us from being safe even in our homes or in our beds is an affront to everything we believe to be right and just.

This concept is expertly addressed in House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. The concept of the book is abstract, employing a POV device that describes a documentary film about a haunted house. The book was published just after the release of The Blair Witch Project, which popularized the “found footage” mockumentary film style that is, despite my predictions, continuing to gain popularity today. It’s difficult to say if that film had any influence considering how close together their releases were, but the book definitely seems to have predicted the format and popularity of that genre.

At its heart is a story of the Navidson family, who move into a house in the woods that is, one assumes, haunted (another use of the German word unheimlich, according to Freud). But the nature of the haunting plays precisely to our sense of the Uncanny. They return home from a trip to discover that the house has two doors not previously there. From that point further expansions to the house are discovered, including a long hallway that cannot physically lead anywhere but does and the discovery that the interior measurements of the house are greater than the external measurements.

The use of the Uncanny is not accidental. Through the commentary of the book’s fictional author Zampanó, Danielewski cites Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, which equates the feeling of the Un-zuhause (not-at-home) with the feeing of Unheimlichkeit (uncanniness). It’s important to note that, unlike many of the works referenced in House of Leaves, this book and its author are real.

The brilliance of the story is that it is perfectly Uncanny in that nothing threatening to the family occurs at first. It is simply the existence of something that should not exist (an extra ¼” of interior length as opposed to the exterior, doors that go nowhere, hallways that go on forever even though they should lead nowhere, etc.) that creates the sense of drama, and eventually conflict. The bizarre expansion of the house is so non-threatening at first and builds so subtly that no one even bothers to consider leaving it. The focus is split between ignoring and exploring it.

The narrative style of the book becomes progressively more challenging, layered so heavily as a literary commentary of a fictitious film inter-cut with citations of other fictitious works and occasionally interrupted by editorial footnotes by Johnny Truant, the supposed discoverer and presenter of the Zampanó manuscript. These footnotes and asides become more intrusive and irritating as the story develops, deliberately challenging the patience of the reader. Truant’s interruptions often admit to having no bearing and meander through entire chapters of his life that do not relate to the Navidson story or directly to the Zampanó manuscript. It feels at times that the author is overindulging the device at the reader’s expense.

Because the work is presented as commentary (Zampanó’s commentary of The Navidson Record, the fictitious film in question, various commentaries he cites, Truant’s commentaries of Zampanó’s literary style and occasional editorial commentaries on Truant’s commentary), Danielewski is presented with endless opportunities to use these various literary voices to tell us what we should be taking away from every moment. Zampanó explains the profundity of every moment of the Navidson film while Truant at times stops to compliment Zampanó and remind us of how we should interpret him. He also uses this device to apologize for or excuse other passages that don’t seem to mean anything. The constant citation at first gives the idea an authentic feel, but then there is so much commentary that it is clearly not authentic. But then, if his purpose is to paint a picture of a culture obsessed with media proliferation, which was quite likely his intent, then his draconian overindulgence of endless citation and commentary is ultimately effective in achieving that goal. That said, constant asides that take us out of the story to explain its meaning ultimately come off as condescending. But that may have also been the point.

This disjointed lack of structure runs in parallel to the events of the story. As the expansions to the house become Lovecraftian in scope (caverns with 100 foot ceilings, a massive staircase you can descend for days), the narrative becomes equally labyrinthine, maintaining the same tone for the reader as the characters.

As a fan of recording artist Poe, who is Danielewski’s sister, I was indirectly familiar with House of Leaves as it is extensively mentioned in her concept album Haunted. The album is a tribute to their father, but several of the song titles and lyrics pay tribute to Danielewski’s book, including the radio version of “Hey Pretty”, which contains an entire scene from Johnny Truant’s footnotes.

Luckily, I hadn’t read House of Leaves when I bought my house, being very sensitive about ghosts. With no knowledge of the story I was already given to strange dreams in which I would discover entire rooms and wings of the house that I never knew were there. Even these days I will have this dream, except now there are entire houses hidden somewhere in my house, empty rooms I’ve never seen or thought to use. In light of that House of Leaves probably would have hit a little too close to home back then, giving those fears and insecurities an uncanny context that I was better off without.

What the Uncanny represents to us is a flipped paradigm, in that it is not strictly the unknown that we fear. When everything is unknown to us we approach it as a learning experience. Our fear comes from the things we think we know. Therefore our fear is our own construct, and that might prove to be more of an advantage than a drawback.

Aside from a disturbing dream in which children had burned in my attic and that there was a ghost in the house named Sarah, I somehow managed to overcome all fear of the new unknown empty house and settled in there without discomfort. To bring this piece back around to one of its original points, it's important to acknowledge that it was probably Stan Lee who contributed best to my adaptability.

In creating the X-Men, Stan Lee created a vanguard for the Doomsday Generation. I’m more of a classicist myself, preferring Superman to most other comic book heroes, but I grew up reading The Uncanny X-Men like most kids my age. And while the message of tolerance and acceptance was not lost on me, I think the most positive influence it had was in introducing me and my generation to the word Uncanny itself. Up until the appearance of the X-Men, the term Uncanny was a negative, something to inspire fear or suspicion. But my introduction to it was in a description of superheroes. Uncanny meant cool and interesting and awesome.

By co-opting the term, the X-Men had managed to re-brand the very concept. Different is not weird. Different is not scary. Different is Amazing. Different is Fantastic. Different is Incredible. By elevating mutants and freaks to the status of comic book heroes, the X-Men managed to emphasize the super in supernatural.

The X-Men, simply by their introduction and redefinition of the nomenclature, did as much to prepare the Doomsday Generation for their destiny as Mad Max, George Romero, and the Bomb. We didn’t grow up fearing the unknown like generations before us. We’re starving for it.

And so the Uncanny for us is not a thing to be feared either. The Uncanny is cool. If anything our generation suffers from a lack of fear. We are no longer able to recognize on a primal level that which does not belong in our world and therefore may mean to harm us.


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