Tiptoeing into the uncanny valley of clowns, robots and dolls

clown57d7112f44c86-imageHave you been following the news of creepy clown sightings this year? A sighting was first reported this year in South Carolina on August 21st and then reports pretty much erupted all over the country since then. Reports have been made in Florida, Alabama, Wisconsin, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. There was a “clown hunt” at Pennsylvania State University that resulted in no clown captures and seems a likely case of creepy clown hysteria. More sightings of these uncanny thespians of the absurd are now appearing in Australia and New Zealand, and there seems to be an outright plague of them in Wales.

Evidently this is not unprecedented. Media reports that the creepy clown sightings happen every few years, with 1981 and 1991 being notoriously bad years for this sort of thing, and most of the official reactions to these sightings is to tell people to calm down. But, honestly, who can calm down when they see a clown standing at the edge of the woods behind their house at night? Not me. I like my creepy clowns in stories, not in the parking garage.

Perhaps we’ll see some great writing come out of this. There has been no evil clown-themed work of fiction to truly rival Stephen King’s creepy Pennywise since It was published in 1986. Likewise, creepy doll stories are few and far between these days. Robots, however, still seem to generate a lot of writing and film. All three of these creatures–clowns, dolls, and robots–inspire an unease in human beings that is partially explained by a hypothesis called the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is a graphical representation of the sudden aversion people feel when viewing a figure that is lifelike enough to be disturbing, but not realistic enough to be pleasant. We perceive that something is not quite right about the entity we are observing. Clowns, however, are a little different from dolls and robots, in that an actual human being is creating the dissonance behind makeup and masks, confusing us as to whether the clown in question is one of us or “the other”. As an added bonus, clowns are given license to express transgressive behaviors. All in all, clowns are the perfect vehicle for unsettling us.

With less than a month to go before Halloween, I predict we will see more creepy clowns in the next few weeks. After all, the issue has been raised in a White House press briefing already, noting that law enforcement has to take the reports seriously. Can 2016 get any stranger?

Perhaps.

 

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