Monday, 28 March 2011

The Uncanny Valley

The Uncanny: "A concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange."

When defining what exactly "The Uncanny" is, at times it can be quite difficult as one is trying to explain the definition of something extraordinary, something that is in relation to our world and reality but at the same time either bends or breaks the rules of which outline our existence in the universe. This can be anything from defying gravity to merely having a unique quality that is not found in other objects or beings, the uncanny is often found in works of fiction where reality can be bent at the author's whim. Great examples of the uncanny in fiction are any kind of superhero comic or the works of H.P. Lovecraft. To further define what exactly can be classed as the uncanny I have turned to a certain passage by psychiatrist Sigmund Freud.

The first thing that Freud talks about is that the uncanny is generally perceived as an observation and opinion based upon that observation, these opinions are then compared to other opinions of sights seen for matching qualities, if a quality does not match with other familiar traits this can create the concept of the uncanny. To help strengthen this theory Freud brings up a quote from Jentsch which can further outline what can be defined as uncanny, "Doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate". This short quote can clearly be used to in the age old question found in many science fiction narratives, whether a robot (or a doll) can be classified as being "alive". This is due to the fact that they share similar traits with humans yet they are not human, creating a likeness but not a replica of a living, animate being. Freud then goes on to say that using the human form as a basis is a one of if not the most successful method of creating a sense of the uncanny.

Freud carrys on to define psychological side of the uncanny, what makes it appear that way in our minds, using the narrative Nachtstrucken as a point of reference to translate his theory. Nachtstrucken features the story of 'The Sand-Man' an entity that claims the eyes of children who will not sleep. The story features a young boy by the name of Nathaniel whom seeks out to either prove or disprove the Sand-Man's existence in his own mind this is due to the fact the entity is never actually revealed to be fictional or no within the narrative leaving room for ambiguity. What it is important to know that is the narrative seems to be based within a reality very similar to our own in that when reading this we expect this narrative to follow the rules of our universe, with the shared traits in realities. The boy was determined to find out the Sand-Man's appearance and whilst in hiding he observes a character of which he has a distaste for, Nathaniel then projects his preconceptions of the dreaded Sand-Man on to this character for their exclamation of "Eyes here!" this event would be one to stay with the young child for his life.

This event ultimately became the demise of poor Nathaniel as it drove him to madness due to the fear he felt for the Sand-Man, through out the story it's never made clear if the Sand-Man exists or not and that's what makes it uncanny. Freud continues his analisation noting that the concept of pyhsically being robbed of not just one's eyesight but of one's actual eyes is something quite extraordinary and something that would not happen in this reality. Freud also notes on the ambiguity or the narrations rules and boundaries in relation to the existence of the Sand-Man character comparing it to narratives of Shakespeare wherein these rules are layed out giving a chance to suspend belief to allow for the existence of uncanny beings. Freud then goes on to suggest that some events within the story can appear meaningless until the character of the Sand-Man is replaced with that of the Nathaniel's father and begins to interchange the concept of fears of losing the eye to that of castration and punishment.

It is here when Freud stops focusing on the uncanny and focuses more on the possible hidden messages within the narrative, nevertheless from the excerpt Freud has presented I have gained a slightly better understanding of what the Uncanny is and through knowing this it will allow me to develop my own narratives which can be believable with fantastic elements.

Within the media the theme of the uncanny is one that is very strong especially in the entertainment industries which focuses on presenting both informative features and fictional ones. The uncanny is often a staple element within the fictional features found in entertainment to help make the story more fantastical and interesting to the viewer, there are also many aspects to what we can label as "The Uncanny" as there are many different genres of entertainment but each one can have it's own version of the uncanny. One example is that within comic books, especially superhero based ones where the concept of people who can fly and are stronger than the strongest man on earth is something that can be viewed as uncanny, then there are drama shows such as Coronation Street where things happen which are similar to our own but a lot more dramatic it could not be real with events such as murder and overly complex family fights, even these mundane things can be defined as uncanny.

That's just some of the examples of what can be classed as the uncanny within media but it's more of looking at the uncanny as an adjective. What about the Uncanny as a feeling, a sense of aesthetics? A good example of this would be any of the works of Jan Svankmajer, a film maker who is known to incorporate stop motion within his works but the end results is something that doesn't seem quite right a perfect example would be his work Alice in which the opening scene we see the White Rabbit come to life and this is done through the wonders of stop-motion animation. The way it moves is slightly jerky and unnatural but nonetheless it still mimics movement and this relation to reality with a distorted spin is what makes it Uncanny.

Another example of this type of stop-motion used to create the sense of "Uncanniness" is within the Horror genre film "Ju-on: The Grudge" in which a ghost of a women moves in a very discorntorted manner whilst coming down stairs using both her hands and her feet. It's this type of movement that creates the unerving feeling outlined by Frued in his theory of what the representation of the Uncanny is.

There are many ways the uncanny can be represented within media ranging from film to television, literature and even videogames, but here are just so many but I can garentee where there is fiction there will be an element of the uncanny waiting to be found.

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