Unheimlich – living in the Uncanny Valley

As things approach the familiar their very unfamiliarity becomes disturbing. Generally, the uncanny valley is an artistic ground trod by film and television, particularly with animated films. Movies like Benjamin Button, Cats, and Polar Express occupy a bizarre space. Characters appear humanoid, but not quite human, but they were obviously intended to evoke familiarity.

One reason why Disney films have frequently featured animal characters as opposed to human-esque ones is we are far less familiar with animals and their appearance. But due to evolutionary pressures and experience, humans are very good at recognizing humans, analyzing facial expressions, and noting when things are not quite right with a person-like object. Less so with lions, zebras, dinosaurs, dragons, and other fauna. It’s notable that in many animated films featuring ostensibly human characters many of the animation styles are deliberately caricatured.

Consider the prince in Shrek or the protagonist of How to Train Your Dragon Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, little effort is made to actually make these characters appear human, rather they are meant to stand in for humans while being dissimilar enough to not trigger our uncanny valley reflex.  Fiction can try to explore the realm of the unfamiliar familiar. When things are “normal” we often don’t question them at all, they are just the way they are. But when things are familiar but not quite right, they can stand out glaringly.

There is a genre of German fiction called “unheimlich” which translates as “uncomfortable fiction” and this sort of uncanny can be a profound way of investigating some of the ground which speculative fiction is equipped to explore. Urban fantasy ought to occupy this ground frequently, and sometimes does. The first season of Stranger Things mostly wandered along the border of the real. Unfortunately the most popular of urban fiction often dwells firmly in what might as well be secondary worlds. Magic is prevalent to the point of ubiquitous, and sometimes somehow simultaneously irrelevant, because somehow in a world with magic or vampires or some other supernatural entity being commonplace, nothing is different, nothing is out of place. Though it may be outside the scope, many times these stories make little effort to explain how it is that packs of werewolves wandering about have had no impact on world history.

Nonetheless, such stories, if they occupy the uncanny valley, can make us reflect on the human condition through their uncanny familiarity.

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