Why the Uncanny Valley is the Scariest Form of Horror


This was the chart made by Mori to illustrate the spectrum of the uncanny valley. Photo by Masahiro Mori.

The uncanny valley is a terrifying concept that can unsettle anybody. That’s why it’s such a good way to portray horror and to really get under people’s skin. But first, what is the uncanny valley?


The uncanny valley is a term first coined by a man named Masahiro Mori. Mori used it to explain that as robots appear more human, the more appealing they become. But at a certain point, they just become unsettling. They are so life-like, yet something about them is off. That void is called the uncanny valley. The implication about this uncanny valley is that there must have been an evolutionary reason to be afraid of something that looks human but isn’t. The thought itself is just creepy.


An example of the uncanny valley is the 2004 Polar Express.” The animation was created using motion capture technology. This means the actors playing the characters would act out the movie with infrared sensors, and then that movement would go through a computer-generated look. Since they couldn’t have sensors on their eyes or the inside of their mouths, that’s where the creepiness of the movie came in. The eyes and mouth were computer-generated, making the rest of the human movement look off.


As time progressed, they did get better at motion capture. Like in 2018 when Detroit: Become Human was released. The whole game was wonderfully made in motion capture. While it was still animated and fake, it remotely crossed over into the uncanny valley but not as severely as The Polar Express.” 


In horror, creators tend to use ghosts and monsters as the scary part of the story, things that will teleport around and have powers of some sort. They use tactics that can come off as cheap and cause momentary fear, like jump scares or sudden loud noises. 


Take A Quiet Place for example. The film is dealing with some alien creature. The horror in this movie comes from the suspense and the lack of information the audience has. It has beings that are scary because of the unknowingness and the threat they have to the protagonists. These aliens make noises that are not human, screeching and clicking as an alien would. 


But, in a movie like IT Chapter Two,” we see the uncanny valley used with the old lady that Beverly Marsh finds in her old childhood home. The woman we see appears normal at first, but, as time goes on, she becomes more unsettling. She does things like stop and stare at Marsh for an uncomfortable amount of time or walk in a strange, unhuman way while still appearing as human. 


The audience can also see this phenomenon in audio and sound. Take the sound of Clover from Cloverfield or the aliens from A Quiet Place.” Both of these main monsters in these movies make loud roaring or screeching sounds. These noises are not human, which can be scary. This also clears the possibility of them being human and marks them as definitely a monster.


But in a game like Five Nights at Freddy’s,” the animatronics make noises that sound human: noises like raspy breathing, garbled speech, almost human screams and Balloon Boy saying “Hello” to you. This makes their presence scarier because now there is something human about them. Their noises fall into the uncanny valley because they’re almost human, but something is off about them.


Everyone has an opinion about Sophia the robot. Sophia is a very well-known example of the uncanny valley. She is a humanoid robot that was made in Hong Kong and was “designed to get smarter over time.”


Sophomore Kenny Pautsch said “I hate ‘almost human’ things. Fake skin and glass eyes are just gross.” He went on to say “[Sophia is] very technologically advanced, but I’m worried about what happens if she short circuits.” Junior Brie Cochran stated “She’s scary because I don’t understand her.” 


When asked about her opinion on Sophia, senior Darisel Rivera expressed, “She freaks me out, like she’s cool but freaky.” Rivera went on to say “She’s cool just ‘cause she’s a robot. And she proves how advanced technology could be. But other than that, she freaks me out.”


If horror movies were made using the uncanny valley, filmmakers could reach all-new levels of horror and scare factors. Some of the scariest parts in horror that stuck with people the longest were things, like Sophia, that dipped into the uncanny valley.