With Hallowe’en fast approaching, it’s hard to escape images of zombies and monsters. Does the thought of Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddie Kruger’s scarred face bring you out in a cold sweat? Or perhaps the army of zombies in 28 Days Later is your worst nightmare? Well don’t worry, you’re not alone.
A researcher at the Open University has come up with an answer as to why zombies and monsters scare us so much. Stephanie Lay has spent six years researching the ‘uncanny valley’ theory, an idea first introduced in the 1970s, which suggests that the reason we are scared of zombies is because our brains have trouble processing the image of something which is so similar to a human, but isn’t quite human.
According to Lay, when we see an image of a zombie or human-like monster such as Freddie Kruger, ‘normal processing mechanisms’ do not apply themselves, which causes the unsettling effect ‘when people want to like a near-human face, but realise something is wrong.’ The closer to human form a monster is, the more disturbing we find it and the more we fear it.
Lay’s research involved showing people images of robots with gradually more humanised features. She found that people felt more affiliation with the robot as it was given increasingly more human features, up to a point just before it was entirely human, where people found it repulsive and eerie. This point of negative emotional response is known as the ‘uncanny valley’, a term coined by Masahiro Mori, who applied it solely to robots. Lay extended the research by applying the theory to zombies, and by showing people images of human eyes in non-human faces and recording their emotional response.
So, next time you find yourself cowering behind a cushion watching a horror film, don’t let your friends call you a scaredy cat – you’re psychologically predispositioned to feel that fear!
Still feeling brave enough to face the monsters this Hallowe'en? Why not go to the Gothic Film Festival at Kirkstall Abbey?