Research
28 Oct 2013

Why we’re freaked out by zombies – research illuminates the ‘uncanny valley’

Our fear of horror film characters, such as Freddie Kruger from Nightmare on Elm Street, Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist and zombies from 28 Days Later, could be down to our inability to process their faces using normal psychological mechanisms, according to an Open University researcher. Stephanie Lay has conducted a UK-based research project spanning six years and involving over 3,000 participants around the world to uncover more about this little-known ‘Uncanny Valley’ phenomena.

Stephanie says: “People are used to seeing and processing human faces and objects but seeing an eerie, near-human blended image such as a zombie is something entirely new. It may be that our normal processing mechanisms are not being engaged for these faces, causing the unsettling effect when people want to like a near-human face, but realise something is wrong.”

The ‘Uncanny Valley’ concept dates from the 1970s and began as an obscure theory relating to robotics design and how people’s reactions to robots changed as they were made to look more like humans. Stephanie Lay explains: “The Uncanny Valley is often described as the sense of unease that accompanies the sight of something almost, but not quite, human. For example, as something inhuman such as a robot is gradually given facial features and softer lines, it becomes more humanised and people feel an affiliation and even an affection for it. However, as human-likeness increases, this escalating warmth does not continue in a steady fashion all the way up to the point when the robot becomes entirely human. Instead, just before it is entirely humanised, there is a deviation point where people are repulsed by it and find its image eerie – this is the Uncanny Valley.”

In an early study, Stephanie measured peoples’ emotional responses to a series of images thought to have these unsettling qualities. Horror film fan Stephanie continued: “A consistent finding of the survey was peoples’ reactions to images where the face was convincingly human but with lifeless eyes or where eerily human eyes appeared in a non-human face. These were perceived to be the most uncanny and disturbing of all the images and explain why characters such as zombies in horror films unsettle people to such great effect.”

A later large-scale study investigated this observation using chimeric faces, which were created by blending different posed expressions together to measure how people reacted to different combinations of lifeless and lifelike features. Stephanie has also used images which gradually morphed from non-human animals, dolls, robots or statues to entirely human pictures to systematically investigate whether there was any evidence that the eerie near-human faces were being processed in a different way to other types of faces. By integrating findings from all three research phases, Stephanie will fully investigate what it is about near-human faces that can trigger this eerie, unsettling effect.

More information on Stephanie’s PhD research, which concludes in Spring 2014, is available at: www.uncanny-valley.co.uk.

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