Effective Terror: Writing and the Uncanny

I have a form of Automatonophobia. Specifically, I do not like ventriloquist dummies. I mean, I REALLY don’t like them. They freak me out. A lot. I don’t know why exactly. It’s not like I had a terrible experience with one at a tender age. I just think the are weird and I don’t like being around them. As far as I am concerned, Charlie McCarthy is downright sinister. I can’t imagine that anyone finds these little demon seeds charming or entertaining. Still, for reasons I will never understand, people enjoy them. Consider the popularity of both Charlie McCarthy and Howdy Doody. Ick.

Not meant for children. Or adults . . . or anyone really.

According to Sigmund Freud and Ernst Jentsch there is a logical reason for my aversion to these horrifying creatures: The Uncanny — specifically, The Uncanny Valley.

The concept of the uncanny, or the unheimlich (un-home-like) is when the mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar create something peculiar, offputting, or unsettling. Ventriloquist dummies fit this description because they look human-like, they are animate, and yet we know that they are not alive. In this way, they are similar to zombies. Personally, I don’t mind zombies as much because they were at least once alive. A dummy was never alive and could never be, yet it has the appearance of life. Freaky.

The Uncanny Valley theory states that as a thing (a robot or something otherwise meant to appear humanoid) becomes more and more human-like the human’s response to it becomes more and more positive until a point is reached when the response turns to strong revulsion. In other words, we like things that look like us until they look too much like us but are still clearly not us. What does that sound like?

Ventriloquist Dummies.

I bet you’re wondering what all of this has to do with writing, aren’t you?

I feel that a sound understanding of this topic would enable writers like you and I to come up with some seriously frightening stories. R.L. Stine managed quite well with his series of Living Dummy books. There’s also Annabelle from The Conjuring and Fats from Magic. Maybe it’s just me, but I think these works are terrifying. It’s very effective to take something ordinary and innocuous and make it sinister. If you’re looking to scare the pants off of your readers, don’t go for monsters and gore. Consider employing the uncanny. There’s nothing scarier than the things we see every day.


If this post resonated with you, be sure to check out my writing blog www.joyceannunderwood.com and my personal blog www.firstpersonnarrative.com for more from me.

Everyone has a story. What’s yours?