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Why the fear of zombies? Look at the eyes

Zombies are undergoing a revival. Our screens have been filled with films such as “Zombieland”, “World War Z” and “Resident Evil”. Many home-made zombie will be knocking at our doors this week for Halloween…

Blame human psychology. burningangelstudios

Zombies are undergoing a revival. Our screens have been filled with films such as “Zombieland”, “World War Z” and “Resident Evil”. Many home-made zombie will be knocking at our doors this week for Halloween. But what is it about zombies that send shivers up our spines?

There is a little-known psychological phenomenon, called the uncanny valley, which explains it. The “dead” eyes and near-human characteristics of zombies provoke an instinctive disquiet in us. This is down to our inability to process these “strange” faces using normal psychological mechanisms. We are used to seeing and processing human faces and objects, but seeing an eerie, near-human image such as a zombie – which technically has all the features that should make it recognisable to us as a human – is something entirely new, and our brains don’t know how to process this.

As a horror film fan I was intrigued at the psychology behind this, and it appears I am not alone – 3,000 people from around the globe responded to my online surveys and participated in face-to-face experiments to help me discover more about the uncanny valley.

Not to worry, he’s fine. rwentechaney

The term “uncanny valley” was coined in 1970 by a Japanese robotics engineer to describe how people’s reactions to robots changed as they were made to look more like humans. It is often described as the sense of unease that accompanies the sight of something almost, but not quite, human. As a robot is gradually given facial features and softer lines, people feel an affiliation and even an affection for it (think of Sonny in the film iRobot). However, as human-likeness increases, this escalating warmth does not continue in a steady line from artificial to human. Instead, at the almost but not quite human point people suddenly find this near-human agent eerie and are repulsed by it – this deviation point is the uncanny valley.

When I began my PhD in 2006 the topic mainly belonged to android scientists and animators, but I wanted to go further. I began without a specific psychological explanation in mind so rather than testing whether, for example, we found near-humans unsettling because they would make unfit mates or trigger a reaction of disgust. Instead I asked participants to write about different near-human agents – some creepy, some not – so I could explore the phrases they would use in their descriptions.

All in the eyes. Hooman

Combining qualitative responses and the rating scales, I found that the unsettling faces often had something unusual about their eyes: people reacted strongly to images where the face was convincingly human but with lifeless eyes or where eerily human eyes appeared in a non-human face.

This means that psychological theories of face recognition and the perception of emotional expressions were tools for the analysis. First, I used images which gradually morphed from non-human animals, dolls, robots or statues to entirely human pictures to see whether the eerie near-human faces were being processed in a different way to other types of faces. Second, I observed that unsettling “dead” eyes could occur if an agent wasn’t capable of displaying emotions convincingly. I created “chimeric” faces, where the eyes could show a different expression to the rest of the face, and measured how people responded to different combinations of emotions such as angry faces with happy eyes or disgusted faces with blank eyes.

What every phase of the research confirmed was that images which break our assumptions of how faces should look or behave, were universally unsettling. And particularly the vacant eyes and blank faces – the signatures of movie-makers’ undead. So next time you are watching Walking Dead, the hairs on your arms standing upright and shivers running up your spine, remember, it’s all in the eyes.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. Rene Oldenburger

    Haven't got one

    I always thought the music would make people more "scared" instead of the eyes or facial expressions when it comes to zombie movies.

    But the "eye" science has been used for decades within enforcement agencies, especially during interviews.

    As for zombie movies, it's comical to the extreme

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    1. Stephanie Lay

      Research Student at The Open University

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      I agree, any tense, discordant or abrupt music is bound to heighten the visual impact of something as unpleasant as a zombie. They're also overly threatening to us which is bound to contribute to the fear but my findings certainly suggest that the 'dead' eyes in something that looks otherwise human is unsettling in itself: a subtler example would be the highly realistic baby dolls that can look extremely lifelike but will never change expression.

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    2. Rene Oldenburger

      Haven't got one

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Would turning of the sound have an impact on the visual impact, or do deaf people have the same reaction to these type of things as non deaf people

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    3. Stephanie Lay

      Research Student at The Open University

      In reply to Rene Oldenburger

      Hmm, I actually don't have an answer to that! It would be an interesting study to design, and not too difficult to run online. Maybe a post-doctoral project one day...

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  2. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    And the "zombie walks" Ugh!

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  3. Edwina Laginestra
    Edwina Laginestra is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Jack of all trades

    Not just humans are unnerved by strange eyes. I noticed my dog reacts differently to dogs with pale eyes (some trainers explain it as a sign for dominance) and although she loves all children, she looks hard at kids dressed up and if she can't see their eyes (eg under a mask) she starts barking. Every Halloween we go through this - once they lift their mask she stops barking and wags her tail.

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    1. Stephanie Lay

      Research Student at The Open University

      In reply to Edwina Laginestra

      That's really interesting - do you think that the pale eyes/dominance link might be because dominant dogs have their eyes wider, showing more iris/white?

      I wonder if your dog's reaction to masks is because she can't tell who is underneath - but I didn't think that dogs relied that much on human faces to check identity. Hmm, there's potentially a whole post-doctorate project in there!

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  4. Ryan Farquharson

    Research Officer

    Thanks for the article, Stepahnie.

    Have you looked at the opposite scenario? Do faces with large, expressive eyes (as we see in cartoons and in the personification of many 'cute' animals) elicit feelings of attraction?

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    1. Stephanie Lay

      Research Student at The Open University

      In reply to Ryan Farquharson

      Up to a point, yes. I've not looked into this myself but there's a lovely paper by Seyama and Nagayama (2007) which measured the pleasantness of faces as eye size varied:

      http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/pres.16.4.337

      They found that eye enlargement did increase liking, but only up to a point. It suggests we have a region of acceptability where exaggerated features are appealing but once they get to the point of being perhaps freakishly large, they're no longer as pleasant.

      Of course, enlarged eyes is a technique often used in Japanese manga images and I don't think people find them unsettling so there may be a cultural aspect to this too. For example, I'm not sure how many people would find these single-eye versions appealing http://en.rocketnews24.com/2013/10/25/these-one-eyed-manga-comic-heroines-are-totally-safe-for-work-slightly-less-so-for-your-sanity/

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