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I was in a conversation recently with a group of people when one of them screeched and jumped out of her chair suddenly and without warning. It turned out that there was a spider hanging from a web near her head and she has a nearly pathological aversion to them. The majority of people in the group responded in varying degrees, but most of them were definitely in the negative and a general call went up for the poor arachnid's immediate execution. I found this response a little extreme, being someone who is not in the least freaked out by pretty much anything, but there were only two of us in the group who didn't advocate killing it, so I quickly coaxed the poor spider into a cup and took it outside before the mob could lynch it.
Being creeped out by spiders seems to be a very common response among humans. All three of my children hate spiders for some reason and I can safely say that it is a fear they did not get from me. I am certain that people have fears that they frequently pass on to their children, but I think that some reactions are carved in stone in a personality from very early childhood. I can't stand clowns, my brothers can't stand clowns, and my kids can't stand clowns, but I can honestly say that their hatred and fear of clowns manifested itself at such a young age that it seems improbable that I passed it on to them. When my oldest was a baby under a year old a friend of ours gave him a clown doll that had a mechanism in it like a music box that played the song, 'Send in the Clowns', when you wound it up. The tune was lovely and the clown was one of those old fashioned kind that was kind of Venetian in appearance. The first thing my son heard was the song, and he perked right up and was interested, but when he saw where the song was coming from he took one look and screamed bloody murder. It was so bad that my husband had to take the stupid thing out of the house until it wound down and then put it in the garage. Since my boy was only 4 months old at the time, it seems unlikely that I had ever had the opportunity or the inclination to influence him with a lecture on the creepiness of clowns. As far as I could tell he had never even seen one before. His hatred of clowns continued into adulthood.
There are plenty of phobias out there, but our shared dislike of clowns doesn't fall into that category. None of us scream and flee if we see one. My sister-in-law has a bat phobia and I can guarantee you that if she were trapped in a room with a bat she would go out of her mind. If we were trapped in a room with a clown we would probably just wrestle him to the floor and sit on him until he agreed to take off his makeup. There is a line between a genuine phobia and just finding something creepy. My youngest son finds dolls kind of creepy. He is pretty eclectic in his opinion of dolls and he doesn't care much what kind they are. He finds everything from baby dolls to Barbie equally creepy. I told him that he would have to get over his aversion to dolls if he ever had kids. He feels certain that he will be able to control it because it is more of an opinion than a fear.
I decided to do some research on why people find things like clowns and dolls creepy and I discovered that there is a term coined by a robotics scientist that defines this response to things that look human but are not as the, 'uncanny valley', that point at which something is human looking enough but still not natural. According to this theory, people tend to respond in a positive manner to robots that have human qualities but are not replicas of humans. This is why we all love R2D2 and his friend and Wall-e and other robot characters we encounter in visual mediums. They are humanesque, in that they have personalities and the ability to communicate, but they are not human in their rendering. They are adorable and lovable. There are robot characters on the other end of the spectrum who are supposed to be androids designed to appear human that don't seem to bother anyone because they are usually portrayed to be indistinguishable from actual people in the main. These characters are usually portrayed by actors and have completely natural body movements and expressions. The uncanny valley falls between these two areas, where something is designed to be as human as possible but are still not. They don't move right, they don't look right, they don't speak naturally, and they lack fluid expression. In tests scientists have found that the things that fall into the 'uncanny valley' are the ones that cause people to get creeped out and make them uncomfortable. When exposed to robots who fall into this area people's blood pressure would rise and their pulses increase significantly and they would not want to look at them for very long.
I found the research very interesting and it got me to thinking. On reflection, I decided that everyone probably has their own individual 'uncanny valley'. Evidently, there are clowns in mine. On the other hand, I think there may be some real, live people living there as well. There are things that creep me out far worse than metal, plastic, and gears.
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