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Creepiness and where to find it

Up much too close and personal with Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) in Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rebecca'Long before the creepy clown epidemic, we have all experienced the feeling of “creepiness”, sometimes triggered by a building or a location, often by a person. It might be a neighbour, a TV character or a stranger. Creepiness is quite distinct from fear. The uncomfortable sense that there might be something dangerous or unpleasant in the bushes inspires a completely different felling than that which you experience when you actually see the bear, or the guy holding the knife (or binoculars).

According to the authors of a new study, 'On the nature of creepiness', the uncertainty about whether a theat is real or not (or the ambiguity about what the thtreat might actually be), is central to the sense of creepiness.

Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke (Knox College, Illinois) were surprised that, despite the widely accepted experience of creepiness, there were no previous scientific studies exploring the condition. They collated more than 1,300 responses to an online survey about perceptions of creepiness. They found that males are much more likely to be creepy than females and that females often perceive a sexual threat from a creepy person. They also noted that some professions predispose their practitioners to perceptions of creepiness, notably clowns, taxidermists, sex shop owners and funeral directors.

Funeral directors are almost certainly an integral part of a modern economy. Arguably sex shops are too and most people would recognise the scientific benefits of taxidermy. I suspect, however, that most people are uncomfortable with excessive exposure to sex and death (especially with strangers) so people who choose these professions might appear to have slightly different norms to most people, hence a degree of discomfort.

Creepy clown, image by GabboTThen there’s clowns. They look similar to the rest of us, but their emotional expression is disarmingly simplified and usually more extreme, and their behaviour clashes with many social rules. This is the very reason clowns can be entertaining – they are recognisably human, but their behaviour moves beyond socially acceptable boundaries, making them a target for ridicule. They can help us embrace silliness and perhaps make us feel comparatively clever and erudite. Their tomfoolery reinforces the strength of our social rules. The other thing about clowns that might make them especially creepy is that there is clearly someone under the makeup or mask. There is something unseen or unclear, tapping into the concept I described earlier of ambiguity or uncertainty of danger. There’s an interesting article on the history and psychology of clowning in the Smithsonian magazine. 

McAndrew and Koehnke identified several characteristics of creepiness, including having unkempt or greasy hair (‘The Ring’, anyone?); having a peculiar smile (e.g. the Joker); very pale skin (like most clowns, Voldemort and Edward Scissorhands); licking ones lips frequently; standing too close to people; and laughing at unpredictable times (e.g. Max Cady).

The Child CatcherI remember being completely freaked out my Robert Helpman’s Child Catcher in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, who employed several of these features. 

The study found that hobbies that are seen as a bit creepy include collecting dolls or body parts such as teeth, bones, or fingernails, as well as anything that involved some variation of watching, following, or taking pictures of people. Agreed.

Most respondents (nearly 60%) to McAndrew and Koehnkes’ survey said that they thought creepy people did not know they were creepy. A further 32% were “unsure”. So, perhaps we should cut creepy people just a little bit of slack. Perhaps not.

The study appears in the journal New Ideas in Psychology.

Will our plastic world collapse?

We’ve had plastics for more than a century. In that time we have identified an ever-expanding list of uses for them and a forever increasing number of different types (although not necessarily in that order). One of the most important practical characteristics of most plastics is that they last. Plastics are not easily damaged by water or air. Microorganisms do not commonly – or readily - break down plastics either and that is a problem.

From the myriad of common plastic items comes a tide of refuse. Shopping bags, food wrappers, drinking straws, soft drink bottles and cosmetic microbeads are distributed far and wide by people water and wind.

None us have never known a time without plastics, but a little over a hundred years is not even a blink of an eye in evolutionary time. Microorganisms simply have not had time (and perhaps reason) to evolve ways of breaking down the vast bulk of plastics. Microorganisms, however, reproduce quickly and there is more some evidence that things might be changing.  More . . .

What are you?

A cyborg may be broadly considered as being made up of part organic and part mechanical components. A favourite concept of science fiction, the cyborg challenges the nature of life and reflects our futile struggle with the limits of mortality and the frailty of humanity. Indeed the extensions and enhancements offered by cyborgism are perhaps only of interest because of human being's frustration and disappointment with themselves.

Cyborgs based on humans feature characteristics that either improve our performance (e.g. faster movement, greater strength) or add completely new capabilities (e.g. ability to see things in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum). Image by Chiaralily

Cyborg systems are typically very efficient, with automation and self-diagnosis common characteristics. This is appealing for its reliability (it just happens) and its speed (it just happens immediately, when needed).

Of course even the most traditional, fleshy humans owe their vitality to systems that operate in exactly this way, and long before mobile phones, pacemakers, contact lenses and Google glass moved us in a cyborgistic direction.

Your heart beats, your lungs swell and ebb, your eyes blink, all without conscious instruction. We sense the environment around us and respond automatically. We shiver, our pupils dilate, goose bumps appear. Inside us a delicate hormonal ballet is constantly underway as testosterone, oxytocin, adrenalin and their siblings signal our organs to act. In the brain, serotonin, dopamine et al moderate our internal communication.

Completely outside our awareness a ruthless bureaucracy of leucocytes monitor extra-corporal arrivals and dispose of any deemed to be deleterious.

Sweat, digest, sneeze, tire, gasp.

Our systems have sub-systems, processes and in-built maintenance processes to minimize the risk of failure, and it is almost always when these systems are compromised, fail to operate properly, or are damaged that we become ill. The automated nature of us can sometimes lead to surprising or unpleasant phenomena. A rapid drop in ambient temperature can quickly give rise to a sensation of all over cold. Even seeing someone else who looks cold can make us share the sensation. When there is disagreement between what your eyes see and what your inner ear’s vestibular system senses, you will suffer motion sickness travel sickness. If your immune system over-reacts to a substance, you experience an allergic reaction.

The vast bulk of our entity is an inextricably intertwined, autonomous system of sensation and adjustment.

Perhaps as thinkers we are arrogant enough assume that if we haven’t consciously thought of something then it won’t or can’t happen, as if our thoughts give life to activity. We seem to have something of an in-build creator complex. We forget that our thoughts are only a small component of a much greater existence, developed over millions of years of trial, error and contextual selection. Our attempts to mimic the automated, self-monitoring of biological systems in robotic or even electronic systems are comparatively limited and clumsy, but then we haven’t had as long to perfect them.

It Just Stuck

On occasion, you’ll be shocked to hear, my mind’s been known to drift

I tune out now and then, I must confess.

But in the nineteenth over (I think the second ball)

My focus was nigh faultless and my skills were quite sublime,

As those who shared the moment will attest.


T’was a bright and balmy afternoon, the sun was beating down,

An insipid breeze was mooching ‘round the ground.

I remember every detail that my senses could detect:

The glowing growing ruddy orb, the breath that I drew in

And the fizzing as the seam spun round and round.


It’s easier to concentrate when standing in the slips

And a bowler on a hat trick charges in,

But when the value of the wicket’s not as obvious as that,

When the impact on the progress of the game is not so sharp

You forget that grassing chances is a sin.


The smack and sting as ball struck flesh, my fingers closing fast

For an instant all the world was dumb and still.

My eyes felt like a stranger’s as they turned to see my hand

And emotions jostled keenly for position in my mind,

As I registered that I still grasped the pill.


Sometimes there is time for thought, preparing for a catch,

But rarely do you have that kind of luck

This one came like lightning, and sometimes they just stick

Anyway, I held it and the shocking truth be told

I was out there as the square-leg umpire. Fuck.


End of an unknown era

This afternoon, in an unremarkable corner of the world, a long partnership came to an end. I cannot say when it started, but I am sure that it had endured for many years. The players in this pairing each bear scars and marks that illustrate a long, unspoken history.

I only came to know this partnership very near the end, as the last of a long line of third parties that have joined a team of two, inseparable for so many years. Even in my brief connection to the others, I came to take them for granted. With the sturdiness of good wood and the durability of iron, they never complained and they never boasted, but they were always there and they always performed. Until today.

I had been digging a garden bed and I hadn’t noticed the split. It would have started as a very small tear, possibly months ago, but suddenly it was wide open, forming a new shape, like the head of a spear.  As my foot fell to the side of the shovel, this new apex ripped through the leather of my boot and stuck fast. I suffered no damage, but this was the last desperate cry of a shovel who’s time had come. 

The handle may go on, but the blade cannot. I quietly detached one from the other and left them alone for a few minutes, in a silent farewell. As the shadows lengthened across my garden bed, the sun set on a fine affiliation that had achieved much.