The concept of the “uncanny valley” was first identified by Masahiro Mori in 1970 as a phenomenon in the field of aesthetics where a slight uncanniness in the subject’s appearance (where it seems almost human but not quite) sparks revulsion and aversion from the viewer.

The uncanny valley relates strongly to that of the “abject,” which Julia Kristeva describes as “a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the unthinkable.”1 In more straightforward terms, “abject” describes something disturbing and unusual, which provokes a visceral or instinctive negative reaction. A dead body, for instance, or a hair wrapped around a bar of soap, would provoke a sort of knee-jerk uncomfortable reaction from viewers.

The “threat,” in Kristeva’s words, presented by these objects, emerges from an evolutionary response in human beings and stems from our desire to avoid illness and death. As a result of this, we try to stay away from anything that may pose a threat to us, particularly if that thing appears to be almost (but not quite) human. One of the reasons that characters in the uncanny valley can have such a strong influence on an audience is that they represent a state of almost human, where the viewer feels inclined to suspicion lest they be duped by a sort of human-like imposter.

Referring to the abject and uncanny in modern sculpture, Kristeva’s threat “beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire,” is “apprehensive, [causes] desire [to] turn aside; sickened, it rejects,” and spawns “a massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome.”2

Angela Tinwell extends this analysis to animation when she writes “factors such as facial expression may appear odd or unnatural and can adversely make a character appear life-less as opposed to life-like … guidelines have included factors such as facial features and proportion and level of detail in skin texture.”3 Perhaps you’ve witnessed the uncanny valley in CGI-animated films like Avatar, the Hobbit, or, famously, the Polar Express.

Even small changes to characters’ proportions or skin texture can create a gripping sense of the uncanny and abject, inspiring “only one quality of the object – that of being opposed to it.”4

Of course, an audience’s ability (or inability) to empathize with a character is affected through the movement of that character. When a character fully resembles a human being, our ability to relate to that character is at its highest, as if we were empathizing with a real person. However, not being able to determine whether someone (or something) is real or not serves an important evolutionary role and as mentioned, acts as a safeguard against potential threats. This safeguard allows us to quickly identify anything about a figure that seems slightly off, tipping us off to the possibility that this figure is an imposter.

During speech, nonverbal signals are used to interpret the emotional state of a person. Nonverbal signals are largely conveyed by the upper part of the face, with the lower region constrained by the act of speaking. Communication is enriched by movement in the forehead and eyelids to display emotional tone. As a result, it’s been recommended that when animating characters, the upper part of the face should be modelled correctly to reflect tells that most of us wouldn’t even realize we’re looking for. Movement, therefore, not only emphasizes a character’s “humanness,” but also serves to convey contextual information about them, without which they are likely to wind up square in the uncanny valley.

Outside of animation, we can witness the principles of the uncanny valley and the abject in William Friedkin’s the Exorcist, a horror film that focuses on a girl who has been possessed by evil spirits. This film is a strong example of Miro’s principle not only because it’s used in a live action film, but also because of its deliberate implementation. Other movies, like the Polar Express, have been criticized for the repulsion viewers felt after watching characters that were otherwise intended to seem realistic and sympathetic. However, with the Exorcist, this positioning greatly improved the movie and made the central character much scarier to the audience. Repeated scenes of violent illness (representing the abject) and her uncanny ability to spin her head fully around capitalized on the revulsion they would inspire in viewers.

Hal Foster asks “Can the abject be represented at all? If it is opposed to culture, can it be exposed in culture?”5 Many artists have tried (and, I would say, successfully), so I would like to provide a few examples of works which succeed in provoking this kind of repulsion and horror.

Alberto Giacometti’s Woman with her throat cut was one of the first abject sculptural works to really take advantage of the physical space available to it. Not only does the piece depict the abject scene of a dead figure, but Giacometti has sprawled the character out on the floor, creating tension and confrontation with the viewer. Here, the work inspires discomfort through the leveraging of familiar forms in an unfamiliar situation.

Less graphic but, to some, equally disturbing, is Tom Friedman’s Bar of Soap, on which he has laid several hairs. Friedman has invoked the uncanny valley here in a new context, applying the abject to an object rather than a character. The work is effective as it still invokes a severe sense of repulsion in the viewer. This effect is motivated by our assumption of hair as natural and healthy as long as it is attached to the body. Once hair becomes detached, it instantly becomes associated with illness and death, which humans have evolved to avoid - on a bar of soap, no less, which is deeply associated with feelings of cleanliness and health.

Finally, we come to Lynda Benglis’ 90o the Margins as Centre, an amorphous blob fixated in the corner of a white square gallery space. This piece is a solid final example of the uncanny and abject in its raw state, as a simply unappealing object that resembles on some vague level something unpleasant – something that might get stuck in your hair or drag you down if you fell into it. Objects at this level of uncanniness hold their power through the ability to manipulate the audience into seeing and feeling what they themselves are inclined to feel.

These works, of animation, film, and sculpture, all speak to different aspects of the abject and uncanny, and all play with the power of discomfort in various ways. The aesthetic principle first identified by Masahiro Mori in 1970 is now appreciated as a legitimate tool across the arts to affect deep and lasting physiological impressions on their audience.


1 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 1.
2 Ibid., 227.
3 Angela Tinwell et al, “Facial Expression of Emotion and Perception of the Uncanny Valley in Virtual Characters,” Computers in Human Behavior 27, no. 2 (2011): 741.
4 Kristeva 1982, 1.
5 Hal Foster, “Obscene, Abject, Traumatic,” October 78 (1996): 114.
6 Foster, Hal. “Obscene, Abject, Traumatic.” October 78 (1996): 106-124.
7 Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
8 Abjection.” Oxford Lit Review 5, no. 1-2 (1982): 125-149.
9 Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley.” Energy 7, no. 4 (1970): 33-35.
10 Tinwell, Angela et al. “Facial Expression of Emotion and Perception of the Uncanny Valley in Virtual Characters.” Computers in Human Behavior 27, no. 2 (2011): 741-749.