Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Phobia File: Mannequins

I like shopping. Apparently, that's not much of a "guy thing", but I quite enjoy it. Admittedly, it's not for the actual purchasing of things, I just like to get out of the house, walk around, look through the bookshop and potentially go out for lunch or get a coffee at a café bistro with people that are close to me. I even don't mind clothes shopping; I'm very opinionated (that's one of the reasons I started this blog), so I do have fashions that I do and don't like and I offer my opinion on clothing if I'm out shopping for clothes with others. In fact, when I go shopping with family I sometimes wonder what it would be like if my girlfriend was there, and what it would be like going out with her and having fun, buying things, checking out clothing and going for a coffee.
There's a lot to love about shopping. But there's one thing that always stops me dead in my tracks, and that's the propped up corpses in the middle of the clothing section. The Word of the Day is: 'AUTOMATONOPHOBIA'

Automatonophobia /aw'tomətənəfōbeeə/ n. fear of animatronic creatures, wax statues, mannequins or any inanimate object that simulates a sentient being.

I don't understand why people make those contoured and detailed shop mannequins with the faces, I really don't. When I go to a shop, it's to look at the clothing, and I can see it well enough on the rack. If you want to see what it looks like on, you can wear it yourself - that's what changing rooms are for. Okay, yeah, it's really just to advertise them and show them as full outfits without having to hire models, but even then, what about those cool wooden mannequins?
Why is it that they have to have faces? That's what I'm saying. Because if you try to sculpt a human face, then no matter how well you do, that face will be inanimate. And do you know what a human face looks like when it doesn't move? It looks dead. So, when I see mannequins, I just feel unsettled.

You know what I'm talking about; and that's not just an idle comment, you know what I'm talking about because most people experience it too, although not always with shop mannequins. This is a phenomenon known as the Uncanny Valley, and originally it was used in reference to robotics, and the ways we can make robots (or droids/machines) appear more human. But for today, I'm sticking with two-dimensional simulations.

On the bottom of the spectrum, there's emoticons: ☺
When something is referential to a human, but not human, it's easy to deal with and easily understandable. However, it's also not very empathetic, since it's not expressive, there's not enough to it. Most people don't think of a smiley face as a subject, they think of it as an object. So, to make humans feel more familiar with it, we need to make it more lifelike, so then we look at stuff like anime.These images are much closer to humanity, and people can empathize with anime characters, since they have more features, more expression, more of that human quality like hair and eyebrows, so we can see more of ourselves, and we feel more comfortable thinking of anime characters as people.
Now, let's briefly skip up to the end of the spectrum, where we find photos.
People get photos, photos are good. You recognize people in photos, and if they're not pulling funny faces, then you can see yourself and others in photos, you recognize them as human, it's pretty simple.
If you were to graph this, then as images get more life-like, then our empathy, familiarity and appreciation of these images rises, in a perfect incline. However, there's one step between human-like & human with adds a huge dip in the incline; this 'dip' or valley is known as the Uncanny Valley and for the purposes of this "two-dimensional example", the Uncanny Valley is represented by photoshop.
These can be images that are human, but they are off, they're tweaked so that they're not quite right, and they can be unsettling, especially if an artist messes with the dimensions of a person's face.
So, as you can see, the spectrum goes humanish = "okay, cool"; human-like = "hey, you look like me"; near-human = "AH!! Kill it with Fire!" & human = "Oh, hi Mum."

For me, mannequins sit right in that uncanny valley spectrum. The weird part is, it's mostly the faces. I don't quite know why people like mannequins without heads, they're still kind of creepy (especially the hands), but when I see them I tend to joke about it: "I guess 'decapitated' is the latest fashion."
It's the heads that creep me out, because faces are hard to do right. I remember, the absolute and creepiest mannequins I'd ever seen (which weren't trying to be creepy) were from the hairdresser's. When I was younger, just a little boy, my mother would take me when she went to the hairdresser sometimes. Not only did the whole place smell like wet and oily hair, but along edges of the ceiling, there were rows and rows of these dull-eyed, female mannequin faces on high shelves. All of them had exaggerated blue-painted eyelids and eyelashes, and red, never-smiling, serious lips; each stared into the middle distance as though they'd forgotten what life felt like. They were meant to model a bunch of old wigs, to show off potential hair-styles, despite the fact that no one ever tended them, so the hair often looked frayed, dusty and dried out from the Australian heat.
When I was young, I'd look at that and think "yuck".
Now, if I ever saw them again, I'd think: "That looks disturbingly like a trophy shelf."

I wish, like with my spider-story of my youth, I could use that to explain why I am now automatonophobic, but that's not the case. It's nothing so poetic, rather plainly and simply I'm disturbed by them because they look dead. I don't like dead things, and they look dead, dull-eyed and - perhaps worst of all - they look emotionless.
Even when they make them smile by sculpting their faces with curved lips, they still look like they aren't actually smiling. It's too inhuman, too imperfect, too . . . unalive.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and until next time, be a doll for me and stick around for part two of that story from yesterday, I plan on posting part two on the 30th. But in the meantime, there's even more scares to share.

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