Notes: On Creep

Creepy. Not quite the same as scary.

Someone running at your with a knife is probably scary. Someone staring at you and repeating your name over and over is probably creepy.

A man having sex with a goat may or may not be disgusting - that's a related issue. But I think a man having sex with a plastic goat is more creepy than a man having sex with a real one. Unless perhaps the real goat is making wordless vocalisations that would suggest, were it human, that it was enjoying the experience.

Eating rotten food - disgusting to almost all. Eating your father's well-cooked brain as part of a funeral ceremony - disgusting to the parochial. Drinking the blood of your enemies - gruesome perhaps, but condemned for being barbaric, not for being unhygenic. Drinking the blood of nubile virgins while in evening dress - complicated symbolism-wise, but no one suggests that Dracula shouldn't drink blood because it's bad for his health.

A man who wants to be transformed into a woman - creepy to some? If they pay a surgeon to cut and reshape their genitals to something resembling a vagina - to the person who finds transsexualism creepy, would the surgery be better described as scary because it's incomprehensible to them, or scary because it's castration, or scary because it proves the taxonomy of their culture is false?

Or disgusting because it's sexual and sexuality is digusting to them? Or disgusting because they've been told the appropriate response is disgust?

I admit it: Vaginas look weird to me, even disturbing. Anuses (male or female) aren't repulsive, just uninteresting. Penises and scrotums...certainly not beautiful; attractive in an unrelated way.

Muslims are genuinely disgusted by the idea of eating pigs. Most atheists are genuinely disgusted by the idea of eating dogs. Our emotional responses are real, but in a sense they're artificial. But not so artificial that we always know the best word for an emotion.

When I was a child I found shop window mannequins creepy, or unnerving. But not those poseable minuature figures used by artists, or stick figures, or cartoon characters.

I think mannequins were too close to looking like real people, while being obviously not, and the others were far enough away from looking human to be comfortable. Dummy's were in my "uncanny valley".

I had nightmares about them. Specifically I had nightmares about them moving and speaking - something which pushed them from creepy and unnerving to just being terrifying.

I enjoy creepypasta - spooky campfire stories reincarnated for the internet. But only because it's a form of speculative fiction adjacent to science fiction, and I've always been a fan of that cluster of genres. Stories about ghosts, inexplicable happenings, prophecies, things half glimpsed in doorways, demons from hell and demonic aliens from the planet Zog - not scary at all.

Daleks and cybermen, tentacled things made giant by "radiation", stone angels that move when you're not looking - these to me are intriguing ideas. But I've played videos of these things for teenage students, and seen them watch through their fingers. And yes, it was mainly the girls who did that - audience reaction is as much a psychodrama as what's on the screen.

Dolls are creepy. So are clowns. So clown dolls are probably extra-creepy. But not to the children who play with them. Whatever happened to childhood fear being the root of adult creep?

The dark is scary, presumably because it's the unknown, but it isn't creepy. You can be scared of the sound of scraping metal behind you (threat), or a blank void around you (the unknown), but I think you need to identify something to be creeped out by it.

A dark room, a locked door with stories of something mysterious behind it, a hooded cowl that hides a face - these can be scary, because it's the unknown. A sharp scalpel, a voice shouting threats, blood dripping on the floor - these are a different kind of scary, because they suggest threats.

But a dark room containing sounds of laboured breathing, a voice coming from behind a locked door, a hooded face that shows hints of reptilian skin, a knife made of teeth, a voice shouting in an unknown language, blood dripping from the ceiling - here there's some information, but not enough to form a clear idea of what's happening. Here it's not even clear whether there's a threat or not.

The wicker man is scary, the islanders are creepy.

Scare is about ignorance or threat. Creep is about ambiguity, uncertainty, hints that don't add up. Scare is knowing nothing, or knowing something bad. Creep is not knowing enough.

Scare is no world, or a bad one. Creep is a world that doesn't make sense. Creep is a response to violation of taxonomy. Specifically, to a culture's idea of the categories of nature. The dead coming back to life, a child having three fathers, a man living a thousand years, a creature living in seven dimensions, your own reflection in the mirror talking back to you, a hundred identical people, a family talking in unison.

The terms are not mutually exclusive. A cat with human feet is bizarre, and could easily provoke fear, not because it's a threat, but because...well, strangeness can provoke fear. Unfamilliar people are "strange"-ers.

Reality can be creepy too. Children suiciding, children killing other children, siamese twins, getting sexual pleasure from murder - these are things which manifestly do happen, but which the metaphysics or superstitions of our culuture say can't happen.

A woman marrying another woman, a man marrying a dozen women, a white man marrying a black woman, someone not believing in a god, someone hating god - to some, these are taxonomical violations. That is, things which are allegedly contradictions in terms, yet happen. Hate groups live in an ambivalence - they hate the impossible for being possible.

So what about a girl of 18 falling in love with and marrying a man of 80? A green card marriage, or a vow of lifelong celibacy, a fetish for amputees, defacting in public, addiction to colonic irrigation, a taste for eating soil. No culture is truly monolithic, and no taxonomy is exhaustive, so many violations are marginal cases.

For one who has the courage to face the world, ask awkward questions and learn from experience, much might be scary, but little can be creepy.

With apologies to Susan Sontag.

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