‘Nevertheless, it is strange that many of us think much the same about Olympia. To us – pray do not take it ill, brother she appears singularly stiff and soulless. Her shape is well proportioned – so is her face – that is true! She might pass for beautiful if her glance were not so utterly without a ray of life – without the power of vision. Her pace is strangely regular, every movement seems to depend on some wound-up clockwork. Her playing and her singing keep the same unpleasantly correct and spiritless time as a musical box, and the same may be said of her dancing. We find your Olympia quite uncanny, and prefer to have nothing to do with her. She seems to act like a living being, and yet has some strange peculiarity of her own.’
(‘The Sandman’ – ETA Hoffmann)
If the newspapers are to be believed (a big ‘if’, I know), the appearance of several three-foot-high figures of children in the neighbouring villages of Iver and Iver Heath caused quite a stir a couple of years ago. ‘If I was a driver they would scare me into crashing, super creepy,’ said one resident. According to another, they were ‘creepy and hideous. I look out of my window every morning and these are what I see. They’re absolutely terrifying.’
Let’s not dwell on the ludicrous hyperbole of these reactions or lament the decline in the stolidity of the Buckinghamshire yeomanry. Instead, let’s admit that there is indeed something strange and unsettling, something uncanny, about these figures,. They are the brainchildren of Iver District Council, created and positioned to improve road safety by making motorists aware that they are driving near schools. That the figures have taken on an unwelcome, if ill-defined, meaning points to some deeper symbolism at play.
A post I wrote some time ago cited Freud’s essay on ‘The Uncanny’. A couple of Freud’e key ideas from that piece seem relevant here (though I’ll leave aside his conclusion that the Uncanny is really a sign of the subject’s unconscious desires and impulses being reflected back to him or her by the object): those of repetition and of the familiar made unfamiliar.
The Iver figures are multiple, and repetitive in their similarity. Straight-backed, arms by their sides, standing to a kind of attention, they give the impression, to me anyway, of a little army ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. And they are recognisably children, the familiar made strange.
Taking a slightly different track, the Japanese robotics scientist Masahiro Mori came up with the concept of the ‘uncanny valley’, referring to the dip in a graph when a humanoid’s robot’s resemblance to a real human is plotted against the human’s emotional response to that robot. A Wikipedia article sums up Mori’s idea as follows:
The concept of the uncanny valley suggests that humanoid objects which imperfectly resemble actual human beings provoke uncanny or strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. Valley denotes a dip in the human observer’s affinity for the replica, a relation that otherwise increases with the replica’s human likeness.
Could some of the reaction to the Iver figures be an example of the uncanny valley in effect? Perhaps, though to my eyes they don’t seem nearly life-like enough to come within the scope of Mori’s definition. Instead, I think they evoke a much more ancient notion of the uncanny, of inanimate objects that might come to life at any time. (I’ve included an excerpt from Hoffman’s story ‘The Sandman’ above, in part because Freud thought Hoffman was the writer who had best captured the sense of the uncanny in fiction.)
But maybe it’s the context too, the stark appearance on the highway, in broad daylight, of the figures, without any signage to explain who or what they are. When I first saw them I thought of the uncanny children in John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos. At the end of that book the Cuckoos are destroyed by a bomb. Whatever the residents of Iver and Iver Heath may think of them, these children are still standing. They have not, contrary to predictions, been vandalised or toppled. I didn’t visit Iver and Iver Heath on a school day and it would be interesting to see how the real children of the two villages regard them. For myself, I maintained a respectful distance.