Uncanny Valley Researchers Pinpoint What Makes the 'Cats' Trailer So Creepy

"I personally did not find it to be creepy, but I think I have a pretty high threshold."


Cats, a sung-through 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber fever dream based on a T.S. Eliot book of children’s poems about cats and sociology, is the latest musical to get the live-action treatment. It’s not the best idea. As weirded-out responses to the surreal trailer released Thursday suggested, the world is not ready for humanoid cats, which seem to have crept directly out of the uncanny valley. Valley guides agree.

"However, when something becomes almost exactly like a human — but not quite — it can become a bit unsettling to us."

“Human beings and their depictions are rarely creepy, but highly realistic animations and android robots often are,” Karl Fredric MacDorman, Ph.D., an associate professor of human-computer interaction at Indiana University, tells Inverse. “This phenomenon, proposed by Masahiro Mori in 1970, is the uncanny valley.” MacDorman’s extensive research on the uncanny valley has attempted to determine what exactly induces the feeling of being creeped out.

His idea is echoed in this tweet, which sums up the sentiments of many Twitter reactions:

Knox College professor of psychology Francis McAndrew, Ph.D., co-author of the 2016 paper “On the Nature of Creepiness,” explains to Inverse that “as things become more human looking, usually we find them to be cuter, and we like them more. However, when something becomes almost exactly like a human — but not quite — it can become a bit unsettling to us.”

Here, he and MacDorman break down what it is exactly that makes the Cats trailer so creepy.

How Cats Evokes the Uncanny Valley

If you were asked to estimate the proportion of cat to human in the cats in Cats, it would be difficult. This is crucial to understanding why they seem so creepy. McAndrew’s 2016 paper proposed that the feeling of being “creeped out” is “an evolved adaptive emotional response to ambiguity about the presence of threat that enables us to maintain vigilance during times of uncertainty.”

In other words, when we can’t tell whether the Jason Derulo-like thing lurking across our screen is a cat or human (or both), we enter a state of alertness, just in case that thing is dangerous.

"The uncanny valley comes at us from several directions at once."

“We like clarity in the world, and we want to be able to put things neatly into categories,” says McAndrew. “‘Almost-human’ things press buttons in our brain that tell us to interact with it as if it is human, but since we consciously know it is not, we experience tension and ambivalence, which can be unpleasant.”

For the same reasons, clowns and masks can also evoke the same feeling.

What might make the Cats trailer especially unsettling is the fact that ambiguity permeates every aspect of the film. While the uncanny valley is usually used to describe the appearance of still objects, like dolls, says McAndrew, the cats in Cats have the added element of movement.

“However, the cats are constantly in motion, mimicking a wide range of human qualities such as facial expressions and emotion,” he says. “Also, the movement of the actors combines catlike slinking and leaping with upright human walking, dancing, and hugging — very cognitively confusing! The uncanny valley comes at us from several directions at once.”

An Unexpected Mismatch

Relatedly, MacDorman’s work has shown that people get creeped out by objects that combine things we usually consider mutually exclusive. In 2011, he showed that people are creeped out by humans with robot voices and vice versa, but not robots with robotic voices and humans with human voices. This effect, he showed in 2016, holds true for human, bird, and dog characters combining real and computer-animated features.

“From this theoretical viewpoint, it is easy to understand why animation in Cats might be creepy,” he says. “The characters have features that cross category boundaries.” 

The cats combine human and cat characteristics, masculine and feminine features, and real and animated qualities. “This mismatch of features that were once considered mutually exclusive — human/cat, male/female, African/European — creates uncertainty about which of the pairing the cats belong to, or both, or neither,” says MacDorman. “We are uncertain about their species, gender, and race or ethnicity.”

That said, maybe we’ll get over it while watching the film. “With experience and exposure,” he explains, “we could learn new categories to make sense of the ‘cats’ and would, in time, get used to them. And there could be generational differences that affect our acceptance of their atypicality.”

An Uncanny Valley for Animals

The University of Regensburg virtual reality researcher Valentin Schwind, Ph.D., who has investigated whether there is an uncanny valley for animals, showed in 2018 that people react negatively to virtual cats that appear too realistic. Cats directors, take note: “We conclude design implication to avoid that sensation and suggest that virtual animals should either be given a completely natural or a stylized appearance,” Schwind and his team wrote.

Interestingly, the uncanny valley doesn’t seem to exist outside anthropomorphic or zoomorphic animals, like plants, cars, or appliances, even if they combine things we consider mutually exclusive.

“In general, we don’t find a spork uncanny, that is, an implement combining features of spoons and forks, in the way that we would find a cyborg uncanny if we met with a real cyborg up close,” MacDorman explains.

Will Creepiness Hurt Cats?

Cringing aside, the uncanny valley evoked by the film may have additional negative effects on the viewer experience. “The problem for Cats as a film is that the uncanny valley makes it harder for viewers to identify with the characters and to feel empathy for them,” says MacDorman.

“I have found that if a character is a real actor and not a computer animation, when tragedy strikes, empathy for the character increases narrative enjoyment,” he explains, referring to a paper he published earlier this year.

“The point is that to enjoy stories, we generally must feel empathy for the heroes, so they shouldn’t look creepy,” he says.

To be fair to the directors of Cats, not everyone finds the trailer creepy — at least, not too creepy to watch. Taylor Swift, noted cat person and Cats star, liked it. For what it’s worth, McAndrew did too. “I enjoyed the trailer!” he says.

Evocation of the uncanny valley, he explains, “is probably just a by-product of the mystique and magic that the film is going for.” The film is scheduled for December 20, almost two months after the appropriate holiday.

“I personally did not find it to be creepy,” McAndrew concludes, “but I think I have a pretty high threshold.”

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