Last night we set up our tent in the shadows of an abandoned house in the North Carolina woods. The house was creepy, but it got us wondering, what exactly makes something “creepy”? Why do we get creeped out by certain things?
It seems that thinking something is creepy is related to danger, or at least perceived danger. It is part of the flight or fight response, it gets our body prepped to take on danger. It isn’t just that though; we can easily recognize danger without feeling creeped out. When we bike up to a busy highway we know it is dangerous, but it isn’t creepy. We can even be afraid and not be creeped out.
Perhaps creepiness is when we feel something is dangerous because it doesn’t conform to the way we expect things to be. Horror movies use creepy “monsters” who seem human, but there is something off about them. The “inbred monster” movies such as The Hills Have Eyes have humans who are distorted from years of inbreeding, their eyes and bodies don’t match what we expect and that makes them creepy. And the creepiness can make us afraid, we see it as danger. Occasionally one of the “monsters” turn out to be good, but it takes a while for the protagonists to overcome their assumptions and trust the friendly person.
When someone is acting creepy in a bar (usually a man towards a woman), it is because they are acting in an unexpected way, a way that doesn’t conform to our expectations. And that behavior is read as dangerous. I don’t think this caution is unjustified. In fact, I think it is fairly reasonable to believe that someone who doesn’t conform to social norms in a public place may not conform to them when in private. And when we are talking about situations where one person is particularly vulnerable to another, it is probably prudent to be cautious.
So, what makes an inanimate object like a house creepy? I think the reasoning is similar. When we see an abandoned house falling down or a house that isn’t being kept up we see it as creepy, it isn’t how we expect things to be. We expect our homes to be manicured in a certain way and to last forever. We don’t want our human possessions to feel the effects of entropy, we believe we can overcome nature and when we see our homes (the most intimate of places) start to collapse it just feels wrong. It is a glimpse into our own mortality, that we too shall collapse someday and our bodies will become dust. Nature will overtake us all. The danger is inevitable, no matter how much effort we put into something it will fail.
We are creeped out because it shows us our future, and our future is death (probably).