The Uncanniness of Puppets

For a brief while, let us mull over some items of interest regarding puppets. They are made as they are made by puppet makers and manipulated to behave in certain ways by a puppet master’s will. The puppets under discussion here are those made in our image, though never with such fastidiousness that we would mistake them for human beings. If they were so created, their resemblance to our soft shapes would be a strange and awful thing, too strange and awful, in fact, to be countenanced without alarm. Given that alarming people has little to do with merchandising puppets, they are not created so fastidiously in our image that we would mistake them for human beings, except perhaps in the half-light of a dank cellar or cluttered attic. We need to know that puppets are puppets. Nevertheless, we may still be alarmed by them. Because if we look at a puppet in a certain way, we may sometimes feel it is looking back, not as a human being looks at us but as a puppet does. It may even seem to be on the brink of coming to life. In such moments of mild disorientation, a psychological conflict erupts, a dissonance of perception that sends through our being a convulsion of supernatural horror.

—Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror

With the advent of CGI based animated films we’ve seen a hyperrealism suddenly replace the older hand drawn cartoons of yesteryear. But as many critics suggest this may not be a good thing. In the recent Lion King remake by Disney the characters that were in the first film so emotionally cute and humanized that people were drawn to them as if magnetized by their warmth and cozy appeal, just the opposite has happened with the newer remake which provides a more distant and cold apprehension of these highly stylized and superrealistic figures. In the new film the characters have become too real and uncanny, as if they could walk off the screen into an African savannah and be right at home among the wildlife. As Lindsay Wright suggests:

Indeed, a viewer of the new version of “The Lion King” often admires the artistic sensibilities of the film in the same way that they might admire a new piece of technological wizardry. We may be struck by the emotional beauty of a painting by Leonardo DaVinci, to put it bluntly, but it is unlikely that we will derive the same kind of emotional warmth from a viewing of the latest offering from car manufacturer Tesla.1

As many critics have suggested this hyperreal CGI technology has lost something in translation from the older hand drawn animations.

As Ligotti suggests above: “We need to know that puppets are puppets.” If something is too real we begin to feel a sense of dread and horror, as if the thing we’re watching may be watching us in return. The duplicity between a dead inanimate object suddenly taking on a life of its own disturbs us. Even in animated features the older hand drawn cartoons could never become uncanny in that sense or realism. Yet its just this sense of something that we assume is not real becoming all too real that threatens our sense of a well-ordered cosmos. When things suddenly do things they shouldn’t we begin to think reality is no longer what we thought, that something has change; that the world is not right and has suddenly become topsy-turvy overthrowing all the known laws of physics.

For two hundred years the literature of the fantastic: the modes of Gothic, Grotesque, Macabre, Symbolist, Decadence, Surrealism, Fabulism, Magical Realism, etc. have replaced for a secular society what was once part of the domain of religious consciousness and expectation: the Supernatural. The notion of the marvelous, fantastic, and uncanny have all taken on new meanings in our secular society, allowing non-believers to experience the nostalgia of religious beliefs without adhering to there outmoded rituals and dogmas. As Victoria Nelson in The Secret Life of Puppets reminds us:

Shakespeare’s worldview of the Renaissance-the worldview that holds there is another, invisible world besides this one, that our world of the senses is ruled by this other world through signs and portents, that good and evil are physically embodied in our immediate environment-is alive and well today in science fiction and supernatural horror films that build on a three-hundred-year tradition of the secularized supernatural and behind that on the millennia-old beliefs Western culture shares with older societies around the world.

There’s something deep and pervasive in the human psyche that cannot be expunged, repressed, excised, nor erased: this need for an affective relation to the Unknown. As Lovecraft once suggested: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” He’d go on to elaborate,

Because we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure, and because our feelings toward the beneficent aspects of the unknown have from the first been captured and formalised by conventional religious rituals, it has fallen to the lot of the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery to figure chiefly in our popular supernatural folklore. This tendency, too, is naturally enhanced by the fact that uncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities. When to this sense of fear and evil the inevitable fascination of wonder and curiosity is superadded, there is born a composite body of keen emotion and imaginative provocation whose vitality must of necessity endure as long as the human race itself. Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.2

When children play with dolls, or adults watch a Ventriloquist performing there is this sense that we are fascinated by these inanimate objects suddenly awakening in our midst and taking on a life of their own. And, yet, if this were truly to happen as in some horror films with puppets that uncannily do just that and become killers like Chucky in Child’s Play movie in made in 1988. In this film the doll Chucky is a sneering red-haired doll that is possessed by the spirit of a deceased serial killer. Many of the films’ plots revolve around Chucky’s attempts to transfer his soul from the doll body into a living person. A sense of possession and murderous intent, of a doll that becomes all too real and moves without the strings of a puppet master intentionally and with a willful purpose. In our “secular society in which the cult of art has supplanted scripture and direct revelation, we turn to works of the imagination to learn how our living desire to believe in a transcendent reality has survived outside our conscious awareness”.

In our own age various trends in the sciences and engineering are converging to create new forms of advanced intelligence or AI and AGI, and along with that is initiatives to produce lifelike humanoid robots that will allow such advanced intelligence a physical platform within which to move and operate. Uncanny Valley  has been working to build such uncanny systems that seem in appearance and manner to reduplicate human movements and feature sets as if they were not only our doubles but were in some future iteration becoming more us than we are. As one roboticist suggests: “Twenty years from now human-like robots will walk among us, they will help us, play with us, teach us, help us put groceries away,” says David Hanson, “I think AI will evolve to a point where they will truly be our friends.”

One philosopher, Reza Negarestani asks the question: “Should we limit the model of AGI—both from a methodological perspective and a conceptual perspective that is the hermeneutics of general intelligence—to mirroring capacities and abilities of the human subject?” His answer is an emphatic “No”:

In limiting the model of AGI to the replication of necessary conditions and capacities required for the realization of human cognitive and practical abilities, we risk to reproduce or preserve those features and characteristics of human experience that are purely local and contingent. We therefore risk falling back on a parochial picture of the human as a model of AGI that we set out to escape.4

Instead what he seeks is a new path forward, one that allows for the “realization of an intelligence that moves from a particular contingent perspectival consciousness to a genuine self-consciousness, an outside view of itself” (22).

For many this sudden awakening of machinic life with intelligence that can be self-motivated, and non-human or inhuman in the sense of not being modeled on our human cognitive and affective relations is both scary and fascinating. For thousands of years humans have been both fascinated and fearful of statues, dolls, puppets, and machines that could reduplicate human abilities and work, but the notion of an entity that can also begin to exist beyond our human modes of intelligence and emotion seems almost too much to think much less comprehend. This is where both aspects of the fantastic: Science Fiction and Horror come into play, each in its own way confronts such possibilities as both impossible and unknown; and, yet, brings to life the very real possibility that such strange and uncanny beings may one day live among us. Horror allows us to register our fears and fascinations in ways that allow us to understand these emotions at a distance and through fictional scenarios of imaginative apprehension rather in the very real and literal confrontation of an actual face to face meeting with this monstrous other/alterity. It’s this aesthetic horror that allows us to shape our fears into something we can as humans handle, and begin to accept the possibility of knowing and realizing what was and is Unreal taking shape before our very eyes. For as Ligotti says:

Because if we look at a puppet in a certain way, we may sometimes feel it is looking back, not as a human being looks at us but as a puppet does. It may even seem to be on the brink of coming to life.


  1. Wright, Lindsay. ‘The Lion King’ Remake Brings Iconic Characters to Life. Tech Geeked July 19, 2019 https://techgeeked.com/the-lion-king-remake-brings-iconic-characters-to-life/
  2.  Lovecraft, H.P.. Supernatural Horror in Literature. Online: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/shil.aspx
  3.  Nelson, Victoria. The Secret Life of Puppets. Harvard University Press (November 1, 2003)
  4.  Negarestani, Reza. An Outside View of Ourselves as a Toy Model AGI. Intelligence and Spirit: https://www.urbanomic.com/book/intelligence-and-spirit/

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