Theory in a Digital Age: A Project of English 483 Students, Coastal Carolina University

The Twilight Zone in the Uncanny Valley

            Though Rod Serling’s television series The Twilight Zone often feels atmospherically sinister in the uncertainty of its content and context, it is understood to be cathartic and mostly safe due to its limitations as a work of fiction. This feeling of both intrigue (of its fantastical differences from our world) and discomfort (at its haunting similarities to our own flaws and conflicts) is described by the “uncanny valley” theory. According to the theory premiered by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, when one’s comfort levels are charted as they correspond to viewing a representation of a human-like form, high comfort ratings are recorded in response to clearly artificial images and to representations identical to healthy humans. Between these, though, there is a sudden nosedive in comfort when viewing something that is not quite convincingly human, but which we are nonetheless inclined to perceive as alive (Mori). 
            In the case of the Zone, the uncanny content in question is not simply a representation of something human-like (though cyborgs, talking dolls and dummies, and sentient mannequins do make appearances) but a fictionalized reflection of society or our species in general. When viewers find their skin crawling at the sight of poorly rendered video game characters, this phenomenon is in accordance with Sigmund Freud’s conventional definition of uncanniness as well as the uncanny valley. When viewers find themselves shaken by The Twilight Zone episodes that make their surroundings feel familiar and yet suddenly foreign, uncanniness is performing a slightly different function – more conceptual than visual – but it relates to the valley just as directly. In fact, the Zone’s existence as an entire dimension rather than a singular entity or image might make it even more compatible, at least at the linguistic level, with notions of the uncanny valley. Though the word “valley” in this instance describes a visual representation of a negative reaction, it also calls to mind associations with geography, an idea that The Twilight Zone frequently plays with and complicates.

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