What Makes Us 'Creeped Out'? One Scientist Explains

Clowns have always been slightly creepy but the 2016 creepy clown phenomenon has capitalized on this. In a recent psychological study, "clown," topped the list of creepy occupations. (iStock)

'Tis the season of creepiness and not just because of the election. Following a summer of creepy clown hysteria, the jokesters are threatening to rear their frizzy heads again tonight.

This makes it an apt time to consider why certain things, like the original clown "sightings" in South Carolina, creep us out. What makes us uncomfortable, sometimes even scared, in situations and not others?

Psychology professor Frank Andrew has been researching just why we get "creeped out" for a book he's writing on the nature of creepiness.

Most women have encountered that creepy guy who stands a little too close, smiles a bit too much and just won't let you escape the conversation.
Most women have encountered that creepy guy who stands a little too close, smiles a bit too much and just won't let you escape the conversation. (Casey Rojas/tumblr)

“I noticed all of a sudden how frequently the word was getting used," says McAndrews. His students at Knox College in Illinois would mention a person or a thing that 'creeped them out' and McAndrews got curious.

"I started asking them, ‘well what exactly do you mean by that?’ And I started hearing similar things from different people.”

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All of their answers had one underlying theme, one unifying factor that made the person or situation creepy: the presence of an ambiguous threat.

Not something frightening or strange, mind you.  A killer on the loose is frightening -- there's no ambiguity in the potential danger there. And your nerdy, socially awkward cousin may be strange, but he's harmless, and therefore not creepy. Creepiness is a function of uncertainty.

In a paper he wrote with undergraduate psychology student Sara Koehnke, McAndrews explains, "It is our belief that creepiness is anxiety aroused by the ambiguity of whether there is something to fear or not, and/or by the ambiguity of the precise nature of the threat (e.g., sexual, physical violence, contamination, etc)."

In addition to the finding that creepiness is associated with ambiguity, they also discovered that certain occupations and hobbies are linked with creepiness. Also, that men are creepier than women and that women are more likely to perceive sexual threat from a "creepy" person.

Who's That Creepy Guy at the Bar?

Many women have encountered the dude who leans in uncomfortably close, invading their personal space while smirking ominously.

"If our creep detectors are out there to protect us from threats they’re gonna be especially sensitive to men being around because men are potentially more dangerous," says McAndrews.

The creepy sloth meme.
The creepy sloth meme. (Quick meme)

In fact, in the online survey McAndrews did, 95 percent of the participants of both genders said that a creepy person is much more likely to be a man than a woman.

And certain behaviors were deemed creepier than others.

When respondents to McAndrews’ survey were asked to imagine their friend met someone that he or she described as "creepy," they had to rate the likelihood the person exhibited 44 different behaviors. Actions participants rate as "very likely to be a characteristic of a creepy person" included:

  • Standing too close to someone
  • Smiling peculiarly
  • Laughing at inappropriate times
  • Not letting someone out of conversation
  • Displaying unwanted sexual interest
  • Asking to take pictures of people
  • Having bulging eyes
  • Having greasy hair
  • Licking lips

And it should come as no surprise that certain occupations were considered creepier than others. Taxidermist, sex shop owner, funeral director and taxi driver made the top five. The creepiest job of all? Clowns.

Creepy Things on the Interweb

But humans aren't the only ones that can be creepy. Zombies are especially creepy precisely because we don't know what to make of them.

"Zombies are creepier than ghosts," McAndrew notes, "because it’s sort of an Uncanny Valley kind of thing. They are human, or they were human, but are they alive or are they dead?" 

The Uncanny Valley refers to human replicas, like robots or dolls, that appear almost, but not quite, like real humans eliciting feelings of eeriness and revulsion among some observers.

Think about the Hosts in HBO's Westworld -- lifelike androids that exist to serve and please visitors to the Western theme park. And dolls have long held a creepy place in our imagination, from the Twilight Zone's Talky Tina to Child Play's Chucky.

However, dolls don't pose a real life threat so why do many consider them creepy? McAndrew says it's a different type of creepiness than the threat of creepiness.

"There’s the creepiness that involves threat and there’s the creepiness that’s just sort of troubling because you don’t know how to respond to the thing or categorize it."

The latter leaves you feeling uncomfortable and uneasy. But it's not just androids, dolls and zombies. Certain animal photos online have started to take on creepy dimensions. Memes of a gorilla, alpaca and rat have been circulating on Pinterest.

Perhaps most notable is the creepy sloth, a tamer version of the viral rape sloth meme, which taps into women's fear of creeps as sexual predators.

But many of us love to be creeped out. We line up to enter haunted houses on Halloween and pay to watch horror flicks. So why do people seek this out?

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"As long as we know that we are safe, the thrill of being in a scary movie or going through a haunted house comes from the opportunity to mentally rehearse strategies for dealing with potentially deadly situations should they arise," says McAndrews. "We're very adaptive to be drawn to such things!"

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