Burger King’s advertising campaign involving their human-like monarch spokesman might just be the creepiest series of films ever produced. After seeing the one in which The King offers a burger out of a presumed-empty backseat, a friend of mine couldn’t drive alone at night for years.
Aside from the what-happens-in-Vegas homoerotics, why does this commercial make me want so badly to jump out of my skin? Catrin Misselhorn offers some answers in her piece “Empathy and Dyspathy with Androids: Philosophical, Fictional and (Neuro-)Psychological Perspectives,” or what I’ve renamed “The Unified Theory of Creepy Talking Dolls.” Misselhorn attempts to verify and expand upon the work of Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori who theorized a drop-off in human familiarity with androids as they become too human. (N.B. android is used here to describe all human-like objects, not just mechanical ones.)
The King belongs right at the bottom of this graph, with “zombie” below “corpse.” The valley is characterized not by a simple failure to empathize, but by actual dyspathy. They make us shudder. To describe this, Misselhorn develops a phenomenology of concepts. She argues that we don’t just encounter conceptual categories on the intellectual level, but that it feels different to be in the presence of instances of different abstractions. It feels different to wake up next to a human than a non-human, even if we personify the non-human to a point of empathy. The uncanny is that which fails to fit comfortably in any conceptual group, and as a result, we don’t know how to feel about it. Misselhorn writes,
“At the heart of my explanation lies the idea that in these cases the triggering of the concept gets so strong that it is about to turn into full-fledged concept application. Yet the attempt to apply the concept fails since the object of the perception is not accepted as an instance of the concept. For this reason the process leading to empathy is brusquely interrupted. However, because of the humanlikeness of the android the concept is triggered again and is repeatedly about to be elicited. This leads to a kind of very fast oscillation between four situations: the mere triggering of the concept, the reaching of the threshold of concept application, the failure of concept application resulting in a complete turning off of the concept, and the renewed triggering in continuing on to perceive the object.”
The King attempts to be human and fails, but never falls with stability under any conceptual grouping. We are even unable to define it/him as object or subject. That unterminated oscillation means the phenomenon of the encounter with the uncanny is characterized by its flux. Common affective terms for this experience (unsettling, uneasy, disturbing, etc.) may sound vague, but they accurately describe the oscillating phenomenon of the uncanny. The uneasiness quickly turns to fear and disgust, what Misselhorn calls dyspathy, even if we’re able to love and feel empathy for the less-humanoid Wall-E. A beloved doll does not ask to be human, so humans can attribute it feeling and empathize without risk. We hate and fear The King’s plastic smile because it demands our empathy and recognition, but in its immovable gleaming arc, rejects it at the same time.