The Heebie Jeebies and Fear Mongering Puppets- Emma F.
When we speak about aesthetic experiences, we often are referring to the pleasing ones. That’s easy enough; in colloquial language we are likely to coo over the edgy clothing ‘aesthetic’ of a person or the cutesy cherry blossom theme of a blog. I too sought to experience such pleasantries during my Christmas break (which on many occasions, I did), but realized that there were far more disconcerting things to behold that I still can categorize as an ‘aesthetic experience’. In short, eleven freaky Italian puppets changed the aesthetic game for me.
It was a usual Christmas venture to the Butchart Gardens in Victoria, where the grounds were decorated with lights and displays of the 12 days of Christmas (partridge in a pear tree and the whole bit). All was well until I encountered the eleven pipers piping, a line up of three-quarter-sized abominations with plaster faces, lilting slowly under their puppet strings. Some had large wrinkled smiles and hooked noses, others with squinted eyes and animalistic faces. It somehow seemed instantly wrong. And I couldn’t quite explain it at first; other people around me would recoil slightly at the sight of them as well. There weren’t quite disgusting, and not super scary, but just creepy. But why?
I thought back at that time to a video I had watched years earlier about what makes things creepy, and things seemed clearer. The video (linked further in the post) described that beings that look human, but are not quite human, tend to creep us out. Cartoon characters are different enough from us that we accept them, but these puppets were human models that were tweaked just slightly. This resulted in the feeling of creepy: we keep our guard up, feel slightly panicked, and want to remove ourselves from that experience.
Aesthetic experience or not? I think so.
In the past couple of weeks, I think my most steady and significant personal finding is that our response to the world around us (our aesthetic experience) can be universal (rooted in human biology) or experience-based (rooted in individual). And I think that the puppet situation has a big application here- if I was creeped out and others were too, then what is the universal evolutionary advantage of being repelled by such a being (if there is one?). Could my past experience have changed my response? It seems that both sides are at play.
To explore this idea a little further, it’s important to set the framework for what constitutes an aesthetic experience. I think that the aesthetic experience is that which evokes emotion, that which produces a ‘vivid experience’ and knowledge. The structure of thought is based on the work of Baumgarten, who claimed that the scale of aesthetic value of a work of art should be one that evaluates the ability to produce this ‘vivid experience’. And I would say this applies to our day-to-day experiences as well.
For example, when we are concentrating on a certain task (like riding a bike, making a sculpture), or even partaking in a passive act like watching TV, there are emotions attached. These emotions (or perhaps emotional phenomena), from happiness to fear to jealousy to surprise, are the criteria for an aesthetic experience to occur. We are constantly being bombarded with the sensory overload that is our world today, but all of our everyday stimuli may not produce an aesthetic experience. Yes, we may perceive things in our environment passively, such as a stop sign or a harbour seal, but if these things don’t evoke an emotional sensation, no aesthetic experience is produced.
Following this model, there is also knowledge to be had in aesthetic experiences. Congruent to my previous blog post on knowledge, having an aesthetic experience would have a physical effect on a brain due to brain plasticity. Performing an activity (and then repeating it) would continually change neural pathways and create knowledge from that experience, or an association of a certain emotion with a certain stimuli. That being said, not all knowledge is gained from aesthetic experiences exclusively. We can gain knowledge of a structure of a building, for example, or the route to a certain location, but these things may not evoke emotion, and therefore not produce an aesthetic experience.
Now back to the case of the puppets. The explanation to why slightly-non-human things creep us out is summed up perfectly in the video, so please take a watch.
In short, it’s the ambiguity of these faces that make them creepy. The puppet faces (like masks worn on humans) don’t show real, expressive human emotions, which are generally our markers for making a judgment on whether they are a threat or not. Our brain’s evolutionary response to this maybe-dangerous thing is the feeling of creepy. Not quite an adrenaline rush to kick off our fight or flight mode, but enough to make us wary. For example, if the creepy puppets at Butchart Gardens did wrestle their way out of the display to make a run at me, I was prepared to respond (or at least more prepared to respond than if I didn’t consider the puppets a possible threat).
This creepiness response is a development of human evolution; some evidence for this is provided in the fact that large groups of people generally have similar uneasy responses to the same ‘creepy’ things. In this case, the aesthetic experience and the emotional sensation is rooted in biology and therefore universal, taking into account that there are most likely outliers.
But can our past experience change our aesthetic experiences? Anecdotally, the obvious answer seems to be yes. Not all humans react to stimuli in the same manner; certain experiences don’t evoke the same emotions in the whole population. To give an example, a dear friend of mine was once pushed off a paddleboard and abandoned in seal-infested waters. When he sees a seal, the experience instills fear. However, when I see a seal, it produces a positive, happy response. In this case, his experience has caused him to relate seals with danger, and thus alter his aesthetic experiences involving seals, compared to mine. The same goes for the viewing of art (plays, painting, poetry), as certain narratives, themes, and messages will tend to resonate with different audiences based on that audience’s experience.
Now this is just speculation, but perhaps it may possible for the Butchart puppets to elicit a positive reaction to some. Let’s say a certain garden-goer has dedicated their life to the art of puppet-making and can artistically appreciate the nuance and quality of the puppets as an art piece. Could this experience trump the natural ‘creepiness’ effect of the puppets? Or at least reduce it? I can’t say for sure in this specific case, but I feel confident in saying that our experiences do have a part in affecting the way in which we interact with aesthetics.
So, if you are not into voluntarily creeping yourself out, I would avoid the Butchart Gardens at Christmas time. If you are into the act of exposing yourself to a variety of aesthetic experiences, positive and negative, it might be your jam (even as a bit of a self-experiment). Pictures to come of the hellish puppets, will post at a later date.