Brainstorming on creepiness

My current running joke is that I’m going to complete my pop culture trilogy by following up on Awkwardness and Why We Love Sociopaths with a volume on creepiness. Surely this means that I will wind up writing it eventually, as I seem to be doomed to be taken in by my own jokes. (A sidenote — I have another running joke about how I should write a book entitled Bonhoeffer: A Religionless Interpretation. That will be fun.)

The concept of creepiness is less clear to me than either awkwardness or sociopathy, however, and so I have made it a point to try to talk it through with various audiences. In one conversation, we focused on the way creepiness focuses on a certain bodily excess, starting with the classical figure of the “nerd,” with his exaggerated glasses, ill-fitting clothing, bizarre posture, bad skin, etc. We then moved on to the classic SNL character “Pat,” whose ambiguous gender was a paradoxical way of highlighting his or her bodily existence, making us obsessed with Pat’s genitals precisely by hiding them so completely.

On another occasion, the focus was on comedy in the Andy Kaufman vein and the various creepy Adult Swim shows (above all Tim and Eric’s work). Here there was a sense that they exceed awkwardness because they may or may not be aware of the inappropriateness of what they’re doing — i.e., they might actually be insane.

In a more recent discussion, the paradigm was rather the creepy guy who falsely believes himself to be a seducer. There was also the question of whether women could be properly creepy in this category, and we wondered if the proverbial “cougar” is the exception that proves the rule — a woman turned creepy by being masculinized.

So I’m sure that you all will have completely different ideas as well.

49 thoughts on “Brainstorming on creepiness

  1. Not that you need any models for writing about these topics, but when I read the posts about your ongoing book project, I wonder if you’ve read any of William Ian Miller’s series of books on related topics, e.g., Humiliation, The Anatomy of Disgust, and The Mystery of Courage — especially the second book, in light of today’s post.

  2. Creepiness is often sexual, and I think in general has to do with invasiveness: the creep occupies space in a restless, ill-fitting way that spills over into others’ spaces (the geek may seem withdrawn, but is clumsy, bumps into things, stares too long and hard at you, and so on). We’re creeped out when the separation between our space and the other’s space is threatened, when we’re brought into unwanted intimacy, not by a direct violation of our boundaries but by the other’s seeming inability to keep still within their own.

  3. Some analysis of the word itself is probably fitting. It seems to me, impressionistically, the “creeping” as a movement usually describes insects — and so the creepy person keeps unconsciously, heedlessly “creeping” into your space.

  4. I seem to remember a creep being a weirdo, someone who doesn’t belong here, but who wants to be noticed. I remember them being especially concerned with others being “special” and their own lack of specialness, with a concomitant wish to be special, so fucking special.

  5. Problem: Pat isn’t creepy, though Pat might be unsettling.

    Problem for further investigation: what is the relation between a “creepy person” and a person who is a creep?

  6. I have definitely gotten pushback before on the idea of Pat being creepy.

    Daniel of course brings up the locus classicus of the creep — but out of respect for Radiohead’s apparent wishes, I have been pretending that song was never recorded.

  7. Two possible explanations of “creepy” come to mind: (1) those who shouldn’t be sexual (the nerdy, the ugly, etc.) are sexual in inappropriate ways (running the gamut here from merely being awkward to being obsessive and overly committed to their fascinations) instead of offering their advances in more socially sanctioned ways; (2) anything that David Lynch does (n fact, I would be disappointed in a book on the creepy didn’t talk a lot about Lynch).

  8. Thinking about your Cougar Exception: it occurs to me that Mel on Flight of the Conchords might be less a masculonised cougar (though she is predatory and inappropriate) than infantilised – a grown woman acting like a teen girl stalker is decidedly creepy.

  9. If not Martha Stewart, then Paula Dean, because her bodily excess (too fleshy, too white teeth, too silver hair, too much makeup) is jarring when it coincides with her preying upon her (male) guests with lewd jokes.

  10. Completely unrelated, but William Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye is fantastic. Best book I’ve read on blood sanctions.

    I’m not sure Mel is a stalker, as such, let alone a “teen girl stalker.” She’s a fan-girl and competition is easy when there are no other fans. Mel is more of a comment on the creepiness inherent in fan culture. She’s a discussion board personified.

    Franklin Mott from “True Blood” and Trinity from “Dexter” are obvious creeps in the neighbourhood of sociopaths. The first chapter could be “From Sociopaths to Creeps: The Trinity Killer and Franklin Mott.”

  11. There is also creeping as ingratiation, “creeping up” to someone: an indirect approach, distinct from brazen flattery or open friendliness. Compare Keats: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket”.

  12. Why (or when) are fixations creepy? It’s creepy to have a thing about schoolgirls, or a thing about porcelain ornaments, or a thing about bacteria. The thing in its thingness is creepy: unsocialised, excessive attachment which draws other things into its ambit. The foot fetishist who works in a shoe shop, who lingers a little too lovingly over his customer’s extremities…

    It’s not creepy to have a thing about motorbikes, though; no-one thinks the guy who works in a music store who really, really loves vintage guitars is creepy. So there are obviously some gender and more broadly sexual norms in play here.

  13. This – my fourth comment in a row, and fifth so far, on this post – is itself verging on the creepy. What do I want from you, Adam? Why now am I trying so hard to bring myself to your attention? (It’s a bit creepy that I just called you Adam, too, even though that’s your name. Adam, Adam…the more I say it, the creepier it gets). None of this creepiness is in the least ameliorated by reflexively commenting on it. I hope I’m not creeping you out – I’m not, am I…?

  14. I think Dominic’s point about creepiness and personal space is important. I would also add that I think creepiness is tied strongly to voyeurism and the uncomfortable feeling that one is being watched. The best example I can think of is Ricky, the guy with the camcorder, from American Beauty.

  15. I’ve always associated being creepy with being lecherous. In the gay/queer community, the term “creeper” gets thrown around a lot. The creeper occupies a weird liminal space between being coy/suggestive about their sexual advances and being overt/aggressive, neither of which are creepy in themselves, but the weird liminal space between the two is. The creeper is overt/covert at the same time, aggressive in an unusually quiet way. This is probably similar to what Dominic was getting at with his mention of invasiveness.

  16. Is it not ingredient to creepiness that the person is to a large degree unaware that they are creepy? They invade your space because they’re oblivious to the social boundary. The mid-30s computer tech eating an ice-cream and watching kids play in a park is unaware that what he’s doing is creepy, and it’s this fact that he’s ignorant of social conventions that undermines your ability to trust that he will be able to subject himself to other necessary social constraints. In other words if he doesn’t know that it’s wrong to scratch his balls in public, maybe he also doesn’t know that it’s not ok for him to try to scratch my balls in public . It’s this fear caused by uncertainty that makes them creepy. The person who knows that what they’re doing is wrong isn’t a creep, just evil. Well, that’s my working hypothesis, anyway.

  17. It seems to me that of sometime definitely doesn’t know that what they are doing is wrong, they’re not creepy; they’re awkward, or perhaps pathetic in some way. Creepiness occurs when when someone almost certainly knows what they’re doing is wrong, but they stop just short of making this completely certain (this is a kind of power play). If they make it clear that they know that what they’re doing is wrong, they stop being creepy, and become a creep.

  18. I don’t think that consciousness/unconsciousness can be a defining trait of creepiness, because there are undisputed examples of creepiness incorporating both.

  19. Reading Voyou’s response to Rob L, I had the thought of creepiness as a kind of passive-aggression. It’s seems as if it has to be linked with desire as Dominic is suggesting. One wants something but for any number of reasons one can’t come right out and say it or do it. These inhibiting factors can be social/cultural and/or personal/psychological . It might be illegality, impropriety, taboo, shame, disgust, shyness, ambivalence, etc. or any combination of these. So one just hovers – indefinitely or until one is able to cross over whatever inhibitory threshold(s) exist but I think the “creepiness” inheres or sticks throughout. I believes one’s awareness run might the spectrum from complete unconsciousness to near total consciousness.

  20. There are some typos I could correct but I wanted to add that while I think one can be aware of one’s own creepiness it’s mostly others, of course, who are observing, sensing and attributing that creepiness.

  21. Is creepiness different from awkwardness in regards to the question of intent underlying the odd actions of the offending person? Perhaps awkwardness is a lack of intent/understanding of the protocols at hand, and creepiness is a secret excess of intent or rules on the part of the “other” person. If the awkward person is someone who is unaware of “public” rules (or enters situations in which the public rules break down, etc.), is the creepy person the one who has all sorts of plans or protocols that everyone else doesn’t understand – but everyone can intuit their existence, hence the effect of creepiness. We’re not privy to their internal world, but parts of it are noticeable, like they have been swept under the rug but bulge out from underneath it. So, the guy who lurks around a playground with apparently nothing to do, but with a look in his eye that says he is up to something – that secret excess makes me feel creepy. You get the sense that there is a structure to his activity, but it’s not apparent what that is. Perhaps it’s an inverted, obscene sense of Kant’s “purposiveness” from his third critique with respect to social situations – you get a sense that there is a pattern but there isn’t any clear purpose to what you can sense. Lots of stories (To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, with Boo Radley) hinge on the revelation that the creepy character’s secret purposes are actually good. But much of what we call news is a backwards projection of the opposite (“how could we not have known that the Virginia Tech shooter was harboring a secret plan to kill lots of people, since he was creepy?” or “how could we detect people like this better, by understanding their secret plans before they have surfaced?”)

  22. I guess I am saying that I don’t think it matters whether or not someone knows what they are doing is wrong. A child molester is creepy, but so is Boo Radley. Creepiness is, I think, an effect of sensing someone else’s seemingly excessive, well-structured desire, but being unsure about the danger that poses to others.

  23. I want to echo what Jeremy suggested. I think that is one reason David Lynch’s work is creepy- it has a way of making the viewer feel like a voyeur.

    Creepiness seems to function by exposing or revealing something that is hidden. Paula Deen is creepy because she has this image of being a southern lady that is to perfect to be real. So her image itself points to a certain level of deception.

    I tweeted Adam, but I just wanted to plug the movie Happiness as a great creepy movie.

    And I nominate Michelle Bachmann as creepiest living human being.

  24. Ben B said: “Creepiness seems to function by exposing or revealing something that is hidden.”

    But once you reveal that hidden thing, doesn’t the person stop being creepy – and start to be whatever that revealed thing is? When you find out Martha Stewart is a monster underneath her veneer, does she stop being creepy and start being, well, just mean?

  25. Brennan wrote: “Creepiness is, I think, an effect of sensing someone else’s seemingly excessive, well-structured desire, but being unsure about the danger that poses to others.”

    I think this nails creepiness.

    This is why the devil is such a creepy image.

  26. Brennan: I don’t know. Going back to Michelle Bachmann, everytime I see here on the tv, I cringe. I have a pretty good idea of who she is, but she still creeps me out.

  27. To me, the creepiest pictures of Sarah Palin are the ones where she looks at once attractive and, if you look at it again, subtly angry, like when she is smiling but also snarling.

  28. Relative to other politicians, that is. It’s like saying “well, it’s warm for Greenland in the winter.”

  29. Creepiness is about the projection of one’s fears onto the vague, unpredictable behavior of others.

    I’ll assume that you commenters insisting on it being sexual are not victims of sexual predation yourselves, because your comments look like those of prudes who think sex belongs under wraps. There’s nothing creepy about a socially awkward 35 year old man eating ice cream on a public park bench within visual range of children. Who says the park belongs only to the children? Who says the creeepiness-or-not depends on the presence of children?

    Creepiness is about the latency of a human ability to harm others. It can be sexual or existential. Serial killers who don’t commit sexual acts against their victims are no less creepy for their asexual murdering.

    The more safe a person’s experience, the more bizarre his/her extrapolations and projections of what is “creepy” in others. The more someone sees another as “creepy” when the person looks simply non-mainstream, the more I think that creep-labelling someone is disconnected from experience and is living in a fantasy.

    The worst threat to a child or a fellow human is from those we know, not utter strangers who “look creepy.” Anyone who’s been harmed by another will be able to verify this fact.

    But I’m sure it makes for interesting discussion, this bunch of intellectual-wannabe wankers talking about who and what is “creepy” from an Urban Sophisticate’s perspective.


  30. Karl, thank you! For years I was that guy, suffering the scorn of onlookers while I sat alone eating ice-cream at the park. It’s nice to know that someone agrees with me that kids don’t own the fucking park; it’s for everyone.

  31. You’re almost funny, Adam. And you pretend you’re a humorist?

    That’s rich. Maybe you’re just too high-IQ’d for an idiot like me. After all, supposedly I’m encouraging pederasts to eat ice cream in public parks.

    What a comical twist of reality. In High-IQ’d Pwogland, any man 35 years old who isn’t married must be either gay, or a pederast looking to sexually abuse children.

    Don’t dislocate that shoulder as you pat yourself on the back, Adam.

  32. Mike,

    I’d been thinking about the uncanny too but I wonder if your formulation should be reversed so that creepiness might be thought of as a form of the uncanny.

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