Friday, May 14, 2021

Creeps and Creepiness

A few weeks ago, my colleague Georgia Warnke asked me if I have a theory of creeps to go alongside my theory of jerks.  Are jerks creepy?  Are creeps always also jerks?  What's the difference between a jerk, a creep, an asshole, a bastard, and a schmuck?

Interesting and important questions!  Really.  Slang terms of abuse often reflect one's moral vision in surprisingly subtle ways.  (See also my treatment of the sucky and the awesome.)

After hashing it out a bit, I have the beginnings of a theory.

Let's start with being creepy.  The Oxford English Dictionary traces the usage back to the late 19th century: Something is creepy if it is prone to make your skin creep from horror or repugnance.  But that's a little thin.  Why are abandoned houses creepy but not wars (which are more horrible) or puddles of vomit (which are more repugnant)?

Another possibility, suggested by a recent psychological study, suggests that creepiness is related to ambiguity of threat.  That's an interesting idea and, I think, partly right -- but not all ambiguous threats are creepy.  If a schoolteacher tells a child, "you'll be punished for that" or if a mobster says "you're gonna pay", that's an ambiguous threat, but it isn't creepy.

In his forthcoming book Making Monsters, David Livingstone Smith notes that the phenomenon of the "uncanny valley" in robots is a phenomenon of creepiness more than "uncanniness" as the word is used in 21st century English: Robots that look too close to human, without looking exactly human, seem eerie or revolting.  Here's Wikipedia's example:

Livingstone Smith notes that monsters are sometimes creepy in a similar way: Werewolves, zombies, and vampires, for example, are close to human, but not essentially human, and that fact is central to their creepiness, especially when there is malevolence beneath.

A creepy house might be creepy in a somewhat similar way: It's close to seeming like a normal house but it's not quite right.  One senses that something ominous lurks beneath the surface.  Similarly, a creepy doll combines cuteness with a hint of something wrong and malevolent.  The creepiest stories are those where you can tell that something evil is going on, because things are wrong on the surface in a foreboding way, but you can't quite place your finger on that evil.

Oddly, perhaps, the etymology of a person as a creep is quite different.  Per the OED, originally a "creep" was a thief who crept around quietly, a stealthy robber, especially one who worked in a brothel.

The contemporary use of "creep" as a noun to refer to a person no longer suggests thievery, but some of the sexualized tinge remains:  The paradigmatic creep has sneaky, sexual intentions -- the kind of person who might follow a young woman at a distance or peer through her window, taking photos.  Like the thieving creep, there's also something sneaky, something invasive.  Not all creeps are sexual, however.  A car salesman could be a creep if he acts strangely, invades your personal space, and throws you off balance with overly personal questions that superficially seem nice, for the sake of ripping you off on the sale, even without any sexual dimension.

Further complicating matters, not all creepy people are creeps.  A lean, long-fingered undertaker with a soft voice and a thin smile might be creepy.  But he's not a creep -- not unless, maybe, he also has some secret, malevolent intent.

Here's my first pass at pulling it together.  Like a creepy doll or an uncanny robot, a creep is close to normal on the outside, but not quite normal.  There's something subtly off in the creep's appearance or manner, as though the creep is wearing a mask that doesn't quite fit.  Beneath the surface lurks an active malevolence -- maybe sexual, maybe not -- that somehow pokes through.  The creep is sneaky and invasive, not blatantly aggressive.  You can sense, somehow, that the creep is untrustworthy.  But you can't quite nail down exactly what is wrong or what the creep is secretly planning.

[Thanks to Georgia Warnke, Katharine Henshaw, and Tom Cogswell for discussion.]

[Opening picture is a still from Weirdy's rendition of Radiohead's song "Creep" in The Hollow.]


Update, 1:02 p.m.

On Twitter, Sofia Ortiz-Hinojosa posted a helpful pair of comments that I append here:

A "creep" in my experience is someone who misunderstands or misapplies social mores of politeness just enough to be threatening or dangerous in certain contexts or to certain people, but no so much that they are likely to end up in trouble with their friends or bosses.

Subtlety is not necessary. Also see: men who usher you into rooms alone during a party on a pretext, unsolicited nudes, ppl who proposition you in inappropriate locations (ex., work, a cafeteria, groceries), ppl who leer at your body on public transport, ppl who shout innuendo.

I really like the idea that creeps misunderstand or misapply social mores of politeness. This seems central to canonical cases of creeps, including both the creepy sexual harrasser and the creepy car salesman. Without this abuse of politeness, maybe the person really isn't a creep. The creep's misuse of politeness might be both the surface feature that strikes others as ominous and also the guise under which the creep covers his intentions.

Unsubtle creeps are perhaps more of a challenge for my view. A first-pass answer is that the unsubtle behavior might be the final delivery of the malevolent intent, revealing that any earlier quasi-normal, quasi-polite behavior was a facade. It's like when the ghost finally reveals itself in the creepy house or when the salesman finally drops all pretense of chumminess.


Update, 1:42 p.m.

Also: I seem to have missed David Livingstone Smith's Aeon article on creepiness, which emphasizes the creepy as unnatural and category violating (is a creep also unnatural and category violating, or here do the terms diverge?), and Bonnie Mann's brilliant analysis, in an APA Newsletter article, of "creepers" as men who, through sexual acquisitiveness and feelings of entitlement, steal women's time and pre-empt their ability to structure the relationship non-sexually or on their own sexual terms.


Chris Iversen said...

Could it be helpful to use the concept of conversational implicature in analysing (some forms) of creepiness...or the ambiguity of creepiness....

The description of conversational implicatures:
"Conversational implicatures (i) are implied by the speaker in making an utterance; (ii) are part of the content of the utterance, but (iii) do not contribute to direct (or explicit) utterance content; and (iv) are not encoded by the linguistic meaning of what has been uttered."

So the malevolent, sexual intention might often be a conversational implicature...and never directly expressed in the linguistic meaning.but expressed in other ways (in body language, for example)..and this constitutes the ambiguity that is necessary for much of creepy acts...For example, a woman offers a man a pie she has baked....the man responds: "I would love some of your pie"..but he responds with an angry, desirous body language directed at the woman...his aggressive, sexual intentions are not at all encoded in the semantics of his utterance...only in his body language...

what is interesting, maybe, is that the ambiguity could be reverse...and also constitute creepiness...for example, a sweet child could utter "i am going to kill you"...but its body language does not express any trace of the aggression is encoded in the linguistic meaning, but is lacking in the body language...and this ambiguity leads to creepiness...??

Chris Iversen said...

yeah, skimming through this conversational implicature - stuff...maybe it doesn't cover body language acts in it's technical definition, it seems (i dont know much about this stuff)...but still, conflicting communicative signals (conflicting verbal and non - verbal signals) still seems to constitute creepiness...or some forms of it....and maybe conversational implicatures proper also can help constitue creepiness...?????

James of Seattle said...

Seems like “creepy” still applies to certain robots, as does the “mask that doesn’t quite fit”, but I’m not so sure about the active malevolence. Instead, the mask seems to be an attempt to invite sympathy/empathy/goodwill, but not fitting, fails.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Chris: Yes, that seems right. It also fits when with Sofia's Twitter comments, which I appended to the end of the post.

James: Right, maybe "malevolent" is too strong in some cases. Creeps have malevolent intent. And the creepiest stories, monsters, and houses hint of some malevolence beneath. But maybe a badly executed robot could be creepy without suggesting malevolence. Maybe sometimes creepiness suggests death instead of malevolence, and a creepy robot is a little too much like a corpse?

Unknown said...

Follow-up thought (reposted from Twitter)

By 'misapplying norms of politeness', I meant to emphasize that they strain the person on the receiving end's sense of politeness. Enough doubt exists about whether *they're* being rude that it might be impolite to be paranoid and/or tell them off.

The "creep" is someone who invades your personal space, and you move away, but they get close again, and you're not sure whether they have bad hearing or are being predatory; follows you onto the subway after a date ends; stares too long; compliments you perhaps suggestively; etc

Predatory creeps deliberately misuse norms of politeness in this way so you feel obliged to put up with them. Gaslighting behavior might follow, "lighten up / I was just keeping you company / I wanted to hear you better / so I'm not allowed to look at things in public?" Or, after a catcall: "Come on, it's a compliment"; after asking you out at a work function: "Well where else would I see you?"; lingering too long when you're trying to leave / blocking your way / entering a private space with you uninvited, "I just wanted to keep you company"

A difficulty of this is ppl with actual social incapacities can behave in "creepy ways" without being A Creep. I know some folks w cognitive disabilities or social processing difficulties that have this problem; they make people uncomfortable, "seem creepy", but they mean well.

Borderline cases are hardest: been on dates where I wasn't sure whether my date had a social inability or were being predatory. They "seem creepy", stare too long, don't have the right emotional reactions, don't pick up your clear nonverbal/social cues. No 2nd date in those cases

So to me "creepy people": liars :: piggyback on / abuse social norms of politeness / manners to serve their ends : rely on/ abuse conversational norms of truth-telling to mislead or deceive others

*Freeload*, sorry, that's the word I wanted –– creeps are freeloaders on social mores and manners (especially of politeness) in a kind of way that liars are freeloaders on norms of truth-telling in speech and conversation. It burdens others w keeping things straight.

Chris Iversen said...

Ok, what about these thoughts: What characterises a creep (lets call him C) is that he harbors some kind of desire (maybe exclusively a sexual and/or aggressive desire) towards another person Y....Y is the object of C's sexual and/or aggressive desire....

these desires could be of varying degrees or intensities...very strong or maybe somewhat weak....

Another necessary component for the existence of a creep is that he cognizes his object of desire (that is: Y) as an literal object..C has an uncomplete cognition or conception of Y...he primarily views her as an someone not with a mind and agency of her own....for example, his potentially sexual desire towards Y is geared towards the most immediate sexually arousing body parts...and not towards her as a complete person...or towards her own wishes and desires (which might be very contrary to C's wishes and desires)

Another necessary component for the existence of the creep is that he also is restrained in acting out his desires towards Y...these restraints would be constituted by the recognition that acting out his desires might lead to him having to experience suffering...for example, negative responses (towards him) from other people nearby if he acts out his desire towards Y....

And what also characterises the creep is that he might try to remove these, for example, lure Y to a secluded place...and there have his way with Y...(Sofia Ortiz-Hinojosa mentions: "men who usher you into rooms alone during a party on a pretext")

And at the same time: there is also some form of covering up from C that C views Y as an attempt to hide that he views Y in this incomplete way...hiding the fact that he does not care about her as a complete a subject...

The creep might not be aware that he cognizes Y as an object, also...?? might be a lack of self - awareness with regards to this in C...and even further: this whole dynamic of the creep might be something the creep lacks awarenes or knowledge of...??

And another thing that might characterize the creepiness of the creep is that in his incomplete cognition of the other person...he might himself be regarded an incomplete person and his lack of empathy and taking the others viewpoint...he might be himself more an object than a whole person/subject/agent...and this might explain why dolls are creepy....they exhibit some qualities of a whole and complete person...but lack other essential parts towards full personhood...and in this regard the unempathetic person who views others as exclusively objects of desire is himself object - like...

and this might also explain the creepiness of the "lean, long-fingered undertaker with a soft voice and a thin smile"...his creepiness might not be sexual and/or aggressive in nature, but stems maybe somewhat from his viewing of the dead persons and the mourners as not completely human...he is emotionally removed from his daily dealings...thereby himself also becoming somewhat more object - like than subject - like....??..thereby becoming somewhat creepy....

I dont know...conceptual analysis is difficult!!!!:)

Jeremy Fischer said...

Nice post on a topic I’ve also been interested in! And I appreciate the reference to David Livingstone Smith's article, which I somehow hadn’t seen despite trying to scour the literature for articles on creepiness. In case anyone is interested in reading more (shameless plug coming…), a couple of years ago Rachel Fredericks and I wrote something up on ‘The Creeps as a Moral Emotion.’ ( Like you, we emphasize that creeps are in some ways ‘close to normal,’ and we agree that not all creeps are sexual. But we deny that appearance or manner plays such a big role in creepiness, and argue that certain features of moral agency matter more. (Though maybe we simply focus more on what you call ‘unsubtle creeps’ in your 1:02pm update. Not sure.)

So, for instance, we insist on drawing an appearance/reality distinction when it comes to (perfectly non-creepy) neuroatypical people who might nonetheless be interpreted as creepy. So long as we are ‘sensitive to important moral considerations,’ we are not creepy even if our look or manner is slightly off. This might involve disagreement with your claim that not all creepy people are creeps. Your undertaker-with-lean-long-fingers-who-is-not-a-creep example here is great. You say that he might be creepy even if he is not in fact a creep. We say, instead, that in such cases one might seem to be creepy without really being so – or inspire a non-fitting emotional experience of the creeps. Once you befriend the undertaker, are satisfied in the high quality of his character, and learn that he merely has Marfan syndrome, you should probably stop feeling the creeps towards him, as there is nothing that makes the creeps fitting.

Also possibly relevant is a distinction we draw between feeling ‘the visual creeps’ and feeling ‘the moral creeps.’ We might feel the creeps about some insect crawling our way, but we would never say that the insect is ‘a creep.’ That suggests to us that some distinction needs to be made regarding the presence of moral agency, which we assume insects lack. So, we say that not all creepy activity involves ‘moral creepiness.’

We also consider cases that go the other way: creeps who nonetheless always appear totally normal and perhaps even charming, though their behavior is morally egregious. We mention Henry Kissinger, g√©nocidaires, and (perhaps more controversially) some who delight in eating factory farmed animal products despite knowing about the horrible living conditions on such ‘farms.’ We also discuss the creepiness of white supremacist violence, seen on display (for example) in posed postcard photos of lynching parties. For that reason also we begin the paper by talking about the movie Get Out, some of whose super-creepy antagonists appear perfectly normal throughout—which heightens their creepiness, we think!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these cases, and the lessons we’ve drawn from them. And I’ll be interested to see how you develop your account!

Philosopher Eric said...

A few things. First I suspect that the English term “creep” emerged from such mobility, and (despite the OED account) not so much in the sense of stealth based thievery, but rather legged bugs that move across our skin. To me that’s what we ultimately get back to today with “creepy”.

Second, I think we should make sure to at least formally acknowledge this as a subjective rather than objective dynamic. This should be something which is felt by means of brain function. It’s fine if we want to call someone who makes us feel this way “a creep”, but there should ultimately be a subjective element to this which most of us consider brain based.

Third, if we are going to assess certain people who tend to evoke this sensation in others as “creep”, it should be productive to identify two diametrically opposed varieties based upon their theory of mind skills. The more blameless should simply be deficient here, though ironically the most concerning should only succeed with their creepiness to the extent that their ToM skills permit. I like the “freeload” term that Sophia brought up for people who both have and choose to use such skills this way. Still I suspect that the vast majority of us would rather that life not put us in the position of being “creep”, but rather “one who is creeped upon”.

chinaphil said...

I think I have very similar intuitions to Chris Iversen above. Firstly, I don't think creepy house creepy and bad behaviour creepy are the same thing. I never considered the creepy house version, so I don't have any ideas about it here. But I do have an idea about what creepy behaviour is: I think it is behaviour that is motivated by the actor's pleasure, completely ignoring the feelings of the object of the actions. Obviously the classic case is sexually inappropriate behaviour, which is creepy when the actor seems to ignore the feelings of the recipient. But overly enthusiastic salesmen could be creepy as well, if they seem to be enjoying their own patter at your expense.

Arnold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

There seems to be a tacit basic agreement here that being a creep is a socially useful description/evaluation of certain people - 99% males. Can anybody comment?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful continuing comments, folks! Dang, I fell behind a whole week on comments without noticing. (Well, I was blazing through revisions of my new book manuscript, so it was worth it!)

Unknown/Sofia May 14: I find that to be a very interesting account. I hope you'll give some thought to writing it up more fully for either a blog post or a formal publication.

Chris: That's also a very interesting account! I like how it blends aspects of Sofia's and my accounts; it also resonates with my treatment of jerks, who also tend to treat others as tools or objects, rather than encountering them in their full personhood.

Jeremy: Thanks for the plug and comparison. I'll check out your article. To some extent, these have to be terminological calls. My own terminological preference (without yet having read your account) is to keep the intuitive sense of "creepy" in which that undertaker is creepy (maybe visually creepy, as you suggest regarding insects) despite not being a creep. I like the core idea that being a creep is ultimately a certain kind of moral failing, and that it would be wrong to think of neuroatypical people as creeps if they don't have that failing.

Phil E: Yes, it seems clear that it's etymologically related to moving slowly, though exactly how that gets associated with sneaking thievery is speculative. I agree that there's a subjectivity in creepiness; but I'd like to keep being a "creep" more objective, in that someone is a creep if they act and view others in a certain way, regardless of how they are perceived by others. Those with the good theory of mind skills to not *appear* creepy are, as you suggest, the most worrisome!

chinaphil: Yes, I feel the pull in that direction from several others' excellent comments. I still think it would be nice if "creep" and "creepy" could be conceptually related in some way. It seems like they are, and a full account should reveal how.

Anon May 21: Yes, it does seem especially men who are considered "creeps". I used the male pronoun with that in mind. I don't have an analysis of why that is so, since if it's a moral failing of a certain sort, there should also be some good examples of women who show the same moral failing. Maybe Kathy Bates' character in Misery?

Arnold said...

A way to conceptually relate creep and creepy. A concept needs a position first...'like the prevalence of extremism in the world...
...then relationships between things we can do nothing about and things we can try to do something about could be conceived of...

As in...a photographer is a creep creeping to get great pictures in a wildlife reserve ...
...a trespasser is creepy creeping to get a great kill in a wildlife reserve...
As in...'teach your children well' to understand their place, at any moment, in time... listen to responses, on going in ourselves all the time...

That we (may) have a outer life, a inner life, and a position of very very modern analytics and how to educate an inner life in balance with with a very predominate outer life is the effort...this is the new where where relationships occur for everything...

Anonymous said...

I'm a jerk but you are a jabbering bozo, which confirms my jerkiness.