Why Freddy Fazbear Freaks You Out

Last summer a simple point and click computer game was released and although it was in the horror genre there wasn’t any particular reason why it would be expected to be more or less popular than any other horror video game on the market. But, soon after its release it became clear that it was a hit among players. This game was Five Nights at Freddy’s. In the game you play a nightshift security guard at a Chunk E. Cheese-like establishment for five Wikia-Visualization-Add-6,freddyfazbearspizzanights (if you can survive that long) while the animal animatronics attempt to murder you every night. The game’s popularity has prompted the release of two sequel games and endless YouTube videos of game play footage. However, when looking at the game objectively there’s really not that much to it. You remain in the same spot the entire game with the whole of your job being to continually check camera screens for approaching animatronics. Yet, this game has been nightmare fuel for many. What makes it so scary? Although the use of jump scares certainly provides some frights, the animatronics themselves provide the creepiness necessary to set the tone for a good jump scare. What is it about humanoid robots that can be so creepy to us? Neuroscience provides some answers on the topic.

Humanoid figures have been creeping people out long before Freddy. In 1970 Masahiro Mori created the uncanny valley hypothesis to explain why the look of robots can sometimes make us feel uneasy. The hypothesis explains that as robots become more human-like in their appearance, they seem more familiar, until the subtle details that make them not human cause them to look creepy. Although the hypothesis suggested that it was the human-likeness of a robot that determined it’s creepiness, a 2006 study found that other factors could account for it. In the study participants were asked to rate video clips of 13 robots and 1 human on scales of mechanical versus human-likeness, strangeness versus familiarity, and degrees of eeriness. The results showed that robots could have similar mechanical versus human-like scores, but still differ greatly on the other two scales. This suggests other factors than human-likeness can determine creepiness.

A more recent 2011 study at UC San Diego found that it is the mismatch between the appearance of a humanoid robot and its non-human-like movements that may lead to creepiness. Using fMRI, researchers observed brain activity of participants while they viewed videos of a humanoid Japanese android, an actual human, and a stripped version of the android that was more obviously a robot. Most brain activity was observed in the parietal cortex, an area associated with the visual cortex and the believed location of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons fire when observing others preforming an action and will activate again if you preform that same action yourself. This brain activity was most apparent when participants viewed the video of the humanoid android. Researches concluded that this was due to the mismatch of the robots non-human movement with its human-like appearance. If a clearly robot figure moves like a robot we feel fine and the same if a human moves like a human, it is when there is a disconnected mixing of the two that confuses our brains.

With the science behind him Freddy and his friends will surely continue to scare players. As of this morning I found out a movie adaptation of the game is in the works. Hopefully the producers will use the uncanny valley to their advantage and create a truly terrifying experience for all.


MacDorman, K. (2006). Subjective ratings of robot video clips for human likeness, familiarity, and eeriness: An exploration of the uncanny valley. Paper presented at the ICCS/CogSci-2006 Long Symposium: Toward Social Mechanisms of Android Science

The Hollywood Report. (April 7, 2015). Video Game ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s Getting Movie Treatment (Exclusive). Retrieved from: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/video-game-five-nights-at-787061

UC San Diego News Center. (2011). Your brain on androids. Retrieved from: http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/archive/newsrel/soc/20110714BrainAndroids.asp

One thought on “Why Freddy Fazbear Freaks You Out

  1. The title of this post really drew me in, and the content was incredibly interesting. While reading this, I was thinking about one’s response when exposed to a scary stimulus, and I thought of how MacLean’s Limbic System Concept states that you feel your emotion of fear and you have your physiological response at the same time. Additionally, this theory states that you continually cognitively reappraise the situation in order to make sure you’re making the right responses. I think that this post also brings up a great point that humanoid androids are confusing our brains because there’s a disconnect between the stimulus and what actions and appearances we classify as human and robot.


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