I’ve already written about the problem of creepiness and fear in another essay, citing the 2016 study from Knox College in Illinois by the psychologists Francis McAndrew and Sara Koehnke (Can We Forget the Taste of Fear?) but there is another form of creepy that is less -what?- entertaining: when we judge people (usually men) as creepy. What I’m interested in is how that might make us (well, usually women) react. In other words, is it a useful judgement, or merely an impression garnered from the creepy person’s appearance, or social status? Does it help the judger survive, and prosper, or merely prejudice the object of their concerns –‘More sinned against than sinning’ as Shakespeare’s King Lear moans having been thrown out by his own daughters.
First reactions can be mistaken and even harmful, especially if they are misplaced. Not everybody conforms to our expectations of comportment; there are many we may encounter who, through no fault of their own, are dirty, or poorly dressed -people who are beset by mental challenges, or are themselves bereft of social skills.
I came across a helpful essay in Aeon by Heidi Matthews, an assistant professor of law at Osgoode Hall in York University, Toronto. https://aeon.co/ideas/what-is-to-be-done-about-the-problem-of-creepy-men
‘Disgust assists us in policing the line between inside and outside our bodies, but also to create and maintain interpersonal and social borders. Physical reactions – such as the shudder response, nausea, and exclamations of ‘ew’, ‘icky’ and ‘gross’ – can be important ways of producing and transmitting commitments to social norms. Signalling disgust helps society maintain the integrity of taboos around sexuality, including paedophilia and incest.’
‘Creepiness is different from disgust in that it refers to a feeling of unease in the face of social liminality… We become uncomfortable when events don’t easily fit our expectations or transgress social rules… Feeling ‘creeped out’ justifies our decision to shut down, rather than undertake the task of analysing ambiguously threatening situations. It is a form of cognitive paralysis indicating that we are unsure how to proceed… Judgments of creepiness, however, are not necessarily reliable. Conventional wisdom tells us to ‘trust our gut’, but researchers say that our gut is concerned more with regulating the boundaries of social mores than keeping us safe.’
‘In a 2017 Canadian study, female undergraduates were shown images of Caucasian male faces from three groups: emotionally neutral faces taken from an image bank; images judged ‘creepy’ in a pilot study; and images of criminals from America’s Most Wanted. They were then asked to rate the faces according to creepiness, trustworthiness and attractiveness… Participants made their creepiness assessments in seconds, and reported high degrees of confidence in their judgments.’ Unfortunately they were often wildly mistaken in their judgments.
Judging someone as ‘creepy’ often is caused by social difference –‘otherness’. I mean, how could anybody reliably assess the risk posed, with only a glance at a face? Just ‘a feeling’ unsubstantiated by any other evidence? As Matthews suggests, ‘When we judge a situation or person creepy, we participate in shunning and social ostracism.’
She goes on to elaborate some of the unfortunate consequences of this faulty assessment, and then writes that ‘what most people intuit to be creepy aligns closely with the attributes of individuals and populations already on or beyond the boundaries of social acceptance. The mentally ill and disabled, the physically deformed, those with ticks or other abnormal movements or facial features, the impoverished and the homeless are all more likely to be judged creepy… [and] the homeless and mentally ill are far more vulnerable to acts of violence than they are threatening to the rest of us. In short, ‘we’ are far more likely to hurt the ‘creepy’ than they us.’
We have to be on our guard, to be sure, but mostly I think, to be open to ‘responding to the odd, the new or the peculiar with curiosity, interest and generosity of spirit.’ This can be hard indeed.
I was sitting on a park bench that, despite its view of the sea, was quite isolated. The solitude had attracted me, but its silence even more. It was almost hidden in a heavily treed area in Vancouver’s Stanley Park -well away from vehicle traffic, and yet perched on a hill overlooking English Bay. Only a single, narrow path led to the bench, so its very existence seemed odd. There were no signs advertising its location, nor any indication that the trail led anywhere but to the cliff edge. I’d discovered it largely by accident. Serendipity…
At any rate, I settled down on it determined to read the book I’d stuffed in my pocket, but I think I must have dozed off in the warmth of the slowly sinking sun. When I opened my eyes again, it was because I had the distinct sense of being observed. I jerked my head off my chest and glanced nervously around at the trees that, only a few minutes ago, had guaranteed me privacy. I thought there was movement somewhere inside the dense collection of trunks and evergreen needles, but the wind was picking up, and I couldn’t be sure. There are deer in Stanley Park, I told myself –and yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched. The sun was close to setting and shadows were starting their slow stretch for the evening.
It’s hard to read when every sound, arouses suspicion, but I did manage a few pages until the sensation overwhelmed me and I turned around to examine the trees again. I nearly missed him -the shadow standing as still as the tree it was leaning against.
He was a tall, powerfully-built man, dressed in a dirty pair of brown, ill-fitting pants, scuffed dark boots with no laces, and a ragged black suit-jacket; he didn’t move when our eyes met. He only frowned -or scowled, it was hard to tell. His hair was messy, but it seemed he had made an effort to tame it with his hand, because it didn’t fly up in the wind.
Uncertain how to react, I smiled, but the gesture may have been misinterpreted because I could see his eyes narrow, and his hands tense where he was grasping the tree. For a while, it seemed a standoff for both of us. He was near enough to the trail that he could easily block my way if I decided to run.
My heart began to pound as I considered my options -I didn’t really have many… any, actually. So I did the only thing I could think of – I said hello.
It seemed to surprise him, because his expression softened and he made a tentative move away from the tree.
I’d heard of a community of men living somewhere in the middle of the park, so I asked him if he lived around here.
He nodded and took a step towards me, his eyes locked on mine, and I could see wariness in them -or was it fear?
He stopped a few feet from the bench and shrugged.
I could see his lips beginning to move, as if they were looking for the right words. “I…” He hesitated and then, as softly as the breeze rustling through the trees, he continued. “That’s where I usually sleep until it gets too cold,” I think I heard.
It was my turn to speak. “I… I’m sorry, sir,” I stammered, embarrassed that he’d had to confess his situation to me. “I didn’t realize…” I continued, awkwardly.
Suddenly he smiled. “You couldn’t know, mister,” he said, slowly, but still softly -as if he was unused to conversations.
He stepped aside as I stood up and headed for the trail. But then I stopped and turned around to face him. I reached in my pocket and found the twenty dollar bill I always carry for emergencies. “Here,” I said, handing him the bill and smiling at him. “In case you need to buy a blanket, or something…” I felt uneasy with my words, but I didn’t know what else to say.
But he accepted my unexpected gift with dignity, and when he touched the back of my hand in thanks, my discomfort vanished. Sometimes, we all need to reach out to one another…