What is called creepy?

The experience of creepiness is, at its most fundamental, the experience of an excessive, asymmetrical demand — someone is demanding something of us that we cannot and do not want to reciprocate.

The privileged field of creepiness is of course sexuality. I think that most of us, were we to learn that someone was attracted to us, would be at least mildly flattered, on one condition: that the person is in our “range.” If the person is, for whatever reason, very unattractive or even repulsive to us, then we experience that expression of desire as creepy. (I suspect that the same might be true if we learn that a person who is much, much more attractive than us is “into” us — we would assume that they have some mysterious, creepy agenda, that they have attached excessive importance to some other feature.)

This works in other fields, too. We might be creeped out by the person who is way more into a topic than us, who has been absolutely starved for someone to discuss it with and latches onto us as soon as we show the slightest knowledge or interest. We can all probably think of other examples along these lines. The unifying feature is the sense of being violated by the excessiveness of the other’s desire, of having been made the object of a desire with which one cannot subjectively identify. (And this accounts for the fact that we can find situations creepy in which we are not actually implicated — for instance, being creeped out by the displays of affection of a very unattractive couple, or by an Andy Kaufman comedy routine where his desire is obviously extremely intense but at the same time opaque.)

While creepiness may seem to be an inherent trait of the individual creep, it is actually socially mediated. (A book on creepiness was, after all, projected as completing a trilogy with Awkwardness and Sociopaths — I had to find my social element eventually!) The creepy person fundamentally does not know his or her place in the social hierarchy. The nerd might be allowed to admire the popular girl as a fantasy object, but he cannot proceed on the assumption that the pairing could actually happen. Admiring from afar is a way of acknowledging his place, whereas pursuing her concretely disregards the appropriate social hierarchy and is therefore creepy. On a more individual level, it’s creepy for someone to act like an intimate friend or close intellectual comrade without “putting in the time” — they haven’t worked their way up to that level, they don’t acknowledge your own personal hierarchy of friendship.

Hence the redemptive element in creepiness might be its ability, not so much to invert as to simply disregard social hierarchy — to flatten out a plane for a democracy of desire. For the creep, anything is possible, no desire must be preemptively renounced. Hence, perhaps, the sense that the Holy Spirit is creepy.

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32 Responses to “What is called creepy?”

  1. Jason Hills Says:

    Adam,

    Suggestion. Find a cognate for “demand,” for your definition of creepiness, because I think its connotations are not what you’re looking for. Or maybe they are, in which case I would say that your definition is very idiosyncratic.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Explain further, please.

  3. mattintoledo Says:

    I’m not sure where Jason is going with his thought, but I’m wondering if the definition stated works “both ways” as a definition should. To put it another way, things we describe as creepy may always stem from asymmetrical demand. But I’m not sure all asymmetrical demand could be called creepy.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Matt’s objection makes sense. I think I would say that what I mean by “asymmetrical” is thought in terms of recognition — I recognize that you are in a position to make the kinds of demands you’re making. Hence the boss could be too demanding in terms of work, which would be excessive but still be the kind of demand I recognize the boss as entitled to make. If the boss starts making social or sexual demands qua boss (in the sense that the demands are explicitly backed up by his or her power as boss), however, that’s creepy. Similarly, I could assign too much reading to my students without thereby being creepy, but if I made their grade depend in part on following me on Twitter, that would be creepy.

    So maybe inappropriate would be better than asymmetrical?

    By the same token, a demand that was inappropriate without being excessive could be simply awkward, without rising to the level of creepy.

  5. Neil Says:

    Thanks for a fascinating post. Of course, specific people are “creepy,” but I wonder if “creepiness” refers primarily to acts that have a certain revelatory character about the structure of desire.

    Let’s take the American version of “The Office.” We can immediately see that desire here is usually triangular, most famously with Roy and Jim over Pam – a structure which might be presently repeating with Andy and the new intern over Erin. The revelation of this sort of structure can lead to physical violence, as it very nearly did with Roy and his rival, Jim. But at times the rivalry is asymmetrical, such as last season when Cathy desired the married Jim in Florida. Then the revelation need only lead to a comic sort of resolution as Dwight uses bug-spray to chase Cathy from the room.

    The “creepiest” scene in “The Office” concerned the most asymmetrical rivalry. Toby had liked Pam but stood absolutely no chance with her. During the episode “Night Out,” in a moment of weakness – everyone is finally laughing at one of his jokes, Toby places his hand on Pam’s knee. And keeps it there. What should happen now? Nobody knows, presumably because the exposed rivalry is so asymmetrical. Toby says he’s going to Costa Rica and runs and jumps the fence.

    What’s happened here? It isn’t the revelation that Pam is attractive. It can’t be the revelation that Toby has privately found Pam attractive – that’s somewhat predictable. It is that by his action, Toby has openly made himself a rival with Jim and exposed the unwieldy structure of desire. This could lead to violence as hierarchy reasserts itself, but who could punch Toby? Who could even chase him out of the room with bug-spray? (His desire for Pam, always thwarted, has previously just seemed pathetic.) So it is merely unstable … “creepy.”

    So, basically, I don’t think that it is unlikely that attractive people know that unattractive people find them desirable. I suspect that the attractive person realizes that that is inevitable. The question is rather what might the unattractive person do to make himself or herself an unexpected rival and reveal the constantly dangerous mimetic structure of desire.

    Thanks.

  6. Jason Hills Says:

    Adam,

    The other commenters have made most of my points. I would say that creepiness is asymmetrical, but your examples and calling it a “demand” side-step the affective dimensions of creepiness, e.g., the unsettledness bordering on fear in the extreme case. On the other end, Neil is right about it displaying “a certain revelatory character about the structure of desire.” Desire as such is asymmetrical, affective, and sufficiently amorphous to describe creepiness, especially if we understand “desire” to be purposive human action with an affective element.

    A “creep” proposes something to another in either word, deed, or some other symbolic communication that does, as you note, “place a demand,” that exceeds some bound of the other. Neil’s Toby-Pam example is a good one if we’re talking about sexual desire. But note that “demand” doesn’t quite capture the subtlety of many instances of creepiness.

    Inappropriate is needed in addition to asymmetrical. Inappropriate connotes the exceeding of bounds, whereas asymmetrical notes that the bounds on each side of the social relation are not the same or equivalent. That’s what makes an act creepy: for one party the bounds have been crossed in a particular manner.

  7. beatrice marovich Says:

    I don’t know if this is exactly what Hills meant… but the term “demand” seems a little off to me, as well. Someone doesn’t necessarily have to be asking us for something (some form of participation) in order to strike us as creepy. We can be creeped out by simply watching someone who isn’t necessarily making an immediate demand on our attention (who might not know that we’re watching… in which case, we’re actually being the creep, in a sense). Perhaps we feel that something is being demanded of our attention. But it isn’t necessarily the person who’s demanding it. Perhaps, if there is a demand, it’s simply the creepiness that’s making the demand.

    Also… the Holy Ghost is way creepier than the Holy Spirit. Which is why no one even really talks about very much anymore. I remember one of my theology teachers in my MA program giving me a little history of the liturgical purge of the ghost from public church language, beginning somewhere around the 1960s or so. She wasn’t convinced that it was a bad thing. She didn’t think that there should be anything spooky or scary about The Spirit. But, to me, it seemed something of a shame. If there was anything interesting to me about the spirit, at that time, it was the fact that it was also spooky.

  8. beatrice marovich Says:

    But would you make a sharp distinction between spooky and creepy? There’s overlap, but they’re not the same.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think you’re right — as I would say to my students, spooky vs. creepy is “like a Venn diagram” (there’s nothing like a Venn diagram to make students feel like they have a handle on something).

    For me, the primary alternative to “demand” would be “desire,” but I wanted to avoid “desire” because of the ambiguity — are they feeling the desire, or am I? But perhaps that’s precisely what’s so disturbing! I have felt their desire, and I must expel it before it settles in!

  10. beatrice marovich Says:

    …or, if I haven’t felt that desire, the *possibility* that I might is totally horrifying. And this is why I must expel it. Horror is another thing that belongs in a Venn diagram with creepiness. Would there be any “unproblematic” or socially positive affect that overlaps with creepiness? It seems pretty much abject all the way down.

  11. Jonathan Says:

    That “creeps” were often thieves who worked at brothels seems relevant here (OED [n] 1.d-e).

  12. Liam O'Donnell (@liamrulz) Says:

    what about situations which individuals might describe as “creepy” This could be not the behavior of one person, but a series of events that hint at some larger connective purpose but one that is NOT associated with a benevolent deity. In other words, a series of coincidences that result in my finding a job or connecting with my lost love, these might be providence. However, I would say that a similar set of coincidences that instead lead to disaster or similar calamities or even just hint at a murder or violation, these are also creepy…or do they fall more rightly under eerie or spooky. I ask both for where this discussion is headed and because I am aesthetically/philosophically interested in what makes some things divine and somethings macabre.

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Ooh, etymologies are always fun!

    Liam, I would say those weird coincidences are more spooky than properly creepy, but it does illustrate the Venn diagram aspect of the two terms. Though now I’m wondering if it’s a way of saying, “God [fate, nature, whatever], you’re being pushy and kind of creeping me out right now!”

    Beatrice, What about the fact that, under certain circumstances, creepiness can be funny? It’s much harder to pull off than with awkwardness, but it can be done.

  14. Jason Hills Says:

    Creepiness must be ambiguous, else it becomes fear, danger(ous), etc. Fear as such has a particular object, as contrasted to anxiety, which does not. Creepiness is not reliant on an object for its manifestation, but the sense of invading a boundary in such a way as to place a “demand” that one is not immediately willing to meet.

    .I think you have said what I’m getting at, Adam, when you talk of expulsion. It’s creepy when the recipient rejects (usually implicitly and often without explicit awareness) the implied demand of desire.

    I’m not convinced “desire” can handle all cases. Have you ever met someone who was creepy because their were so weird that it was almost hostile?

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yes, with such people, you are tormented with the question: “What do they want?!”

  16. jos Says:

    Also there is way the term is deployed. Like as a genderqueer person, in cis hetero spaces (say a bar), people who point or laugh at me strike me as creepy as they are taking account of my sexuality and gender publicly and excessively and blah blah but also I strike them as “creepy” because I stand out and seem to excessively ‘call attention’ to my sexuality and gender. The idea that I could be a creep in such a situation always struck me as ridiculous because I literally have no power to do anything–calling me a “creep” is just a way to remind me of this lack of power and further exclude me from the space. At the same time their excessive investment in my gender and sexuality is totes normalized and encouraged, i.e. isn’t read as creepy. So like how would you account for safety and privilege as regards the social mediation of creepiness?

    Also also we have the ways the term has been historically and excessively used against men of color, trans* peeps, gay men, etc, which sort of makes me wonder what “creepiness” really means/does outside of name-calling/policing. If it’s about a (granted, socially mediated) feeling of excessiveness rather than a material question of privilege and safety, what is the word *really* doing aside from strategically ascribing a history of shame and othering onto people who seem to “threaten” any given “public” (re: cis straight able white etc) sense of safety?

  17. beatrice marovich Says:

    Yeah, you’re right. I actually just heard this Le Tigre song (“Well Well Well”) after I read this post and I realized that there was something just a little creepy about the song… which is sexually aggressive, but in a flattened way. But it’s definitely more like a fun creepy. I would say. I just watched the video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WnC2nnBHQ_U), which is even creepier. I’m not entirely sure why… dingy tube socks, a hammer falling into an empty bed, office equipment that has a strangely erotic potency. What makes it more “fun” creepy? I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that the band is just playing with the presumed desireability of the generic female form? The female body (in a general sense) is, inevitably, going to be made into an object of desire. So they’re taking that as a given and layering a little creepiness of top of it to make that strange.

    Also, of course, there are vampires. I think a lot of people find them “fun creepy.” Though, arguably, they’re more “thrilling” than “fun.”

  18. Jesse Says:

    I’ll tell you what is creepy! Being dismissed from medical school and forced to pay for a semester of education you never recieved.
    Grounds for dismissal? An evaluation that says that you are creepy, from a Dr., pediatrician, who obviated in his interaction with his staff, student and patients, that “Creepiness is always the creepiness of the other!”, to borrow/synthesize a phrase that fits very well.

    2012 was indeed the year that I learned that our medical, political, theological and professional cultures are expressing symptoms of a latent immunological disease that has been 500 years in the making, a creepy finale to the enlightened project of pushing west as far from east as can be and rejecting grace as the solution to disease. It just kind of came to a head, the pus digesting what it has been fed, minimal pathogen, but full scale attack deployed because weapons don’t just sit still, they send out chemical action signals.

    F-5 tornadoes are creepy, as are doctors who pay for a license plate that says “Joplin F-5″ to stick on their Mercedes. Its creepy to make fun of care providers who welcome patients into a trailer or tent, in the epicenter of debris, because a hospital is a place for hospitality, especially after the building was destroyed.

    Another creepy event? Being ineligeble for FEMA trailer housing because “you were already futuristically, retroactively displaced, despite said F-5″.

    You know what else is creepy, fucking LED christmas lights, LSD Px trees(LSTrees TM, to the hip)”Keep Px in Gristmas” signs that make no allusions to crucufixion.

    I knew the gnostic path would be creepy, but I did not really know what creepy was! Amen.

  19. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Jesse, Good to hear from you again! Though not good to hear such terrible news. I’m sorry.

    jos, Thanks for bringing this to the discussion — I agree that creepiness is usually doing nothing more than policing boundaries, etc. (hence my examples tend to come from high school experience, ground-zero of conformism). Precisely because “creepiness is always creepiness of the other,” as Jesse says, I suspect that a positive embrace of creepiness might have a particularly powerful subversive effect.

    Beatrice, I think the Animal Collective video “Who could win a rabbit” is a similar fun-creepy.

  20. beatrice marovich Says:

    jos’ point is a good one… in the sense that, perhaps, creepiness is simply a practice of accusation that’s used in concert with the emotion of contempt.

  21. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The feeling of creepiness is definitely one of the key ways for privileged people to feel like they’re the real victims.

  22. Neil Says:

    I would agree that “creepiness” and “horror” do belong together. But I’d like to draw a distinction.

    Something is “creepy” if it exposes the unstable structure of desire.

    Something is “horrific” if it suggests that the problem of desire can never be resolved – that is, that we are finally impermeable to others’ desires and cannot even collectively turn against a scapegoat for temporary peace. (This passes through “spooky” because it does seem to call for a darkly mysterious or supernatural reason.)

    Oddly enough, “The Office” does invoke something “horrific” from time to time – the “Scranton Strangler.” It is Toby who was on the jury that sentenced the “Scranton Strangler” to death, and Toby has repeatedly, even compulsively, said that he’s not sure if the jury got the right man. So, Toby is at once the creepiest guy and the guy who darkly hints at Scranton’s inability to even collectively turn against a scapegoat. (Our first mention of the “Scranton Strangler” was in a newspaper headline, after all.)

    The two big secrets in “The Office” have to do with this “Scranton Strangler” and the strange documentary team that’s been obsessively following the office workers for several years for no discernible reason. It wouldn’t surprise me if the two are very much connected, and the reason for the documentary is “spooky” and relates the “creepiness” of Toby to the “horror” of the uncaptured Strangler.

    I’ve realized that I’ve written too much about “The Office.” Sorry.

  23. Jesse Says:

    Creepy is at the borderlines, “how many demands must I endure from the workplace, how helpfull should I be in the workplace?”, “how much should I care about my patient?, should I try to help them make an actual change or just give them a professional commodity?”, “If someone is vulnerable and wanting help I can’t/won’t give, labeling them creepy makes it easy to absolve my inaction!”, ” I can’t crush on the girls in Le Tigre because they exist in that inter-gender lusty soup bowl that I can’t slip into because I bend straight!”, “The blog is at its creepiest when we see how the readers actually respond to the post!”

    Yeah 2012 was definitely the year I discovered that being comfortable with creepiness in youself and others and viewing that as a common ground is self inflicted creepy. Ever since I heard ‘creep’ by radiohead as a teen, mistook the song for Nirvana(a cover of creep is the only Nirvana song/pre-Ok Computer song I would ever willing listen to… fyi ) and failed to stay firmly in the creepy border fringe of all of society where I belong, I half been battling the creep production powers of those in my life. The borders are where its at though!

    Thanks for this fun little blog comment creepy crawl. Its been literally years since I commented on the internet!

  24. mattintoledo Says:

    Is it creepy that I keep coming back to this thread hoping somebody will try to perfectly capture creepiness by making a creepy comment?

  25. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m sure that on a certain level, Matt’s comment is a relief to us all.

  26. beatrice marovich Says:

    Yeah, it did feel a little creepy to even comment on this creepster thread about “the creepy.”

  27. dbarber Says:

    creepiness, “it digs into white people’s souls” … http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1qKy4cMPUI

  28. Joe Miller Says:

    I want you all to coat my sphincter with a thick layer of strawberry icing and lick every ounce of it off.

  29. Adam Kotsko Says:

    You may have overshot.

  30. mattintoledo Says:

    Yes, I’m not sure “putting in enough time” is possible with that one.

  31. Liam O'Donnell (@liamrulz) Says:

    So the more I have thought about this, sorry I am a slow thinker, it is the …ambiguity or indeterminate nature of…desire OR intention or whatever that suggests creepiness to me.
    I want to suggest two scenarios, one is the personal matrix similar to what Adam has focused on, a person is “creeping me out”.. The second is a situation or location is creepy, it makes me feel uncomfortable. In first situation, we have focused on welcome or unwelcome desire. However, if I know what a person wants from me and I know what my response to that desire is, that is not creepy I don;t think in and of itself. It may be awkward “he/she really wants to get with me, but you I am so not down”. it could be creepy in that I don’t understand how their desire crosses some perceived boundary, like age. However, if a man or woman wants me sexually or emotionally and I do not feel similarly, I don’t see creepiness in that. However lets say a young woman comes around a lot. She is blowing up my damn spot. I suspect I know why, but for real, who knows. That could be creepy. Or, and this is where I am curious, if someone who is perceived to be an inappropriate match for me wants to make the magic happen, and I actually, below my bourgeoisie sensibilities don’t actually know how I feel, I am tempted to transgress a boundary, that could creep me out too. In other words, it is the ways the situations create doubt, or perhaps point out a lack of certainty or knowledge that suggest, for me, creepiness.
    Similarly when I think of something being atmospherically creepy, a place as being creepy, I cannot think past Lovecraft. Dude is the freaking master of the creep out, and there may be many reasons for this, I am not a Lovecraft scholar. However, in my experience Lovecraft stories do not produce fear the way some others texts do. The texts that for me produce fear might not yet have revealed what a danger is, I may have no idea what lurks behind the corner. However, the author has somehow clued me into the idea that something is lurking, means me ill, and I better watch out. Shit has, as they say, gotten real. Lovecraft though for me creeps me out because I am never quite sure exactly what is happening. Are the experiences the folks have real, or a representation of their own descent into madness, and does it even matter. If the the creeping tentacles of the old Gods are just below the surface, probing our reality for an opportunity to break through and crush our world or if I just am convinced they are, same difference right? My perception, everything I hold not only as TRUE but as REAL, my very capacity to know at all is fallen apart. That is, for me, not horror in the same sense, but creepy. The world is not ruled by reason, reason falls apart at every turn, and the chattering of the things in the dark can be heard or felt or whatever.
    In other words, is this indeterminate element, the idea that i do not know what others or the future or the circumstances have in store is the difference between creepy and say Horror or Awkwardness or whatever? Just riffing and saying stuff similar to what others have already said, but trying to synthesize. It is not the same as fear or terror, it is an uncomfortable feeling that I do not know what I know, or think i know…ok I am going in circles. sorry.

  32. Rory O'Connor Says:

    This is an excellent topic.


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