Following Madame Tussaud into the uncanny valley

The wax statue of the creator of Madame Tussaud's waxworks, Madame Tussaud herself in the museum. Photo by Rudolph Afurtdo. Creative Commons.

A decade ago, a New York Assemblyman tried to have Arafat removed from Madame Tussaud’s in New York City. He threatened to cancel a Republican fundraiser at the wax museum if the Palestinian leader wasn’t removed.
It’s not just amazing that wax museums are at least as popular as ever, but that they’re taken as seriously. Long lines formed in Washington, D.C. when Michelle Obama’s figure was unveiled. At Madame Tussaud’s in Berlin, a visitor beheaded Hitler. The costliest figure to maintain at New York City’s Tussaud’s was Brad Pitt because of the lipstick marks on his lovely waxen features.

Brad Pitt at Tussaud's

In its beginnings and still today, Madame Tussaud’s keeps up with the latest celebrities, inducting them at a rapid pace (and, I presume, although I haven’t seen evidence of it,disposing of a large number at the same rapid clip). The gestation period for each celebrity is six months and the process is lengthy and complex. As many as 250 measurements are made. Molds are taken from clay busts produced by sculptors who depend on the measurements and photographs of the subject, not real heads as in the distant past. Hot wax is poured into the molds and left to cool. When the heads are ready, hair, eyelashes, whiskers and eyebrows are plugged in, one strand at a time, a process that can take as long as five weeks. In Madame Tussaud’s earliest pieces, real teeth from the streets of Paris, were used, but today they’re made of porcelain or dental acrylic. Tussaud’s asks celebrities to donate the clothes they want their figure to be wearing. The cost to produce a figure can be as high as $300,000.
Presumably, Madame Tussaud’s is still the last word on who is and who is not a celebrity. In  2002, the wax works in London refused to include the Conservative Party leader because he was too dull. “We want figure who will inspire strong emotions and provoke strong reactions. In our view, Mr. Duncan Smith, whom most people have never heard of, is unlikely to achieve either of these feats. Ever.” There was no report of Mr. Smith’s reaction. I wonder if  he was mortified.
In Los Angeles, Tussaud’s competition with the rival Hollywood Wax Museum recently took on new life when Tussaud’s set up an exhibit in its lobby, juxtaposing its celebrity effigies with photos of the Hollywood Museum’s, beginning with Angela Jolie. It’s figures were much more lifelike, argued Tussaud’s. Fascinating that a photo of the Hollywood Museum’s Jolie stood in for the effigy. Photographs are like effigies in that they presume to be copies of what is real. In the last century, photographers would sometimes use Tussaud’s tableaus, pretending they were copies of the real event. (In fact, a photograph of the pope’s effigy was acclaimed as more true to life than the actual pope in the real setting.) The waxworks then had a policy that forbade visitors from taking photographs inside the Museum in order to keep nefarious reporters from representing them as snapshots of the real people.

Today, the Museum depends on the camera. That’s what people come to do. Not just to mingle with the famous (or rather, their facsimiles), but to record themselves in their company.

But something else is happening and that’s what makes this subject interesting. There is something oddly uncomfortable about a wax museum that can be summed up in the following remarks by a young employee at the London museum. He reported that he was often asked by visitors,

“What is it like at night?” Or my favourite. “How do you DARE to be there all alone?”I sometimes wonder if people enjoy them (the wax figures) because of the possibility of rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, or because of the tiny little thrill of coming into a room and not knowing who is alive and who is not.

As William Poundstone writes in“The Battle of the Wax Museums,”

….the truly interesting thing about wax museums is how creepy they are. This is better described by a third-millenium coinage: the “uncanny valley.” That’s the notion that not-quite-perfect simulacra of the human form create a sense of weirdness or revulsion. .. Somewhere between the humanoid and the human, things get weird. These imperfect likenesses fall into a dip in the curve, and are much less accepted than less-perfect ones. ….

The uncanny valley explains why there are so many horror movies about evil dolls, clowns, ventriloquist’s dummies, wax museums, zombies, and cyborgs. …”
The phenomenon of the uncanny valley was observed in connection with the creation of robots. At a certain point, when the robot is very much like a human but not like one really, witnesses were seized with revulsion.

What is even more curious is how much of the thinking that’s evolved to explain the uncanny valley has to do with death.

I can’t get quite beyond this point yet, and perhaps I won’t. Any one with experience of the uncanny valley out there? I intend to give it at least one more try in these posts. Maybe more.

Because it is curious, isn’t it, that Madame Tussaud’s wax museum began in death and continues, in this later age, to be “mired” in it. I think, because automatons,wax effigies and celebrities are all related to human identity in a way that is profoundly disturbing. Our world begins to wobble when we think too hard about them.

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One thought on “Following Madame Tussaud into the uncanny valley

  1. It could be connected with the knowledge, deep down inside each of us, that the image of a person can be used to harm him or her. This includes photographs, but we are so used to photographs now, that they seem to have lost their capacity to cause this fear in us. Or perhaps it is because they are only two-dimensional, therefore less “real”.

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