When creeps are on TV, we love them. Take Frank Underwood on House of Cards—he's a remorselessly sinister and disturbing human being, but we can't we stop lavishing praise on his presidential performances. Consider how shit we've been at veiling our obsession with Walter White, Breaking Bad's unthinkably evil antihero. And then note how we're already bemoaning the inevitable end of Peep Show, despite the fact every single character is, in his or her own hilarious way, consummately creepy.
But when it comes to real life, people are–weirdly—less keen on creeps. People don't want to hang out with murderous meth dealers. Or, say, the kind of person who goes around sniffing cats' assholes. Or someone who spends the duration of a conversation licking his or her own hand.
Adam Kotsko, an academic at Shimer College in Chicago and an expert in the perverse appeal of less agreeable human character traits, has bravely attempted to work out why we're so obsessed with such characters who should, as the definition of creepiness goes, "cause an unpleasant feeling of fear or unease." The results can be found in his latest book, Creepiness, which essentially picks up from where he left off in earlier works Awkwardness and Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television.
I recently gave Adam a call to ask why there's been such an explosion of weirdly disturbing characters on the small screen in recent times. We also discussed the components of creepiness, and how, as he explains in his book (an extract of which can be read here), "We are susceptible to being creeped out because we are always in danger of being creeped out by ourselves."
VICE: Hi, Adam. So when did you first get thinking about creepiness and what inspired you to write a whole book about it?
Adam Kotsko: My initial inspiration was to write about "awkwardness," but then I got the idea to write a trilogy of other negative character traits. It actually started as a joke—a colleague of mine was going to write a trilogy and I was skeptical. I said, "Oh, he can write a trilogy, so I can probably write a trilogy too," and I did in fact wind up writing them. But I think, as soon as I started to talk about awkwardness, it was kind of inevitable that I'd come to creepiness because the biggest fear of the awkward person is that they're going to be perceived as creepy.
What approach have you taken in trying to define the notion of creepiness?
My research was mainly just talking to a lot of different people in a lot of different settings about what they thought creepiness was, and especially what TV characters they thought were creepy. As I say in the book, the Burger King mascot was kind of the ultimate example everyone could agree on.
To focus on the creepy King then, what is it that makes that guy such a classic creep?
It seems like the key to his creepiness was that he combined a lot of different features. He was invasive, first of all; he's always trying to break into somebody's house or something. He's always trying to shove something onto you. He's not trying to steal, he's trying to give you a hamburger. But I think the real creepy thing is that you don't know what he wants or what he's getting out of it because he's wearing this mask that completely hides his facial expression. He has this perpetual frozen smile, and it seems like some kind of combination of desire that's enigmatic but that's invaded your personal space.
There's also a sexual element, I suppose.
Right. Sexual desire seems to be creeping into areas it doesn't belong. In the adverts, the way they display the hamburgers, or whatever, is often reminiscent of pornography. You probably shouldn't want to have sex with a sandwich.
So who's a good example of a creep on contemporary television?
In Girls, Lena Dunham's character is pretty creepy, at least at the beginning of the series, though I think she kind of grows out of it. An example of how she's creepy is maybe the way her nudity is presented on the show. It's as though it's being pushed at the viewer. It feels excessive. It's not like a normal HBO show where it's just expected as part of the background, it's really over-the-top somehow. And also her relationship with her boyfriend Adam, who himself is pretty creepy. They have this really weird degrading sex thing, and it becomes clear that she is actively trying to solicit that kind of thing so she can write an edgy memoir. It's not that she directly likes it or wants it, it just feels like she should be doing it, and that's a little bit creepy.
Did you look at the characters in Peep Show?
Oh yeah, Peep Show, definitely. I mean both of them are hugely creepy—Super Hans, also. To take a specific incident, how about when Jeremy wants to do a sperm donation or something and he has to masturbate but they don't have any pornography. He then pulls out a note and starts masturbating to the picture of the young Queen. I hope that counts as creepy. There's also the first scene of the first episode, when Mark sits down on the bus and puts his hand on the seat and Sophie sits down on it and he leaves it there anyway. And Super Hans, it seems like whenever he appears on screen, you realize that he's creepy.
You once said that one of the main things that makes a character creepy is when they can't fit into the "social hierarchy" and they transgress certain social boundaries. How does this work on TV?
I think that there is like just a general pattern, like, for example, a character—a male character usually—who's obsessed with a woman who's out of his league. If he doesn't just give up after a little while, if he persists in it, I think it becomes creepy because the pairing's just never going to happen, so what do they want out of it? I guess Steve Urkel's continual courtship of the neighbor girl after ten years of them being teenagers would be the ultimate example.
So why do screenwriters keep returning to the figure of the creep?
With the creep, there's a kind of double dip going on, because normally a creepy character is scapegoated or expelled or punished in some way for being creepy, so you get to reject it. And that's fun for people. But when the creep is on screen, you also get to see somebody who's actually getting what they want. Their desire, even though it's unconventional or weird or off-putting, is actually being enacted and I think there's a fascination to that as well. So you get the pleasure of seeing somebody do this often-transgressive thing that you wouldn't do yourself, and getting satisfaction from it. And then you get the satisfaction of rejecting them too. I think that the creep is emerging as a weird kind of release valve in contemporary society.
Do you think we're sort of projecting our own weirder tendencies onto these creepy TV characters?
Yeah, there is always an element of projection in creepiness. Like, if you think of the neurotic young man who's afraid to approach women, or even thinks 'they prefer assholes,' or 'they never notice me,' they're effectively projecting their own sexual desire, their own desire that creeps them out, onto this figure of the asshole guy who's always getting the girl. There's always a desire to kind of dissociate yourself from an element of your self and that's what generates this weird dynamic of creepiness.