A statue in the basement of an abandoned house, a staircase in the middle of the woods, a smiling doll on the floor of your bedroom—why do these seemingly commonplace items unnerve us so? (Well, dolls are naturally creepy, so I’ll give you that.)
Something about seeing the commonplace out of place seems to send shivers down our spines. When a book from your shelf appears on your bed, you stop and do a double take. You convince yourself that you must be mistaken about what you see. It’s not like finding a fly in your soup, but rather like finding a clean baby crib deep in the catacombs of France or a red ball in front of a darkened tunnel. Suddenly everything you’ve come to expect has been turned on its head.
Why are these situations so effective in making us uncomfortable—or even scared? It seems rather irrational, doesn’t it?
Well, let’s get into the real scary subject: let’s talk science.
You’ve probably heard of a phobia, defined by Merriam-Webster as “an exaggerated and often disabling fear” that usually has an illogical or inexplicable source, which can be either an object or a situation.
Phobias are irrational in nature; think of a child who is afraid of the dark or who runs in the other direction of the cheerful clown.
She has no reason to feel fear—unless, of course, she foolishly read Stephen King’s It in the middle of the night—and yet, phobias induce such a feeling of sheer terror that this illogicality is disregarded.
However, there is no “commonplace-out-of-place-phobia”—not in the medical dictionary, anyhow. And this is understandable; this phenomenon, while unnerving, does not usually induce rushes of debilitating terror. Perhaps, then, we can attribute it to something else.
From a purely instinctual point-of-view, this feeling of unease makes sense.
Let’s say you came home one day and found your laptop not on your desk as usual, but resting inconspicuously on the couch. You pause for a moment, trying to find a convincing explanation. Maybe you had moved it there before you left for school; but no, you never remove your laptop from your desk because the battery runs out too quickly. Oh, wait! Maybe your roommate moved it. Plausible—if only you had a roommate in the first place.
So what’s the only explanation left?
Somebody—or something—had moved it while you were gone… or simply looking in the other direction.
Think about what such an intrusion might mean for any human being. Your senses would immediately be on alert. You are faced with the sudden decision to fight the invader or to flee. Your privacy, your belongings, and your safety are all under threat in this moment. You might even begin to question your own senses.
But does this account for situations in which you aren’t as intimately acquainted with your surroundings? Perhaps a little bit. After all, if you do stumble upon a crib in the catacombs, you might wonder who or what had put it there—and if they were still around.
We might consider a simpler explanation as to why these illogical connections might exist: classical conditioning.
Upon reading this term, perhaps Pavlov’s dogs came to mind. Classical conditioning is an unconscious process in which a previously unconditioned stimulus (e.g., a bell) is paired with a conditioned stimulus (e.g., food) in order to produce a conditioned response (e.g., drooling) until, at last, the unconditioned stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus and produces the response on its own.
Simply put, we associate certain natural feelings or reactions with stimuli, and those feelings or reactions may then be conditioned to be triggered by other, seemingly unrelated, stimuli.
For example, the irrational phobia of clowns (dubbed coulrophobia), as mentioned above, might have been conditioned due to reading a novel—or watching the numerous films—in which a clown commits horrendous acts. These visual depictions can be so traumatizing as to induce PTSD symptoms in children.
In a more general way, the horror genre may have conditioned us to associate odd, even supernatural, happenings—such as seeing the commonplace put out of place—with unfortunate circumstances for the person who notices them. We may interpret things out of place, such as someone or something being where they shouldn’t be, as a sign of bad things to come, for it evokes uneasy feelings.
Admit it: this association is so ingrained in our minds that when characters stumble across a lovely, warm cottage in the middle of the woods, we don’t think “Wow, how lucky!” but rather, “I wonder who’s going to die first?”
So if these irrational feelings and thoughts start creeping at the edge of your mind the next time you find your toothbrush in the tub—again—then know that you’re not alone in your paranoia, and that maybe there’s a natural reason for that unease.
After all, something must have moved it in the first place, right?
-Contributed by Sophie Cho