In this silly little Halloween special, I use Freud’s essay on the Uncanny to explain why I think Shrek Swamp Sim is so creepy.
In his essay of the same name Sigmund Freud describes the uncanny as an unhomely and creepy sensation that comes about when the subconscious mind projects its repressed urges and feelings onto the world. This phenomenon can explain the unease people can feel when dealing with things such as the occult and arcane; it can also help understand the effectiveness behind many horror movie tropes such as creepy children and animate dolls.
Today, I will analyse a piece of media using Freud’s work to explain why it is scary. The media I have chosen to examine is a 2014 work by Arman Karshenas entitled Shrek Swamp Sim.
This clone of Slender Man may initially seem like another addition to the long line of Shrek parodies and memeable internet content. I would be inclined to agree if it wasn’t capable of producing the most intoxicating feeling of dread in me.
As for many people my age, the Shrek movie franchise was a cornerstone of media growing up. This childhood link is the first reason why Swamp Sim is so uncanny. Since Freud believed that childhood memories make up a large volume of the ocean that is our subconscious, it is no surprise that memories of the lovable titular Scottish Ogre exist there. These memories harken back to simpler, more carefree days. So when these happier memories meet with the dark threat of this friendly character chasing and trying to kill you, a feeling of unease and fear is to be expected.
Next is the gameplay. Like the original Slender Man, objects are placed around the map for the player to collect. If the player collects all the objects, they win the game, but as they collect more, the adversary gets faster. In Slender, the objects are pages; in Swamp Sim, they are onions. All the onions are not present at the start of the game; as the onions are collected, more gradually spawn in. This feature forces the play to return to the same areas of the map continually. This compulsive repetition can also invoke a feeling of uncanniness. Freud described an event from his childhood when in an Italian city, he was lost and, despite trying to avoid a creepy plaza, kept inadvertently returning to it. This experience instilled in him a particular type of uncomfortable panic. He felt trapped, like he couldn’t escape and anxious that he was drawing attention from onlookers by continually returning to the same area. Freud attributes this repetitive behaviour to a primal lizard brain instinct in our unconscious to constantly go in circles when lost to prevent oneself from getting more lost. However, this instinct directly opposes the conscious mind, which is trying to get away and find its way somewhere else. This type of experience, I imagine, is quite common to people. Many of us will have had nightmares where we were trapped going in circles or memories from childhood of losing our parents in a supermarket and continually returning to the same aisles.
My final point on this games uncanny nature is Shrek’s stunted and inhuman looking walk-cycle. The amateur nature of the animation is likely intentional in both a humorous and unsettling way. The reason it is disturbing is our unconscious id, and the conscious ego is confused by the unnatural nature of the walk, making us wonder if the animation is alive or not. This unease around whether something is alive or not is more commonly known these days as the uncanny valley, an effect where objects that appear almost human unsettle us because they seem slightly off and our brains are unsure if it is a threat or not. Animators and roboticists have to regularly contend with this effect to ensure their creations don’t creep us out. Of course, this creepiness in the case of Shrek is intentional.