12+ Uncanny Valley Horror Films 

Robot humanoids, strange cityscapes, and sinister smiles. Here is a list of the most unsettling uncanny valley horror films. 

Ventriloquist Dennis Alwood designed Fats the dummy in Magic (1978). Alwood also provided the voice for Fats. (pictured: Anthony Hopkins and Fats)

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Human perception is sensitive. That’s because the brain is hardwired to instantly scan for threats, which sometimes comes in the face of familiarity. In 1978 this phenomenon was coined as the “uncanny valley.” It typically occurs when a robot closely resembles a human but lacks convincing realism, leading to discomfort and revulsion in the viewer. While robots are the most common example, the uncanny valley effect can also be triggered by vague animals, landscapes, and even sounds. 

The Uncanny Valley shows itself in animation and live-action films. CGI tech continues to advance, creating hyper-realistic humans on screen. But what happens when these attempts fall short of complete realism? In 1988 Pixar released the Oscar Award Winning short film “Tin Toy,” showcasing their attempts at animating a “realistic” baby named Billy. Though meant to be lighthearted and nostalgic, Billy transforms the film into a disturbing work of horror that unsettles audiences. This negative effect has led to non-horror filmmakers striving for the perfect balance between humans and creepy hyper-realistic humanoids. 

Billy the baby as seen in Tin Toy (1988).
The short film Tin Toy (1988) was instrumental in launching Pixar into the powerhouse it is today, and Billy the baby will forever remain a reminder of the company’s ambitious yet humble beginnings.

Aspiring to cause genuine dis-ease, horror filmmakers cling to the uncanny valley theory for the same reasons. Instead of trying to avoid it, the films on this list embrace this special eerie effect that is sure to leave you unsettled. Characters on this list may wear familiar faces, but their almost-human appearance is a warning sign that not everything is as trustworthy as it seems.  Are all of these uncanny creations as untrustworthy as our gut tells us? Keep reading to find out. 

Best Uncanny Valley Horror Films

Eraserhead (1977)  

Jack Nance as Henry in Eraserhead (1977).
Known for his surrealist filmmaking, David Lynch utilizes uncanny valley to infuse a quiet dread into many of his films. (pictured: Jack Nance as Henry in Eraserhead)

In an apartment that looks familiar, in a city that seems earthly, nothing feels quite right. This film creates discomfort for its viewers through uncanny landscapes, animals, and humans. Eraserhead utilizes the uncanny valley to make the audience feel as out of place as Henry does in his uncomfortable surroundings. Though the family at the dinner table looks human, their movement and speech are far from natural. The same can be said for the chickens on their plate. In a mix between normal and absurd, the chickens bleed and wiggle on their plates. This causes dis-ease and discomfort to Henry and certainly to the audience.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

A human-faced dog in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).
In addition to aliens appearing to be human, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) features this alarmingly uncomfortable human-faced dog.

The story of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been told numerous times since Jack Finney wrote the original novel The Body Snatchers in 1955. Alien spores fall to Earth and transform into near-perfect copies of humans. However, their lack of human emotions set them apart from real people. For that reason, the uncanny valley in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) primarily exists not within appearances, but within actions. When people don’t act like people, the feeling of unease becomes insidious.

Magic (1978)

Fats in Magic (1978).
The big eyes, defined features, and unusually human-like teeth of the dummy named Fats earns him a place in the uncanny valley.

Like dolls, ventriloquist dummies often unnerve people thanks to their close proximity to human characteristics. Ventriloquist dummies have the added element of existing for the sole purpose of being made to appear as if they are a sentient being. In the psychological horror movie Magic, struggling musician Corky (Anthony Hopkins) adds ventriloquism to his act in hopes of finally achieving success. It begins to to work, but Fats, the dummy, has a brash personality that is in stark contrast to Corky’s. And the longer Corky and Fats are with each other, the less Corky appears to be in charge.

PIN (1988)

PIN is an underseen gem of psychological horror.

Human anatomical models are designed to be as accurate as possible. They might not always look completely realistic, but that where the uncanny valley exists. In PIN, a boy becomes convinced that an anatomical model named “Pin” is alive. The boy, Leon (David Hewlett), carries his deranged idea into adulthood where Pin becomes a harmful influence on his sanity. Leon starts to dress Pin in clothes and even gives him fake skin and a wig as the line of where Leon ends and Pin begins is increasingly blurred.

Dolly Dearest (1991)

The doll from Dolly Dearest (1991).
Other horror-movie dolls might be more popular, but he doll in Dolly Dearest maintains its creepy reputation thanks to its simple and uncanny design.

The more lifelike a doll is, the creepier it becomes. Porcelain dolls in particular, with their soft features and lifelike eyes, are among the creepiest dolls in existence. Dolly Dearest takes porcelain dolls to the next level of horror by using one as a vessel for a demonic possession. The doll, Dolly, begins by showing slight signs of movement. A turning head and a glancing eye. As the demonic Dolly gets more brazen in its attempts at terrorizing the humans around it, it moves in uncharacteristically human ways and its facial features become more intimidating.

House of Wax (2005)

House of Wax (2005).
Jared Padalecki appears in wax form in House of Wax (2005).

Wax figures of people, especially well-made wax figures of people, are always unsettling. They appear too real to be fake, but we know they are fake. They are lifeless. Metaphorically dead inside. House of Wax (2005) features wax figures that are literally dead inside. This mid-2000s slasher movie is a mostly-in-name-only remake of 1953’s House of Wax. One of the main similarities between the two films is the basic premise of a killer covering human bodies in wax to make unnervingly lifelike wax figures.

Ex Machina (2014) 

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (2014).
Alicia Vikander strove to make her movements as Ava unnaturally perfect, thereby making her feel unreal when compared to the imperfect human characters she interacts with.

A programmer is assigned to an experiment involving a hyper-intelligent robot called Ava. More specifically, he is meant to evaluate Ava’s human qualities. He quickly finds himself pulled in by the beautiful human-like face that covers Ava’s hardware. Even Ava’s movements are deceptively human, intentionally done by the actress, Alicia Vikander. “Alicia’s performance was meant to mimic the uncanny valley,” says director Alex Garland. “Rather than perform human actions in a way that looked overtly robotic, she would simply do them perfectly.”

Us (2019)

Lupita Nyong'o in Us (2019)
A twist in Us suggests that the differences between humans and the Tethered aren’t as pronounced as the initially appear. (pictured: Lupita Nyong’o in Us)

On an otherwise beautiful vacation, the Wilson family’s beach home is broken into. This event is made scarier when they see the invaders, which are a near-perfect mirror images of themselves. This terror is widespread, with multiple families being attacked by doppelgängers that call themselves “the Tethered.” They seek to untether their soul from their human look-alike, no matter how much violence is required. These artificially-made doppelgängers look almost exactly like their human counterparts—all except their oddly menacing stare, an uncanny look that warns that something is dangerously wrong within. 

Orphan: First Kill (2022)

Isabella Fuhrman in Orphan: First Kill (2022).
Isabella Fuhrman was 23 years old during the filming of Orphan: First Kill. Her character, Esther aka Leena, is a 31-year-old woman attempting to pass for a child of about 9.

As fun as Orphan (2009) is, its prequel, Orphan: First Kill (2022), is even more successful with how it portrays its main character. Spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen Orphan, but the orphan in the movie, Esther, is a grown woman with a condition that makes her look like a child. She is also a killer. There was a 13-year gap between the first movie and its prequel, meaning the child actor who played Esther in the original, Isabella Fuhrman, became an adult actor. However, no CGI was used to de-age Furhman in Orphan: First Kill. Practical means were employed, and it’s amazing how convincing Fuhrman is in her role. At times though, Esther’s “mask” slips and the killer underneath shines through. It’s in these moments when having an adult in the role adds an unmistakable uncanny-valley effect that serves the movie perfectly.

Smile (2022)

Caitlin Stasey as Laura in Smile (2022).
Caitlin Stasey (pictured) appears in one of the early scenes in Smile (2022) as a patient of Rose Cotter’s (Sosie Bacon). Caitlin Stasey was also the star of the short film Laura Hasn’t Slept (2020) which was the inspiration for Smile.

Exaggerated features can cause something to look less human. Enlarged eyes, skin without texture, and wide smiles are common triggers for uncanny valley. When humans smile, it is typically a symbol of happiness. Dr. Rose Cotter discovers a different type of smile. One that looks and feels uncanny. As a psychiatrist, she walks a fine line between helping her patients without feeding off of their delusions. One such delusion is seeing menacing smiles everywhere, moments before disaster. To market the film, actors were planted in media hotspots to give the signature uncanny smile to the camera. The marketing campaign went viral while offering people a real-life uncanny valley experience. 

M3GAN (2022)

M3GAN (2022).
Before the film’s release, promos featuring M3GAN’s uncanny dance moves (performed by actor and dancer Amie Donald) piqued the interest of many fans and helped M3GAN become the first horror hit of 2023.

While she should be looking after her niece, a roboticist obsesses over her creation—M3GAN, an ultra-life-like robotic doll that nearly perfectly imitates a human child. With her shiny hair and life-like eyes, M3GAN’s human appearance makes her easily accepted by those around her, usually to their dismay. “There should be that fine line of ‘Uncanny Valley’ where the finish, the eyes, the hair, everything should be looking almost real. It’s not over the top,” says supervising puppeteer Adrien Morot. “It’s not cartoony. It should be unsettling.” 

Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor (2023)

A creepy clown mannequin in Hall House LLC Origins (2023).
Hell House LLC Origins is a mixture of a side-story, a prequel, and a sequel to the three Hell House LLC movies that came before it.

Mannequins are scary. Clowns are also scary. So just imagine how scary it would be to discover not one, but two realistic clown mannequins locked inside a storage room in what is proclaimed to be a haunted house. That is the basic premise of Hell House LLC Origins: The Carmichael Manor. The movie is a pseudo-documentary containing found footage of three people’s ill-fated attempt to investigate the mysterious Carmichael Manor. The aforementioned clown mannequins play a direct role in the terror that the film documents, and the usage of the uncanny valley in heightening the tension in the movie is superb.

More Uncanny Valley Horror Films

  • Halloween (1978) – Michael Myers is an iconic horror figure for many reasons, not the least of which is his mask. The mask falls into the uncanny valley thanks to it being an approximation of a human face, but with all human emotions drained from its stoic and pale visage.
  • Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (1981) – A 25-year-old actor, Pietro Barzocchini, plays a boy of about 12 in this lurid Italian zombie film. Barzocchini’s portrayal of the child is intentionally off-putting with a heavy layer of the uncanny.
  • Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) – Though they aren’t the primary antagonists in the movie, a group of killer androids made to look like men tread through the uncanny valley thanks to their slightly robotic movements and completely emotionless faces.
  • Child’s Play (1988) – Chucky has had many different appearances over the years, some more uncanny than others. In his first movie from 1988, Chucky takes on more human-like physical features the longer his soul is trapped in the doll’s body. His hairline changes, his eyebrows become real hair, and his face looks more like skin than plastic.
  • Silent Hill (2006) – Blinded by heavy mist, Rose Da Silva gets in a car accident that leaves her unconscious. When she wakes and discovers that her daughter is missing, she must search through the eerie abandoned town for her child. The girl appears different when Rose catches up to her, and Rose encounters a group of nurse whose appearance and movements cross to the other side of the uncanny valley.
  • Mama (2013) – A mysterious entity known as “Mama” looks after two abandoned children lost in the forest. The ghost looks… odd, fitting snugly into the uncanny valley.
  • Annabelle (2014) – A couple is attacked by a satanic cult shortly after bringing home a vintage doll named Annabelle. The cultists quickly learn that they aren’t the most terrifying force in the house.
  • The Boy (2016) – Arriving at a new home, a nanny realizes that she has been hired to care for a life-sized doll. The doll’s “parents” treat it just like a living child. Everyone expects the nanny to do the same; anything less is punishable by terror. 
  • It: Chapter Two (2019) – The Losers Club returns to their hometown to face the deadly force that has plagued it for years. The killer Pennywise takes on many forms, from an old woman to a clown, though none are entirely convincing. 
  • Don’t Look Away (2023) – This supernatural horror movie features a disturbing mannequin that moves when you’re not looking at it, and gets into your head once you see it.

Further Reading

Meet The Author

Kasey Rae is an artist, writer, and filmmaker, residing in the mountains of New York. Her favorite horror films are Nightmare on Elm Street and The Descent.