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December 23, 2005 5:34 PM   Subscribe

Why is a blank stare and a quizzical, staccato head-tilt to the left or right Hollywood shorthand for "I am inhumanly evil/possessed by a demon/a liquid metal killing machine/a humanoid but emotionless android", amongst others?

I've seen this in Terminator 2, Angel, Star Trek and other sources I don't remember, so I'm a little confused as to how much of the effect is a natural reaction, and how much is a learned cultural response to having seen it several times. Can anyone explain where this character tic originated, and how it provokes the effect it does ( that the character is either emotionless or inhuman in some profound way )?
posted by Jon Mitchell to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It indicates to me that the evil thing is confused or intrigued by humans (perhaps by human irrationality?), and thus is profoundly not human.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:37 PM on December 23, 2005

Well, it goes at least as far back as Hannibal Lecter. From Chapter 7 of Red Dragon, originally published in 1981: "Dr. Lecter seldom holds his head upright. He tilts it as he asks a question, as though he were skewering an auger of curiosity into your face."

Maybe it's a sort of disarming device created by authors, given to their evil/inhuman creations because it's such a childlike gesture, something an innocent kid would do when presented with something alien but unthreatening. Interesting question.
posted by Gator at 5:59 PM on December 23, 2005

I've always associated that exact look with the portagonists from P.T. Anderson's films. I think it's one of his trademarks.
posted by cyphill at 5:59 PM on December 23, 2005

It's a gesture implemented to suggest the evil guy is evaluating his subject as he speaks, and is learning all about humanity (since he is inhumanly evil, desensitized to normal human behaviour, or is just not as "human" as the guy he is staring at.) This shows that the subject of the stare has a capacity for "humanity" (or insert whatever specific human trait he is supposed to be showing) that the evil man was not aware of, due to his dislocation from humanity and general evilness. So he is inquisitive, and trying to learn.

Dance around madly in front of a cat and it will likely make the same gesture.

posted by fire&wings at 6:54 PM on December 23, 2005

It indicates to me that the evil thing is confused or intrigued by humans (perhaps by human irrationality?), and thus is profoundly not human.

Nailed it. It's showing a complete lack of empathy where empathy and emotion are expected. It's replacing that empathy with a cold, clinical evaluation (marked by the head tilt). So it appears machinelike, alien and inhuman.
posted by frogan at 7:18 PM on December 23, 2005

Stewy does this in a dream sequence on Family Guy, hilarious!
posted by meta87 at 9:05 PM on December 23, 2005

Doesn't Ripley do this in Aliens right before she unleashes the flame thrower on the hive? I've always taken this to mean "ok, I've sized you up and now I'm going to kick some ass." Sorry, can't say where this originated but will be interested in the answers.
posted by quadog at 10:38 PM on December 23, 2005

Having facial expressions would make them too human. The head tilt implies some kind of inner working, intention building. The expressionless countenance implies inhuman evilness.

I fear the cat.
posted by jouke at 10:51 PM on December 23, 2005

Response by poster: Quadog - Yes. That's more what's bugging me, the fact that it is now film shorthand for a very specific and peculiar set of meanings, than the gesture itself. A bit more googling reveals that the first, or at least most commonly recognized instance of The Quizzical Inhuman Head Tilt reveals it to be characteristic of Michael Myers in Halloween.

I, too, fear the cat. That's an interesting point, though - this gesture seems to be cross-species, done by dogs, cats, birds, etc. Whether the meaning we attach to it of curiosity/quizzicalness is true for all other species displaying the trait is another thing altogether.

Whilst talking about this down the pub this evening, we came up with two competing theories for the origin of the gesture itself:

* Literally "trying to get a different perspective on something, thinking about something" - the angle of the eyes relative to the object being examined

* Slightly more prosaic, but interesting, was unconsciously increasing the blood-supply to a different half of the brain, causing you to think more creatively/logically about the problem in question, depending on the tilt-side.

Body language and its origins are fascinating things, alright...
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:11 PM on December 23, 2005

Tilting your field of vision disorients yourself just enough that it can help see an image as a whole rather than as a collection of symbols. Helps you get out of a locked frame of view. Or so I've found.
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:44 AM on December 24, 2005

A quick video compendium/mashup of all those scenes of evil head-tilt would be fun to see; is there more right to left head-tilt or left to right? Another Evil-Indicater-Head-Posiition movie cliche is Chin-Down-Eyes-Hooded-Brow-Furrowed. With or without underlighting.
posted by vurnt22 at 2:44 AM on December 24, 2005

I've heard that Elizabethan actors had a very formal set of gestures they used to accompany concepts in the play - almost a dictionary.

Thus "To be" would be accompanied with a palm outstretched, "not to be" with the other palm, and "that is the question" with the two being clasped together.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if "quizzical head tilt" was a standard Shakesperian gesture.
posted by Leon at 2:59 AM on December 24, 2005

The unhuman thing is looking quizzical because that which it looks at is not him/her/demon thing. And the demon thing is so ego driven that it is amused that there is something out there that is not him/her/demon thing. The demon thing does this just before it destroys that which in not it.
posted by jamie939 at 5:22 AM on December 24, 2005

a very formal set of gestures they used to accompany concepts in the play

These were codified by (forget his name,) there is a book about this called "Every Little Gesture" written by the choreographer Ted Shawn. Sadly seems to be out of print.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:07 AM on December 24, 2005

think uncanny valley.
posted by dorian at 6:25 AM on December 24, 2005

all I picture is Jan from the Brady Bunch making this look.... I just can't seem to remember what the episode was about.
posted by nimsey lou at 7:53 AM on December 24, 2005

i think it comes from dogs
posted by suni at 2:14 PM on December 24, 2005

Hollywood is incomprehensibly stupid, that's why.
posted by loquacious at 9:09 PM on December 24, 2005

There was actually an understood meaning to many gestures dating back to roman theater, which carried over to anglo-saxon manuscripts, and further, which can be used to get context in a number of illuminations. One type of hand gesture may always be for blessing, one for inquiring, etc. Dodwell's Anglo-Saxon Gestures and the Roman Stage is a good place to start.
posted by korej at 9:16 PM on December 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

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