An excerpt from the forthcoming book Creepiness
Beginning in the mid-2000s, the fast food chain Burger King began running a series of deeply disturbing advertisements. They star a revamped version of the company’s mascot, The King, who has left the world of animated children’s advertisements and is now played by an actor wearing a large plastic mask featuring a crown, a beard, and an alarming perpetual smile. One typical ad features a man waking up in the morning to find The King in bed with him, staring at him inches away from his face. The man is initially alarmed, but becomes calm when The King hands him a breakfast sandwich. As he eats, he and The King become friendlier, joking, laughing, and even briefly brushing hands—and then they both flinch away and face forward in the bed. In another, a man wakes up, opens the blinds, and finds The King standing there staring at him. He starts to become agitated until he notices that The King is holding a plate with a breakfast sandwich.
These ads, whose mascot was widely called the “Creepy King” in the press and among viewers, generated considerable word-of-mouth attention for Burger King, and in a sense, they could be viewed as one of the most successful “viral marketing” campaigns of all time. Unfortunately for Burger King, the attention was almost uniformly negative. In light of the public’s revulsion, the firm’s advertising agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, tweaked the formula slightly. In one later ad, The King crashes through an office window in a relentless quest to replace a woman’s microwaved lunch with a huge hamburger, while in another, he engages in a “reverse pick-pocketing” scheme wherein he sneaks money into people’s pockets, apparently symbolizing his commitment to saving customers money.
The shift to surrealism was not enough to shake the “Creepy King” image, and ultimately the mascot was retired. Yet The King lives on, seared into the American cultural consciousness as an enduring archetype of creepiness. I’ve been researching the topic for years, primarily by asking people what they think of creepiness. Every definition I attempted was rejected as inadequate, and every creepy pop cultural character seemed open to other interpretations—except for one. The King is the one example that always receives unanimous consent.
Doubtless a big part of the character’s impact is the simple shock that such an off-putting theme would be part of an advertisement. It’s rare enough to have an aggressively creepy character on television, and even then the writers will normally make some effort to make the character somehow relatable or sympathetic. Yet The King has no back-story, no mitigating factors. He is sheer creepiness embodied, all the more so given his unexpected irruption into a genre that normally makes every effort to pander to the viewer.
How could this happen? On a practical level, one can see how a space for such an unprecedented campaign could open up precisely at Burger King. A perpetual also-ran in the fast food industry, Burger King is a frequent target for private equity companies eager to snatch up ailing firms and apply their cost-cutting magic to return them to profitability. Hence it is also a chronically mismanaged firm, lurching from one contrived strategy to the next. In that context, an advertising campaign that used shock value to generate cheap publicity could easily sound like a plausible option.
It seems to me, however, that there is a deeper truth at work in the “Creepy King” campaign. This truth emerges in one of the least creepy King ads, which portrays him breaking into McDonald’s headquarters to steal the recipe for the Egg McMuffin so that Burger King can produce a copycat sandwich. Here we have a company openly admitting to its own redundancy, its lack of any mandate for existence. Maybe Burger King can give you slightly more food, or give it to you cheaper—but at the end of the day, it’s not contributing anything distinctive, original, or even particularly desirable. The commercials in fact exacerbate this sense of providing a generic food substance by referring to Burger King’s food primarily as “meat,” rather than naming the particular type of meat involved. Finally, the use of the mascot only highlights the contrast with McDonald’s: while we might imagine people being nostalgic about characters like Ronald McDonald or the Hamburglar, literally no one has fond memories of the old Burger King mascot that this ad is reviving.
There’s no reason for me to have any emotional connection with Burger King beyond the minimal investment it takes to prefer a Whopper to a Big Mac—and yet these commercials are manipulating me into a very strong (if negative) emotional response. As unprecedented as this ad campaign is on one level, though, is it really anything more than an intensification of what has been latent in Burger King all along? Haven’t all of its ads made disproportionate emotional demands on us, asking us to feel some kind of loyalty or affection for a McDonald’s knock-off? Burger King has nothing to offer us, and yet it has been demanding our attention and shoving itself at us nonetheless. In the last analysis, there was always something creepy about Burger King, and for a brief, uncanny moment, they were honest about it.
I am not the first commentator to be drawn almost involuntarily into the territory of creepiness. Most notably, Sigmund Freud beat me to it by nearly a century, in his 1919 essay “The Uncanny.” The term “uncanny” is a translation of the German word unheimlich (literally “unhomely”), which refers to a wide range of phenomena associated with fear and dread. Freud detects an ambivalence in the term, which etymologically seems to refer to what is unfamiliar (what we are not at home with) but experientially most often involves something that is all too familiar, something that fits too well.
Here we can see the appropriateness of the English translation “uncanny,” which we might invoke to describe a coincidence or an unexpected resemblance. Most of Freud’s examples, however, involve horror at the supernatural, which is not a context where we would normally use the word “uncanny.” And indeed, Freud surveys various European languages and concludes that there is no language other than German that unites the various meanings of unheimlich in a single term.
Looking over Freud’s suggested possible translations of unheimlich into English, however, I wondered whether we have finally caught up with the Germans in this regard. Collected from various dictionaries, they include “uncomfortable, uneasy, gloomy, dismal, uncanny, ghastly; (of a house) haunted; (of a man) a repulsive fellow.” Today, we do have a single word that encompasses all of those meanings: creepy, which is associated at once with ghosts and the supernatural, with vaguer forms of discomfort, and with particularly off-putting individuals like The King.
Ultimately, Freud endorses the definition of the philosopher F.W.J. Schelling, who declares that the “unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained hidden and secret and has become visible.” Freud is thinking primarily of disavowed beliefs, but Schelling’s definition would also include the sexual creepiness that comes to the fore in the Burger King ads as well as in everyday use of the term. We can see this perhaps most clearly in the case of neurotic young men who are mortally afraid of being declared creepy. At bottom, they fear that if they reveal their sexual desire, it will provoke a reaction of revulsion and disgust—better to keep it hidden, then.
Admittedly, the translation of unheimlich as “creepy” may initially seem to stretch the category beyond the bounds Freud sets out in “The Uncanny.” Yet insofar as it introduces an element of sexuality, it does so in a fundamentally Freudian way. Freud’s account focuses on social expectations, particularly in the form of paternal prohibitions, and for Freud, those phenomena are inextricably tied up with sexuality. In fact, although the common understanding of Freud views him as focused on the individual psyche, I believe that his theory is better understood as an attempt to account for the fraught relationship between sexuality and the social order. And this is because Freud is above all concerned with understanding how human beings deal with what we could call the inherent creepiness of sexuality, with its tendency to transgress and evade all reasonable boundaries.
For Freud human desire is inherently excessive, and for the “normal” subject, repressed desires can be experienced as unwelcome and invasive when they threaten to resurface. Desire is also willing to displace itself into seemingly unrelated realms or point itself in counterintuitive directions, making it very difficult to interpret and understand—indeed, there is a sense in which desire is fundamentally and irreducibly enigmatic. Freud puts forward sexuality as the privileged point of reference for understanding all desire and claims that our relationship with social norms is always inextricably tied up with our struggle with sexuality.
Accepting for the moment that The King is a particularly potent figure of creepiness, we can see that these properties of desire—its displaced, invasive, excessive, and enigmatic character, along with the special role of sexuality and social norms—are all emphatically present in the advertisements. There is something undeniably sexual about the early “Creepy King” commercials, because he is, after all, crawling into other men’s beds and staring into their bedroom windows. The first commercial I described makes the implicit homoerotic tension explicit when the man and The King touch hands only to flinch away, so that the social expectations surrounding the proper performance of heterosexual masculinity are very much in play. The relationship cannot be consummated, and so the sexuality is displaced onto the breakfast sandwich or other fast food items. As a result, the sexualized sandwich is strangely fetishized as the camera lingers on it, so that the aforementioned references to “meat” seem to emphasize the fleshiness of the food in a creepy way.
This displaced sexual energy is both invasive and excessive. The King is first of all an unwelcome, disturbing presence in the home, but he is constantly invading other personal spaces—the break room at the work place, even people’s pockets. One begins to get the sense that The King somehow “gets off” on the very act of transgressing rules and boundaries, regardless of the context.
The King’s invasion is never for the purposes of stealing, however, but precisely of giving something extra, whether it be fast food or extra money. Often the excessive size of the sandwich in question is highlighted, but there is something especially appropriate about The King’s association with fast food breakfast, which is inherently excessive regardless of its size. For most Americans, a fast food breakfast is an exceptional indulgence, most often reserved for road trips or used as a kind of nuclear option to cure particularly painful hangovers. In this context, the dollar or so that The King shoves into people’s pockets as a result of Burger King’s lower breakfast prices can also appear excessive, insofar as it represents “savings” on something that relatively few people would normally buy.
Perhaps the creepiest aspect of The King, however, is his mask. Were a normal actor, even a creepy one like Zach Galifianakis, to appear in some unsuspecting customer’s bed, the effect would presumably be less alarming. This is because the static facial expression renders The King’s motives completely illegible. When he reveals that all he wants is to deliver a breakfast sandwich, the enigma of his desire is not so much dispelled as redoubled—why on earth would anyone want to do that? Is he trying to make friends? Is the breakfast sandwich poisoned? Or laced with some kind of date-rape drug?
What’s more, in the King the properties of unruly desire that Freud teaches us to expect are all deeply intertwined. There is something excessive, for instance, about a sexualized relationship with a sausage biscuit with egg, and that displacement makes the desire involved seem much more enigmatic than a simple desire to eat breakfast. Meanwhile, it somehow fits that The King should literally invade people’s personal space insofar as the sexual desire at work is already figuratively “invading” realms where it does not belong.
The King is perhaps unique in so clearly exemplifying all these aspects of unruly desire, but I contend that all of them will be involved to some degree in any creepy experience. Admittedly, the place of a particular property may not be immediately clear. For instance, in the case of a sleazy guy who insists on propositioning every woman he meets, the element of enigma may seem to be missing insofar as he clearly wants sex. And yet it seems strange that simply wanting sex would be creepy, because a man who politely asks a woman on a date and then accepts the answer is, all things being equal, not being creepy. What makes the sleazy guy creepy, then, is not that he is simply asking too many women out, but that his constant failure seems to indicate that he doesn’t care that his methods are ineffective. It’s as though he’s directly “getting off” on the very act of approaching women, with no regard for the ostensible goal of sleeping with them. When we recognize this, we can’t help but ask, “What is he getting out of this?” Even the most seemingly obvious creepy desire turns out to be enigmatic on closer examination.
By the same token, a single creepy property, if strongly expressed, can give rise to the entire ensemble. Something like this seems to be going on in the “creepy uncle.” In a society where the nuclear family is emphasized above all, relationships with extended family members can easily become confusing and even illegible. It’s simply not clear what to do with an adult male who is “family,” but also not one’s father. This ambiguity can be productive in some cases like the “cool uncle” or the “confidant uncle”—but the possibility of reading the uncle’s motives as invasive or enigmatic is ever present. Is the “cool uncle” using his nephews and nieces as a chance to relive his childhood? Is the “confidant uncle” prying into my secrets for less than pure purposes? And is it just me, or did that hug last a little bit too long?
There are obviously many tragic cases where uncles take advantage of their role to abuse their young relatives. Yet that empirical fact is not enough to account for the emergence of the “creepy uncle” as a cultural trope, since abuse by fathers is much more frequent and there is no widespread stereotype of one’s own father as creepy. It is the uncle’s displaced and enigmatic role as “family but not really family” that opens up the space for other creepy tropes to attach to the figure of the uncle in a way that is not really possible for a more clearly defined role like that of the father.
To return to the territory of “The Uncanny,” however, there is a broader sense in which the father—in his role as the representative of social expectations—can become creepy, and that is when the father’s voice and perspective invades the subject’s own psyche and begins making excessive demands. Freud believes that this sense of an outside agency inside of oneself, watching over one’s every move and criticizing it, is what accounts for the uncanny effect of doppelgangers—or I might add, the creepy feeling of discovering we are being watched. This is why it was creepy, for instance, when it was reported that the algorithm that tracked a young woman’s purchases at Target deduced that she was pregnant before she knew it herself.
Yet who exactly is doing the creeping out here? While this may be an extreme case, our common experience of creepiness always tends to complicate questions of agency to some degree. We speak primarily of “being creeped out,” and when we reverse that passive expression into the active voice to say that someone or something “is creeping us out,” we don’t usually mean to imply that they are doing so intentionally. Indeed, creepy people’s obliviousness to the way their behavior comes across is often an integral part of the creepy effect. Further, as the Target example shows, no conscious agency needs to be presupposed—we can be creeped out by corporations, by places, by inanimate objects, even by periods of time (who is not vaguely creeped out by the 1970s?). We hesitate to say that these things are inherently creepy, and yet the judgment that something is creepy seems somehow more than simply “subjective.” We know that we’re a party to this judgment, that to some extent we must be projecting, but we can’t say exactly why or how.
The Target example is a particularly striking one because here there seems to be some kind of agency involved even though there was no human agent at work. This sense of a non-human or mechanical agency is another area that Freud designates as uncanny, since it seems to imply a secret or hidden form of agency beneath the recognizably human surface. When we use the concept of creepiness to expand Freud’s analysis of the uncanny to include sexuality, we can understand why such an occurrence would be unheimlich in Freud’s sense of hitting a little too close to home. We all have such hidden agencies roiling beneath the surface of our official public persona, made up of our unruly drives, our social expectations, and—most troubling of all—their mutual entanglements. We are susceptible to being creeped out, in other words, because we are always in danger of being creeped out by ourselves, or more precisely, by those parts of ourselves that seem to exceed and elude ourselves.