I am a diehard horror fan, but every once in a while I have to scrub the carnage from my eyes with something that is over-the-top cute. For me, this is usually after watching anything involving cannibalism, most recently Jim Mickle's We Are What We Are. My favorite remedy is this bunny eating berries.
At first, I thought my impulse to squeeze the heck out of these cute puff balls was due to the residual aggression induced from watching a horror movie, but then I realized, as I’m sure many of you have, that the impulse to essentially destroy these visages of adorableness happens regardless of watching something scary. So, what’s the deal? Why do we want to squeeze and pinch cute kittens, bunnies, and puppies to death? Why do we say things like, “That otter is so cute, I could eat him!”
The experience of combining “negative” reactions and “playful aggression” (e.g., wanting to bite the ears off of a puppy) with positive reactions in response to “cute” things is called dimorphous expressions (other languages actually have unique words for this term, for example, in Filipino, the word is “gigil”). Why do these images evoke such a strong emotional response? No, it does not mean that you want to eat babies (although, according to Snowpiercer, they do taste better, and that’s another film that required a good post-viewing dose of cute overload).
Instead, what is likely going on is an attempt to regulate our emotions via a kind of counterbalancing. For example, we might cry after getting great news, like winning the lottery, because we’re overwhelmed and maxed out (physically). Crying, then, serves as a way to bring ourselves back down to baseline. The reverse could also happen, though, in more limited ways, such as when we smile to lighten intense feelings of sadness.
In one study, research found that half of participants spontaneously smiled during the saddest moments of a film. And, those who smiled during the sad moments returned to normal faster (i.e., cardiovascular recovery) than those who did not. However, so far there isn’t much evidence suggesting we spontaneously start thinking loving, protective thoughts toward things that scare us... for good reason.
Why does all of this happen? Like most things, it comes back to survival. We’ve evolved to really like cute things: wide eyes, round cheeks, and small chins trigger reward systems in our brains, motivating us to approach, engage, and even protect.
The benefits to our survival are obvious—we want to make sure the young survive to keep the species going. In two studies by Oriana R. Aragón and her colleagues at Yale University, photos of the cutest infants inspired the greatest feelings of being “overwhelmed,” experiencing playful aggression, and having the desire to protect. Perhaps inducing negative expressions help us maintain control in the presence of “cute” vulnerable beings that need us to protect them. Downregulating emotion in response to scary things—that might not be such a good idea if we need to fight or run.
There’s a lot writers and creators can do with this phenomena, and many have already, making for scary—and somewhat confusing—horror experiences. Case in point: Critters. As a child of the ’80s, I devoured the Critters movies with an equal mix of joy and terror. The alien creatures had the key characteristics we’ve evolved to find adorable: big eyes, small chins, and round cheeks—not to mention they are furry hairballs reminiscent of another ’80s sensation: Popples.
But, they also have two rows of needle-sharp teeth capable of annihilating a cow within seconds (OMG, that one scene with the GIANT Critter ball). This mix of cute and terrifying left audiences—myself included—in a mixed state of laughter and terror. Another example: Gremlins, which clearly separated the cute from the terrifying, but still left you wanting to hug and squish Mogwai at the same time.
The Slitheen from the Doctor Who episode “Aliens of London” also contain these key cute features, but I don’t recommend squeezing their cheeks.
So, the next time you find yourself wanting to squeeze the baby goat sleeping in your lap, don’t fret—you’re not an evil monster, you’re actually a normal human being that wants to cuddle and protect.