Key Concept: For fine artists, cartoonists and animators to clearly and unambiguously depict Fear, it is essential to include a protective body stance in concert with a contorted face.
Over years of doing online tests of facial expression, our research team was able to find optimal versions (90% + viewer agreement) of nearly all the emotions. It’s relatively easy to get virtually unanimous agreement about Happy or Sad faces, for example, and Anger is not far behind.
But, Fear has always been a different story, and not just with our research group – other researchers have reported similar issues achieving high recognition rates. As hard as we might try, recognition in the low 80% range was often the best we could achieve, and worse results were distressingly common. Was it the shape and width of the eye opening? The tilting of the brows? Or, the details of the mouth? (These are the three main components of Fear on the face.)
The purpose of this blog is to report a recent discovery: Fear is exceptional in another way. It’s always been my goal to see how much information can be conveyed by the face alone. Quite a lot, it turns out, as our results with most of the Cardinals confirm. Our thousands of tests have been done using the image of the head without any indication of the body. While this is enough for 5 out of the 6 Cardinals, it now seems obvious that we require more information to be clear about frightened faces, specifically enough body language to demonstrate that a strong defensive gesture accompanies what’s happening on the face.
WELCOME TO NIGHTMARES FEAR FACTORY!
To come to this conclusion, I went to the most authoritative source I know, the hundreds of photographs of terrified people taken by a hidden camera at the Canadian haunted house, “Nightmares Fear Factory.” Scanning page after page of these pictures, it became obvious that protective body language is an inseparable component of extreme Fear, present in virtually every case. It’s not hard to find people who look Angry, Sad, or Happy without a strong echo in their posture (although, of course, it does often occur), but it seems almost impossible to find people responding to an extreme and sudden threat who are not throwing their hands up into the air, grabbing a companion, or defensively crouching.
When I began testing this theory online, the results were clear. Every face I tested registered improved recognition if the image of the frightened face also included expressive hands and arms. If the face had a high recognition rate to begin with, the improvement was nearly always between 10% and 20%. Poorly recognized faces (with a high Surprise score), improved much more dramatically.
In Figures 5/6 and 7/8 below, I show two examples of an effective Face of Fear being made more reconizable with more visual context:
In Figure 6, I kept the same face and added a very sketchy version of a pose with a protective gesture, and lo and behold, everyone - except for one Surprise holdout - saw her as frightened. Big change! And one of my highest Fear scores in history.
Not surprisingly, other tests returned similar results:
To read more about the facial characteristics of the “Face of Terror,” go to my previous blog post on May 2017.
All photographic material (Figures 1-4 , 9 &10) provided by Nightmares Fear Factory, Niagara Falls, Canada which publishes a site with the best of photos of terrified haunted house visitors each month;
All drawings (Figures 5 - 8) created by the author digitally on a Wacom tablet.