How can something understood as the universal symbol for joy so easily become the makings of our worst nightmares? Unhappy, unsettling smiles—like those in Todd Phillips’ Joker or the truly chilling masks donned by Ethan Hawke in last year’s The Black Phone—appear to be here to stay as fixtures of the horror genre. Paramount’s new flick, directed by Parker Finn, makes the concept its very premise, with the movie following a psychiatrist plagued by smiles everywhere she turns. Baseball fans got a taste of her strife thanks to a stunt marketing campaign for Smile featuring actors smiling creepily behind the dugout. Watch the trailer below at your own risk:
Whereas the 2018 horror film Truth or Dare used CGI to stretch the smiles of the actors like a Snapchat filter befitting the uncanny valley, the smiles in Smile for the most part do not appear digitally modified, by my estimate. (The filmmakers behind Smile declined to be interviewed for this piece.) The actors angle their heads downward as their eyes stare ahead at the audience. It’s not that they’re failing to deliver a Duchenne smile, a smile that reaches the eyes and therefore reads as genuine. There is some smizing going on in Smile, though I doubt Tyra Banks would approve.
What exactly makes these smiles so creepy, then? “Lots of research suggests that smiles, frowns—in fact, all physical signals in your body—have no inherent emotional meaning,” says author and leading psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. “The emotional meaning emerges out of the context.” The music, setting, and cinematography of a horror film build the suspense and uncertainty of the audience, which makes us more aroused (the scary kind, not the sexy kind). Basically, just knowing you’re watching a horror movie or even just the trailer for one makes everything creepier to begin with.
Dr. Peggy Mason, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago, agrees: “There are all sorts of clues that the viewer is given to say you should see this as creepy … not dependent on the facial expression itself.” It’s empathy (“the communication of affect/emotion between two individuals,” as Mason defines it) that is a fundamental part of our societal contract of communication and understanding. That’s what many horror films seek to subvert when they recontextualize comforting things into terrifying ones.
Smile manipulates our empathic expectations by producing smiles during situations we wouldn’t expect them to occur in or for lengths of time we wouldn’t deem normal—kinda like the Barenaked Ladies laughing at a funeral. But, much like that ex you’d rather not think about, in this case it’s an explicit manipulation of our communicative expectations, used here to ratchet up our scaredy senses. Understanding the societally accepted situations in which smiles should occur and then twisting that on its head (or just twisting the head, as Smile does in one jump scare) is scarier than these smiles actually could be on their own.
But guess what? It’s all fake, anyway. Barrett said that the idea that smiles equate to happiness is a stereotype: “People do smile when they’re happy, more than chance … but not that much more than chance. The majority of the time when you’re happy, you’re not smiling. You’re doing something else with your face.”
We smile to be encouraging and welcoming, sure, but also when we’re sad, embarrassed, frustrated, lying, or even to indicate that we’re submissive. (Adverbs, this is your time to shine: “Mirthlessly,” go off! “Disparagingly,” get it, girl!) Think of how both the slight smile emoji and the smiling Daenerys meme can be construed as sarcastic. Historically, smiling wasn’t always something that humans did to emote happiness—and in fact, both Barrett and Mason agree, smiling is pretty American. “I have one friend who is a cultural psychologist who moved here from the Netherlands and she told me that her cheeks ached for a year after she moved here,” Barrett noted.
So who do we have to blame for this stereotype? Who let us believe that smiles equated to happiness, leaving us vulnerable to the effects of this film?
None other than our boy Charles Darwin. It was upon discovering the work of French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne, who used electrotherapy to induce motor movements and gave the “Duchenne smile” its name, that Darwin developed his theory of facial expressions. “Darwin believed that facial expressions of emotion were vestigial, like your tailbone,” explained Barrett. “If you could find something that was functional in other animals but was vestigial in humans, that would be evidence for his view that humans were the product of natural selection.” Darwin believed that the ways we express emotion are leftovers of behavioral evolutions that occurred in our animal predecessors, leftovers that lasted because they gave us a competitive edge.
If I look at the smiles from Smile (like the one above) without any other context, holding out my fingers to block everything but the face itself, I can register some as normal smiles. The ones at the baseball game are a little more eerie, but there are other reasons for that: the actors’ body language, their stiff posture, the immobility of their smiles, etc. Realizing that I can’t tell just from their facial expression alone whether someone may want to kill me is not exactly comforting, so if you need me, I’ll be second-guessing every person who smiles at me on the street.