The campy slasher romp M3gan, released in January, is the latest entry in the toy-horror lineage of Child’s Play and The Conjuring. However, it updates the murderous doll motif for the age of artificial intelligence: The titular M3gan (Model 3 Generative Android) isn’t possessed, as with Chucky and Anabelle, by the soul of a Satanist serial killer, but by the internet; more precisely, by machine-learning algorithms that process vast troves of online data, ultimately prompting her to commit murder. The film’s successful marketing involved sequences tailor-made for TikTok, which predictably went viral and spawned many imitations.
M3gan’s release was also fortuitously timed to tap into collective anxieties around AI. A month earlier, OpenAI released the natural-language-generation chatbot ChatGPT. The disembodied ChatGPT, which has wowed users with its humanlike prose, has provoked some of the same reactions as the humanoid doll M3gan: Its output has been called “terrifying,” “creepy,” and “spooky.” The concrete fears provoked by ChatGPT are about the automation of jobs. M3gan, conversely, locates the risk of AI in the domestic sphere: The film suggests that it isn’t just your jobs the robots are coming for—but your family.
Discussions of the real, disembodied ChatGPT and the fictional, embodied M3gan often reference the “uncanny valley”: the term used in robotics for the unsetting emotional effect produced when technology comes too close to simulating humanity. In linking this fear of humanlike machines to disturbances in the family, M3gan harks back two major sources of the “uncanny-valley” theory: Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay “The Uncanny” (1919) and the German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch’s earlier study of the same topic.
Both Freud and Jentsch analyze an early literary precursor of M3gan: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Sandman” (1816), perhaps the original creepy-doll narrative. In it, an inventor devises a female automaton, Olympia, who is so lifelike that the story’s protagonist, Nathanael, falls in love with her—to fatal consequences. Jentsch influentially argued that the feeling of the uncanny provoked by Hoffmann’s story is rooted in “intellectual uncertainty” about Olympia’s humanity or aliveness. Freud’s discussion of Jentsch’s theory in “The Uncanny” helped popularize this explanation, which influenced the “uncanny-valley” theory, but after considering this view, the founder of psychoanalysis rejected it and looked elsewhere for the source of the uncanny. Consistent with his other theories, he traced the uncanny to the re-emergence of repressed childhood traumas and complexes.
This typical Freudian move might seem barely relevant to creepy AI dolls—if the plot of M3gan didn’t make the link explicit. The film begins with a young couple’s death in a car accident, which leaves their preteen daughter an orphan. The girl, Cady, is then taken in by her aunt Gemma, a roboticist at a company that manufactures interactive children’s toys. Gemma is disinclined to the duties of motherhood, so her niece’s arrival provides her with an impetus to complete M3gan, her most ambitious project: She works overtime to finish it so as to have, in effect, a life-sized animatronic iPad that will babysit Cady while she works.
M3gan’s overt function, then, is to replace Cady’s parents and take over unwanted parental duties from Gemma, a modern career woman uninterested in maternal responsibilities. M3gan not only supervises and entertains Cady, but assumes the responsibilities of socializing her—for instance, reminding her to wash her hands after using the bathroom. When Gemma unveils M3gan as a product, the marketing highlights her utility as a parental substitute, a point reiterated by ads for the film that state: “She’s more than a toy. She’s family.”
What the film is conveying with all this is obvious enough: a satire of the outsourcing of parenting to interactive devices, which leads in this case not just to poor socialization, but to murder and mayhem. But Freud’s account of the uncanny points us to a deeper level of antagonism between technology and the family, an antagonism also hinted at by the film.
Children, Freud argued in “The Uncanny” and elsewhere, have little sense of the boundaries between reality and fantasy, life and death, the self and the other. They project their fantasies of limitlessness, omnipotence, and omniscience onto their parents, imagining them as godlike beings, whether benign (the warm, enveloping mother) or malign (the cruel, omnipotent father).
Passing through the Oedipal gauntlet of familial relations, for Freud, fundamentally means overcoming such fantasies and coming to terms with the finitude of one’s parents. The source of the uncanny, in Freud’s account, is the “return of the repressed.” When we find something uncanny, it is because it has resuscitated our buried infantile wishes and fears. For instance, a child’s wish for a doll to come alive might express a fantasy of omnipotence or a desire to substitute a parent with a more reliable, pliant companion. As the creepy doll motif shows, such benign childhood fantasies easily morph into the stuff of adult horror.
This is because fantasies of omnipotence, immortality, and boundlessness are precisely what must be repressed through the process of psychic maturation. Psychoanalysis promises to curb those tendencies by making us conscious of our tendency to fall back into primal fantasies and projections in our relations with others. It is fitting, then, that M3gan’s rival and antagonist in the film is a therapist who has been hired to help Cady process her grief over her parents. What M3gan promises is a bypassing of this process. Instead of accepting the mortality of the parents, Cady can replace them with M3gan, who corresponds in many respects to the infantile fantasy: She is both all-knowing and, as advertisements for her highlight, immortal.
What is unsettling about M3gan, accordingly, isn’t her inadequacy as a substitute parent—on the contrary, it is her excessive capacity and zeal in the role. At one point, Cady remarks that M3gan looks at her “as if she is the only person in the world”—something her mother did only occasionally. Unlike Cady’s mother, whose distractedness and poor choices (driving in a snowstorm) led to her own death and her daughter’s orphanhood, M3gan never fails in her remit of protecting Cady—this, in fact, is what leads her to kill anyone she views as a threat.
M3gan thus points to a rarely recognized dimension of AI’s threat to humanity, which is less economic than psychological. By simulating the fulfillment of infantile fantasies of omniscience and immortality, such technologies forestall the acknowledgment of finitude and mortality that are necessary for psychic growth.
Today’s progressives continue to denounce the oppressiveness of the Oedipal family structure and demand its abolition. In reality, they are merely providing a post-facto legitimation of its diminished status due to various factors, including technology. Jacques Lacan summed up the lesson of Freudian psychoanalysis with a pun: “le père, ou pire”—“the father, or worse.” With a generation being raised by TikTok, we now face something definitively worse.