Everything is fine and normal – just ask the mannequin at the next table

THE WASHINGTON POST – The people disappeared, and then they were replaced. The ones brave enough to venture out to restaurants, concert halls and stadiums in the After were greeted by the Others. The Others sat, motionless. There was no light in their eyes, but the Others watched – they are always watching – as the people around them ordered crab cakes and drinks.

“They’ll say, that one’s staring at me,” said Paula Starr Melehes, owner of the Open Hearth restaurant outside of Greenville, South Carolina. “Or, oh, that one’s flirting with me.”

At the Open Hearth, the Others are a collection of male and female blowup dolls – “in very good taste,” said Melehes, – filling seats at certain tables to help customers maintain social distancing, and to make the restaurant, which was required to limit capacity, appear more full. At Korean baseball stadiums, an Australian cafe and an Ohio boarding school, they’re cardboard cutouts to replace fans, customers and students. At some restaurants, they’re stuffed animals. At others, they’re realistic, store display-quality mannequins wearing full outfits, sitting at tables with place settings, theoretically helping you enjoy your meal by making a half-empty cafe feel more, uh, normal.

Wait a second. Out of the corner of your eye. Did one of them just … move?

“I had one bad comment from a customer who said they were too creepy and she would never dine with me,” said Melehes. But otherwise, “It has just been overwhelmingly successful. Business has increased.”

Western Reserve Academy, in Ohio, created cardboard cutouts of its students after the school went virtual. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Look, this is a weird time. Leaving your house and seeing empty streets and playgrounds – it feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Might as well lean all the way into it, right?

“The uncanny valley says this is a really bad idea,” said Thalia Wheatley, a professor of social psychology and neuroscience at Dartmouth University, referring to a concept that explains why we’re creeped out by humanlike objects or beings.

The phenomenon was identified by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. Basically, people are drawn to look at other faces, even in things that aren’t actually people. But the more humanlike a nonhuman object looks – like a mannequin, or robot, or CGI movie – the more unnerving it is. Think of the dead-eyed conductor in The Polar Express, or the human-faced felines of Cats.

“This is what horror movies capitalise on,” said Wheatley, “the undead, Chucky, things that have faces that aren’t actually alive, or they don’t have a mind.”

Are we in a horror movie, or a prop comedy? Or are we wandering in the uncanny valley between the two? The photos of elegantly dressed mannequins went viral, spurring comparisons to a Twilight Zone episode in which a department store’s mannequins come
to life.

Kelsey Cadden, 30, is warily curious about what a dinner there with her mother will be like next month. “I think the first 15 minutes will be weird,” she said. Perhaps the mannequins won’t even be the weirdest thing: “Going out in public is going to be the weirdest thing.”

Some venues have tried to get as far from the uncanny valley as possible. One restaurant in Bangkok has filled seats with cartoon dragons, and another has gone for stuffed pandas. One of the cutest seat-fillers has been in the cafe at Izu Shaboten Zoo in Shizuoka, Japan, which is filled with plump capybara stuffed animals, an animal the zoo is famous for housing. On Monday, at an opera house in Barcelona, a string quartet played to an audience of 2,292 potted plants.

At Honey Salt restaurant, in Las Vegas, owner Elizabeth Blau was allowed to reopen with limited indoor seating, which prohibited customers at the bar. She had to block off those seats somehow. There were a number of options. “Waffle House put garbage bags on their chairs,” she said. “I thought, oh my goodness, this is not how we want to welcome our
guests back.”

Some levity was in order, so she filled those seats with teddy bears – because honey, get it? – and other stuffed animals wearing masks. “Some of them didn’t have ears, so it wasn’t easy to put a mask on,” she said. “So we used a little dental floss.” (A month later, the teddy bears are still in use, though there aren’t as many needed, since Vegas has moved into another phase of reopening.)

The cardboard cutouts of (human) spectators at South Korean baseball games have been proposed by fans as a model for American leagues to follow. Cutouts might be useful beyond the purposes of simulating sports crowds: In April, Western Reserve Academy, an Ohio boarding school, hosted an all-school meeting with the seats of its assembly hall filled with cardboard heads of its pupils.

“It was overwhelming” to look out over the rows of students, said Head of School Suzanne Walker Buck. “It felt like there was happiness, and we were together as
a community.”

At the same time, “It’s odd when you’re looking at cardboard faces,” said Buck. “It definitely felt like a Salvador Dali moment. You felt like you were in one of his paintings.”

Wheatley, the Dartmouth neuroscientist, once led an experiment in which researchers gave participants a series of images of a doll morphing into a person and asked them to choose the point at which it began to look like it was alive. People who were made to feel lonely before the experiment chose an image that was closer to the doll side of
the spectrum.

“So that might suggest that if we are really starved for social interaction – we have this social hunger to be with other people – that it might, in fact, allow us to be a little bit more lenient about what we accept as human beings in our midst,” said Wheatley.

(Shown some of the images of mannequin diners for this story, Wheatley replied, “Oh, wow, this is so much worse than I had imagined.”)

The conditions that have necessitated the strategic placement of false humans in restaurants and sports arenas have been bad news for our collective mental health but good news for the mannequin biz.

“I saw it, and I said, hey, there’s a new market for me while every retail store in the world is shut down!” said President of Genesis Mannequins USA Joseph Klinow. Klinow’s company makes mannequins for department stores and window displays for Ralph Lauren, among others. He reached out to New York restaurateur friends to see if they might want some mannequins. “The responses ranged from ‘How much would it cost to do something like that?’ to ‘Isn’t it a little creepy?’” (Answers: Between USD400 and USD1,000 per mannequin; and Yes.) He’s started manufacturing some inventory, but so far, there haven’t been any takers.

But creepiness is just a sign of poor quality, Klinow said. “If it’s done by a professional who’s talented in window dressing and visual merchandising, it can be done very artfully, and done without creeping people out.”

The mannequins occupying restaurants in Vilnius, Lithuania, don’t have faces – which helps.