“They’ll say, that one’s staring at me,” says Paula Starr Melehes, owner of the Open Hearth restaurant outside of Greenville, S.C. “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,” says Melehes, not the R-rated kind — 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,” says Melehes. But otherwise, “It has just been overwhelmingly successful. Business has increased.”
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,” says Thalia Wheatley, a professor of social psychology and neuroscience at Dartmouth College, 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 capitalize on,” says 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? When the Inn at Little Washington announced its plan to fill certain tables in its dining room with mannequins upon its reopening last month, the running joke was that servers — who were instructed to pour drinks for the dummies — would get “stiffed.” 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, but then you sit down, and the wine is flowing,” she says. 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 says. “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 says. “So we used a little dental floss.” (A month later, the teddy bears are still in use, though not as many are 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, says 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,” says 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,” Wheatley says.
(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!” says Joseph Klinow, president of Genesis Mannequins USA.
Klinow’s company makes mannequins for department stores and window displays for Ralph Lauren, among others. He sought out 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 $400 and $1,000 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 says. “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.
“We got these beautiful and expensive mannequins. Every designer was very happy and proud,” says Julia Janus, the designer and artist who came up with the idea to supply elegantly clothed figures from shuttered boutiques to partially open restaurants. “They’re really photogenic.”
For as long as social distancing is necessary, “We’ll learn what’s an acceptable amount of fake people to have in the world,” says Wheatley.
Until then, humans will adapt. Back at Paula Starr Melehes’s Open Hearth restaurant, in South Carolina, the blowup dolls she purchased on Amazon were a big hit. But one of them kept deflating.
“She looked drunk at the table — she looked like she was very inebriated,” Melehes says. “People were buying her drinks right and left.”
Melehes decided to give her a name: Ilene Dover.