Helwig on the Sinister Smile Featured in New Horror Film “Smile”

Headshot of Dr. Nate Helwig

The new horror film Smile features characters holding a long and disturbing smile throughout the movie. What makes these smiles, and others in horror films, so unnerving? Dr. Nathaniel Helwig explains that these smiles (characterized by a dead gaze, uncomfortably wide, and no blinking) are in direct contrast with our expectations of what a typical smile looks like in the New York Times article titled, “In ‘Smile,’ Why the Grins Are So Grim.” Smiles can be perceived as sinister by some and not so by others depending on the physical characteristics. 

In fact, in 2017, Helwig and his team conducted a study at the Minnesota State Fair. They found that smiles that were a medium width with fewer teeth showing were rated the most positively by respondents. On the other end of the spectrum, smiles with extreme widths and angles were rated the lowest and open-mouthed smiles were seen as fearful. 

Nathaniel Helwig, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology and Statistics in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota.

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