Why Oilers' new mascot flirts with 'uncanny' line between creepy and cute

Turns out the apparent "creep factor" of the Oilers new lynx-head mascot can been attributed to something called the "Uncanny Valley." No, it's a real thing.

'Creep factor' of Hunter the lynx can been attributed to something called the 'Uncanny Valley'

The Edmonton Oilers introduced their new mascot Hunter this week, but the Canadian lynx has received mixed reaction online. (Twitter/EdmontonOilers)

Turns out the apparent "creep factor" of the Oilers new lynx-head mascot can been attributed to something called the "Uncanny Valley."

It's a theory, often relied on by animators, that suggests robots and characters that resemble humans too closely can seem repulsive or utterly terrifying, instead of cute and relatable.

Owen Brierley, executive director of the Edmonton Digital Arts College, which specializes in animation training, said the familiar Walking Dead creations of Hollywood are great examples of this theory at work.

"Zombies, of course, have the biggest creep factor, in being something that is not alive, and yet animated. And that's the challenge that all animators face, is this ability to breathe life into something that is non-human." 

'Garish and grotesque'

When the Oilers unveiled Hunter the Canadian lynx this week, some fans and critics were quick to find fault, suggesting the wildcat might incite blood-curdling shrieks in the stands. Online reaction to the creature included words like "demonic" and "soul-eating" and "terrifying." 

When evaluating Hunter on the sliding scale of cute versus creepy, Brierley said the Oilers new mascot appears to sit right on the edge.

"When we look at this lynx character, I would say it approaches the Uncanny Valley," Brierley said. "It's not a cartoon character. It's not really a realistic lynx character. It's still part cartoon, because it's garish and grotesque. It's sort of this weird conglomeration of different kinds of stuff.

"But it also has what appears to be real fur, and realistic eyes, and it's a real thing, where a lot of mascots are things like a talking baseball."

Brierley said Hunter seems somewhat disconnected from the familiar Oilers brand.

"I've never seen anything that's lynx related at all, and so that's kind of out of left field," he said.

On top of his appearance, Hunter also has a slightly off-putting back story to match his questionable looks.

According to the team, having grown up in Edmonton's river valley, the lynx — who "only comes out at night" — was hunting when he came upon a group of children playing a game of shinny. Hunter fell in love with the sport and began watching the players from afar every night.

When construction of the new arena began, Hunter snuck inside the gates, and built a hidden underground lair beneath the construction site, just waiting for the team to notice his secret den, and his dedication.

Though some critics have suggested the character will become nightmare fodder for the team's youngest fans, the Oilers say it was children who picked Hunter in the first place.

The team said it surveyed 2,200 Edmonton students, from kindergarten to Grade 9, and the Canadian lynx came out "far and away the most popular choice."

Brierley said he can see how kids might be quicker to embrace Hunter than adults would be.

"It makes total sense to me that kids would accept the lynx character and the adults around them are saying, 'Ooh, this so creepy.'

"The majority of the twitter and the social media population have only really experienced Hunter as a photo. And if you look at the video of Hunter in action in a classroom with kids, what we have is a very talented human inside that mascot who is animating that character.

"Whoever that is, is doing an excellent job in trying to bring some life to that character. But they're fighting an uphill battle. 

"It's a tough costume to make attractive."

Mixed reviews of the Oilers' new mascot Hunter

7 years ago
Duration 1:18
After the Oilers announced their new mascot is a lynx named Hunter, we sent video producer David Bates to get reaction.


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from Ariel Fournier