Why Frieren's Demons Make So Much Sense


The Uncanny Valley & A Distrust of Things Nearly Human

In 1970, Japanese roboticist Mashiro Mori made a serendipitous discovery regarding the human mind. As robots became increasingly similar to humans, people's perception of these robots underwent significant changes, depending on their level of realism.


A robot with human features that was far from human triggered a favorable response from people seeing it. But when a robot became too realistic but retained some imperfections, it brought about unease and anxiety. This response came to be known as the "Uncanny Valley" hypothesis.


Little did Mr. Mori realize that in trying to understand an emotional effect, he had just given name to a feeling that had been part of the human zeitgeist for time immemorial. 


While the work of Mr. Mori was far removed from the realm of the paranormal and cryptozoological, his hypothesis held a lot of weight in other scenarios. Negative responses to human-like things aren't unique to robotics. Human-like dolls, wax figures, sculptures, and even people dressed like clowns and mimes trigger feelings of deep unease or downright phobia in some.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

But why is that, and more importantly, does that reaction have any logical reason to be there? Well if you're open-minded enough to believe in the speculative theories surrounding the co-opted version of this theory, it ultimately boils down to the impact of our evolutionary memory.

What is evolutionary memory, you ask? In its most basic sense, evolutionary memory denotes that specific behaviors can be inherited across generations through evolution. An example of this is a deer mouse's aversion to open landscapes. When a deer mouse that has never been in a meadow is suddenly placed in one, it panics. This fear response stems from an understanding that being out in the open makes individuals more vulnerable to depredation, even though it has never been in such a position.

In the case of humans, the distrust of anything that's almost human but not quite human may stem from the fact that during our evolution, human-like beings posed a threat to our continued survival. Whether this memory is due to us needing to be wary of other hominids that once lived alongside us or of some supernatural being depends on who is touting the idea.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

Where Humans Go, Demons Follow;

Can something be fictional if an immeasurable number of people and cultures believe in its existence? Those scientifically inclined would argue that if there is no tangible proof of something's existence, it's simply not palpable.

But is it really that simple? Let's consider the phenomenon of psychogenic pain, where stress, grief, or mental unease causes real pain in a person even though there is nothing physically wrong with them.

No amount of imagination can make the intangible a reality. But deep belief in something is more than enough to bring about real-life repercussions. This becomes even more indubitable when a lack of knowledge contributes to our views on the abstruse.

Modernity has a way of dampening our understanding of the past. Modern humans may laugh at the notion that illness is caused by miasmas and evil spirits. But for those who lived before we comprehended germ theory, those things were irrefutable.

Our historical ignorance of the natural world may have led to our conviction in the supernatural. During ancient times, an individual beset by mental afflictions that manifested as unpredictable or aggressive would frequently be attributed to the work of otherworldly powers. After all, there was no way to ascertain that an impairment in the brain, stemming either from trauma or illness, was the underlying cause. Humans are and always have been social creatures, this is because early in our development we needed each other in order to survive. So anything that went outside social norms and against one's community was aberrant behavior.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

Considering this, and then carefully pondering the detrimental impact that mental health lapses have on motor functions and personal appearance, one can easily infer that prehistoric humans could have perceived such individuals as distinct from the norm and possibly feared them.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

Similarly, other aberrant behaviors that continue to exist in modern society, like murder or cannibalism, would have been even more sensationalized in the past than they are today. Desensitization is a genuine phenomenon that we all grapple with in this era of social media and round-the-clock news cycles. Although we still find these behaviors repulsive, we recognize them as part of the human experience. However, in the past, such awareness was not widespread, resulting in an even bleaker perception of these actions.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

When oral tales of these individuals were passed, like with all stories, embellishments, and hyperbole were added. Over time these stories very well may have become the basis for what we now know as demons.

Demons and their depictions;

Given that the concept of demons is commonplace, and our understanding of them may even be innate When the word "demon" comes up, there's rarely a need to explain what they are and how they affect us. Depictions of demons can be found in the majority of cultures, regardless of their time or location. Because of this, it's widely accepted that these are things to be feared.

Demons have become the main antagonists in a variety of fictional works and even real-life religions. Anime and isekais particularly love to use them as the perpetual antagonists of their world. If you get isekaid, congratulations! You're probably going to have to defeat a demon lord. But why is that?

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

For all the propaganda against demons, in most shows, they never do anything that's significantly viler than humans. They may fight us for territory or resources. But humans do that among themselves. If the argument is that they kill us, we kill other humans too. They're not even all that strong. In most anime worlds, a person can 1 on 1 a demon.

But the demons in Frieren earn their reputation. Here, we are not merely faced with a nuisance but a genuine and significant threat. Demons in this world are true hyper-predators. Ones for which humans are firmly below them on the food chain.

For you see, what has made humanity so prolific has been our intelligence and ability to overcome fear. There's a reason why predatory animals don't kill as many humans as they can. That reason is fear. Most animals instinctively avoid things they're unsure of.

However, in the absence of fear, they recognize that humans are a source of food. In this scenario, they can quickly rack up a high body count. Notably, man-eaters such as the Lions of Tsavo, The Leopard of Panar, the Njombe lions, and the Champawat Tiger have collectively been responsible for the deaths of over 100 individuals each. In total, these 19 animals alone account for a death toll surpassing 2400 human lives.

When you take a moment to consider that animals with a cognitive function that's less than ours managed to cause so much bloodshed. It's easy to imagine what a demon with human-like intelligence, magical power, and greater strength could do.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

Masters of manipulation;

Anything that hunts can tell you, intelligence is far more important than brute force. You don't need to vastly overpower something if you can outsmart them. While humans think they are the pinnacle of intelligence, anyone with a parrot can tell you it's easy to get duped.

Eight out of ten times, when a parrot mimics the voice of someone living in the same household as its owner, the owner will mistake it for the actual person calling. Similarly, a parrot can appear to anthropomorphize itself when it learns to associate specific names with individuals it wishes to communicate with

When it notices that a particular person is always called "mom" it will also mimic this sound when it sees that person. In this instance, that's harmless behavior, but imagine that same ability in something that actively wants to hurt you.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

The manipulative ability of demons in Frieren is something that's so well executed that it can send a shiver down your back. That ability becomes even more concerning when you realize they picked it up solely by observation. In this world, demons don't have close familial ties. However, through observation, they have learned that by appealing to familiar bonds, they can reduce the inherent distrust that humans harbor towards them.

Hubris is a friend to none;

If there's an absolute rule in nature, it is that no predator is absolute. No matter how strong or intelligent something is, it can be killed by something that's not up to par. Something as redoubtable as a lion often gets killed by zebras, buffaloes, and giraffes. During an attack, if a predator fumbles or fails to cover all its bases, it can quickly go south for them, and here is where the demons in Frieren fall short.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

Certain behaviors cannot be learned in solitude. In fact, some behaviors can only be learned through active social bonds. One of those behaviors is humility, and in a demon society, humility is something that's not possible to fully comprehend.

The show tells viewers that demons devote their whole lives to magic and that their society is based on power levels. The more powerful the demon, the more it's respected. Therefore, humility for a demon only goes one way. They're only ever respectful of those who they think are more powerful. This is evident when Lügner only looks at Frieren after her failed attack. At no point does his attention stray from here because there's no reason for him to worry about anyone else.

This disregard for "lesser beings" ultimately proves to be a downfall of their own making. Because demons pride themselves on both magic and strength, concealing their capabilities is akin to blasphemy for them. While it may seem like it, this is not technically narcissism. Throughout the natural world, displaying one's strength is paramount to a comfortable survival. The stronger you are, the less likely anything else will bother you. This principle also seems to apply to demons.

However, this logic only works when everything else adheres to it, and as Flamme explains to Frieren, oftentimes times it is foolish to fight head-on. Ambushes, deception, and asymmetric fighting favours survival more than direct confrontation, especially when dealing with a stronger foe. This is something that demons fail to consider.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

Because of their views, suppressing their mana and appearing weaker than they actually are is inconceivable to them. As a result, it is relatively easy to deceive them into a false sense of superiority since they do not anticipate anyone resorting to such a distasteful maneuver. Likewise, while they can mimic what they see, they're unable to duplicate it. Linie may be able to mimic the movement of Eisen's attacks perfectly but fails to match the strength of the original.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

A True Demon?

While their nature may be seen as deplorable by us, are the demons in Frieren truly evil? Well, that would depend on what an individual sees as evil. Most people would say yes because they murder people for no particular reason. After all, it doesn't seem like they need humans for sustenance. But several animals do that, and they're not categorized as evil.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

Dolphins and killer whales kill for no reason and even play with the carcasses of the animals they dispatch. Yet despite knowing this, dolphins are seen as cute and cuddly. It may very well be that within this world, as nature's way of counterbalancing humans, who, in all honesty, tend to degrade the natural environment, demons were created to serve as a check and balance.

© Yamada Kanehito, Abe Tuskasa/Shohakukan/ "Sousou no Frieren" Production Committee

Jon Pierre Kristov

Outdoor enthusiast, beer nerd, lover of all things moe.

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