The psychological concept of the uncanny [uhn-kan-ee] was first described by Sigmund Freud in his essay ‘Das Unheimliche’ as something that is strangely familiar, rather than just mysterious. Because the uncanny is familiar, yet incongruous, it has been seen as creating cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject, due to the paradoxical nature of being simultaneously attracted to yet repulsed by an object.

This cognitive dissonance (discomfort stemming from holding conflicting beliefs) often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalize, as in the ‘uncanny valley’ effect (people are not as affected in an emotional way by an object if it is easy to tell it is not human, but after a certain point, they start to feel emotionally about it, but feel bad emotions because it is so nonhuman).

In ‘The Will to Power’ German philosopher Nietzsche refers to nihilism (the rejection of all beliefs) as ‘the uncanniest of all guests’ and, earlier, in ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’ he claims it is the ‘will to truth’ that has destroyed the metaphysics that underpins the values of Western culture. Hence, he coins the phrase ‘European nihilism’ to describe the condition that afflicts those Enlightenment ideals that seemingly hold strong values yet undermine themselves.

Uncanniness was first explored psychologically by German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch in a 1906 essay, ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny,’ where he defined it as: being a product of ‘intellectual uncertainty; so that the uncanny would always, as it were, be something one does not know one’s way about in. The better oriented in his environment a person is, the less readily will he get the impression of something uncanny in regard to the objects and events in it.’ He expands upon its use in fiction: ‘In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately.’ Jentsch identifies German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann as a writer who utilizes uncanny effects in his work, focusing specifically on Hoffmann’s story ‘The Sandman’ (‘Der Sandmann’), which features a lifelike doll, Olympia.

The concept of the Uncanny was later elaborated on and developed by Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny,’ which also draws on the work of Hoffmann (whom Freud refers to as the ‘unrivalled master of the uncanny in literature’). However, he criticizes Jentsch’s belief that Olympia is the central uncanny element in the story: ‘I cannot think — and I hope most readers of the story will agree with me — that the theme of the doll Olympia, who is to all appearances a living being, is by any means the only, or indeed the most important, element that must be held responsible for the quite unparalleled atmosphere of uncanniness evoked by the story.’ Instead, Freud draws on a wholly different element of the story, namely, “the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes,’ as the ‘more striking instance of uncanniness’ in the tale.

Freud goes on, for the remainder of the essay, to identify uncanny effects that result from instances of ‘repetition of the same thing,’ linking the concept to that of the ‘repetition compulsion’ (in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again). He includes incidents wherein one becomes lost and accidentally retraces one’s steps, and instances wherein random numbers recur, seemingly meaningfully (here Freud may be said to be prefiguring the concept that Jung would later refer to as synchronicity). Freud specifically relates an aspect of the Uuncanny derived from German etymology. By contrasting the German adjective ‘unheimlich’ with its base word ‘heimlich’ (‘concealed, hidden, in secret’), he proposes that social taboo often yields an aura not only of pious reverence but even more so of horror and even disgust, as the taboo state of an item gives rise to the commonplace assumption that that which is hidden from public eye (cf. the eye or sight metaphor) must be a dangerous threat and even an abomination – especially if the concealed item is obviously or presumingly sexual in nature.

To Freud, the uncanny is what unconsciously reminds us of our own Id, our forbidden and thus repressed impulses – especially when placed in a context of uncertainty that can remind one of infantile beliefs in the omnipotence of thought. Such uncanny elements are perceived as threatening by our super-ego ridden with oedipal guilt as it fears symbolic castration by punishment for deviating from societal norms. Thus, the items and individuals that we project our own repressed impulses upon become a most uncanny threat to us, uncanny monsters and freaks akin to fairy-tale folk-devils, and subsequently often become scapegoats we blame for all sorts of perceived miseries, calamities, and maladies.

He wrote: ‘What interests us most in this long extract is to find that among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheimlich. What is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich. […] In general we are reminded that the word heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight. Unheimlich is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of heimlich, and not of the second. […] On the other hand, we notice that Schelling says something which throws quite a new light on the concept of the Unheimlich, for which we were certainly not prepared. According to him, everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.’

He continued: ‘A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind [as used as a central theme in ‘The Sandmann’], is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated. The self-blinding of the mythical criminal, Oedipus, was simply a mitigated form of the punishment of castration — the only punishment that was adequate for him by the lex talionis. […] All further doubts are removed when we learn the details of their ‘castration complex’ from the analysis of neurotic patients, and realize its immense importance in their mental life.’

After Freud, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, in his seminar 1962–1963 ‘L’angoisse’ (‘Anxiety’), utilized the Unheimlich ‘via regia’ to enter into the territory of Angst. Lacan argued that the same image which seduces the subject trapping him in the narcissistic impasse, may suddenly, by a contingency, show that it is dependent on something, some hidden object, and so the subject may grasp at the same time that he is not autonomous. For example, Guy de Maupassant, in his story ‘Le Horla,’ describes a man who suddenly may see his own back in the mirror. His back is there, but it is deprived of the gaze of the subject. It appears as a strange object, until he feels it is his own. There is no cognitive dissonance here, we rather cross all possible cognition, to find ourselves in the field where we do not know how to distinguish bad and good, pleasure from displeasure. And this is the signal of anxiety: the signal of the real, as irreducible to any signifier. Alfred Hitchcock was the master in the art of conducing art into the world of Unheimlich. He used simple, everyday objects who may suddenly lose their familiar side, and become the messenger of beyond narcissism.

In robotics research, the ‘uncanny valley’ is the region of negative emotional response towards robots that seem ‘almost human.’ This concept is closely related to psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s concept of ‘abjection’ where one reacts adversely to that which has been forcefully cast out of the symbolic order. Abjection can be uncanny in that the observer can recognize something within the abject, possibly of what it was before it was ‘cast out,’ yet be repulsed by what it is that made it cast out to begin with. Kristeva lays special emphasis on the uncanny return of the past abject with relation to the ‘uncanny stranger.’

Iranian American psychiatrist Sadeq Rahimi has noted a common relationship between the uncanny and direct or metaphorical visual references, which he explains in terms of basic processes of ego development, specifically as developed by Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage (the developmental period when children begin to recognize themselves in a mirror). Rahimi presents a wide range of evidence from various contexts to demonstrate how uncanny experiences are typically associated with themes and metaphors of vision, blindness, mirrors and other optical tropes. He also presents historical evidence showing strong presence of ocular and specular themes and associations in the literary and psychological tradition out of which the notion of ‘the uncanny’ emerged. According to Rahimi, instances of the uncanny like doppelgangers, ghosts, Déjà vu, alter egos, self-alienations and split personhoods, phantoms, twins, living dolls, etc. share two important features: that they are closely tied with visual tropes, and that they are variations on the theme of doubling of the ego.

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