It’s the most wonderful time of the year: spooky season is here! And what is that uneasy, off-kilter feeling you get when something is scary? Well, Freud had a theory about that.
He called it ‘Das Unheimliche’ or as we’ve come to translate it in English, Freud’s theory of the uncanny.
In his essay from 1919, Freud spends time trying to define “unheimliche”, because it is an unsettling feeling that we can recall having experienced but is difficult to provide a concrete definition. The German “heimliche”, meaning familiar/of the home, would lead us to conclude that “unheimliche” (uncanny) is the opposite definition, but Freud insists that the concept of the uncanny sits in between the two words.
Let’s take a closer look:
1. On some level, experiencing the uncanny is personal since it is a matter of coming face-to-face with something or someone that is familiar to you, but your senses are telling you that there is an undercurrent of threat. It is both something seen and unseen. And when it comes to creepy works of literature, authors use this theory to build suspense and feelings of “unheimliche” in the reading experience.
2. Given Freud’s study of childhood memories on the adult mind, this is also folded into his concept of the uncanny. Memories that were lived as a child and then supressed as we mature can have that quality of being familiar in some way, but the threat comes from the fact that we have shied away from the memory. Is your brain protecting you from a negative experience? And if it is already part of you, there is no escape. We are haunted by our own thoughts and experiences and begin to question what is real.
Freud’s theory presents an idea of a second self that exists beneath our adult surface that has been repressed. Here, Freud introduces the idea of the “doppelgänger”, or double, that can come to the surface of our personality and fears. And what tends to scare us as a child? Ghosts, zombies, reflections, wax figures, vampires, automatons… All these examples confuse our familiar/unfamiliar radar since they double as human representations, but we don’t know if we should classify them as alive or dead—or somewhere in between.
To demonstrate more broadly what this term means, Freud upholds E. T. A. Hoffman’s short story “The Sandman” as a perfect example of giving people feelings of the uncanny. It has a Victor Frankenstein-esque protagonist who had a terrifying childhood experience and has carried it into adulthood (he also falls in love with an automaton). Of course, this is Freud, so the fact that this protagonist fears losing his eyes is obviously a metaphor for castration (calling to mind the tragedy of Oedipus).
Freud’s ‘uncanny’ is a slippery theory that we’ve all certainly experienced but is difficult to define.