The Essay Uncanny by Sigmund Freud
Freud developed the concept of the uncanny in the early 1900’s. He wanted to investigate the kind of creeping horror, that deviates from the standard fight or flight response to a scary situation.
The word ‘uncanny’ is derived from the German word, unheimliche. Unheimliche is the ‘not’ version of heimliche, a word which means homey, familiar, or private. After adding the ‘un,’ the meaning transforms to tell the story of something strange and foreign, but also with some aspect of familiarity to it.
In Freud’s essay about the uncanny, he explored the concept in two key ways. The first was delving into the meaning behind the word’s origin: unheimliche, as described above. The second was to look into different examples of the uncanny, and attempt to find any common threads.
There are a few key examples of the uncanny that Freud discussed that I would like to mention hear. One common one is the threat of not knowing if something is dead or alive, real or unreal. A classic way this concept is played with is with the case of automatons. Often automatons can appear to look or act like a real person, which can lead to an underlying uncertainty about their realness. Another example of the uncanny is repetition. This can manifest in a couple of different ways. One way is repeated coincidences. One example that Freud brought up was seeing one specific number somewhere. If you see that same specific number repeated in multiple different contexts on the same day, it can evoke feelings of the uncanny. The repetition of typically uncommon events relates to the uncanny, because part of the uncanny is everyday reality being disturbed in some ways. A final common example of the uncanny is separated body parts. It combines the familiar (the human body that we’re familiar with), with the foreign (body parts aren’t usually disembodied). It symbolizes a part of the uncanny that deals with weird or wrong intrusions into life.
Overall, the uncanny is a very interesting concept that Freud developed. It explores what the mind doesn’t typically like to think about in a way that is foreign yet familiar. It deals with where reality is slightly distorted in a way that’s barely perceptible, but you can still tell something is wrong. One of the more uncanny experiences I’ve had was during my junior year of high school. That year was my short-lived career (only a year long) as an assistant stage manager, and eventually a stage manager, of my high school’s theatre department. This meant I spent a lot of long hours in a deserted theatre long after the actors had left. Often, it would just be me, a couple of dedicated techies putting away the props, our stage manager, and the director.
The Freudian Essay the Uncanny and the Hound of the Baskervilles
In German, the word uncanny translates to unheimlich which means unhomely. However, Sigmund Freud’s definition of this word is one that is much more complex. In his essay The Uncanny, Freud writes “the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (Freud 1). In this quote, Freud is arguing that the uncanny, things that are seen as unfamiliar at the moment, ultimately comes from a familiar place. Freud defends his argument by listing “Dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, as in a fairy tale of Hauff’s, feet which dance by themselves” (Freud 14) as things that are uncanny. With this example, Freud strengthens his argument by implying that at first, dismembered limbs, a severed head, and a hand cut off at the wrist are all gruesome things that have a significant effect on the mental health of any normal human. When these body parts are put together, however, they “lead back to what is known of old and long familiar”.
According to Freud’s definition of the word, I do believe Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is an uncanny text. This novel fits the criteria because it is a Gothic novel. Gothic novels tend to be filled with events that are strange and frightening yet familiar. In the novel, there is a constant reoccurrence of strange events. For example, early in the novel, Holmes is introduced to the marauding, supernatural hound. The hound reappears later on when it causes Stapleton’s death. Although they might seem frightening at first, these events are essentially familiar due to their constant occurrence throughout the novel.
In the novel, Doyle contrasts settings, the homely with the unfamiliar, to create a sense of an uncanny environment on the moor. As stated previously, the uncanny is something that is presently seen as frightening but comes from a familiar place. The moor is a great example of a setting that is homely and unhomely all at once. In the novel, the moor is described as a bleak, gloomy, and misty landscape. In that sense, it is quite similar to London, the city where Sherlock Holmes originates from. London is a gloomy city whose weather changes often and without warning. Due to the constant rain the city faces, it is considered by most as a misty city. The similarities between the weather of the two settings are what make the moor homely for Holmes. However, that is as far as the similarities go. On the other hand, the moor is a place filled with superstition. With a nearby prison, gloomy estates, and being the home of the hound, the moor is also an unfamiliar place for Holmes because he is used to the more urban landscape of London. The attributes of the moor are often utilized by authors or directors to create a frightening ambiance in a setting. Therefore, the moor is a frightening place for Holmes. In conclusion, through the use of creating subtle similarities between the moor and Sherlock’s hometown of London, Doyle is able to contrast settings to create a sense of an uncanny environment on the moor.
Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and Their Uncanny Friendship
Fast Friends With Faster Minds
The friendship between the legendary characters Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, known for their appearances in the various short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as well as all of the media based on these stories, is something that has long been discussed. It is a tenuous friendship, certainly, and one that has its roots in very unstable ground. However, this is just how the relationship looks on the surface. These two men actually understand each other very well, and get along in a strange sort of way. Watson and Holmes has a partnership that has been explored in various mediums, but it is most obvious in the original stories of Sir Doyle and in the television series Sherlock, written by Steven Moffat. The friendship between Holmes and Watson can be compared and contrasted through the short story “A Scandal in Bohemia” and the Sherlock episode “A Scandal in Belgravia.” Watson and Holmes have a friendship based in mutual understanding that nobody else has.
In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Sherlock and Watson have a true understanding of one another. Their friendship has supposedly been a long one, according to Watson at the beginning of the story. When asked to perform a task by Sherlock that seemingly makes no sense, Watson is completely willing to do it and does not hesitate for even a second. Holmes does, however, later describe his intentions to Watson. Watson does not falter from his dedication to Holmes, even when faced with a moral dilemma. Watson mentions in the story, “I never felt more heartily ashamed of myself in my life than when I saw the beautiful creature against whom I was conspiring… yet it would be the blackest treachery to Holmes to draw back now from the part which he had entrusted to me.” This shows that Watson has intense dedication to Holmes, and understands the way Holmes works. Watson is one of the few people that truly understands Holmes. Holmes is not an easy man to get along with, but Watson takes it in stride. Even though the two have been apart for quite some time in the beginning of the story, they act like they have never spent a moment apart since they have met.
This friendship is portrayed quite the same in the television episode. While they have yet to be separated by circumstance, they do have unwavering dedication to their cause and each other. Presented with a nearly identical task in the television show as was given to Watson in the story, Watson once again does not falter for even a second in doing as he is told. Watson and Sherlock truly understand one another’s idiosyncrasies.
The friendship between Watson and Holmes is, however, explored in greater depth in the television show. The modern setting gives a greater look into their lives through technology. Watson, for example, is creating a blog detailing the adventures of Holmes. This is an act that would normally upset Holmes a great deal, but he tolerates it from Watson. Watson understands Holmes obsessions, and puts up with them. Along with this, Watson has yet to be married and is in fact dating a woman during the episode. However, when Holmes upsets her by being unable to remember just which of Watson’s various previous relationships she is, she demands that Watson choose between her and Holmes. Watson, of course, decides on his long lasting friendship. Watson is not angry with Holmes, because he understands why he did what he did. This is the perfect example of their relationship.
It could be said that their relationship is seen quite differently in the two mediums. Watson and Holmes have a much shakier relationship on the surface when viewing the television show. They seem to argue more, and don’t quite mesh as well. This, however, makes sense when it is realized that a television show needs more obvious conflict than a short story. It also makes sense when looking at their relationship on a deeper level. For example, Watson does not get angry with Holmes for even a second when he inadvertently caused a breakup between Watson and his girlfriend. If they did have a problematic friendship, this wouldn’t be the case. Watson and Holmes have a legendary friendship for a good reason. Two odd men come together to make a friendship that has lasted many lifetimes.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: an Uncanny Sensation
The Uncanny Frankenstein
Sigmund Freud’s The Uncanny displays an interesting and intriguing concept of evoking unsettling emotions in characters or readers. A main point that he focuses on in his essay involves repression and repetition of such emotions. These feelings are typically relatable to most and thus are intriguing as an audience to observe characters experiencing parallel instances of uncanny feelings. While I doubt that many people can literally identify with a created being of life, an example of a text that uses Freud’s concepts is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in that the association between Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature holds an uncanny sensation on the part of Dr. Frankenstein.
Toward the beginning of the novel, Dr. Frankenstein travels to the North Pole by dogsled and is then taken aboard a ship where he recounts his story of bringing the Creature to life (Shelley 4). Dr. Frankenstein displays Freud’s concept of repression of the uncanny in that he is weary and full of remorse over the creation of his Creature. Freud describes repression as simply an anxiety that you don’t want to remember, which aligns with Dr. Frankenstein wishing that the Creature were not successfully brought to life. Freud goes on to suggest that the said anxiety “can be shown to come from something repressed which recurs” (Freud 13). In other words, the repression is followed by the reoccurrence, or repetition, of bad thoughts concerning the anxiety.
Dr. Frankenstein tries to push bad thoughts about creating the monster out of his mind, but he can’t seem to escape the monster’s presence. When the monster demands that Frankenstein create a mate for him and the doctor agrees and then goes back on his word, we see Freud’s concept of repetition in action. His repressed and now repeatedly failed attempt at ignoring his regret of bringing life to the Creature exemplifies “uncanny as something which ought to have been kept concealed but which has nevertheless come to light” (Freud 13). Dr. Frankenstein repeatedly fails to completely ignore the repressed anxiety as well as try to completely fix it by providing a mate; thus he remains somewhere in the middle ground, harboring an uncanny sensation.
Freud suggests that humans find the concept of uncanny most prevalent when something inanimate takes on animate qualities, specifically in reference to children and dolls (Freud 9). Dr. Frankenstein experiences a similar sensation of the uncanny when the Creature comes to life. He’s not comfortable with the artificial life because it’s not really human, however it looks very human. The closeness to reality disturbed him, just as instances such as dolls may disturb people when they too closely resemble a real human. This middle place between human and not human is vast, thus there are infinite possibilities of experiencing Freud’s concept of the uncanny in literature and our surrounding world.
Aspects of the Normalcy and the Uncanny in Human Life
The significant aspect of normalcy in the lives of humankind thrives on the universal perception that the surrounding environment which we constantly, and impulsively, immerse ourselves in materializes before us without pretenses; however, the veneer of this perpetually dynamic world holds no true reality within the lurking labyrinth of ambiguity that plagues our unconscious without detection. Through the exploration of the often vague and intrinsic boundary between reality and the imagined, modernist authors like Sigmund Freud and renowned filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky implore the audience to reevaluate our perceptions of surrealism in the mundane that is often overlooked and overwhelmed by the facade of mediocrity, delving deeper into the intrinsically-tied relationship between idealistic and animistic ideologies that are still pervasive even in the digital age.
Through his psychoanalysis of the uncanny, Freud pinpoints how “an uncanny effect is often  easily produced” (Freud, 244) when there is no “distinction [established] between imagination and reality” (244); thus, in order to surpass the mask of the mundane and tread into the territory of the unknown, the notable boundary between the tangible and intangible must be subtlety “effaced” (244) to evoke the feeling of “unheimliche” (226) within a literary or aesthetic work. Freud further defines this concept in his comparison of fairy tales to reality and how it elicits a sense of absurdity, rather than uncanny, due to the explicit separation from what is perceived to be substantial in the fairy-tale realm and what is substantial in real life itself. More specifically, in Freud’s example of “The Three Wishes,” a woman and her husband quarrel over the woman’s desire for a sausage which concludes with the sausage “dangling from her nose” (246). Although the notion that a sausage dangling from one’s nose is perceived as ludicrous and “not in the least [bit] uncanny” (246), if the explicit partition between the story and reality were obscured or removed, if the husband’s intent for his wish was revealed to be nefarious and driven by ill-intentions towards his wife, then the story would provoke a less comical tone and, instead, conjure a more highly disturbing scenario between the husband and wife. In particular, the specific mechanism of blurring the confines between abstract imagination and reality plays a direct role in augmenting one’s feelings of “intellectual uncertainty” (3) regarding obsolete concepts and beliefs that we, as a society, have seemingly “surmounted” (244).
This form of “intellectual uncertainty” — of what is imagined or real — is highly exemplified in Tarkovsky’s film “The Mirror” which is set against the backdrop of Russian social turbulence during the 20th century. Although Tarkovsky utilizes rampant hyperrealistic imagery that frequently obscures the border between the imagined and the real, a notable dreamlike sequence from the young protagonist showcases how an ordinary afternoon of routine can metamorph into a grotesque visual composition of distortion and unfamiliarity in something as mundane as hair washing. By nulling the external static of the surrounding environment and focusing on the sound of the mother’s movements and the dripping water as she is washing her hair, Tarkovsky amplifies the effect of how something ordinary and familiar can readily mutate into the bizarre by merely dulling our sense of hearing and awareness of time. Furthermore, the instantaneous crumbling of the house’s walls and the sudden rush of water from the prominent cracks that have appeared on the wall at the end of the scene is a hyperbolic reflection of the violent sociocultural events occurring in the protagonist’s reality, symbolizing how the crisis experienced in reality can oftentimes seep into the dream world. Because Tarkovsky never implies if what the young boy is experiencing is real or not, a primal fear is evoked within not only the young protagonist but also the audience, embodying the Freudian postulation of the conflation of imagination and reality. As a consequence of the enigmatic yet highly intrinsic link between imagination and reality, the combination of the young protagonist’s naive perspective and his surrealistic vision of his mother washing her hair reinforces Freud’s assertion that our “primitive beliefs are most intimately connected with infantile complexes” (250), even when we have long conquered the “residues of animistic mental activity” (240).
Despite the fact that the uncanny is often disregarded and suppressed by the banality of everyday living, even with today’s accessibility to unbound knowledge and innovation, the uncanny continues to linger in the background; an ever-present force that creeps along the peripheral of our vision, straddling the fringes of imagination and reality, awaiting its chance to rear its ugly head once more.
Essay of the uncanny ability of fallen humans to view the world through their narrow reasonable lens
Madness, or the uncanny ability of fallen humans to view the world through their narrow reasonable lens. The deceivers play into the fears that already exist within the character. They do not create the calamity, they simply fuel it. The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed especially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours…
Nevertheless, he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way, the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable MARK of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way…
Or it might be the third case, of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said what we felt, we should say, “So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvellous than yours; and is it really in your small and painful pity that all flesh must put its faith? How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!” “O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!”