Saturday, December 27, 2014

Horror Theory: Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny” (Part One)

In a moment of levity, a Freudian psychoanalyst might throw up his or her hands and say “If it isn’t one thing, it’s a mother.”  Certainly this was the case with H.P. Lovecraft, whose poor self-esteem and chronic hypochondria were due in part to the over-protectiveness of his mother.  But this is a caricature and an over-simplification of the field.  As with Marxist interpretations, psychoanalytic approaches to literature yield fruitful perspectives on the nature and motivations of a given work, and perhaps on a reader’s response to it.  This is so despite questions about the effectiveness of Freudian theory or Marxist theory in psychology and politics.

In the early 1900s, Lovecraft began publishing some of his earliest stories, interesting items like A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1917), The Beast in the Cave (1918), and Dagon (1919).  These originally appeared in amateur press periodicals, and were revisions of stories he had written earlier in his life.  Lovecraft’s career as a horror writer was just beginning.  He was nearly 30 years old when his proto-Cthulhu tale Dagon appeared in The Vagrant.  Around this time, Sigmund Freud published an important essay, The Uncanny, an insightful application of psychoanalytic theory to supernatural literature and to supernatural experiences.

The Uncanny (1919) is one of Freud’s more accessible works, though it is still a challenge to read.  The reader need not agree with his theories about the origin of mental illness to appreciate what he has to say about the nature of the supernatural.  For both readers and writers of horror fiction—or weird fiction generally—the essay is worth spending some time with.  It contains ideas that can be applied to the critical appreciation of horror literature as well as to writing technique.  (A version of the essay can be found at this link:  This two-part post will offer a summary of highlights from Freud’s essay, followed by suggestions for using some of his perspectives when reading or writing weird fiction.

German Has a Word for It   
The German language has a capacity to generate words for subtle concepts that have no exact equivalent in other tongues.  Think of such useful words as zeitgeist, weltanschauung, and a personal favorite, schadenfreude.  Freud’s essay is entitled Das Unheimliche, rendered incompletely in English as The Uncanny.  In the first section of his three part essay, Freud offers a linguistic analysis of the word, and provides numerous examples of its use to demonstrate various shades of meaning. 

There is a brief, interesting cross cultural survey of the concept in other languages, with different gradations of meaning suggesting a variety of cultural experiences of the uncanny.  For example, the Greek equivalent xenos emphasizes the strange or foreign, whereas Hebrew and Arabic words stress a demonic or gruesome character.  It would be interesting to see the results of a more in depth study:  how are cultures similar and how do they differ in their perception of the supernatural and the horrifying?

Unheimlich is the opposite of heimlich, a word defined as having to do with the home, that is, what is familiar, comfortable, and intimate.  Other related connotations for heimlich include “tame” and “friendly”.  Unheimlich—literally “unhomely”—is the reverse.  However, Freud notes that the word heimlich has a second, more ominous meaning:  that which is hidden or secret, which should be kept out of sight.  He concludes that the word unheimlich and its opposite are linked semantically.  “Unheimlich is in some way or other a subspecies of heimlich.”

This of course ties in with Freud’s idea of neurotic behaviors originating in hidden or repressed memories from childhood.  The concealment or unconscious repression of this material produces a variety of symptoms of morbid anxiety in adulthood.

What Is the Uncanny?    
Following his analysis of the German word “unheimlich”, Freud goes on to offer a preliminary definition of his own.  “…the uncanny is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”  But how is it that something that was once very “heimlich” to us, familiar and comfortable, becomes terrifying? 

Freud cites the work of a colleague named Jentsch, who suspects that an experience of the uncanny comes from intellectual doubt or disorientation about perceived events.  A classic horror trope is the scene in which a supposedly lifeless or inanimate object may in fact be alive and capable of purposeful movement.  Examples include zombies and other monsters thought to be vanquished but who suddenly revive—with the horror amplified by the characters’ uncertainty up to that point.  Animated dolls, manikins, statues, and ordinarily obedient machines of various sorts are also in this category of the uncanny.   

The converse can also effective:  something or someone believed to be among living who is found on closer examination to belong to a different category.  The role of uncertainty and ambiguousness in the uncanny is reminiscent of Todorov’s “hesitation theory”, (see also Horror Theory: Todorov’s “Hesitation”).  Jentsch also includes among the uncanny some manifestations of epilepsy or insanity, in which victims’ movements and behavior seem controlled by unknown forces.  It is no accident that throughout history such symptoms were interpreted as supernatural manifestations requiring either segregation or miracle working.

Why is the Uncanny Terrifying?
While acknowledging the importance of perceptual ambiguity and uncertainty, Freud feels this is insufficient to explain the fear the uncanny.  He goes on to analyze a short story by E.T.A. Hoffman, The Sandman (1816).  This is a horror story too intricate and subtle to discuss in detail here.  Nathaniel, one of the lead characters, is told a bed time fable about ‘the Sandman’ when a young child. Though he knows it is make-believe, it leaves an indelible mark on his psyche.  Here is a description of the Sandman and what he does:

“He is a wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed, and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes so that they jump out of their heads all bleeding.  Then he puts the eyes in a sack and carries them off to the moon to feed his children. They sit up there in their nest, and their beaks are hooked like owl’s beaks, and they use them to peck up naughty boys’ and girls’ eyes with.”

(For some children, bedtime must have been an intense experience in the early 19th century.)

Nathaniel goes on to experience a series of traumatic, uncanny events in which elements of this story seem to recur in various places and times in his life.  There are weird coincidences involving names and images, which eventually culminate in Nathaniel becoming insane and jumping to his death.  Freud uses the story to apply psychoanalytical understandings about early childhood fears, anxieties about castration, and the supposed unconscious desire of all small boys to kill their fathers—certainly not mine; I needed my father alive so I could continue to collect a weekly allowance!—and so forth. 

There are also some interesting comments about the notion of the doppelgänger, another useful German term.  Freud sees in “the double” or reflected image of the psyche “an insurance against the destruction of the ego”, with the belief in an eternal soul being the first double.  He traces it to childhood narcissism which later on in the adult—because repressed or forgotten—is projected outwards as a “ghastly harbinger of death”, a ghost or spectre.

But the key notion Freud derives from Hoffman’s story is the feature of recurrence.  At this point, he further refines his concept of the uncanny and why it is so terrifying:  the experience is connected to the infantile stage of consciousness, when the ego was not sharply delineated from the external world or from other persons, and is manifested by a recurrence or similarity of situations, objects or events linked to infantile fears.

(To be continued.)

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