Saturday, December 27, 2014

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

The previous post introduced the topic of Freud’s 1919 essay, which began with an analysis of the German word “unheimlich” and its related meanings.  It also applied traditional psychoanalytical perspectives to an early 19th century horror story, E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman. 
In his essay, Freud endeavors to develop a clear definition of the uncanny, and explain why experiences of the uncanny are so frightening. He suspects that uncanny events are connected to the infantile stage of consciousness that we all experience.  Furthermore, they are manifested by a recurrence or similarity of situations, objects or events linked to infantile fears.  Earlier he indicates that “…the uncanny is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

A version of Freud’s essay can be found at  This second of two posts will continue to summarize some important points that Freud makes in his essay, and suggest how several of his perspectives can inform both the reading and writing of horror fiction.

Recurrence, Repetition and Meaningful Coincidence as Neurotic Obsession
After his analysis of The Sandman, Freud goes on to cite examples from mythology and his own personal and clinical experience to further illustrate the element of recurrence in experiences of the uncanny.  Patients who suffer from obsessional neuroses seem cognitively predisposed to look for meaningful coincidences in recurring numbers, names, events and objects.  Freud believes the pattern is ultimately traceable to primitive instinct.  Highly patterned, repetitive behavior is also commonly seen in young children.

Freud tells the story of one man who initially had a pleasant experience at a health resort.  His room was next to that of an attractive nurse.  Later on he returns to the resort, hoping to get the same room, but finds it is occupied by an older gentleman.  “Well I hope he’ll have a stroke and die,” he says, annoyed.  Sure enough, this is exactly what happens to the man not long afterwards.  Freud is struck by how his patient readily derives meaningful connections between what would otherwise be seen as random, though coincidental events.  He feels that this is a common characteristic of obsessional neurosis.

A Personal Note
In this context I would like to share with readers a personal experience with the uncanny that occurred at my workplace many years ago.  For nearly three decades I have been employed in the field of rehabilitation, where I am certain that weird coincidences involving names, objects and events are quite frequent.  For example, there is an inordinate number of “Dans” among the population we serve.  I do not know why this should be so.

In one program where I was employed, a colleague underwent a prolonged sex-change operation.  I will call him Robert Smith, though this is not his—well, her real name now.  Hormonal treatments and subtle changes in attire culminated in a final series of surgeries that completed the transformation.  One day Robert came to work as Roberta Smith, fashionably attired as a young woman. 

Regrettably, this event occurred at a time when tolerance of such transitions was quite limited, and Roberta was asked to leave.  It was considered too upsetting for the patients and the administration.  Not long afterward, at most a week or so, the position was filled with a new recruit, an energetic young women named…wait for it…Roberta Smith!

It is possible that this writer may exhibit signs and symptoms of obsessional neurosis, but no one will convince me that such a weirdly meaningful coincidence was not meant to happen, was not arranged so to speak by forces we do not understand or control.  (Which “forces” may also have a sense of irony and humor.)

The Uncanny and Society
In his essay, Freud connects individual experiences of the uncanny with their social expression—in religion, in the universal fear of death and desire for immortality, in atavistic beliefs about the supernatural power of thoughts and words. 

It would seem as though each one of us has been through a phase of individual development corresponding to that animistic stage in primitive men, that none of us has traversed it without preserving certain traces of it which can be re-activated, and that everything which now strikes us as “uncanny” fulfills the condition of stirring those vestiges of animistic mental activity within us and bringing them to expression.

Well educated people who are oriented to their environment, who have thoroughly dispelled animistic thinking from their minds, who are emotionally well adjusted, and who think like…well, Sigmund Freud, for example, are immune to experiences of the uncanny.  “For the whole matter is one of ‘testing reality’, pure and simple, a question of the reality of the phenomena.” 

Earlier in the essay Freud admits to “…a special obtuseness in the matter…” and reports that “it is long since he has experienced or heard of anything which has given him an uncanny impression…” (Elsewhere The R’lyeh Tribune has argued that that a sensitivity, even a vulnerability to the uncanny and the supernatural is necessary to appreciate, as well as create horror entertainments.)

With consideration of the societal aspect of the uncanny, Freud refines his explanation:  an uncanny experience occurs when repressed infantile complexes are revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs about the world that were previously discarded are seemingly confirmed by recent events.  He acknowledges it is not always easy to distinguish these two considerations.

For Readers and Writers
In the remainder of The Uncanny, (part 3), Freud anticipates questions or arguments his readers may have about his conclusions, and also makes some distinctions between uncanny experiences as depicted in literature and in the real world.  There are some interesting remarks about why fairy tales do not typically involve uncanny events, despite a preponderance of infantile wish fulfillment and fantasy.  There are also comments about how authors can effectively create and sustain an experience of the uncanny in their fictional work.

What follows is a series of questions derived from some of Freud’s observations in The Uncanny.  For readers, such questions may draw attention to elements of a horror story that make it effective in generating a sense of the uncanny.  For writers, these questions may suggest images or techniques that might be used to create uncanny effects in a work of fiction.

●Is the setting of the story a familiar (heimlich) or an unfamiliar (unheimlich) one?

●Does the plot of the story include either a figurative or literal return to a disturbing situation or event?

●To what degree is there ambiguity or uncertainty about events or objects?  Are there inanimate things that may be capable of movement, or conversely, things that should be able to move, but do not?

●Do numbers, words, images, names and other details recur in the story, contributing to weird or mysterious coincidences?

●Does a principle character experience an earlier traumatic event that colors subsequent episodes in the story?

●Is there a doppelgänger or a double present?  Are there attributes or features of a lead character that are reflected in another, erasing the borders around selfhood or identity?

●Is there imagery that evokes darkness, solitude, silence or confinement, (i.e. either of entombment or a return to “intra-uterine” existence?)

●Are characters subject to involuntary returns to certain situations or locations?   Are they driven to repeat certain actions?

●Does the story contain revivals of primitive, animistic or occult beliefs in a modern setting?


“Once I tried to escape from the forest, but as I went farther from the castle the shade grew denser and the air more filled with brooding fear; so that I ran frantically back lest I lose my way in a labyrinth of nighted silence.”

—from The Outsider (1926) by H.P. Lovecraft

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.