19. The Uncanny, Part 1

The aesthetic category of the uncanny became popular in late romanticism (late 1800s), Gothic fiction, and a variety of art movements including surrealism, dadaism, and symbolism.  This category is just as illuminating as the beautiful and the sublime, but it is not as widely discussed or understood.  Here is my definition of the uncanny based on Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the uncanny that, in turn, was heavily influenced by F.W.J. Schelling’s analysis[1]:

The uncanny is an unsettling, even terrifying, experience of the familiar suddenly becoming unfamiliar at the same time (or the unfamiliar suddenly becoming familiar at the same time).  The experience is usually associated with something dangerous, powerful, mysterious, or secret being revealed.

Let’s now look at some examples. Once we do, I will offer two explanations that may help explain why these are examples of the phenomenon in the first place. The uncanny is associated with, but not limited to, the following:

  • Inanimate objects suddenly being perceived as animate or vice versa: dolls, mannequins, robots, etc. can be uncanny if perceived to have life; an animate human who suddenly acts mechanical (as in certain types of epileptic seizures) can be uncanny as well. The philosophical experience of realizing that we may not have free will and, indeed, that we may be totally determined by the laws of nature, can make our familiar sense of ourselves as autonomous human beings suddenly become unfamiliar.  Our life of meaningful purpose, choice, and freedom is suddenly one of meaningless, mechanical necessity.
  • The experience of seeing something doubled can be uncanny. A doppelgänger, a sinister double self, is the best example: if you were in a room and you saw yourself enter the room then you would have an uncanny experience! But we might also include virtual realities, dream selves and experiences, incredibly realistic images of objects, etc.
  • Certain repetitions can be uncanny. Having déjà vu is a good example as well as having an experience where something is repeated almost exactly without any planning: chance becomes destiny. Getting lost and finding that one keeps returning to the same spot can be uncanny (Freud emphasizes this example). Note that repetitions can be uncannily mechanical, in which case we would have a relation with the first set of examples.
  • Severed body parts are obviously familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time.
  • Ghosts and haunted houses are uncanny.  The ghost is familiar—very much like the deceased—yet radically unfamiliar.  The house is the symbol of that which is intimate and familiar.  So when it suddenly becomes unfamiliar, it is terrifying and may reveal certain things difficult to face: the truth of familial relations grounded in violence, sex, fear, anger, lies, etc.  Take note that the word ‘uncanny’ is a translation from the German ‘unheimlich’, meaning ‘unhomely’.
  • Corpses can be uncanny.  Philosopher Roger Scruton describes this form of uncanniness well: “Every now and then we are jolted out of our complacency, and feel ourselves to be in the presence of something vastly more significant than our present interests and desires. We sense the reality of something precious and mysterious, which reaches out to us with a claim that is in some way not of this world. This happens in the presence of death, and especially the death of someone loved. We look with awe on the human body from which the life has fled.  This is no longer a person, but the ‘mortal remains’ of a person.  And this thought fills us with a sense of the uncanny.  We are reluctant to touch the dead body; we see it as in some way not properly a part of our world, almost a visitor from some other sphere”.[2]
  • Any “Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde” scenario whereby someone (perhaps yourself) familiar to us becomes a different person so to speak.
  • The experience of suddenly seeing one’s surroundings as inauthentic or meaningless can be uncanny.  The familiar becomes radically unfamiliar and this can cause existential angst.  Philosopher Martin Heidegger claims that in such angst a human being is “taken back fully to its naked uncanniness and benumbed by it.”[3]  This numbness not only takes from humans certain “worldly” possibilities but, at the same time, gives them the possibility of an authentic mode of being. By being radically alienated from our surroundings we have—if we are not crushed by the isolation—a chance to find out who we are and act with integrity. So an experience of the uncanny can be a necessary condition for developing authentic selfhood.  Friedrich Nietzsche, in the opening lines of his posthumously published notebooks entitled The Will to Power, speaks of nihilism—the view that all values no longer have any value—as an “uncanny guest” at the door.  Would you welcome such a guest?
  • Children can be seen as uncanny.  As Terry Eagleton says, “Children are largely non-functional creatures—they don’t work for example—and it is not easy to say exactly what they are for. Perhaps this is one reason why an aesthete like Oscar Wilde found them so fascinating.  But it may also be why Victorian Evangelicals found them so sinister, as indeed do some modern horror films, since anything which falls outside the realm of functionality seems to a utilitarian to fall outside the domain of morality too. The Victorians thus could not make up their mind whether children were angelic or demonic, Oliver Twists or Artful Dodgers. They are also, of course, sinister because they are uncanny, very like adults but not at all like them.”[4]
  • A radical change in self-identity can be uncanny.  We feel as if there has been a death-in-life, a process of being born again, where we are both the same and yet different. A variety of conversion experiences might fall under this heading as well as the disturbing experience of realizing we are not all we think we are. Socrates, it will be recalled, used a method of inquiry that revealed ignorance in order to make room for shared inquiry and intellectual growth.  But obviously many know-it-alls in ancient Athens weren’t pleased with this uncanny experience of fundamental ignorance: he was eventually put to death.
  • Art can be uncanny.  Again, here is Eagleton: “Art, too, is suspended between life and death.  The work of art seems full of vital energy, but it is no more than an inanimate object. The mystery of art is how black marks on a page, or pigment on a canvas, or the scraping of a bow on catgut, can be so richly evocative of life.”[5]
In the next two blogs we will look at some explanations of the uncanny and some connections it has with surrealism. Go here for part two.

[1] The first sustained investigation into the uncanny comes from Freud in his essay “The Uncanny” (1919). Freud was impressed with Schelling’s insight that the uncanny appears when something that should have remained secret comes out into the open. You can read the essay in a great book on Freud’s aesthetically oriented writings called The Uncanny (New York: Penguin, 2003). You can also read Freud’s essay online at:


[2] Roger Scruton, Beauty (New York: Oxford, 2009), p. 177.

[3] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: SUNY, 1996), p. 316.

[4] Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Malden: Blackwell, 2003), p. 258.

[5] Terry Eagleton, On Evil (New Haven: Yale, 2010), p. 71.

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