IN 1919, SIGMUND FREUD devoted a brief essay to “The Uncanny” (das Unheimliche). Pages of dictionary definitions were followed by a long literary analysis of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fantastic 1816 story “The Sandman,” in which a young medical student is threatened by various doubles of mad scientists and perfidious salesmen of glasses and optical instruments, falls in love with what turns out to be a mechanical doll, goes mad and finally kills himself. Examples of the uncanny, taken from Freud’s own experience as well from literature and superstition, included getting lost in the woods and always ending up in the same place, déjà vu, missing body parts, dead objects that turn out to be alive, the fear of being buried alive, meeting one’s double, the evil eye, and so on. From all this, Freud concluded that the uncanny is a mild shade of anxiety or unease that arises when the familiar suddenly appears strange. This occurs when something in the familiar experience or object triggers the return of repressed complexes (for example, castration anxiety), or when certain primitive ideas (for example, the belief that inanimate objects are animated) seem to be reconfirmed. “Among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs,” Freud wrote:
This class of frightening things would then constitute the uncanny; […] if this is indeed the secret nature of the uncanny, we can understand why linguistic usage has extended das Heimliche [“homely”] into its opposite, das Unheimliche; for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.
Before Freud’s essay, there had been very little in the way of philosophical contemplation of the uncanny apart from the few predecessors he names in his essay, like psychologist Ernst Jentsch and philosopher Friedrich Schelling, and for a long time afterwards this remained the case. “The Uncanny” occupied a relatively minor place in Freud’s oeuvre, in fact, until the 1970s, when numerous scholars, mainly in France, England and the US, began rereading, criticizing, and elaborating on its findings. At first, the trend was most visible in the fields of psychoanalysis, literary studies (in the States, deconstructionist critics like J. Hillis Miller and Jonathan Culler even adopted the term “Uncanny critics”), and philosophy, but it soon branched out to other domains like architecture theory, art history, film studies, and sociology, to name but a few. By the 1990s, neither Freud’s essay nor the concept of the uncanny were considered marginal or minor. Indeed, the uncanny had become so fashionable that the historian Martin Jay, with some apprehension, labeled the decade “The Uncanny Nineties.”
Not only did the concept of the uncanny rapidly spread throughout the humanities in the 1990s, but it also took on a new resonance in literature and art. The melancholic, ruinous universe of W.G. Sebald, the disturbing surrealism of David Lynch, Mark Z. Danielewski’s experimental grad-school cult classic House of Leaves, and the abject dolls and the perverse infantile world of Mike Kelley: each of these artists explicitly refer to t...read more