2 The Uncanny and Other Concepts

Sydney P.; Brooklyn Trombley; Taylor Nute; and Maria Wimpey

The uncanny refers to the items that appear outside of our ideas of normality. The uncanny requires us to understand two terms: Heimlich and Unheimlich. Both mean the opposite of one another. Heimlich refers to the idea of familiarity with our environment, as well as creating an almost comfort with one’s environment. Unheimlich is the concept of the unknown. It is associated with being “bad,” but this is not truly the case. It tends to focus on something hidden being found.

These two terms connect to the uncanny in many ways. A successful device of creating the uncanny is making inanimate objects, such as dolls, animate. When we are young, we associate the uncanny with everyday life. Children often imagine dolls to have minds of their own through playing games or performing tea parties. This can tie in with inspiration for movies, a popular one being Toy Story, a movie about toys coming to life when their animate beings are not present. It is the ultimate representation of the uncanny. Our environment is the heimlich and the unknowability of the in/animate objects is the unheimlich.

Stemming from the German language, the words “heimlich” and “unheimlich” reveal another aspect vital to understanding the uncanny; stepping into the unfamiliar (unheimlich), often is additive in nature, rather than subtractive. What this means, more specifically, is that while both terms technically connote the opposite of one another, they require the combination of each other (in order to highlight their contrast) and therefore bring forth the definition of the uncanny. In order to be uncanny, something must be weird or unnerving, but also familiar. Moreover, a thing can’t just be familiar in order for it to be uncanny. What makes the essence of uncanny so powerful is the strange combination of the unnerving, weird, or creepy, and the somehow familiar. That connection which binds something (in a very personal manner) to the one who is observing it, makes the observer much more wary as they are, in a way, connected to the very uncanny thing they are observing. This then calls on another important aspect in regards to the uncanny: control. We see control (or lack thereof) as another theme in Freud’s essay, as almost all of the other key terms revolve around either the attempt to influence control or are being influenced by the fluctuations of control.

A primary reason an individual would feel so uneasy about this “unheimlich” is because, while anyone would want to put some type of metaphysical or physical spatial distance between themselves and the unnerving or weird thing they are observing, they cannot in this circumstance. This inability to distance or separate oneself from a foreign (yet deeply familar) thing arguably reveals a lack of autonomy of the self, at least on an intellectual level. Therefore, we witness that the control of mental analysis is at least partially outside of the control of the individual having the thought. This disruption in power (much of which stemming from the nuances of the unfamiliar or “unheimlich” discussed just prior) is one of the most blatant aspects of the uncanny, as it touches all other keywords and subcategories that interact within the same mental field of the unconscious.

The unconscious, of course, goes hand in hand with the uncanny. The unconscious is the area of our mind that contains knowledge, past experience, and biologically based instincts. According to Freud, all uncanny feelings start out here. The feeling of familiarity/unfamiliarity (heimlich/unheimlich) is created by the traumatic event, instinct, or knowledge that is part of that unconscious mind. An example of the uncanny relating to the unconscious could be feeling the uncanny while witnessing people fight. The person would be feeling the uncanny because they witnessed their parents fighting as a child, but the memories of those fights are a part of the unconscious mind.

Another key part of the uncanny is repetition compulsion. Repetition compulsion involves the recurrence of an event or moment. This phenomenon may stem from a traumatic experience. It also may stem from a forgotten experience. Either way, the repeated event comes from the unconscious; the person may not truly realize why such an event is being repeated. Repetition compulsion may also take place in dreams. A repeated dream, whether it be bad or good, is a good example of repetition compulsion, and contains a lot of uncanniness within it. One example of repetition compulsion Freud gives is “The Gone Game”. A child he observes plays a game with a doll where he throws it out of sight, and then goes and retrieves it. This continues for as long as the child is entertained. In his observations, Freud credits this game to the fact that the child’s mother isn’t around as much as she should be. Although the child may not realize it, he is playing the game to recreate the feeling of his mother leaving, and then retrieving the doll to create the feeling of the mother coming back. Those feelings, however, may seem slightly familiar yet unfamiliar to the child. This is the uncanny within repetition compulsion.

Many of these theories and or concepts presented within chapter four connect or build off of each other. For example, the ego, repression, and the idea of the “double” are each part of the larger equation of what makes something seem or feel uncanny. The uncanny can be simply defined as something that feels familiar and yet simultaneously has unfamiliar aspects. Freud explains the uncanny as “feelings of doubleness that consist of a sense that something strange coexists with what is most familiar inside ourselves” (389).  The uncanny is always present, but never quite graspable, never in clear focus, but intensely desired to be. The uncanny is “obscure and inaccessible to knowledge,” that which is unknown but always lurking just there somewhere hidden (421). Repression relates to the uncanny because our brains use repressive functions to block out memories, which then in turn makes things feel familiar yet unfamiliar and one must think very hard to understand why they get that sense and recall the initial memory from the unconscious. The uncanny is also heavily related to repression by way of dreams because dreams are uncanny repressed material and unconscious thoughts attempting to find expression. Repression serves a similar role to that of the ego, which is to protect one’s inner self from any perceived harm. Repression and the ego very much serve as mechanism of control of the human mind, or stability, however one chooses to view it.

Ego may be a difficult concept to understand, but it is vital to psychoanalysis. In simple terms, the ego serves to protect. Think of it this way: there are three stacked layers. The first, top layer is the self that you project to others, maybe the self that blocks out feelings, or the self you strongly desire to become. The second middle layer hovers there holding up this false self, or as Rank calls it, a “double.” Below it lies the third layer, or the true self subsisting of life experiences and traumas that define a person. Underneath the ego lies the unconscious containing all the repressed material which forms a person’s unique perspective of their own realities both internal and external. The ego can regulate which remains repressed and what becomes revealed. As the text puts it, “the secondary processes of the mind [are] lodged in the ego;” it brings “reason, order, logic, and social acceptability to the otherwise uncontrolled and harmful realm of the biological drives” (391). Though the ego is somewhat problematic because “according to Freud, the drives of the unconscious, though repressed, can never be quelled entirely” (391). Thus begging the question, do egos truly protect us or do they prevent us from reaching the full potential of our truest selves? Can we process reality and exist sanely within it without an ego? Do we need one to survive, or would living without an ego be a heightened existence of sorts?

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The Uncanny and Other Concepts by Sydney P.; Brooklyn Trombley; Taylor Nute; and Maria Wimpey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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