’s Concept Of The Uncanny Essay, Research Paper

Freud?s Concept of the Uncanny

When a person experiences chills or goose bumps as a

reaction to something strange or unusual, they are being

affected by a sense of uncanniness. The psychoanalyst

Sigmund Freud endeavored to explain this feeling of

uncanniness in his essay entitled ?The Uncanny?. Freud?s

theory focuses around two different causes for this

reaction. Freud attributes the feeling of uncanniness to

repressed infantile complexes that have been revived by some

impression, or when primitive beliefs that have been

surmounted seem once more to be confirmed.

The first point of his theory that Freud discusses in

the essay is the repression of infantile complexes that

cause an uncanny experience. Freud uses E.T.A. Hoffman?s

short story, ?The Sandman?, to explain the idea of

repression of infantile complexes. The story centers around

the character of the Sandman, who steals the eyes of

children. Freud states that the fear that the character

Nathaniel feels towards the Sandman has more to due with an

infantile castration complex than with the actual fear of

losing his eyes. In Freud?s theory he states that the ?Study

of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that a morbid

anxiety connected with the eyes and with going blind is

often enough a substitute for the dread of castration?(Freud

383). If Freud?s belief is true, than it is Nathaniel?s

fear of castration that causes him in the end to go mad and

throw himself from parapet. Nathaniel?s fear is embodied in

the character of the Sandman, whom Freud says represents

Nathaniel?s father, and thus is the cause of his fear of

castration. The Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex would also be

affected by Freud?s theory. When examining Oedipus? action

of blinding himself once he hears the truth about his

parentage, it would have to be determined that he blinds

himself as a symbolic castration. This statement is

supported by the laws of ancient Greek society which would

have called for his castration due to the incest with his


While the infantile castration complex is the only one

Freud goes into detail with in the essay, there are many

others that would cause uncanniness if they were revived.

The reason for this is that once the child grows up these

complexes are hidden deep within the subconscious and are

totally without logical reason. The adult does not realize

that he fears castration, instead he can only rationally

explain his fear as that of being blinded. The feelings of

childhood remain with us throughout adult life but they are

only faintly perceptible, and this too can cause

uncanniness. The foggy remembrance of a sensation that can

no longer be grasped but still affects our emotions in ways

that we can not explain to ourselves.

The second point of Freud?s theory states that

uncanniness is experienced when primitive beliefs which have

been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed. These

surmounted beliefs are usually beliefs concerning the

after-life, magic, and other such supernatural things that

were once part of early man?s belief system. This part of

his theory is closely connected to superstition. For

example, most modern individuals do not believe in the

existence of ghosts, yet some religions bless houses. The

question arises then, why would a blessing be necessary

without the fear of an evil or simply supernatural presence

in the house? To explain this part of his theory Freud

focuses a great deal on our relation to death. He states

that ?there is scarcely any other matter…upon which our

thoughts and feelings have changed so little since the

earliest times, and in which discarded forms have been so

completely preserved under a thin disguise?(Freud 395).

A modern day example of the idea of death causing

uncanniness can be found in the recent film, The Sixth

Sense. This film deals with ability of a little boy to see

the spirits of dead people all around him. The source of the

viewers? uncanniness is a result of more than simply fear,

it is as Freud states due to primitive beliefs that have

been surmounted, which are now being confirmed. The

audience which this film targeted most likely do not believe

in the spirits of the dead walking among the living, yet

many generations ago this was considered a valid belief.

For instance, an ancient Middle Eastern society that existed

in what is modern day Syria sometime around the Neolithic

era would bury dead relatives under the floor of their

houses because they believed that this would keep the family

member with them. They felt that the close proximity of the

corpse would enable the spirit of the deceased to reside in

the house.

The belief in spirits can also be found in the origin

of the holiday, Halloween. This holiday was created because

people believed that they could appease the spirits and

demons around them by offering candy, and also they felt

that by dressing their children up as these spirits and

demons the children would be safe from the supernatural

forces. The feeling of uncanniness inspired by the

reconfirmation of these primitive beliefs occurs because we

are not confident enough in our modern conceptions to

completely disregard our old belief systems.

Freud?s purpose for writing this essay was to explain

the psychological influences behind our reactions to those

things or events which we consider abnormal and uncanny.

While both the components of his theory are true, they are

not the exclusive reasons for a feeling of uncanniness, and

Freud admits this himself. For instance, the feeling that

deja vu causes is most surely one of uncanniness, yet it is

not a result of infantile complexes or from the resurfacing

of primitive beliefs. The reason that deja vu causes

uncanniness is because it is the knowledge of something in

the recesses of our memory that is unattainable in any

definite sense. Freud does indeed succeed in explaining two

very important causes of uncanniness, and they are easily

identified in literature and in society.

Freud believes that uncanniness is a result of

repressed infantile complexes and also the confirmation of

primitive beliefs. Freud?s observations are important

because they help us better understand our reactions and our

fears, which in turn help us better understand ourselves.

As long as people continue to gain some sort of pleasure

from enduring this sense of uncanniness, writers and film

makers will continue to use Freud?s methods to bring about

the uncanny.


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