20. The Uncanny, Part 2

In the last post I defined the uncanny as follows:

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.

But how does an uncanny experience arise?  Here are two interesting possibilities:

(1) In “The Uncanny” Freud argues that an experience of the uncanny betrays a return of the repressed: something that we have repressed is activated by something and this activation is what generates the terror.  For example, when we were children, we saw things around us as alive, as animated.  We spoke to toys and related to them as subjects.  The books we read and the images we saw often depicted a world of talking objects and animals to which we related in a meaningful way.  But then we grew up and learned that our beloved toys are just objects with no life and that plants and animals are not human.  We came to see the world as matter in motion and became scientific, realistic, mature, etc.  But in many people these animistic tendencies don’t simply disappear: they are repressed.  So, when a mature adult gets unsettled by a ventriloquist’s dummy, Freud would say that what is familiar—an object that is simply wood—has suddenly become unfamiliar in light of repressed beliefs about dolls having life and being subjects.  Freud also argues that many uncanny things are related to our repressed fear of death (as in uncanny mechanical repetitions) and fear of castration (as in uncanny severed body parts).  The key here is that Freud’s introduction of the unconscious and the mechanism of repression help us understand how we have these uncanny experiences and why they are so disturbing.  Something about ourselves is revealed yet, in many cases, this something, because it is a function of the sub or unconscious, is unclear.  Thus the uncanny usually has to do with mysterious revelations that can be disturbing and even devastating.   But, in certain cases, such revelations can be liberating and can bring wisdom (even if tragic wisdom). Freud thought uncanny experiences afforded psychoanalysts important insights into the mind.  In particular, he thought that uncanny art could do so since the uncanny is the only feeling that is felt more strongly in art than in life.[1]

(2) Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy (1917), argues that the uncanny marks a primal experience of the sacred that is the ground for more organized and articulated religious development.[2] For Otto, the experience of the sacred is a mix of awe and attraction: on one hand, we are terrified, on the other hand, we are enticed to get closer.  Otto argues that humans have always been having experiences whereby certain everyday phenomena suddenly give rise to both awe and attraction. How does this occur?  Rather than seek a purely naturalistic interpretation like Freud, Otto thinks powers of the soul are at work: there is spiritual energy that is excited and this energy is experienced as terrifying and fascinating.  It is what he calls “numinous energy”. Demons, ghosts, and other uncanny things are typically the objectification of this energy: they are the products of our limited imagination trying to give form to this unpredictable energy. Freud would say such products of our imagination are false but held onto in the unconsciousness.  But Otto argues that such beliefs, while they may not always be accurate, do emerge because of real spiritual powers. Our experience of the uncanny in the presence of such representations of the numinous can be terrifying precisely because such things were our limited reactions to the numinous.

Otto doesn’t probe what it is about the numinous that might allow for this connection with uncanny experiences.  One way to think about it would be by invoking the imagination.  The imagination generates doubles, makes present that which is absent, and transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar.  If imagination is a central function of our soul (and not just the cerebral cortex) then perhaps our soul resonates in the presence of doubles and other uncanny phenomena because these doubles reflect the doubling power that gave rise to them. Perhaps uncanny art can provide such concentrated and charged images of the sacred and can, in some cases, offer our soul an opportunity to experience, even if indirectly, the primal awe of the sacred.

So it seems like Freud is an enlightenment thinker who is using reason to delve into the unconsciousness and explain its mysterious powers as a natural function of our mind (e.g., mechanisms of repression).  But Otto is arguing for irrational and supernatural powers beyond our mind, indeed beyond nature, which are known by being felt. Naturally, these two approaches offer us two general ways to think about horror.  For many, horror, in art and life, presents situations where supernatural forces collide, where good and evil take stands, and where the destiny of people’s souls is decided. Such situations remain live possibilities for all of us and we should take them seriously to some extent, open our minds to them, and learn from them what we can for our own spiritual development. In many cases this approach will lean heavily on feelings, emotions, and the lived experience. But for others, horror can be explained without recourse to supernatural powers and the grand narratives of good and evil. Rather, we need a better naturalistic understanding of the human mind and social institutions to dispel our fears (often childish ones), assuage them, medicate them, learn from them, etc.

Go here for part three.


[1] Stanley Kubrick’s film version of King’s horror book The Shining sought to incorporate all of Freud’s key examples and observations on the uncanny.  Perhaps that is why it so unbelievably creepy. This close connection gives us an opportunity to study a work of art that can help us understand Freud’s ideas and, perhaps, ourselves.

[2] Otto, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford: New York, 1958).

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