What is the Uncanny? The Eerie, Creepy, and Weird

Mark Windsor
Mark Windsor

We all experience the uncanny: that “horrible, eerie, shuddery feeling”, as a character in one of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short stories describes it. This we feel in response to certain phenomena — such as strange coincidences, identical twins, and waxwork figures — which are characteristically eerie, creepy, and weird.

Since Freud published his now famous essay on the topic, the uncanny has attracted much attention in the humanities and become a popular trope in cultural practices and art criticism.

While Freud’s broad characterization of the uncanny as an unsettling ambivalence between the familiar and the unfamiliar has been widely taken up, the reception of his deeper psychoanalytic account has been much more tenuous.

In spite of its burgeoning popularity in theory and practice, little to no progress has been made since Freud’s essay in reaching an understanding of what the uncanny is; indeed, it has become a commonplace in the literature that the uncanny is something that cannot be defined.

The following quotation from Nicholas Royle is representative: “the uncanny is destined to elude mastery, it is what cannot be pinned down or controlled.” Associated in its development with late-twentieth-century poststructuralism, and taken to be that which disrupts epistemic coherence and semantic stability, the uncanny has even become a synonym for the methodology of deconstruction.

Barely anything on the topic has appeared in the literature of analytic aesthetics. The most notable exception is found in the work of Cynthia Freeland, who has dealt with the uncanny in the context of film analysis in a chapter in her book on horror and in an essay which examines the uncanny effect in Krystof Kieślowski’s ‘The Double Life of Véronique’.

Freeland describes the uncanny as “a broad notion that applies to phenomena, in both life and artworks, that are eerie yet enticing, strange yet familiar, creepy yet not horrific”. While these texts of Freeland’s offer valuable insights, in neither does Freeland purport to offer an account of the uncanny; as she puts it in the conclusion of her essay on Kieślowski, “more must be done to develop a subtler and more complete theory of the uncanny”.

The uncanny is an important topic for aesthetics because it represents an important part of our experience of many works of art. The emergence of the uncanny in art is generally located in the late-eighteenth- or early-nineteenth-century, in Gothic novels and Romantic short stories by writers such as E. T. A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe.

In narrative works, the uncanny is often associated with themes of madness and delusion, and an ambiguous suggestion of the supernatural. The legacy of these classic uncanny stories can be found on television, in the series ‘The Twilight Zone’, ‘Twin Peaks’, and ‘Black Mirror’, for example; in films such as David Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’, David Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome’, and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, to name a few; as well as in contemporary works of literature, including José Saramago’s ‘The Double’ and Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’.

Certain perennial themes and motifs can be identified across these works. From classic tales such as Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ to contemporary films including Duncan Jones’s ‘Moon’, doppelgangers continue to stalk their woeful subjects; and from the “living” doll Olympia in Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ to the virtually-indistinguishable-from-human “replicants” in Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’, objects that trouble the boundary between the human and the non-human, the animate and the inanimate, continue to lure the artistic imagination.

In visual art, the surrealists were the first group of artists systematically to explore the uncanny in their work, including Hans Bellmer’s photographic tableaux of violently dismembered dolls and Georgio de Chirico’s paintings of eerily-deserted townscapes. The legacy of Bellmer’s work can be seen in some of Cindy Sherman’s photographs, as well as in Sarah Lucas’ biomorphic figurative sculptures; whereas Rachel Whiteread’s casts of interior spaces evoke the same mute, dream-like presence as de Chirico’s depicted scenes.

In fact, there has been something of a proliferation of the uncanny in contemporary visual practices over the last few decades — from Ron Mueck’s hyperrealist polychrome sculptures to Susan Hiller’s “paraconceptual” multimedia installations and Ed Atkins’ creepy computer-generated avatars. That the uncanny has become a trend in contemporary art has been affirmed by a number of themed exhibitions.

Much of the contemporary visual practice that evokes the uncanny can be traced back to a long tradition of “low” visual culture — for example, waxwork figures, life and death masks, polychrome religious sculptures, magic lantern shows, and phantasmagoria. Although not afforded the status of ‘high’ art, these may nonetheless be deserving of our aesthetic attention.

Finally, some will now know the uncanny under the rubric of “the uncanny valley”. First proposed by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, “the uncanny valley” describes the eerie effect of human like figures that are too lifelike. As advances in technology enable increasingly lifelike human representations in both two and three dimensions and new, increasingly realistic modes of image consumption, such as virtual reality, the effect of the uncanny valley becomes ever more pertinent to art and culture.

In his essay, Freud located the uncanny as a ‘province’ in the field of aesthetics. While it may not be aesthetic by nature (it is not, for example, something we would normally think of as an “aesthetic property”), it is clear that the uncanny is integral to our aesthetic appreciation of many works of art. What is at stake in understanding the uncanny is an understanding of an important aspect of our art and culture.

At the outset of his essay, Freud noted that “the word [uncanny] is not always used in a clearly definable sense”, but that “we may expect that a special core of feeling is present which justifies the use of a special conceptual term”.

If the uncanny is going to be of proper use in theoretical and critical discourse, then we should be able to say what it means. While it may be true that uncanny phenomena, insofar as we experience them as uncanny, “cannot be pinned down or controlled”, I see no good reason to suppose that the concept of the uncanny is “destined to elude mastery”.

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