In The Uncanny, Freud attempts to figure out why certain things fill us with a unique feeling of fear and unease, a feeling that, Freud argues, is distinct from mere fear. Freud notices that this effect is often used by literature and in the arts, and believes that his study is unique because it explores a negative and not a positive effect of art, like beauty or grandeur.
Freud proceeds along two lines of argumentation. First, he proposes to analyze the linguistic origins of the German word for "uncanny," unheimlich. Freud traces the word back to its antonym, heimlich, which in German has a wide range of meanings: of or related to the home; domestic; then secret, or hidden away; and finally dangerous, as in a dangerous knowledge. This discovery confirms Freud in his hypothesis that the uncanny is the unwelcome return of something that was once familiar, but is now foreign and alienating.
In the following section, Freud proceeds to examine individual examples of the uncanny and try to discover the common link. The examples he lists include fear of the loss of one's eyes, uncertainty whether an inanimate object is alive or dead, or inversely, whether a living person might not be reanimated; fear of being buried alive; fear of doubles, twins, and other uncanny resemblances; and unlikely repetition. Freud concludes that each example is actually the return of a fear or a wish that we possessed as infants, or that humanity possessed in its primitive prehistory. The uncanny feelings around eyes have their roots in the child's fear of castration by the father; the fear of inanimate objects coming to life in the infant's narcissism and belief that he can control the world with his thoughts. Fear of being buried alive is rooted in the infantile desire to return to the womb. Freud teases many of these themes out from a reading of the early nineteenth-century story "The Sand-Man" by E.T.A. Hoffmann.
Freud closes by considering why it is that many uncanny experiences—such as a wish suddenly coming true—are often comical in certain contexts, as in fairy tales. Freud surmises that the question is whether the effects are happening in the real world or not, or in a work of literature presumed to take place in the real world. Freud draws a distinction between those effects, like that of a wish suddenly coming true, which have their roots in "primitive beliefs" and those which have their roots in early infancy. The former are more likely to take place in real life, because they arise from the conflict in our minds between rational thinking, which is never as stable as we believe it to be, and "primitive," magical thinking, which we believe we have overcome. Those uncanny effects rooted in the experiences of early infancy, on the other hand, are more likely to be encountered in art, because, even when we had these experiences, they were psychic realities. (Our father likely never wanted to castrate us, and we never actually could control dolls with our minds.) Depending on the extent to which one has acknowledged and overcome these memories, one will be more or less susceptible to the uncanny.
Freud's final observation is that some uncanny fears, like darkness or solitude, have roots in childhood experiences that can never be overcome.