The Uncanny

The Uncanny Summary and Analysis of Section Three


Freud now sets about identifying potential objections to his argument and responding to them. He considers the possibility that anything hidden that has come to light will produce an uncanny effect. He believes that this condition is necessary but not sufficient.

Freud also allows that for every example he gives, another example can be found to rebut it. The severed hand that is uncanny in Hauff has no similar effect in Herodotus—though, in principle, both evoke the castration complex. The instantaneous wish fulfillment of the Ring of Polycrates is uncanny; the wish fulfillment in fairy tales, as when a wife wishes for a sausage and it appears on her plate, is comic.

By the same token, the reanimation of the dead is uncanny. But when Snow White or Jesus Christ come back to life, we are delighted. So involuntary recurrence needs to be divided into situations where it creates a comic effect—as in fairy tales—and into those where it creates a properly uncanny one. Freud concedes that he has now entered the realm of the aesthetic, the science of figuring how artistic effects work, whereas his goal was only to justify the uncanny as a potential object of psychoanalytic investigation.

One possible solution to this problem is that the comic examples of the uncanny are all taken from literature. The uncanny operates differently when we experience it in real life than it does when we read about it. Freud believes that uncanny experiences can always be explained as the return of something that has been repressed. But he maintains that there are still important distinctions to be made regarding when and how we experience the uncanny.

He returns to the omnipotence of thoughts. There was a time when we believed in such things, and now we do not. We believe we have surmounted these old superstitions. Nonetheless, the old beliefs still lurk in us, waiting for confirmation. The feeling of the uncanny is one of confirming a long-held suspicion: “So it is true that one can kill with one’s thoughts.” Freud believes that someone who has dispelled these beliefs will be insensitive to the uncanny. He believes that these experiences happen more frequently in real life because they are a way of testing reality.

Freud believes that the matter is a different one when it comes to those uncanny experiences that are directly rooted in childhood. He believes that experiences that arouse this feeling do not occur often in real life. In these, psychic reality—what is going on in our minds—is more important than what is actually real. That is why they occur more frequently, since we come across them in books, stories, etc.

Freud applies the distinction that the uncanny is when we are reminded of a specific idea from childhood, or when primitive beliefs we have surmounted seem to be confirmed, though, to be sure, it can be difficult to distinguish these. Primitive beliefs and infantile complexes are often linked.

This brings us to a consideration of the uncanny in literature. Literature is a uniquely fertile ground for the uncanny because the content of literature is not limited to what is literally possible; therefore, it can draw on the entire realm of fantasy. We come to two paradoxical conclusions: that much of what is realistic in literature would be uncanny in real life, and that there are many more means of creating the uncanny in literature than there are in real life.

While much in literature is grotesque or gloomy—Dante’s Inferno, for example; or the ghosts in Shakespeare—it only becomes uncanny when the work of literature is supposed to be set in the real world. The strange trickery, then, is that the writer draws on the surmounted belief in the real existence of images to create the illusion of reality; the uncanny in this way depends on the mimetic beliefs of past civilizations that images are as real as reality. We are disappointed when we realize that the story is not real, but the author can stretch this out by delaying this identification, as Hoffmann does.

Freud believes that uncanny effects belonging to infantile complexes don’t need a strong realistic component to work in literature, whereas ones based on “surmounted” forms of thought do. Freud also believes that much depends on the intended effect of the author, who has the power to direct our attention and to dam up emotions in such a way as to make the same content seem alternately comic or uncanny.

Freud closes with the observation that silence, darkness, and solitude have roots in infant anxieties that no one can totally overcome.


In some ways, the third section of The Uncanny feels like an addendum, in that the bulk of Freud’s argument has already been made in the second part. Those who are familiar with Freud’s other writing on art, say on Leonardo da Vinci, or “The Creative Writer and Day-Dreaming,” might now expect Freud to address the role of the artist in creating the uncanny. But Freud sidesteps this question.

In this respect, The Uncanny is uncharacteristic of Freud’s writing on art in that it focuses not on the mental processes of the artist, but on art’s effect on the viewer or reader. This leads Freud to a larger idea about the way that art is perceived, and the way that it produces its effects, and the way that those effects are rooted in our psychic realities.

Freud’s primary question is why the uncanny effects that he has considered in the previous section are often not uncanny when placed into a different context. When Snow White is kissed and comes back to life, the reader doesn’t feel horror, but a pleasant surprise. When in fairy tales wishes are made and immediately granted, we feel a sense of wonder, delight, and humor.

The difference, according to Freud, hinges on the question of whether the world established in the art work is given as the real one, or not. In a fairy tale, we know that we are in an enchanted world. Therefore, things that might be frightening now appear comic. This leads to the interesting paradox that the very idea that an image could represent, or be as real as, the thing it’s representing, is itself a primitive or infantile belief. If we believe a work of art is "realistic," that's already evidence that we are in the realm of fantasy. Art plays this “reality effect” off of uncanny elements to create the feeling of unease, and together, this constitutes the uncanny. The uncanny comes from the clash between the two modes of thinking.

In this way, Freud’s investigation of the uncanny contains major anthropological and cultural claims. In the psychoanalytic worldview, art does not simply reflect its time, because it always has roots in the beliefs and practices of infancy and childhood as well as human prehistory. Like the human consciousness, these aspects of the artwork—the author’s conscious intent, the historical reality in which it was created, the primitive beliefs in which art is rooted—are layered over one another, sometimes coming into confluence, sometimes clashing.

Those aspects of art that are based on infantile memory point to a different truth about our psychic lives. Because these memories are rooted in a time when we couldn’t fully distinguish ourselves from reality, some part of our mind makes no substantive distinction between artistic images and reality. As children, we did not distinguish between animate and inanimate objects; as adults, we do not distinguish between depictions of the uncanny and real experiences of the uncanny, even though we rationally understand that images can’t actually hurt us.

If we take these two insights together, we can see why the uncanny interests Freud so deeply. The very existence of the phenomenon validates a major aspect of Freud’s worldview, namely, that whatever happens to us as adults, our psychic lives are still deeply rooted in the memories of our childhood experiences, wants, and traumas.

Freud leaves us on this note with his final observation, which he mentions almost in passing, that certain fears, like darkness and solitude, can simply never be overcome. Even as the most rational adults, at our core, we are still anxious, frightened children.