The Uncanny

The Uncanny Themes

The Uncanny

Freud's primary focus is the experience that he calls the uncanny, what we might call "the creeps." Freud is interested in that vague feeling of fear that has nothing to do with fear for one's safety. He is also interested in the hidden feeling of familiarity in the uncanny. Freud will ultimately argue that "the uncanny" is in fact our recollection of experiences from infancy that we have repressed as our consciousness has become more developed. It is this sense of recollecting something, of being reminded of something, that distinguishes the uncanny from mere fear.


At the start of The Uncanny, Freud observes that aesthetics, or the study of art and how it produces its effects, has largely focused on the positive aspects of art. Freud wants to focus on negative effects, like fear and dread. Freud's approach broadens the scope of what we understand as aesthetics. Rather than a logical system for analyzing art, Freud is concerned with art's relationship to the mind of the individual, and of entire cultures. By focusing on extreme effects like that of the uncanny, Freud explores not simply how art "works," i.e., what makes a beautiful painting beautiful, but what role it serves in the development of our consciousnesses. Freud's answer is that art is a repository for our fantasies, fears, and repressed memories—an insight that the study of the beautiful could never yield, because the beautiful is obviously a desired effect, consciously achieved.

The Development of the Ego

The key to the uncanny, according to Freud, is that many phenomena that we consider uncanny are in fact recollections of experiences or psychic states that we had in early infancy, and that we have repressed as our ego has developed. From this definition, we can glean something about Freud's theory of the development of the ego. As infants, when our sexuality develops, we have many experiences (like the belief that the father wants to castrate us, or the belief that the world is an extension of our mind) that we must repress in order to become conscious, rational beings. Development, then, is not simply a process of growth, of gaining and incorporating new information, but of actively suppressing and forgetting earlier stages of our life. Nor is it smooth and continuous, since these repressed memories often come back as anxiety, or, in this case, as uncanny phenomena.

"Primitive Man"

Freud's theory of the development of the conscious mind parallels his theory of the development of humanity. Just as the infant represses memories and experiences in order to develop into a conscious adult, so too does humanity develop from its earlier, primitive phases—where human beings believed in and practiced magic, believed that the world was peopled with living spirits, and made no distinction between images and real life—into its modern, rational mindset. Freud believes that neurotic people, that is, people who have failed to work through the memories of their childhood, and continue to repress them because they can't acknowledge them, often share characteristics with primitive people, above all the belief in the power of their thoughts to affect reality. Freud is often vague about which primitive societies he means, and whether this is true of all primitive societies. Nonetheless, he is emphatic in the belief that the development of human consciousness in its broadest historical sense is also not smooth and continuous, and that earlier phases of human consciousness are always with us.

The Omnipotence of Thoughts

One of the primary causes of the uncanny, according to Freud, is the return of the belief, possessed both by infant children and "primitive people," that their thoughts can actually control reality. The omnipotence of thoughts is a phase of primary oneness with the world; Freud sees the development of the ego, and of rational human consciousness, as a process of separation. We gradually realize that our mind is distinct from the outside world. Infant children and primitive people don't make this distinction; they expect their wishes to come true immediately, or they expect inanimate objects to come to life.

Castration Complex

Freud connects the discomfort around eye damage or loss of vision to the repressed memory of a fear of castration. Freud believes that the moment that a (male) infant begins to develop sexuality, somewhere between the ages of one and three, he becomes attracted to his mother, who is the primary object of femininity and love, and begins to fear his father as a competitor for his mother's love. To that end, he begins to fear that his father will castrate him. Freud is sometimes vague about how literal the fear of castration is, whether it is an actual fear of violence done to the genitalia, or whether it is fear of the loss of the capacity to experience pleasure. But one result of the castration complex is that figures of menace that interrupt pleasure and love often stand in for the father. Freud believes Hoffmann's "Sand-Man" to be such a figure.

The Reality of Images

One of the question Freud seeks to address is why the uncanny features so often in art, and why simple images can cause us to feel fear. His conclusion is that those instances of the uncanny that have their roots in repressed memories from infancy aren't checked or limited by the awareness that they aren't real, because as infants we ourselves were unable to distinguish between psychic reality and reality itself. (A father isn't literally trying to castrate a male infant, for example.) For this reason, as adults, these experiences are uncanny because they tap into that same psychic reality, which draws no distinction between what is real and what isn't. Though Freud does not expand on this conclusion at length, it follows that, to some part of our mind—the infantile, primitive part—there is no substantive distinction between images and reality.