Freud used the German word ‘unheimlich’ (usually translated as ‘uncanny’) to describe the phenomenon which he writes is: ‘that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’ (Freud 2003, p.1). For Freud the uncanny was not everything that is strange – it was the familiar rendered strange and it is this paradoxical characteristic that leads to a feeling of discomfort.

The notion of the uncanny is rooted in the language used to describe it and cannot be considered as a separate entity. As with the original German ‘unheimlich’, the word ‘uncanny’ has a complicated provenance. Furthermore, the examples that Freud used to develop this concept are predominantly taken from literature (in particular the 1817 short story ‘The Sandman’ by E.T.A. Hoffman). He showed how these stories achieve their uncanny effect through de-familiarisation of the human body and its constituent parts (such as eyes in ‘The Sandman’). Thus, the uncanny is intimately related to our ambivalent relationship with our own bodies, as mediated through language, narrative and fiction.

The Sandman
Sketch by ‘Emily’ inspired by Hoffmann’s The Sandman. 

Sketch can be found here

 

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