The Uncanny
John Friedland

Freud begins his essay The Uncanny (Freud 1919) by explaining how the psychoanalyst may be called upon to investigate the theory of aesthetics not in connection with the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feeling. He might have to interest himself in some province of aesthetics which might turn out to be a remote one such as “the uncanny.” It relates to what is frightening—to what arouses dread and horror. Also, the word is not always used in a clear definable sense. He embarks on a quest to the meaning of uncanny by an etymological study as well as by collecting sense impressions and experience which enables one to infer the unknown nature of the uncanny and determine what examples of the uncanny have in common.

He examines the meaning of “uncanny” in several languages. In Latin, it is used in the sense of an uncanny place or an uncanny time of night. In Greek it means strange or foreign. In English, uncomfortable, gloomy, ghastly or haunted. In French it equates to mal a l’aise or sinister. In Arabic or Hebrew it equates to daemonic or gruesome. In German it is the opposite of Heimlich which means not strange, familiar, members of the household, intimate, friendly comfortable. Another sense means concealed, kept from sight. The word Heimlich exhibits at least one quality which is identical with its opposite. Gutzkow writes: “We call it unheimlich. You call it Heimlich.” Heimlich also has the meaning “obscure, inaccessible to knowledge.” He quotes Schiller, “Do you not see?   They do not trust us; they fear the Heimlich face of the Duke of Friedland.”

Freud picks one sense of the use of uncanny, the situation in which an animate object is actually not alive or an inanimate object turns out to be alive. E.T.A Hoffman employs this device in the character of Olympia in the story “The Sandman” which also appears in the Tales of Hoffman. But Freud does not see this as the main theme of the story which, in fact, is the tale of the Sandman who tears childrens’ eyes out. On some evenings, the Nathaniel heard the Sandman was coming from his mother who explains that he tears children’s eyes out when they won’t go to sleep. The little eavesdropper hears Coppelius a.k.a the Sandman when he is at work with his father at the brazier. Coppelius seizes him and is the point of dropping little bits of red-hot-coal into his eyes when his father saves him. Years later Nathaniel buys eyeglasses from Coppola and espies Olympia who he learns is an automaton. He mixes up his betrothed Clara with the wooden doll Olympia, and it was the approach of Coppelius the lawyer which he seen through the spyglass which sends him into a trance which causes him to fling himself over the parapet.

For Freud, the fear of going blind is often a substitute for the fear of castration. The self blinding myth of Oedipus was simply a mitigated form of castration. Hoffmann brings the anxiety about the eyes into intimate connection with his father’s death. The role of the Sandman in separating him from Olympia (who the Sandman shows to be an automaton) and his betrothed becomes intelligible when the Sandman is seen as a father substitute. The death wish against the bad father finds expression of the death of the good father. This pair of fathers is later represented by Professor Spalanzani the optician and father of Olympia and Coppelius. One aids his eyes; the other destroys them.

The uncanny may be concerned with the phenomenon of the “double.” This category should be expanded to include the situation where one person has the thoughts of another so that mental processes leap from one to the other in what we call telepathy. It could be that the subject identifies himself with the other so that he is in doubt as to which his self is, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own. The double has its roots in a very early mental stage when it wore a friendly aspect. This stage has long since been surmounted. Another form of the uncanny considered by Hoffman is the hearkening back to an early stage at which the ego had not been marked off from the external world and other people.

Freud adopts such a tone which is firmly against paranormal occurrences while in his later essay “Dreams and Occultism” (Freud 1933) he recounts the incidents in which the secret wishes of his patients are given vent by fortunetellers. More difficult to dismiss was his own patient Herr P. telling him that a virgin used to call Herr P Mr. Foresight when Freud was expecting a visit from Dr. Forsythe. The coincidence is somewhat minimized by the fact that Herr P. possessed a large English library and used to discuss English authors with Freud, one of which was Galsworthy who authored The Forsythe Saga.

But the second instance of coincidence was less readily explained away. Freud went to visit a Dr. Freund in Herr P.’s house. Freud told Herr P. that in a sense he had paid him a visit. Shortly after having mentioned Herr von Vorischt (Mr. Foresight) Herr P. asked Freud whether the Freud who was giving lectures in English was Freud’s daughter. But instead of saying Freud, he said “Freund”.

At the end of the same session, Herr P. mentioned a regular Alptraum and asked what the English translation was. At first, he thought it was ‘mare’s nest.”The translation is nightmare. A month earlier, Freud was visited by Ernest Jones whom Herr P. wanted to be introduced to. Jones was the author of a monograph entitled “The Nightmare”.

Freud looks at the manner in which the name Foresight emerged in the analytic session. Herr P. did not say “Forsythe” out of the English novel. He said in essence, “I’m a Forsyth too: that’s what the girl calls me.” Freud concludes that it’s hard to mistake the jealous demand and melancholy self depreciation which finds its expression in this remark. Thereafter, his thoughts passing along the associative thread “English” went back to two earlier events which were able to stir up the same elements of jealousy. Herr P. said in substance that Freud had paid a visit not to Herr P. but to Herr von Freund which caused him to mix up Freud and Freund. The Freud who was the teacher of English came up here because she as a teacher of English provided the manifest association. Finally came the mention of another visitor of whom he was equally jealous, Ernest Jones who was able to produce a book on nightmare’s whereas Herr P. could only produced a nightmare. His confusing the English with Mare’s nest was intended to mean, “I’m not a genuine Englishman any more than I’m a genuine Forstythe.”

Herr P. had been warned that his analysis would come to an end as soon as foreign pupils and patients returned to Vienna. Could have these associations been made without thought transference? Freud says that first association could have meant that Freud said to Herr P. that I had visited a Freund (friend) at your house and thus the occult interest vanishes. Herr P. could have also seen an advertisement for Jones’ monograph on the Nightmare.   In regard to the name Forsythe Freud says he may have mentioned his name, but he doubted that he did so. But Freud says, “It may be that I too have a secret inclination toward the miraculous which thus goes half way to meet the creation occult facts.” But even if Herr P. knew that a Dr. Forsythe was expected why was he so receptive to his presence on the day of his arrival. Freud believes that the scales weigh in favor of a thought transference.

Freud mocks himself supposing someone would say, “’Here’s another case of a man who has done honest work as a scientist all though his life and has grown feeble-minded , pious and credulous in his old age’.” Freud writes, “It seems to me that psychoanalysis, by inserting the unconscious between what is physical and what was previously called ‘psychical’, has paved the way for the assumption of such processes as telepathy.” Freud says that this is the original archaic method of communication between individuals and in the course of phylogenetic evolution it has been replaced by the better method of giving information with the help of signals which are picked up by the sense organs.

Freud ends his essay by telling a story of a mother who talked of a gold coin during an analytic session whose son immediately after gave her a gold coin which he had had for months. A few weeks later when the mother was writing about the gold coin the child wanted to take the coin with him to show in analysis. Analysis could discover no explanation of this wish to give the mother the coin or have it back again for the session. Freud then says this leads us back to psycho-analysis which is where were started out from.

“Dreams and Occultism” was written more than 14 years after “The Uncanny”. Reading the earlier work in light of the later work, Freud’s emphasis on rational explanations seems a bit forced. In light of this later work which represents Freud’s final position on telepathy, his earlier ideas on the uncanny need to be revisited. However, a serious distinction is to be made between telepathy and the uncanny. The uncanny relates to an event from childhood or phylogenetic inheritance that recurs in a later incarnation or the compulsion to repeat.

In “the Uncanny” Freud gives the example of wandering and finding himself back in the same street over and over again. This same situation could play out in a wood or in a dark room looking for a light switch and colliding with the same piece of furniture over and over again .If we take another set of circumstances, it is only this repetition which surrounds what would be innocent enough and forces on it something inescapable and fateful. Unless a man is hardened against superstition, he will ascribe a secret meaning to this recurrence of a number. In Freud’s case this is the number 62.  Or the reoccurrence of a name could create the same kind of superstition. Here Freud alludes to Beyond the Pleasure Principle and the compulsion to repeat. This compunction is powerful enough to overrule the pleasure principle. But he does not seem to answer the question of why the compulsion to repeat gives rise to a feeling of uncanny in the repetition of a number. It may be that a number had an earlier significance which has since become unconscious.

Or we can begin to surmise that the compulsion to repeat can give rise to an unconscious fantasy of repetition in the real world. I have a compulsion to repeat; therefore, the compulsion to repeat can be found in the real world. This is uncanny. The uncanny generally is the playing out of an unconscious fantasy in a larger arena. The story of the Sandman alludes to the good and bad father and is a tale of castration. The compulsion to repeat is more frightening even though its genesis is not in childhood traumas but in the death drive itself.

Every obsessional neurotic is able to relate uncanny events such as getting a letter from someone to whom befalls a serious accident the next day, for instance. Many dread “the evil eye.” A feeling of envy by someone who projects his own envy on others fears that this degree of intensity for doing harm will convert itself into effective action. This form of the uncanny is the omnipotence of thought which begins with the subject overvaluation of one’s own mental process. This stage of development which we have all been through corresponds to the animism of primitive men. Freud’s later thinking in “Dreams and the Occult” does not really shed light on these coincidences. Telepathy is based on what occurs between two people in which mind reading occurs, not one in which events are mysteriously transmitted by means of a letter or the reoccurrence of a number.

Freud makes a complex assessment of the uncanny. If every affect belonging to an emotional impulse is transformed, if it repressed, into anxiety, there is one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs. First, Freud had not defined the frightening element being repressed but we can assume that it is an emotional instinct transformed into anxiety. This class of frightening thing would constitute the uncanny whether or not it was originally frightening or carried some other affect. Thus, we understand that it was the recurrence of an emotional impulse which carries an affect that is frightening. If this is the secret nature of the uncanny then we understand why Heimlich was transformed into unheimlich for this feeling is something which is not new but old and familiar. This aids us in understanding Schelling’s definition of the uncanny as something hidden which has come to light. Some languages can render an unheimlich house only as a “haunted” house. There are few issues around which our earliest thoughts have changed little and are preserved under a thin veneer as our relationship to death. Freud says in something of an overstatement, most of us still think as savages on this topic. Animism, omnipotence of thoughts, man’s attitude to death, involuntary repetition and the castration complex, Freud notes constitute all the factors which turn something frightening into something uncanny. Are these all the factors or only some of the most prominent? The fantasy of being buried alive is uncanny and is the transformation of intra-uterine existence. Uncanniness is often evoked when the line between reality and fiction appears to disappear.

Fairy tales frequently adopt the animistic perspective of omnipotent thought but are not uncanny. The resuscitation of the dead in the New Testament does not elicit feelings of the uncanny. Nearly all the instincts which contradict the hypothesis of what would be considered uncanny come from fiction (including the New Testament). What is actually experienced as uncanny provides far fewer instances than fiction. Fiction which may exist in the realm of omnipotent thought does not easily arouse the uncanny. So ghosts in Shakespeare or Dante appearing in their poetic reality do not give rise to any uncanny thought however gloomy they might be. This changes when the writer pretends to move in the realm of reality. The sense of the uncanny which proceeds from infantile complexes is as powerful in fiction as in reality. Silence, solitude and darkness are elements in infantile anxiety. These are perhaps the most puissant and telling examples of the uncanny which originally arise from infantile complexes.


The omnipotence of thoughts, the prompt fulfillment of wishes, secret injurious powers and the return of the dead were all once believed by our primitive forefathers to be actual possibilities. While these thoughts are outmoded, we do not feel quite sure of our new beliefs and these hold ones are ready to seize on any confirmation. Anyone who has completely rid himself of animistic beliefs will not be moved by the uncanny.

But the state is different when the uncanny proceeds from infantile fantasies, from the castration complex, womb fantasies etc. Where this type of uncanny feeling arises, it is not material reality but psychical reality which is at issue. So an uncanny feeling exists when infantile complexes which have been repressed are revived by some experience or when primitive beliefs that have been surmounted appear to be confirmed. The distinction between these two classes of the uncanny is hazy, according to Freud although he has said that anyone who has shed animistic beliefs will not be affected by the second kind of uncanny feelings. So we are led to ask which infantile complex led to Freud’s being dogged by the number 62 if it is not superstition. He does say that it is superstition, but we are dogged by the possibility that there is another kind of superstition which rational thought cannot undo.

Freud’s focus on the number 62 and his theory that the compulsion to repeat can give rise to the uncanny, makes one believe that not even telepathy, infantile fantasies or superstition can explain all uncanny happenings and that something exists outside the purview of psychoanalysis.

Generally, Freud’s theory of the uncanny fits well within the context of unconscious fantasy viewed more broadly.   Unconscious fantasy in psychoanalytic theory is generally seen as arising from intrauterine existence, primal scene, castration or seduction (Trosman 1990). I would add the Oedipus complex per and the primal killing of the father may be an unconscious fantasy which is phylogenic.

Unconscious fantasy has two components: the past unconscious and the present unconscious (Sandler 1986). This differentiation is based on Freud’s distinction between the unconscious and the preconscious and a second censorship between the preconscious and the conscious. The past unconscious is demarcated by the repression barrier and infantile amnesia. Sandler (1986) cites transference fantasies as the prime examples of adaptive fantasies associated with the present unconscious. The present unconscious is associated with the stabilizing function of unconscious fantasy. The idea of the present unconscious can also be seen as a compromise formation. So the present unconscious is a compromise formation in which a particular fantasy may be a politic revision of an earlier one. Freud’s idea of the uncanny has a present and a past component. But the uncanny occurs at a disjunction from the present and is distinctly not stabilizing but destabilizing, and not a compromise formation but a kind of ghostly apparition of the past, whether the animistic phylogenic past which has been thought surmounted or the infantile complex in its original strength. However, not all notions of the uncanny derive from infantile complexes. A sense of the uncanny might be generated by telepathic communication. Freud seems to suggest that the repetition of a number such as the number 62 only has a meaning to those who are superstitious about the internal compulsion to repeat being echoed in the real world. But the dread invoked by the internal compulsion to repeat- although not an infantile complex—may exist regardless of an individual’s susceptibility to superstition.



Freud, Sigmund (1919) The “Uncanny” , Collected Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 17, p. 217-252

Freud, Sigmund (1933)   Dreams and Occultism, Collected Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 22 p. 31-56

Sandler, A.( 1986) Reality and the Stablizing Function of Unconscious Fantasy Bulletin, A. Freud Center 9: 177-194 cited in Inderbitzin, L. and Levy, S. (1990) Unconscious Fantasy: A Reconsideration of the Concept. J. of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 38: 113-130

Trosman, H. (1990) Transformations of Unconscious Fantasy into Art,   J. of American Psychoanalytic Association, 38:47-59


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