Following is a guest post by Romany Reagan, PhD Candidate, Royal Holloway, University of London, on the idea of the uncanny. If this topic interests you, we hope you'll join us for her illustrated lecture "A Theoretical Ghost: Analysing the Uncanny Through the Lens of Charles Dickens' Night Walks" tomorrow night--Tuesday November 4th. More information and tickets are available here.
The Uncanny: Liminal Space and the Seduction of Melancholic Mystery
By Romany Reagan, PhD Candidate, Royal Holloway, University of London
The uncanny is apprehension rather than experience, dread rather than terror. It inhabits a liminal psychological space, existing in our peripheral vision and built on uncertainty. The moment our imagination is satisfied into certainty — whether that be of safety or of horror — the moment ceases to be uncanny. If a ghost were to be proven to be a ghost, it would no longer be uncanny; it would be paranormal. Under this term fall an entire franken-family of concepts: the ‘death drive’, doppelgängers, ghosts and the spirit world, déjà vu, allegory in literature, cemeteries, ruins, oral storytelling, telepathy, the unconscious mind in psychoanalysis, dolls — and practically everything under the heading of ‘gothic’.
The uncanny can be something gruesome or terrible, such as death and corpses, live burial, the return of the dead. However, it can also be something strangely beautiful. It can excite our curiosity, but at the same time be frightening. It is the irresistible seduction of mystery. It comes in the uncertainties of silence, solitude and darkness. The uncanny has to do with the sense of a secret encounter, it is highly personal and not usually something felt with others. It is perhaps inseparable from an apprehension, however fleeting, of something that should have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.
While experience of the uncanny is brought about by outside stimulus, it is not an independent entity. It lives in our sensory perception — filtered through personal experience, and therefore impossible to document with impartial empiricism. The uncanny has to do with a strangeness of framing and borders, unstable definitions of reality and the experience of liminality.
Why do stories, images and experiences of the uncanny attract rather than repel some people? Are these people perhaps searching for answers to some very personal philosophical questions when they do not feel their answers lie elsewhere? The drive towards, and not away, that which sparks feelings of uncertainty and unease is perhaps driven by a quest for knowledge; or a need to feel the ‘secular sublime’ for those who do not classify themselves as adhering to any particular religious dogma. Ernst Jentsch suggests, “the feeling of uncertainty not infrequently makes its presence felt of its own accord in those who are more intellectually discriminating when they perceive daily phenomena, and it may well represent an important factor in the origin of the drive to knowledge and research”.
Study of the uncanny is relatively new, and there are no explicit theoretical explorations of it before the twentieth century. Concepts surrounding the uncanny are constantly oscillating. It is difficult, therefore, to catalogue with an assurance of comprehensiveness within the field, or consensus amongst theorists, everything included under the umbrella of the term. As professor Nicholas Royle points outs in his study on the subject, “everyone’s relation with the uncanny is in some sense their own and no one else’s”.
German philosopher Friedrich Schelling first introduced the uncanny as a term in 1835. However, it was not officially acknowledged as school of thought until it was later expanded upon by the German psychologist Ernst Jentsch in 1906. Even thought Jentsch wrote about it first, it is Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay ‘Unheimlich’, or ‘The Uncanny’, that is credited with being the seminal study on the subject.
Freud defined the feeling of the uncanny as the, shiver of realizing that modern reason has merely repressed, rather than replaced, primitive superstition. All supposedly educated people have ceased to believe ‘officially’ that the dead can become visible spirits, yet Freud suspected that, at times, almost all of us think as primitive cultures did on this topic. This return to pre-modern beliefs was itself the product of thinking of human subjectivity as a history of developmental layers that could be stripped away in an instant of dread, returning us to a ‘savage’ state.
Many people experience an uncanny feeling in anything relating to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts. The uncanny thrives within questions, and no other question has plagued us through ages more persistently than to wonder, “what happens when we die?"
Haunting is an important component of the uncanny, yet it is always the question rather than the answer that is key to the definition. In studies of hauntings, spatialization has been the classic starting point. In haunted houses and haunted castles: ghosts are almost always locked into buildings and ancient sites. Ruins have traditionally been thought of as uncanny, haunted places. As well as simply being the traces of the buildings in which people long since dead once lived, ruins have themselves often been figured as skeletons, corpses or ghosts. The sight of a ghost is necessarily spatial. Indeed, the idea of a haunted place depends upon the very materiality of a ghost assuming a habitual routine in place. As scholar of the uncanny Dylan Trigg observes, “a placeless ghost is, after all, as inconceivable as a placeless memory; the shadow in the hallway does not linger aimlessly, but dwells in a specific place, indeed, if not even in specific things within that place. The sense, therefore, of a presence intensifying and diminishing in proximity to particular things is entirely consistent with the idea of the ghost as retaining a phantom relationship to the same world it did when alive”. 
While most people don’t relish the thought of snapping awake at 3am to hear something ghoulish banging about in the basement, when removed slightly from our immediate experience, this fear isn’t entirely unpleasant. In popular culture we find evidence of people running towards these feelings with dark glee. Simply look at the prevalence of horror films. Even when we know very well that we are being fooled by merely harmless illusions, many people cannot suppress an extremely uncomfortable feeling when watching these films. In life, we usually do not like to put ourselves in danger or expose ourselves to fear. However, in the cinema or theatre, or while reading, we gladly immerse ourselves in these emotional worlds: we experience certain powerful excitements which awake in us a strong feeling for life, with complete impunity and without having to accept the consequences of the causes of these unpleasant feelings.
The uncanny can be composed of things widely considered gruesome or terrible, but there is an element of curiosity that tempers our horror. The uncanny hints at a promise of answers that saves uncanny images and themes from being simply horrific — something that hints to unveiling an elemental truth, which excites us to lean in closer. That is what makes the uncanny attractive, yet at the same time frightening. There is an aspect of not being able to help yourself, the curiosity and intrigue is at equal war with your fear. This is also what separates the uncanny from the strictly melancholic. Excitement in the face of mystery, and attraction to the not-instantly-knowable, speaks to a creative engagement with one’s environment, not an introversion. There is an active curiosity that drives engagement with the darkness. Within the darkness there are more questions than answers; but the questions are why we like coming here, aren’t they?
- Frederick Simpson Coburn, 1899
- Sigmund Freud
- ‘The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel’, Louis Daguerre, 1824
- Photo by: Ella Guru, Abney Park Cemetery, 1987
- Jentsch, Ernst, On the Psychology of the Uncanny, 1906. Essay. p4
- Royle, Nicholas, The Uncanny, (Manchester: Manchester University Press), 2003. Book. P26
- Freud, Sigmund, The Uncanny, 1919. Essay.
- Trigg, Dylan, The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, (Athens: Ohio University Press) 2012. Book. p294