Freud Essay The Uncanny


The “double” is a theme that has quite often been addressed over centuries of time; one of the most iconic being in Sigmund Freud’s essay titled The Uncanny. Freud opens his essay by giving a definition of what “uncanny” is: “belonging to all that is terrible – to all that arouses dread and creeping horror…” (Freud 1). Freud’s definition of the uncanny leads me to an even bigger theoretical question about the idea of the “double” which I will address shortly, but first let us take a closer look at Freud’s idea of the uncanny. In his essay, Freud refers to the German words Heimlich and unheimlich. He uses the two words to first create a barrier between their meanings, but as he continues on the two merge to create a meaning behind what the “uncanny” really is. He describes the barrier between the two as Heimlich meaning familiar, and unheimlich meaning something which is concealed or kept out of sight (Freud 3). This barrier is what then brings the two together to form the “uncanny” – when something unfamiliar gets added to which is familiar.

It is these themes of uncanniness that then allowed for Freud to suggest the idea of the “double”. The “double” which in Freud’s terms appears as a degree of development. The degree of development which Freud refers to in these terms is that of his theory “narcissism of the child” (or self-love). He describes this as being when a child creates multiple projections of himself/herself; which later is overcome and the child develops his/her ego. The “double” comes into play when a person encounters the “narcissism of the child” later on in their adult life causing them to return to that primitive state, therefore causing “uncanny”. This may also be related to Freud’s formation/idea of the super-ego. The super-ego being the repressed projections of the multiple selves or “the double”. This is where my even bigger theoretical question comes into play. The “double” is a theme that is quite often addressed in film/cinema whether that be reflections in mirrors, shadows, spirits, or the infamous doppelganger. This allows for me to pose the even bigger question of: how doubling in film/cinema offer insight into the increasingly narrow threshold between self and perception of the other? By addressing this question, I will then be able to uncover the answer behind my overall question of: why is the idea of the double portrayed as being so frightening in film/cinema and even everyday life?

In a theoretical point of view, when faced with something familiar like yourself there should be no fear, but there is, why? I believe this would have to be because of narcissism of the self. By seeing the double a person is criticizing their self, and becoming aware of their conscience. When the person becomes aware of their conscience they become aware of what the double represents – the unacceptable part of their ego. So the doppelganger/ double usage in film/cinema gives insight to the narrow threshold between self and perception of the other. In terms of self-perception, the “double” is a representation of the opposite of what is perceived by the individual person. It represents the aspects of humanity that we (humans) deny in order to preserve our self-image or the core aspects of what make each person unique. The doppelganger or double is a visual representation of the darker parts of the individual psyche humans deny so that they’re seen by other people in society in a better way, as opposed to who they truly are at their core. Therefore, in film the doppelganger would be represented as a persons’ worst fears visualized into something they’re scared of becoming.

This visualization of the “double” being something that a person fears they will become is portrayed in several films/cinemas. It is a quote from Freud’s The Uncanny which describes how a person first perceives the “double”, causing the uncanny feeling of the “double” to occur; “But, after having thus considered the manifest motivation of the figure of a “double,” we have to admit that none of it helps us to understand the extraordinarily strong feeling of something uncanny that pervades the conception; and our knowledge of pathological mental processes enables us to add that nothing in the content arrived at could account for that impulse towards self- protection which has caused the ego to project such a content outward as something foreign to itself. (Freud 140-141) I believe it is this quote by Freud that answers the “why” part of my overall theoretical question. Reflecting back on Freud’s explanation behind heimlich vs. unheimlich, a person must first be presented with something that is familiar, then bring in the unfamiliar and you are given an uncanny feeling. The self is familiar but when placed in a situation where the self is perceived in an unfamiliar way, then one’s true self can only have an impulse to protect the self. It is the idea that the individual could possibly become that evil entity.




Sigmund's Freud's "The Uncanny" ("Das Unheimliche") was published in 1919 as part of his somewhat dismal account of the modern human condition (the Uncanny was complemented my Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure Principle", published a year later). Freud's notion of the uncanny draws on the lingual origins of the German word "Unheimliche", opposed to "heimlisch" which signifies "homely" in the cozy-intimate sense of the word. Unheimliche, translated as "uncanny" is not exactly the opposite of homely but rather a word that describes a sense of estrangement within the home, the presence of something threatening, tempting and unknown that lies within the bounds of the intimate.

Freud was not the first to tackle the notion of the uncanny, and in fact his article is a response to Earnest Jentsch account on the subject. Both Jentsch and Freud relate to E.T.A. Hoffman's short story The Sandman as an example of the uncanny, though they draw somewhat different conclusions.

At the beginning of "The Uncanny" Freud holds that the uncanny is that type of dread which returns to which is long familiar. The uncanny, in that sense, is something new that exists in something already known. But the uncanny for Freud in not simply something which is unknown that enters our consciousness.  After a long lingual discussion, Freud argues that the notion of Heimlich, "homely", relates to something which is known and comfortable on the one hand and hidden and concealed on the other. The home, for Freud, is a type of secret place, and the unhomely, the uncanny, is something which should have been kept a secret but is revealed. This means that the "canny-homely" and uncanny-unhomley are two opposites that bear each other's meaning. To give a concrete example: the mannequin is an example of something which appears to be familiar as a human figure, but is in fact lifeless and therefore a potential cause of dread as a result of this dissonance of not knowing at first glance whether we are looking at a human or a piece of plastic.

For Freud, if psychoanalysis is correct in holding that an emotional effect of any kind can turn into anxiety by means of repression it follows that there must be types of anxiety that are the result of something repressed that has resurfaced. Such a feeling of anxiety is the uncanny, which is something rediscovered only after repression has rendered it strange and unfamiliar – the uncanny, in other words, is something that should have been kept concealed but is discovered. Freud argues that we experience a sense of uncanny when a certain trigger brings back repressed childhood conflicts or primitive beliefs that we have overcome but suddenly, seemingly, receive renewed affirmation.

Freud's concept of the Uncanny is difficult to understand and even more difficult to explain, the best way to understand Freud's Uncanny is simply to read the short book:

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