The Uncanny is an essay written by Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) that is important to Gothic Fiction, in that it tries to explain some of the mechanics behind the phenomenon of The Uncanny - in other words, the mechanics of Gothic fiction. The Uncanny is one of the two theories around Gothic fiction - the other being Edmund Burke's Sublime.
To be able to understand The Uncanny, we have to understand Freud's background
and motivation for writing the essay.
Freud's background was in the field of medicine - more specifically, in the fields of biology, physiology and the study of the nervous system. He became one of his times' greatest experts on neuroanatomy and neuropathology. From this, he started to treat non-physical illnesses, at first through hypnotism, then through free association and conversations. Developments of the latter are what grew into what we today know as psychoanalysis. Through his work with psychology, Freud formulated the theory that (in short) meant that hysteria (obsessive and irrational behaviour) was an effect of repressed psychologically painful experiences.
From this, Freud built up his Id / Ego / Superego theory. This theory is deeply rooted in the theory that the unconscious mind is built up around two things: Desires and wishes.
Freud's essay is closely related to these theories, in that it tries to describe the fears felt through appreciation of Gothic fictions by means of the uncanny.
The word Uncanny
Uncanny is an English word translated from "Unheimlich". This German word is difficult to translate, as it carries different connotations than uncanny, or indeed any other word in the English language does.
According to Freud, Unheimlich is a word that negates the word "Heimlich", meaning "homely" or "of home". However, the word also carries connotations to safety, comfort and privacy.
The unheimlich (or "our" use of the word Uncanny), then, is the opposite of these things - unfamiliar, uncomfortable and unsafe. But it also carries an air of breach of secrecy. It is uncertain to what degree the german word "geheim" (secret) is connected with the "heimlich", but in connection with the Gothic, the breach of secrets is significant. Or as Mr. Schelling phrases it: the Uncanny is "what ought to have remained secret and hidden, but has come to light."
The Uncanny is related to the unknown and the "things to be feared" in our everyday society. In the connection with gothic fictions. Literary devices and themes used to provoke the uncanny can be:
If you look at the list above, you notice that the uncanny has a particular feature: many of the literary devices play on the fears of the reader, rather than working on their own: The ambiguity in gothic fiction is often designed in such a way that the fears evident in the stories can be interpreted in many different ways. If one reader is afraid of one particular thing, chances are that the reader will interpret the ambiguous danger to such an extent that it scares themselves. According to Freud, this is exactly what is going on with the Uncanny: "It may be true that the uncanny is something which is secretly familiar (heimlich-heimisch), which has undergone repression and then returned from it, and that everything that is uncanny fulfils this condition."
Another characteristic of the uncanny is that situations characterised as Uncanny might be "normal" in different circumstances: "Apparent death and the re-animation of the dead have been represented as most uncanny themes. But things of this sort too are very common in fairy stories. Who would be so bold as to call it uncanny, for instance, when Snow White opens her eyes once more?" and "it is in the highest degree uncanny when an inanimate object - a picture or a doll - comes to life; nevertheless in Hans Andersen's stories the household utensils, furniture and tin soldiers are alive, yet nothing could well be more remote from the uncanny."
"It is evident therefore," Freud argues, "that we must be prepared to admit that there are other elements besides those which we have so far laid down as determining the production of uncanny feelings."
Freud wonders if perhaps the divide between the uncanny and the "normal" might be the otherwise normality of the situation. I.e we don't bat an eye when Donald Duck speaks fluent English, but if a real duck on television (or, even worse, in real life) speaks, it is an uncanny experience. On the other hand, as explored in the movie Babe (the one with the talking pig), there are also situations where talking animals are not uncanny.
Freud argues, then, that the base of an uncanny experience is the world in which the story is set. Danger of the uncanny is evident soon as "the writer pretends to move in the world of common reality. In this case he accepts as well all the conditions operating to produce uncanny feelings in real life; and everything that would have an uncanny effect in reality has it in his story."