‘Uncanny’: Some Thoughts on a Haunted Word


I came across this marvelous discussion of the word “uncanny” in the Introduction to The Uncanny Reader, ed. Marjorie Sandor, and wanted to share it with you.

See the complete Table of Contents for this anthology, here:


The most effective horror stories will pay homage to these “Freudian” ideas…


‘Old and homely and volatile, this word. Old Scots/Northern English, it’s been traced as far back as 1593. In its simplest current usage, you’ll find such slim definitions as “seemingly supernatural” and “mysterious”. But then again, seemingly. Already a door has opened. Something is uncertain. We have stepped over the threshold into a haunted word, a way of perceiving, a way of saying. In fact, if you look back to its origins, you discover that the word “canny”—-Scots-Gaelic for “cunning” and “knowledge”—-also meant, very early on, “supernaturally wise”. You might say that from the get-go “canny” had a shadow self, a doppelgänger waiting to emerge.

By the late eighteenth century, the word “uncannie” can be found burrowing into stories and poems with homely force. Read the “Country Dreams and Apparitions” of Scots writer James Hogg or the poems of Robert Fergusson and you’ll find it there, a small lantern light held over someone—-or something—-close to home but not home-like: a shepherd with the second-sight, or two little children whispering about murder at bedtime. In some of these stories, the word hovers close to the exposure of a suppressed crime or socially taboo act within the intimate confines of family or village.

Over the course of the nineteenth century the uncanny migrates from rural to urban, from village and glen to the crowded cities with their factories, their soot-blackened tenements and jails. The railroad and its stations, its signal booths and waiting rooms. We’re already moving faster and faster, and as we do we bury our old buildings and their histories under new ones. We replace our old rituals, our language itself. We forget who we were. But something remembers. Something wants to speak from beneath the rubble.

The modern experience of alienation has come of age, and throughout the nineteenth century artists and thinkers—-Karl Marx and Friederich Nietzche among them—-begin to reflect on it, to explore its sources, its peculiar traits and expressions, its possible consequences. Think—-in the world of fiction—-of Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, in which a story of “general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain” is offered up as a country-fireside Christmas tale. The story has been locked in a desk drawer in London for 20 years. It must be sent away for and unwrapped—-the story we hear has been “transcribed” from the original which was written in “the beautiful hand” of a woman long dead. Most disturbing of all, the gathered audience rubs its collective hands at the prospect of a tale of two children—-not merely one—-being the victims of a haunting. It has “the utmost price”. We want the story, and we will pay for it. But it is not ours, we tell ourselves. Our hands are clean.

It was Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay “Das Unheimliche”, translated into English as “The Uncanny”, that revealed the word’s capacity to speak to what unsettles now. (It’s hard these days to find a place where the word hasn’t found a home. Nicholas Royle, in his 2003 study, “The Uncanny”, finds it “transforming the the concerns of art, literature, film, psychoanalysis, philosophy, science and technology, religion, history, politics, economics, autobiography, and teaching.”)

When Freud wrote his essay, he was following up on the work of another German psychologist, Ernst Jentsch, who’s short essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” is well worth reading. But the Freud essay, driven by an impulse to be exhaustive, is a carnival ride of weirdness. Among other things, he gets drawn into the sticky web of the German word “heimlich”, which is just as capacious and unstable as “canny”. For our purposes here, it’s enough to note that like the old Scots word “canny”, the word “heimlich” contained, among its early synonyms, not only “belonging to the house,” but also “private,” “secret,” and “concealed.”

Is it any wonder that the concept of the uncanny, emerging from a pair of words with such complex histories, would infuse the literature of the 20th and 21st centuries? If ambiguity and uncertainty live in the very root of the word—-a word that itself touches on all that we think most safe and familiar—-then there’s no end to its linguistic and dramatic potential, its capacity to reflect us and our times. As Royle declares, “the uncanny is a ‘province’ still before us, awaiting our examination.”

Here are a handful of the experiences Freud catalogued as capable to causing the sensation of the uncanny. I include them, in a roughly paraphrased improvisation, here at the threshold of this cabinet of curiosities, to suggest just how tricky—-how full of nooks and crannies and trapdoors—-the uncanny-in-fiction really is. It’s just a bare glimpse but might give you a sense of the full and glorious range of possibilities for uncanny effects, whether in a story by Ambrose Bierce or Franz Kafka or any of the contemporary writers [of the uncanny]….

When something that should have remained hidden has come out into the open.

When we feel as if something primitive has occurred in a modern and secular context.

When we feel uncertainty as to whether we have encountered a human or an automaton.

When something familiar happens in an unfamiliar context.

Conversely, when something strange happens in a familiar context.

When we find ourselves noticing a repitition—-such as the number 17 appearing three times in one day, in different contexts. Or when we catch ourselves involuntarily repeating a word.

When we see someone who looks like us.

When we feel as if there is a foreign body inside our own. When we become foreign to ourselves.

…the marvelous thing about [Freud’s] essay is that for a good stretch of it he turned to a piece if fiction as a base from which to explore what was, in his day, a neglected corner of psychology. He sounds a bit wistful…as he remarks “The uncanny that we that we find in fiction—-in creative writing, imaginative literature—-actually deserves to be considered separately. It is above all much richer than what much richer than what we know from experience….In a sense, then, [the fiction writer] betrays us to a superstition we thought we had ‘surmounted’; he tricks us by promising us everyday reality and then going beyond it. We react to his fictions as if they had been our own experiences.”‘

– Marjorie Sandor

(Introduction, The Uncanny Reader, Stories from the Shadows,ed. Marjorie Sandor, St. Martin’s Press, 2015)

Read Freud’s 1919 essay “The Uncanny” here..



One response to “‘Uncanny’: Some Thoughts on a Haunted Word

  1. Good stuff herein. The other day there were three separate instances of the color blue. I thought that was uncanny.


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