You begin to feel the hair on the back of your neck standing up… Goosebumps are rising on your arms…. You feel a shudder of horror, but you can’t completely explain why. Something very creepy is going on. Chances are, you are in the presence of the uncanny.
As with similar words that have both a philosophical and a vernacular meaning (such as “sublime,” “absurd,” “aesthetic,” “platonic,” “ego,” “romantic” ) we often toss around the word “uncanny” loosely, referring, for example, to an “uncanny co-incidence,” or “an uncanny similarity,” an “uncanny ability” or an “uncanny resemblance.” In this course, however, it is very important the remember that we will be not using the term loosely, as it is used in popular conversation, but we will use it in its original meaning, as it was defined by Sigmund Freud. Freud’s explanation is complex, and the length of a short book, which is the main required text for this course. In short, he defined the uncanny as the feeling evoked by being in the presence of something simultaneously familiar and strange, though as with all Freud’s work, the explanation is rather more detailed and complex that this short summary suggests.
In this course, we will treat the experience of the uncanny as a resource for writing, a springboard for creativity, and a catalyst for discussion. We will challenge ourselves to find examples of the uncanny in literature, film, art, and the popular culture that surrounds us every day. We will engage with the uncanny across a wide range of texts and contexts, drawing our inspiration from the examples provided by Freud: animism, magic, repetition, doubles, odd coincidences, telepathy, death and rebirth.
Required Text: Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” London, Penguin Classics, 2003.
Translated by David McClintock. Introduction by Hugh Haughton. If you buy the book, please get hold of this edition, as we will be also reading the Introduction and discussing extracts on particular pages. Used copies can be found on Amazon for $4.00.
Week One: Introduction to the Course
In English, “uncanny” is the negation of “canny” (“capable, clever,” related to “cunning,” “ken”). To be “canny” is to be good at dealing with things; the “uncanny” is that with which we cannot reckon. The German equivalent of “uncanny” is stranger and more telling. “Unheimlich” is the negation of “heimlich,” and “heimlich” is “home-like.” “Heimlich” mostly means homelike, comforting, at ease—but it can also mean private, even secret. By extension, it comes to mean “secretive,” suspicious, dangerous, even haunted—in fact, “uncanny.” “Unheimlich” thus means: the un-home, but also the un-secret, the un-hidden. And so “The uncanny is that which ought to have remained secret but has come to light.”
The Uncanny (Definition) Lecture Notes
Discuss Haughton’s Introduction to the Penguin Edition. Introduction Part 2.
Week Two: E.T.A. Hoffmann, “The Sandman.”
For this week, read: Freud, The Uncanny part 1 (p123-134); E.T.A. Hoffmann, “The Sandman” (1816) (pdf). Class viewing: Rich Ragsdale, “The Sandman” (2007) Stop motion “Sandman” by Dangerous Puppets (2014); Tales of Hoffmann, Offenbach, “Doll Song” sung by Edita Gruberova, 1993. The Chordettes, “Mr. Sandman.“
Week Three: The Two Principles of Magic
Sympathetic and Contagious Magic
J.G. Frazer, “King of the Wood,” Chapter 3 of The Golden Bough (1890)
Week Four: Dolls, Dummies, Puppets & Dwarfs
Dolls, dummies, puppets & dwarfs are all examples of the homunculus, or “little human.” Like humans, but not quite, they share aspects of our familiar world but inhabiting another, teasing our imaginations to enter the unfamiliar. Not all dolls or puppets share the uncanny; you’ll know the difference when you see it. Class texts: Victoria Nelson, “The New Idols,” From The Secret Lives of Puppets, (Harvard, 2002, pp 60-67); Gounod (1818-1893), “Funeral March of a Marionette‘: Puppet Court from I Am Suzanne (1934); Ventriloquist Dummy Sequence, from Dead of Night (1945); Anthony Hopkins in Magic (1978); Terrifying Ventriloquists’ Dummies.
For this week, read: “The New Idols”, from Victoria Nelson, The Secret Lives of Puppets, Harvard University Press, 2001 (p60-66); Steve Speer, For Fear of Little Men, from Adam Parfrey, ed., Apocalypse Culture II, LA: Feral House, 1987.
Week Five: Movie Screening, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir, 1975.
Review and analysis by David Buckingham
Week Six: Uncanny Places
What makes a place uncanny? Different places affect people in different ways. We don’t all feel the same way about particular places. What kind of place is uncanny to you? Typically, these are abandoned hospitals, asylums, factories, amusement parks, ghost towns and so on. But they can be more banal and small scale than that. For example, here are five examples of uncanny rooms I found in a real estate blog. What makes them uncanny? Room one; room two; room three; room four; room five. ALSO: Death Sites, “Sedlec Ossuary,” Jan Svanjmajer (1970); Crypt of the Capuchins (Music: Camille Saint-Saens, “Danse Macabre”). For this week, read: Anthony Vidler, “The Architecture of the Uncanny: The Unhomely Houses of the Romantic Sublime,” Assemblage 3., July 1987, pp 6-29. Monoliths and Megaliths. Callanish. Worship of Pan. More Pan.
Week Six: Doubling, Repetition, and (data) Doppelgangers
Of the themes of the uncanny, Freud says: “These themes are all concerned with the idea of a “double” in every shape and degree, with persons, therefore, who are to be considered identical by reason of looking alike; Hoffman accentuates this relation by transferring mental processes from the one person to the other—what we should call telepathy—in other words, by doubling, dividing and interchanging the self. And finally there is the constant recurrence of similar situations, a same face, of character-trait, or twist of fortune, or a same crime, of even a same name recurring throughout several consecutive generations.” For this week, read: Truman Capote, “Miriam” (1945). Also Sara M. Watson, “Data Doppelgangers and the Uncanny Valley of Personalization.”
Week Seven: Creeping Things / Alligators and Crocodiles
“Every Creeping Thing.” Brottman (pdf)
Read: Patricia Highsmith – The Quest for Blank Claveringi. (1970)
Patricia Highsmith, The Snail Watcher (1970)
Ron Giblett, “Alligators Crocodiles and the Monstrous Uncanny” (pdf)
L.G. Moberly, “Inexplicable” (1917)
Week Ten: Uncanny Audio: The Sound of Jupiter, Numbers Stations, etc.
Past Student Projects