In David Cronenberg’s science fiction classic Videodrome, James Woods plays Max Wren, a television producer who discovers a program that consists of nothing but violence and torture. While searching for information about the show and its creators, Wren encounters Professor Brian O’blivion, a dead media pundit who continues to communicate via video recordings made prior to his death. During one memorable scene, Max appears to become bored while watching a video of O’blivion rambling on about the future of the video medium. However, just as Max seems like he is about to lose interest entirely, things take a dramatic turn as Dr. O’blivion’s tone completely changes, and he starts to address Max directly “as if in real time, no longer an archived recording.”1 From hereon out, plot points and images only proceed to become progressively stranger, but it is this original moment, when the videotaped image of Professor O’blivion first “comes to life,” that can only truly be described as uncanny.
Although the uncanny is most often associated with Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay of the same name, German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch actually coined the term thirteen years earlier in his work, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny,” which Freud cites extensively. In order to attain the “essence” of the word, Jentsch suggests that it is better not to attempt a definition, but rather to investigate “how the psychical conditions must be constituted so that the ‘uncanny’ sensation emerges.”2 He observes that since the traditional and the time-honored are typically prized as being personal and familiar, people often “incorporate the new and the unusual with mistrust, unease and even hostility”3; the brain can be “reluctant to overcome the resistances that oppose the assimilation of the phenomenon in question into its proper place.”4 A correlation begins to emerge between “new/foreign/hostile” and “old/known/familiar,”5 and it is this association that gives rise to the feelings of uncertainty that are associated with the uncanny.
Jentsch is especially concerned with artificial representations of reality and the human form, stating that “true art” is wise to “avoid the absolute and complete imitation of nature and living beings,” and that “imitation can easily produce uneasiness.”6 In his discussion of automatons, Jentsch also notes man’s inclination “in a kind of naïve analogy with his own animatedness, to assume that things in the natural world are also animate or, perhaps more correctly, are animate in the same way.”7 In addition to this propensity, the observance of a person who is physically or mentally handicapped, can also give rise to uncanny emotions. These occurrences illustrate that “not everything in the human psyche is of transcendental origins, and that much that is still elementary is still present within it even for our direct perception.”8 They serve to highlight the mechanical nature of basic human functioning.
Like Jentsch, Freud identifies the uncanny as “that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.”9 In an attempt to uncover how exactly “the familiar can become uncanny and frightening,” he begins by an examination of the word’s “linguistic use.”10 As with the English, the German word for uncanny, “unheimlich,” is a misnomer, roughly translating to the “opposite of what is familiar.”11 Due to this verbatim definition of the word, “we are tempted to conclude that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar,” but this is not the case.12 Upon further exploration into the history of “unheimlich”, Freud discovers that “among its different shades of meaning,” the words root “exhibits one which is identical with its opposite.”13 On the one hand, “heimlich,” refers to “what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight.”14 In the footnote for this last statement, Freud also points out that according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a similar occurrence can be noted with the English word canny, “which may mean not only ‘cosy’ but also ‘endowed with occult or magical powers.’”15 As with “heimlich” and “unheimlich,” uncanny is “in some way or other a sub-species” of canny.16
The theme of the familiar giving rise to the unfamiliar again becomes relevant when Freud endeavors to prove that the uncanny is a function of the unconscious. Initially Freud refers to the work of his disciple Otto Rank on the notion of the “‘double’” and its connection “with the belief in the soul and with the fear of death.”17 Rank says that this relationship springs from the original function of the “‘double’” as “an insurance against the destruction of the ego,” as well as “an ‘energetic denial of the power of death.’”18 According to Freud, the desire for self-preservation is a product of self-love that in turn comes “from the primary narcissism which dominates the mind of the child and of primitive man.”19 However, upon passing through these early stages of development, the “’double’” goes from “having been an assurance of immortality,” to an “uncanny harbinger of death.”20 This reversal of meaning originates in the development of the super-ego, which also plays a role in the association of the uncanny with repetition. The “’compulsion to repeat’” which “is very clearly expressed in the impulses of small children” is still recognizable as a primitive drive of the unconscious.21 As with many of man’s natural instincts, this urge is inhibited by societal conventions and consequently, “whatever reminds us of this inner ‘compulsion to repeat’ is perceived as uncanny.”22
Both Freud and Jentsch mention that the uncanny functions differently in artistic works than in everyday life. For Jentsch, this difference is related to art’s ability to invoke sensations that “awake in us a strong feeling for life, without having to accept the consequences of the causes of the unpleasant moods.”23 He refers to E. T. A. Hoffman as a writer who succeeds in producing uncanny effects by leaving “the reader in uncertainty as to whether he has a human person or rather an automaton before him in the case of a particular character.”24 Hoffman’s “The Sandman” is regarded by Jentsch as an especially uncanny tale, in which the central character, Nathanial, falls in love with an automaton named Olympia. Freud concurs that this is an uncanny instance, but he argues that “the eponymous figure of the Sandman, a mythical being who tears out children’s eyes, is the primary source of the feeling of uncanniness aroused in the reader.”25 Similarly, Freud regards Olympia as uncanny not solely because she is an automaton with particularly lifelike features, but because she is a “living doll, and as such she confirms a surmounted belief that is common among children, namely that their dolls can come to life.”26
In addition to the work of E. T. A. Hoffman, the uncanny is used as a literary device throughout numerous horror stories and Gothic novels, with the haunted house in particular serving as “an especially favored site for uncanny disturbances.”27 Anthony Vidler associates this trope with the translation of “unheimlich” as “un-homely,” which in turn relates to the notion of an architectural uncanny. In terms of the haunted house, the perception of the home “as the last and most intimate shelter of private comfort” is made uncanny by the threat of malicious spirits.”28 Subsequently, Vidler’s discussion of the home as an internal refuge relates to Rank’s theory regarding the origin of the double and its initial role as a safeguard against death; the suggestion that a home can also become a skeleton serves as a reminder of man’s physicality rather than its intended source of a consolation.29 The idea of a technological uncanny is similarly rooted in the overwhelming presence of machines in modern society and their ability to “extend and amplify our presence in the natural world” while dually sustaining and reinforcing our physical bodies.30 Within this concept, the “uncanny cyborg” acts as a reminder of the mechanical principals that govern the human body and consequently, it has come to represent a “lasting cultural anxiety surrounding the birth of the machine and the machinic function in society.”31 The perception of a shared, cultural uncanny that is contrary to the individual’s experience of the uncanny, is also fundamental in Bill Brown’s conception of an American, “national uncanny.”32
So what exactly is it about the initial Videodrome episode that makes it so uncanny? In his book, What do Pictures Want, W. J. T. Mitchell references the idea of media coming to life in his discussion of “‘living images,’” specifically, the ancient desire to create “a replica or copy that is not merely a mechanical duplicate but an organic, biologically viable simulacrum of a living organism.33 As Mitchell observes, the long-standing renunciation of this notion as purely fantastical was turned upside down by the icon of Dolly the cloned sheep, which, seemed to prove that “living things themselves were always already images in one form or another.”34 Like the televised image of Dr. Brian O’blivion that suddenly comes to life in his direct address to Max Wren, this seemingly false and clichéd idea immediately took on a new character in “a classic instance of what Freud called the Uncanny, the moment when the most ordinary of disavowed superstition (monsters in the closet, toys coming alive) come back as undeniable truths.”35 However frightening as the notion of the clone doppelganger may have been, prior to Dolly, the concept merely existed as a property of the human imagination. Now, the undeniable possibility of the clone exists in an uncanny reality that is again, thanks to this very same faculty of man.
In German Philosopher Martin Heidegger’s seminal work in the study of ontology, Being and Time, he posits that human beings are characterized by “inauthenticity.”36 This “inauthenticity” results from our innate existence as a “scene of possibility,” which in turn “burdens [us] with responsibility and uncertainty.”37 Hence, when the uncanny causes us to feel anxious, it is resulting from the fact that by our very nature, “we have a perpetual motive to flee from ourselves.”38 The prospect that the mediums, which we conceive and utilize, also control “the scale and form of human association and interaction” is a by product of man’s limitless possibility.39 However, the “self-amputation,” that accompanies the extension of ourselves in a given media also “forbids self-recognition.”40 Thus, a medium becomes uncanny not when it “comes to life,” but when it becomes apparent that it was alive all along. All media are potentially uncanny and, as Mitchell reflects, we may some day be forced to consider the possibility that behind it all there exists only “‘ourselves,’ and our obscure objects of desire.”41
1. W.J.T. Mitchell, What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 218.
2. Ernst Jentsch, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” (1906), trans. Roy Sellars, Angelaki 2, no. 1 (1995): 7-16, 8.
5. Ibid., 9.
6. Ibid., 12.
7. Ibid., 13.
8. Ibid., 14.
9. Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. XVII, ed. and trans. James Strachey et al. (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955): 218-252, 220.
13. Ibid., 224.
14. Ibid., 225.
16. Ibid., 226.
17. Ibid., 235.
21. Ibid., 238.
23. Jentsch 12.
24. Ibid., 13.
25. Curtis Bowman, “Heidegger, the Uncanny, and Jacques Tourner’s Horror Films.” Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror, ed. Steven Jay Schneider and Daniel Shaw (Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003): 65-83, 68.
27. Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 1992), 17.
29. Ibid., 20.
30. Bruce Grenville, “Preface.” The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, ed. Bruce Grenville (Vancouver, B.C., Canada: the Vancouver art Gallery and Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001): 9-12. 9.
31. Bruce Grenville, “The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture.” The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, ed. Bruce Grenville (Vancouver, B.C., Canada: the Vancouver art Gallery and Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001): 13-48, 13.
32. Bill Brown “Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny,” Critical Inquiry 32, no. 2 (Jan. 2006): 175-207.
33. Mitchell 13.
36. Bowman 72.
39. Marshall Mcluhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 1994), 9.
40. Ibid., 43.
41. Mitchell 221.
Bowman, Curtis “Heidegger, the Uncanny, and Jacques Tourner’s Horror Films.” Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror. ed. Steven Jay Schneider and Daniel Shaw. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003, 65-83.
Brown, Bill. “Reification, Reanimation, and the American Uncanny,” Critical Inquiry 32.2 (Jan. 2006): 175-207.
Freud, Sigmund “The Uncanny,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, XVII. ed. and trans. James Strachey et al. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955, 218-252.
Grenville, Bruce “Preface.” The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture. ed. Bruce Grenville. Vancouver, B.C., Canada: the Vancouver art Gallery and Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001, 9-12
—. “The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture.” The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture. ed. Bruce Grenville. Vancouver, B.C., Canada: the Vancouver art Gallery and Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001, 13.-48.
Jentsch, Ernst “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” (1906). trans. Roy Sellars, Angelaki 2.1 (1995) : 7-16, 8.
Mcluhan, Marshall Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 1994.
Mithcell, W.J. T. What do Pictures Want? Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Vidler, Anthony The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 1992.