UNCANNY: strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way.


There are people who tend to speak in superlatives all the time.  Things are “extraordinary, absolutely perfect, incredulous.” After a while of listening to these people we tend to discount their evaluations, recognizing that everything is distorted to the magnificent…even the most mundane of items, issues, or people.

One of the words often used to the extreme is uncanny.  Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the phenomenon of  uncanny takes us to a place where we begin to get the sense that this is an expression of emotion which surpasses the reality of the experience.

The subject of the ‘uncanny’ is a province … related to what is frightening — to what arouses dread and horror; equally certainly, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general. Yet we may expect that a special core of feeling is present which justifies the use of a special conceptual term. One is curious to know what this common core is which allows us to distinguish as ‘uncanny'; certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening.” *

So Freud has determined that the uncanny is something that is frightening.   That’s interesting.  It would not have occurred to me to characterize the word in that way. The Scots created the word in the 18th century, and it did connote frightening, or supernatural, so maybe there’s more to it than I imagined.  However, in common parlance in American English, at least, uncanny tends to be used more to connote unexpected, or surprisingly.   One might expect to hear someone say something like:

His musical voice is uncanny for such a young person.”

or maybe,

“I think that it’s uncanny the way she manages her home, her children and her job.”

There is more of a feeling of respect and awe than one of fright.

However, in reviewing the resources for this study, it became clear that over the centuries the word has, indeed, been more of an expression of fear and trepidation at the uncanny (supernatural) characteristics of an event, a subject, or a person.  Again, Freud is reported to have said of the uncanny:

We can only say that what is novel can easily become frightening but not by any means all. Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny.”

Are we afraid of that which is novel or unfamiliar?   Is it possible that in Freud’s era life was seen as more predictable than it is now?   I think about all of the incredible discoveries we have experienced in the last century.

  • My grandmother told me of the first time she saw an airplane fly over her home when she was out hanging laundry in her back yard.
  • In 1969 we watched (on television!) the landing of astronauts on the moon.
  • I’m writing this blog posting on my own computer which I can carry around with me in a briefcase.
  • I can telephone anywhere in the world from a cell phone which I carry in my pocket.
  • We can fly to England in less than 5 hours on a jet plane.
  • Holograms can pop up in a theater in a ghost-like manner.
  • My Prius gets 50 miles to the gallon (even though it costs $3 per gallon!)
  • I can watch a world class soccer/futbal game from Spain in my living room.
  • A veteran’s legs were blown off in a war, but she can walk and run unassisted.
  • A neighbor’s dog can snarl at me from a foot away, only held back by an invisible fence.

Perhaps these were frightening in the sense of not being understood when they first occurred.   But in this day and age we are somewhat used to the phenomenal.  They are not so much attributed to the “supernatural” as they are to human genius.   Oh, there are still ghosts and vampires to excite us and scare us, but even they have been tempered to fall in love and have babies and do fairly decent things from time to time.

It’s an uncanny world we live in.  Still not totally understood, and certainly not yet tempered to be in control all of the time.   But not as frightening as it might have been to Dr. Freud.


Illustration Credit:  Kickstarter.com

*MIT, Rohan, Freud

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