5 The Stranger in Our Home

Taylor Brothers; Becky Norton; Jen Stellato; and Molly Ingram

In 1919, famous psychologist Sigmund Freud wrote “The Uncanny,” an essay about a psychoanalytic phenomenon that occurs in many, but is recognized by few. Though the uncanny is difficult to define, Freud explains it best as, “…in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old – established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression” (429). Freud’s claim says the uncanny arises from the unconscious mind when a person is met with something strange, yet inexplicably familiar. Ultimately, Freud wrote “The Uncanny” in an attempt to explain and define the strange and almost dreadful feeling of uncanniness.

Freud begins to explain by analyzing the relationship between the words “heimlich” and “unheimlich.” Heimlich is a German word which means “belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, comfortable, homely, etc.” However, there is a second definition of heimlich which means “[c]oncealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know about it, withheld from others.” This second definition is where heimlich blurs into unheimlich territory, as unheimlich is defined as “uneasy, eerie, blood-curdling….Unheimlich is not often used as opposite to meaning II.” “Meaning II” refers to the second definition of heimlich. Heimlich and unheimlich coexist to a point where one could argue that they are the same thing. The relationship between the seemingly opposite words describes the uncanny: something familiar and homely, yet uneasy and eerie (419-420).

Freud goes on to explain that we are afraid of what is unknown to us; things we do not have the ability to understand and overpower. “The double” is an example of a situation that might trigger uncanniness. The double has to do with “persons, therefore, who are to be considered identical by reason of looking alike,” and people so similar that, “the one possesses knowledge, feeling and experience in common with the other, identifies himself with another person, so that… the foreign self is substituted for his own,” (Freud, 425). Basically, the double is something or someone that is a reflection of an “original” self. The feeling of uncanniness arises when familiar traits, knowledge, and ways of thinking are recognized in the secondary person or thing by the original. The original may feel as though their thoughts and traits are outside of them, therefore being out of their control, which leads to the phenomenon of the familiar, yet strange. When a person becomes aware of “the double,” they become aware of things in their unconscious brain to which they previously did not have access.

Through understanding and recognizing the uncanny, we can learn more about ourselves. If we familiarize ourselves with the strange, yet familiar uncanny, perhaps we can be more comfortable with ourselves. We tend to forget that there are two parts of our minds — the conscious and the unconscious — and we tend to ignore the latter because we simply don’t understand it. By at least acknowledging our unconscious mind, we can aim to learn what makes us tick, and perhaps begin to unlock the parts of our own individual nature that have gone undetected.


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The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Taylor Brothers; Becky Norton; Jen Stellato; and Molly Ingram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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