Friday’s Essay – The Uncanny

I am taking a first-year English class.  Yes, it’s true, I have a Master’s degree in History, but I never took English in university.  There was a language requirement which I fulfilled with a French Literature course.  Anyway, I’m taking this English class and while it is a survey course (Reading Culture) it has as it’s focus ‘Monsters and Monstrosities’.  I chose to take it to help me with my werewolf novel.  I anticipate writing my final essay on werewolves and the werewolf in 20th century pop culture, however in the meantime I have some other assignments I must work on.  The first was to write an extended definition of a term we have or will encounter in class – monster, monstrosity, grotesque or uncanny.  I chose ‘the uncanny’, mostly because I had just finished reading Freud’s 1919 essay called ‘The Uncanny’, so it seemed the simplest tack to take.  In any event, it was a fun little piece to write – difficult too because it had to be quite short.  I especially enjoyed the fact that I got to bring in one of my favourite scenes from one of my favourite films.  Also, this has made coming up with a blog post for this week much easier!  I hope you have fun with this – do watch ‘Suspicion’ if you’re interested.  I will warn you, however, some people find the ending a little disappointing.  (The YouTube video has a bit of Spanish overdub at the very end of the scene, but that isn’t really the important part.)


The uncanny is that thrill of fear or unease one feels upon finding something odd, off-putting or creepy in something familiar or mundane.  According to the full Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online ‘uncanny’ refers to “[p]artaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar.”  The OED indicates that this meaning has only been common since the middle of the nineteenth century.  The Oxford Concise English Dictionary describes the word as coming from the Scots and Northern English word ‘canny’ which means ‘agreeable’ or ‘pleasant’, therefore something ‘uncanny’ is something unpleasant or disagreeable.   In 1919, Sigmund Freud published a paper entitled The “Uncanny” in which he set out to describe this quality.  Following from a paper by E. Jentsch, which appears to be the first psychological examination of this feeling or quality, Freud gives examples of the uncanny ranging from the unease of realizing one has fallen in love with an automaton to meeting one’s double or Doppelganger.  An important aspect of Freud’s ‘uncanny’ is the element of danger.  Something odd or creepy in something familiar that is then approached with humour, a jolly ghost or a poltergeist in an orange bow-tie for example, does not hold an uncanny quality.   Modern examples of the uncanny abound in the psychological thriller film genre.  Director Alfred Hitchcock was particularly adept at creating this quality in his films.  One scene in particular from the 1941 film “Suspicion” is an especially good example.  Throughout the film the audience is being led to believe that Cary Grant’s character is plotting to murder his wife, played by Joan Fontaine, to collect her inheritance.  In the scene in question the audience watches from the top of a long staircase as Cary Grant walks across the foyer and up the stairs with a glass of milk on a tray.  In and of itself a man carrying a glass of milk on a tray is not frightening in any way.  One might argue that milk is one of the most benign substances on earth; it is the stuff of life.  However, in this scene – filmed in black and white – the man walking across the foyer and up the stairs is in shadow, his face obscured.  What stands out for the audience is the bright white glass of milk glowing on the tray, practically floating slowly and ominously up the stairs.  The familiar substance is made threatening by the unearthly glow it is giving off and the thought put in the audience’s collective mind that the milk has likely been turned into a murder weapon. The scene on the staircase lasts no more than thirty seconds, yet is extremely powerful and very creepy. The quality of the uncanny is often difficult to describe well, yet most people will know when they feel it.  This quality is the foundation of the psychological thriller genre as well as horror and many science-fiction films and stories.