Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U is for . . .



The Uncanny (or Das Unheimlich in German), according to Freud, is “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” Its a complicated psychological concept, but lets oversimplify.

Its a peculiar category of horror: the strangely familiar or the familiarly strange. 

If, lets say, your chauffeur dies, the next day he rings your doorbell, and you open the door to find him there, smiling—that would be uncanny. Similarly, if something about your new lover compels your belief that you’ve somehow known her before, but you have no conscious memory of her, that too would be uncanny.

You can probably think of dozens of novels and movies that deal with the uncanny. Burnt Offerings with Karen Black & Bette Davis, the Hitchcock classic Vertigo, and virtually anything directed by Ingmar Bergman are good examples. Zombies and vampires are uncanny manifestations. So are dolls or toy clowns that come to life. And the man with no features . . . who follows you everywhere . . . .


I had an uncanny experience when I was in college. It didnt involve zombies or evil dolls, but for a few minutes I thought I'd stepped into the middle of The Twilight Zone.

Showing up at what I thought was the appointed time and place for my mythology final, I took a seat and looked around. I didn't recognize any of the students there. So I re-checked the exam schedule, which seemed to confirm that I was in the right place at the right time.
Not convinced, I asked the boy in the seat in front of me what exam he was there to take. When he said Econ, I panicked. “Are you sure?” 
He was sure. And I was creeped out. What was happening? Was I going crazy? The schedule must have changed . . . but why was I the only one who didn’t know about it? I rose to leave, unsure of where to go or what to do.

On my way out, I had to climb three steps from the auditorium to the hallway. 

Wait a minute! I’d never noticed those steps before. And that’s when I figured it out. 

For mythology class I’d always entered the building at the front on the ground floor and gone to the auditorium on the right end of the building. On the morning of the exam, I’d parked behind the building, entered on the ground floor at the back, and gone left to the auditorium.

But . . . the ground floor in the back of the building was the basement! The auditorium I’d taken my seat in was directly beneath the auditorium where my exam was scheduled to take placewas, in fact, taking place. 

I ran upstairs to an auditorium that looked exactly like the one downstairs. Except for the three steps to the hallway.


And the little gold numbers above the doors, which I’d paid no attention to because I already *knew* I was in the right place. It was a case of the familiarly strange.

How about you? Have you had an uncanny experience? Have you written or do you intend to write a story or novel that deals with the uncanny?


  1. I even just love the word uncanny...it says so much with so little!

  2. This is scary stuff, Muse, especially that weird doll. Also, the mention of Bergman and being chased by faceless people. Strange . . .

  3. Growing up as a missionary kid, I've experienced a few "uncanny" things in my life. Didn't realize my life experiences were weird until we moved back to the US and no one believed the stories I told. Now I write the stories in books and everyone is amazed - now that's uncanny to me.

    Great word!

  4. Spooky, yet fascinating post. There are a few nightmares I've had where I WISHED my pursuers were faceless.

  5. My husband and I have had several experiences that fall under the realm of uncanny and unexplained since the kids died. I can relate!

  6. I have experienced the spooky moment, and the serendipitous event, but nothing I'd call uncanny. The concept makes for a great novel though...like something from Stephen King.