Monthly Archives: November 2015


     In seminar, the idea of manufacturing a history first came up a few weeks ago — during the discussions on Rousseau. It appeared that Herder was among the first to express ideas for German cultural nationalism; it seemed that this was an example of reconstructing stories and using nostalgia for strategic purposes similar to what Rousseau had done in his second discourse. As the week progressed, the word ‘nostalgia’ seemed less and less appropriate in the German context — especially as ‘Sehnsucht’ was introduced. Although similar to nostalgia in the definition for longing, Sehnsucht seems to refer to more than simply a past setting. Sehnsucht appears to evade accurate translation, it only loosely describes a longing for elsewhere. Often referred to as an insatiable desire, the construction of a cultural identity in order to provoke sehnsucht must have been incredibly powerful.

      Knowing how powerful Sehnsucht can be, Professor Lieblang’s warning to not compartmentalize what we learn in Arts 1 and to try and understand the applications and presence of ideas across time becomes much more clear. As he briefly mentioned at the end of his lecture, the role that manufacturing pride played during the rise of Nazi rule is a testament to the re-emergence of ideas and how they can be manipulated to serve different purposes. A tool that was once used to culturally unify a nation could be used as propaganda promoting racial superiority — used carefully, Sehnsucht can be used to accomplish great and terrifying things.

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The Close Call effect in The Earthquake in Chile

One of the many questions The Earthquake in Chile is why Jeronimo decided to spare himself from the earthquake leading up to his suicide. Why would a man in a vehement state of grief deter his suicide when death was “offering itself to him at all times” (11)? The simple answer would be the natural instinct of survival that all humans share, or even animals, overcame his desire to kill himself. Yet this has an obvious paradoxical logic to it, how can one want to die but subsequently want to survive? Nevertheless, there is another reason why Jeronimo chose to survive, which conveniently corresponds to large scale disasters.

While pondering this question I was reminded of a book titled David and Goliath, underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants by Malcolm Gladwell, which focuses one chapter on the London bombings of WWII. The chapter asked why the nazis failed achieve their goal of demoralizing Britain or forcing surrender by bombing London repeatedly for 57 consecutive nights. The book used historical evidence to show that the bombings did not only accentuate national pride, but that many residents of London enjoyed being bombed. This seemingly perverse reaction, Gladwell argues, happens because of his theory of the “close call”, wherein most people enjoy the “challenge” of being hailed with explosives (or other disasters), providing they have a chance of surviving it. In The Earthquake in Chile, the theory of the “close call” helps us understand why Jeronimo didn’t simply let the earthquake kill him. While it isn’t addressed in the novella, one could assume that Jeronimo enjoyed the thrill of escaping from an earthquake, as would many others. Obviously not all disasters are enjoyable, but they can be provided there is a good chance of survival. Gladwell also argues that the “close call” effect is an extension of our natural desire for challenge, even, and especially when it threatens our life.

Ultimately, we can conclude that the human instinct of survival and our tendency to enjoy the thrill of disaster were enough for Jeronimo to overcome wish to die, even at the height of his grief. While most people would never to admit to enjoying the challenge of an earthquake, it is as much of an instinctual desire as our desire for survival.

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Uncanny similarities between “Eckbert” and “The Sandman”

It seems that for the past few weeks, the uncanny has been a recurring theme in both lectures and seminars. “The Sandman” was directly analyzed by Freud for a source of the uncanny, and in turn, the three short stories we’d read this week were questioned for the uncanny as well.

As I read “Fair-haired Eckbert”, I couldn’t help but notice a similarity it had to “The Sandman”: the character of the old woman appearing at different parts of the story, but under false aliases. Similar to how the Sandman disguised himself first as the lawyer Coppelius and then the barometer vendor Coppola, the old woman in “Eckbert” first disguises herself as Walther, Eckbert’s longtime friend, and then as Hugo, a knight whom Eckbert befriends after Bertha’s death.

Reading both stories, I had felt a certain sense of uncanny to both of these mysterious characters. Both had immense power and had shown up in the stories without explanation. They are also the only characters who possesses these magic powers in the story, which makes the readers further question their origins. Not only this, but both are set stories are set in realistic places, as the authors does not take advantage of the settings.

Could the uncanny lie in these facts?

It also fits well with Jentsch’s theory of the uncanny, that it stems from intellectual uncertainty. It also fits with Freud as well, with the idea of repetitiveness (also something he neglected to explore with his own analysis of the Sandman being the motif for the uncanny).

The Sandman and the old woman, both under disguises, set in real life, and appearing suddenly: all of these qualities gives a reader a sense of unease, as if what happened to Eckbert and Nathanael could happen easily in their lives.

It could be argued that this also occurs in Snow White, when the the Queen takes up disguises to visit Snow White in an attempt to kill her; this action happening multiple times. The Queen also has magical powers, but the realistic setting of the story contrasts the existence of such powers. However, with the knowledge that this story is a Grimms Fairytale, the fact that the Queen and her magical powers and talking mirror does not faze us.

So then, Freud would be right about the genre being something that could hinder the feeling of uncanny, but is that truly all it takes to take away that eerie sensation?

The similarities between these stories is something that should be explored, even more so when the question of our uncanny feelings are added.


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Did the Queen Deserve it?: An Examination of the Death of the Queen in the Grimm’s “The Little Snow-White”


The Queen sentenced Snow-white to death because she was deemed the most beautiful in the land by the magic mirror. After the huntsman had failed to do so, the Queen then attempted to kill Snow-white three times. The third attempt was proven successful until the Princes servants “stumbled over a trees-stump, and with the shock the poisonous piece of apple which Snow-white and bitten off came out of her throat” (257), as they were carrying her towards the palace. Snow-white had soon regained consciousness and married the prince. The Queen was then invited to Snow-white’s wedding where she “was forced to put on the red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped down dead” (258). Evidently, the Queen had attempted to murder Snow-white four times for a vain motive but each attempt was a quick death. Assuming that dancing in an burning medieval torture device would take longer than a few minutes.


The torture that Snow-white sentenced the Queen to, proves that she is more evil than the her. The Queen sought relatively painless means of killing, compared to the “red-hot shoes” (258) that she had experienced. Snow-white wanted the Queen to suffer an excruciating painful death, as a punishment of the four attempted murders of her life. However, Snow-white could have avoided coming into contact with the poisonous corset, comb and apple if she simply did not talk to the old woman, a stranger. Especially after her first experience with the corset, Snow-white should have learned to not interact with strangers. If she had learned so, the attempted murders of her life would have remained at one, opposed to escalating to four. Regardless of the threats to her life, the torture device was unnecessarily cruel.


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Freud and Fetishism

When discussing Snow White during the seminar on Thursday, the topic of Freud and his view on fetishism came up. The thought into how the glass coffin represented in Snow White is a form of a fetish instantly related back to Freud and his possible reason behind this. Strange as it is, it sounded quite interesting.

Similarly to what is covered in The Uncanny, the point of having a fetish is a a form of substitution. Freud wrote an essay in 1927 called Fetishism, argues that it is a special form of a penis substitution. In the boys mind, the mother’s lack of a penis is a representation of his own castration fear. (See the similarities between this and castration anxiety?) Therefore, suggesting that the female genitalia is an object of fear and horror. The normal adult male will learn to transform these objects into desires.

The possibility to think that the glass coffin that Snow White was in caused a barrier for the Prince to emotionally connect with her. The inability to touch Snow White could have affected him sexually and psychologically. Imagining the story of the Prince having no maternal figure in his early childhood, the development of the fetish for the ‘girl in the box’ could have been formed by this very scenario. As the fear and horror of castration has never been prominent in the Prince’s life, the paternal figure has been significantly stronger. The deprived young boy of a maternal figure was replaced through the desire of a girl inside a box in order to fill that void. Whether the Prince grew up normal, transforming the fear of the mother’s genitalia (object) into desire, the ability to fall in love with a girl inside a glass coffin has been the only encounter that aroused his sexual desires. This can be seen that the only form of love he has ever received from a female was from the outside, and was never direct. Blocking the Prince from being able to touch, talk or communicate can psychologically explain his ability to fall in love despite the barrier through a glass wall.

(This was possibly way out of context, but it made some sort of sense to me when relating to Freud.)

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The (Deformed) Human Face of Incest?

During Tuesday’s seminar, we had a discussion on the fact that incest has been an universal taboo throughout history for all cultures except in respect to royalty. The idea of royal incest is simply baffling and incomprehensible to most people today. Why did societal morals condemn inbreeding among commoners while at the same time tolerating and in many cases encouraging royals and nobles to do the same? Despite the fact that they clearly knew, as shown by texts such as Oedipus Rex and the Bible, about the birth defects that could result from such unions?

There has been lots and lots of examples throughout history of the physical and intellectual side effects of inbreeding, the most familiar to Western readers are the Habsburgs. The last Habsburg king of Spain, Charles II’s jaw was so deformed that could not chew food properly and had a number of severe mental and physical disabilities in addition to infertility, which caused his line to finally come to an end. On the Austrian branch of the family, Emperor Ferdinand I suffered a host of problems including epilepsy (having up to 20 seizures a day), a speech impediment, and hydrocephalus and when faced with a revolution in 1848, famously remarked to his chief minister: “Are they allowed to do that?” Throughout this blog, I will be mostly examining their particular motives for inbreeding, though inbreeding was also common among many other royal houses throughout history, including the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt to which Cleopatra belonged as well as past Kings of Thailand and Korea.

The reason that inbreeding can cause so many negative characteristics is due to the fact that because the more similar the genetic information of both parents are, the more likely it is for negative genetic traits to be expressed and accentuated until they result in extreme examples like the Habsburg jaw. This greatly increases the chances for rare genetic disorders like hemophilia or schizophrenia to be passed onto their descendants.

The truth, as truths usually are, is a little more complicated than it may at first seem. There has been a good deal of contention over the topic of whether the incest taboo is a result of nature or nurture, whether it is an innate fear that we have or is it something taught to us by culture. Freud would no doubt tell you that this revulsion towards incest is an innate impulse which creates a sense of uncanny but it is also true that the definition of incestuous relationships differ from culture to culture, as well as from period to period.

Endogamy, marrying within one’s own social class or culture or religion in order maintain a distinct identity, has long been a common practice in a majority of societies across the world, royal intermarriage is just an extreme example of that. In many European countries, in order to ensure the elevated position of nobles and royals over commoners, laws were created demanding that people must not marry outside their social class.  In countries like Spain or Austria-Hungary, if the sovereign married a commoner, their children would be disqualified from inheriting the throne. And since according to the Great Chain of Being no one is equal in rank to a monarch except another monarch (not even the highest of nobility). Marrying one’s subject can severely upset the balance of order by causing the consort’s family to become overly ambitious and marrying a noble from one’s own country can cause rivalry between competing noble family. Marrying other royal families abroad is also an excellent way to increase diplomatic ties with another nation, with many important questions such as peace and war often resting on marriage alliances.

Marriage between different royal families was still problematic because this allowed the opportunity for dynastic lands to fall into the hands of rival royal houses; for example, the circumstance could arise where the king died without any issue and the next closest heir is the king of a rival kingdom. The Habsburgs were exceedingly good at this, inheriting huge swathes of territories by marrying into other noble and royal houses during the Middle Ages. This policy even gave rise to a motto: Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube!”, meaning “Let others wage war, you happy Austria, marry!”  Soon the Habsburgs became so terrified that someone else would try to steal all they’ve gained through this same method that they eventually resorted to marrying among themselves.


The Poster Boy of Royal Incest, Charles II of Spain

During the course of my research, I discovered the rather surprising fact that despite the Habsburg’s  reputation for incest, they never really committed incest as it is universally recognizedWhile certain types of inbreeding, such as sister-brother or mother-son relationships, has always been condemned throughout history,  partnerships between blood relations such as cousin-cousin relationships and even avunculate (uncle-niece or less commonly aunt-nephew) relationships were prevalent among all sectors of society in the West until quite recently and is still common in many parts of the world today. In many small, isolated communities, a certain degree of inbreeding was often unavoidable if the population wanted to avoid extinction.

This demonstrates that the original conjecture that there was one set of expectations for inbreeding for royals and one for everyone is far from completely accurate. The reason that inbreeding among royals and the nobility was so common was not so much because of personal preference as much a result of political paranoia. It just came to be that the Habsburgs were often too suspicious of other royals (often for good reasons) to marry them and because they had a duty to ensure the continuance of the House at whatever cost, they had no choice except to engage in interdynasty marriage, whether they liked it or not. As the role of royalty, and consequently royal marriages, became less important on the political stage, the practice royal intermarriage also died out, as monarchs are for the first time in history free to marry for reasons love rather than political expediency.

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Aesthetics of Fright

Why horror? When discussing Freudian question of how dominant ideology is transmitted, it is easy to look at the case of the horror film. Why do we seek out fear and are willingly frightened? Ultimately, how is the repressed represented in horror films?
For this we could look at Barry Grant and Christopher Sharrett’s essay Aesthetics of Fright. They discuss the body genres associated with horror such as pornography, and excessive violence of sex with phallic images. These genres all correspond to man’s innate nature to witness something taboo.
Horror films exploit the fear and anxiety of death but never actually put us in any kind of danger. Sitting in a movie theater we know that we will ultimately be safe. This sense of security is what blocks the true id, Other and monster from getting to us beyond the screen.
The essay goes on to discuss the portrayal of the repressed in horror films and from what we know, Freud’s definition stems from the Uncanny. His definition supports that negative aesthetics are feelings of repulsion and stress which take the form of the repressed.
Grant and Sharrett divide repression in horror films into two main groups: basic and surplus repression. Basic repression develops when we learn to postpone gratification and surplus repression must remain specific to a particular culture. From these two groups horror films split into reactionary and apocalyptic forms.


  • Monster is simply evil
  • monster is usually non-human
  • repressed sexuality and confusion with sexuality
  • Christian figures are prominent


  • Shattering of ideology
  • Emphasis on familiarity of the monstrous
  • Normality as a manifestation

There is much to be learned from the commercial platform of horror films today. It was quite interesting to find that fear can be categorized.

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“The Shining” in relation to “The Uncanny””

One of the most famous examples of the uncanny – as explained by Freud – can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). It continually questions the viewer’s perception of reality and makes them unsure of what would otherwise be everyday occurrences and objects. An interesting example of this is when Jack Torrance’s son, Danny, takes a ride on his tricycle through the hotel. This is a relatively normal occurrence for a child of this time staying in a remote hotel. The shot is sinister from the off (shot from the child’s, and eventually the viewer’s, perspective) and displays a prime instance of Freud’s theory that the mundane can sometimes belie something much more ominous. Danny sees two young twins who, in a later flashing vision are seen to have been murdered – their white dresses covered in blood – and this is symbolized by the two red doors that he finds at the elevator. Later, Danny’s mother Wendy comes upon them spewing a thick, blood-like liquid. Red elevator doors would otherwise not be anything to take notice of, but in the context of the murdered sisters, they take on a much more disturbing presence. In many ways, this unremarkable feature of the hotel is used to foreshadow the horrific events to come at “The Overlook” hotel. In one short, well-shot sequence early on in The Shining Kubrick manages to forewarn the viewer of what is ahead. The sisters, the innocence of childhood and the horrors that can be found in the ordinary all reference Freud’s theory of the uncanny and sum it up vividly.

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The Uncanny as a Product of Evolution

Freud concludes the “uncanny” to be a “species of the familiar”, he states that the feeling of uncanny is invoked when something familiar to us but has been repressed resurfaces again. He uses many examples of infantile complexes to explain this theory, contributing uncanny feelings produced by the “double” to childhood imaginations of multiple selves and the fear of losing the eye to the castration complex. (wait, fear of losing the eye isn’t the uncanny though, what are you doing Freud?) Anyway, it seems that some of Freud’s ideas don’t really add up, and he seems to have incomplete analysis of his examples, namely “the Sandman”. So I’m going to share some of my thoughts on what is the nature of the “uncanny”.

I believe the feeling of uncanny is in fact rooted in our development as a species. To demonstrate this, I will bring forward a point by Ernst Jentsch which Freud rejects. Jentsch contributes the feeling of uncanniness to intellectual uncertainty. I believe this is an explanation of the uncanny that most people would agree with since it does seem true if we reflect the times we feel uncanny. The reason for this is based in our evolution. Human beings have adopted many traits to help them survive, fear is one of them, and it allows us to avoid potential danger. There are many things that could pose a danger to us, but the most prominent and most tangible must have been the fear of predators. If is often too late for us to be afraid when the predator is right in front of us, therefore, we became fearful of anything that could hint to an approaching predator, such as sounds, smells and other things. Over time we must have also realized that darkness hides predators from our senses, notably sight, so we adopted the fear of darkness, because we don’t know if a predators could be hiding in the darkness or not. The feeling of uncanny is a manifestation or reminder of this fear in a not so fearful situation. Take the case of the “double” for example, we are not really scared by seeing a double of ourselves, however, It does make us feel at unease because it creates intellectual uncertainty about whether the double is real or not and more importantly whether it would pose a threat to our well being. This reminds us of the fear of predators in the darkness where there is also intellectual uncertainty.

However, this evolutionary theory seems inadequate in explaining the uncanny feeling we get with extraordinary coincidences. When what we are thinking manifests themselves in our lives, especially multiple times or in close proximity, we become extremely uncanny. I think this has to do with the breaking of natural laws. We are used to living in a world where “mind over matter” is purely fiction, if something happens that seems to defy this law, then we are placed in a state of intellectual uncertainty. We feel temporarily unsure of whether “mind over matter” is purely fiction or not and more importantly whether we are really the masters of our lives. We would feel that a higher power is controlling us like puppets, and this creates a sense of helplessness in us which is manifested in the form of uncanniness. This form of uncanny cannot be adequately explained by the evolutionary theory, since the idea of a higher power controlling us doesn’t not contribute to survival, therefore we can’t explain why we could feel uncanny about it. So I guess my theory has some flaws too. Well feel free to make some comments on how you think this can be resolved, or your own theory of what the uncanny is.


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Make Your Own Monster

Gothic is a bizarre film. Directed by the man who cast Tina Turner as a psychedelic  gypsy and Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt and centering around the antics of a man whose depravity would make the Red Hot Chili Peppers look like boy scouts, it’s also one of the strangest horror flicks ever conceived. There’s no Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees on a faceless chopping spree or a cowled Romanian gent sinking his teeth into young ladies. The monster is an unseen, possibly even nonexistent entity, tied in with the psychological flaws of the five depraved main characters. This element of reflection, creepiness, and paralyzing uncertainty combines to make for a film steeped in the uncanny.

It is a stormy evening in 1816 Switzerland, at the island mansion residence of poet, lover, soldier and debauchee Lord Byron. Three people arrive by boat: poet Percy Shelley, his lover and collaborator Mary Godwin, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont, who is dementively infatuated with Byron. Aside from the servants, the mansion only houses Byron and his autobiographer-physician, John Polidori. After an evening of liquor, laudanum, and innuendo, they have a seance around the skull of a monk, as you do. The result is stormy weather, hallucinations, and the brooding fear that their machinations have spawned an eldritch monster.

Percy and Claire spend most of the film in laudanum-induced spells of lunacy, and the majority of the action centers around Mary, Byron, or the good Doctor. Each one experiences some kind of themed torment. Byron plays unaffected for most of the flick, disregarding Claire’s obsession and Percy friendship to hit on Mary and freely abusing Polidori, and takes until the end to fall prey to the lunacy around him. Mary’s gruesome recollections of her miscarriage and desire to resurrect her child form the genesis of Frankenstein, and she remains the only (questionably) sane person in the film. Polidori, on the other hand, is a Freudian bundle of Catholic guilt, repressed homosexuality (the closet’s fairly see-through) and leech-collecting blood-obsessiveness (I did not make a word of that up), which leads to him fleeing in the middle of the night and eventually writing The Vampyre.

Gothic has a share of jump scares and weird images (if you’re not good with pretty people covered in leeches, this is not the movie for you), but there is never any clarification as to the monster’s actual presence. The feeling of fear could owe as much to being stuck in a mansion with a handful of unhinged Europeans during a lightning storm as the predations of an abhuman entity. Retrospectively, the horror could have been entirely within the characters’ own minds. Coming face to face with the skeletons in your closet isn’t a pleasant experience by any means, and the reason Gothic can be so frightening is because, despite the paranormal pretense around the seance, the monster comes from within us. The sense of the uncanny is identification where it consciously shouldn’t occur, the image of ones own depraved doppelganger leering from the mirror. The fear you carry at the core of your being is the fear you can’t escape, and that sense of the uncanny is at the root of the Gothic (The Castle of Otranto), the culmination of Gothic (Frankenstein, the works of Poe and Lovecraft) and the film that ties it all together, in a meta-example too viscerally creepy to be ignored.

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