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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