Theory in a Digital Age: A Project of English 483 Students, Coastal Carolina University

Freud's Uncanny Theory


The “double” is a theme that has quite often been addressed over centuries of time; one of the most iconic being in Sigmund Freud’s essay titled The Uncanny. Freud opens his essay by giving a definition of what “uncanny” is: “belonging to all that is terrible – to all that arouses dread and creeping horror…” (Freud 1). Freud’s definition of the uncanny leads me to an even bigger theoretical question about the idea of the “double” which I will address shortly, but first let us take a closer look at Freud’s idea of the uncanny. In his essay, Freud refers to the German words Heimlich and unheimlich. He uses the two words to first create a barrier between their meanings, but as he continues on the two merge to create a meaning behind what the “uncanny” really is. He describes the barrier between the two as Heimlich meaning familiar, and unheimlich meaning something which is concealed or kept out of sight (Freud 3). This barrier is what then brings the two together to form the “uncanny” – when something unfamiliar gets added to which is familiar.

It is these themes of uncanniness that then allowed for Freud to suggest the idea of the “double”. The “double” which in Freud’s terms appears as a degree of development. The degree of development which Freud refers to in these terms is that of his theory “narcissism of the child” (or self-love). He describes this as being when a child creates multiple projections of himself/herself; which later is overcome and the child develops his/her ego. The “double” comes into play when a person encounters the “narcissism of the child” later on in their adult life causing them to return to that primitive state, therefore causing “uncanny”. This may also be related to Freud’s formation/idea of the super-ego. The super-ego being the repressed projections of the multiple selves or “the double”. This is where my even bigger theoretical question comes into play. The “double” is a theme that is quite often addressed in film/cinema whether that be reflections in mirrors, shadows, spirits, or the infamous doppelganger. This allows for me to pose the even bigger question of: how doubling in film/cinema offer insight into the increasingly narrow threshold between self and perception of the other? By addressing this question, I will then be able to uncover the answer behind my overall question of: why is the idea of the double portrayed as being so frightening in film/cinema and even everyday life?

In a theoretical point of view, when faced with something familiar like yourself there should be no fear, but there is, why? I believe this would have to be because of narcissism of the self. By seeing the double a person is criticizing their self, and becoming aware of their conscience. When the person becomes aware of their conscience they become aware of what the double represents – the unacceptable part of their ego. So the doppelganger/ double usage in film/cinema gives insight to the narrow threshold between self and perception of the other. In terms of self-perception, the “double” is a representation of the opposite of what is perceived by the individual person. It represents the aspects of humanity that we (humans) deny in order to preserve our self-image or the core aspects of what make each person unique. The doppelganger or double is a visual representation of the darker parts of the individual psyche humans deny so that they’re seen by other people in society in a better way, as opposed to who they truly are at their core. Therefore, in film the doppelganger would be represented as a persons’ worst fears visualized into something they’re scared of becoming.

This visualization of the “double” being something that a person fears they will become is portrayed in several films/cinemas. It is a quote from Freud’s The Uncanny which describes how a person first perceives the “double”, causing the uncanny feeling of the “double” to occur; “But, after having thus considered the manifest motivation of the figure of a “double,” we have to admit that none of it helps us to understand the extraordinarily strong feeling of something uncanny that pervades the conception; and our knowledge of pathological mental processes enables us to add that nothing in the content arrived at could account for that impulse towards self- protection which has caused the ego to project such a content outward as something foreign to itself. (Freud 140-141) I believe it is this quote by Freud that answers the “why” part of my overall theoretical question. Reflecting back on Freud’s explanation behind heimlich vs. unheimlich, a person must first be presented with something that is familiar, then bring in the unfamiliar and you are given an uncanny feeling. The self is familiar but when placed in a situation where the self is perceived in an unfamiliar way, then one’s true self can only have an impulse to protect the self. It is the idea that the individual could possibly become that evil entity.



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