The haunted house is a motif which occurs frequently in discussions about the uncanny – indeed, Freud himself calls it “perhaps the most striking of all” examples of uncanniness. So I thought it would be useful to draw out what he says about how the two ideas are connected.
In The Uncanny, he sets out to define what it is that “allows us to distinguish as ‘uncanny’ certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening.” He sets out two approaches: firstly, to explore “what meaning has come to be attached to the word ‘uncanny’ “; and secondly to collect examples of situations which arouse in us the feeling of uncanniness and “then infer the unknown nature of the uncanny from what all these examples have in common.”
The German word for uncanny is unheimlich and its opposite is heimlich (homely). Freud starts by examining the meaning of heimlich and concludes that the term “belongs to two sets of ideas. On the one hand, it means what is familiar and agreeable” (as in “arousing a sense of agreeable restfulness and security as in one within the four walls of his house”), and on the other, “what is concealed and kept out of sight”. Unheimlich disrupts the force of the first meaning, and comes to mean that which is distinctly uncomfortable. But also, “unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light.”
But what is this “everything”? Freud concludes that the uncanny “is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” The idea of the uncanny then is at heart concerned with the fact that the very environment of the home, which is supposed to offer shelter, comfort and safety to us amid the uncertainties of everyday life, is in fact infected with repressed anxiety-inducing ambiguities, unresolved histories and unacknowledged losses. We don’t want to know what they are, but they keep coming back to haunt us nevertheless.
The idea of the haunted house has been constantly revisited in popular literature and film – from the Gothic novels of the eighteenth century to modern horror stores, from the earliest days of cinema (F W Murano’s Nostferatu was released in 1922) to Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), to name but two of very many such films. The repetition and reworking of the haunted house theme testifies to how strongly we are attracted by the attempt to expose and overcome the terror induced by this realisation – that all of our houses are haunted all of the time.