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 Uncannyhe 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.” Continue reading


Do you remember The Judderman?  It was an ad for Metz schnapps drink, aired in 2000 in cinema and on tv.  What a glorious collection of uncanny tropes it is!judderman[1]

The style of the commercial is reminiscent of early European cinema.  It’s shot in flickering black and white, the camerawork is shaky, and it looks as if it’s an old print that needs to be restored.  The background music is discordant, with the flavour of a creepy fairground calliope.  The voice-over is supplied by a lady called Alicia Suszka Fielder, who is half-Polish and half-Czech, and who brings an exotic account to her recitation of the warning

Beware the Judderman, my dear, when the moon is fat.

Sharp of tongue and spindle-limbed he is, and cunning,

With sweetened talk of schnapps and Metz, and the deliciousness of judders.

But schnapps, though sweet, has teeth, my love, and sharpened ones at that.

Beware the Judderman, my dear, when the moon is fat.

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Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, Penguin, 2012

The Old Ways is a fascinating account of some of the paths that Robert Macfarlane has taken during his exploration of ancient byways and strange landscapes, and some of the people he has encountered on his travels.

One such is the artist Steve Dilworth.  He lives with his wife in the challenging environment of the Outer Hebrides – on Harris, where, Macfarlane tells us, they can “live cheaply in a landscape of animal rituals, megaliths, weather dramas and excellent malt whiskies”.  Macfarlane refers to the artist’s studio as the “lair of a demented magus”, containing as it does the materials he finds around the island – skeletons of birds, their feathers, bones of whales, porpoises, and sheep, minerals and rocks, fossilised wood, water, eggs, air and sand.  Out of these diverse elements, Dilworth fashions what he describes as “ritual objects for a tribe that doesn’t exist”. Continue reading


In his essay The Uncanny,  Freud sets out to explore and define exactly what is is that what we identify as instances of the uncanny have in common.

He begins by exploring the origin of the word.  The German for uncanny is unheimlich, which is the opposite of heimlich, which means homely, or familiar.  Therefore, he argues, it is tempting to conclude “that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” However, although some new things might be frightening, not all are.  So he determines that “something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny.”

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It was a sunny summer day in around 1980, and I was sitting upstairs in our small house, a modern “link-detached” (that is, not detached at all), in the spare bedroom, sitting at my sewing table and machining away, running up something to wear that evening, as we often did then.  It was a repetitive task that didn’t require too much concentration, and I was daydreaming the afternoon away.

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by M R James

A View from a Hill

A View from a Hill


Here’s an uncanny tale.

An academic, Mr Fanshawe, is enjoying a summer visit to a new friend in the country, Squire Richards.  He cycles the two miles from the station to the Squire’s residence, and after tea, the Squire suggests a walk in the surrounding park, so that the visitor can get his bearings for wider exploration during his stay.  Mr Fanshawe borrows a pair of binoculars – old fashioned, heavy things, in a box with sharp corners on which he cuts himself as he struggles to open it.

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by Michelle de Kretser

Tom Loxley, an Anglo-Indian academic living in Melbourne, loses his dog in the bush, and then, eight days later, finds his dog, but not before de Kretser has taken us into Tom’s inter-continental history, and his mothers’ current failing health and difficult relationship with her sister; his growing obsession with Nelly Zhang, an artist with a secret past; and his developing relationships with Nelly’s circle of bohemian friends. Continue reading


Imagine: an early summer day in the country, and you’re enjoying a view over a golden landscape dotted with the vibrant colours of wild flowers.  The sun is warming your back and a light breeze eddies through the long grass.  You’re rambling along the edge of a field, listening to the birdsong from the hedgerow, contentedly daydreaming about the lazy afternoon ahead.

But now – you have to climb a wooded hillside.  You pass under the trees, and the canopy blocks the sunlight.  No birds sing here, and the air is still.  You venture forward, but you can’t make out a path.  You turn to the right and then the left.  It’s not clear which way you need to go.  You feel a little anxious, and suddenly sense that someone is watching you. Continue reading