Visual Uncanny. Freud's Screen Translation in Hitchcock

Seminar Paper, 2012

12 Pages


Table of Content


Uncanny – Quotidian turned into Unhomely

Vertigo – constructing the “architectural uncanny” and deconstructing the subjectivity

Rebecca: return of the uncanny repressed


Works cited



“Uncanny” as a recurrent gothic ingredient has been pervading the literary narratives for quite q long time since the period of The Castle of Otranto and Mysteries of Udolpho. The idea of the “return of the repressed” dominates the concept the “uncanny” which Sigmund Freud elaborated in his 1919 essay “The “Uncanny””. However, this unfamiliarity of the real is something which grounded the domain of suspense in the prose narratives and helped in rendering the text a creepy sentimentality. But it should be kept in mind that this feeling is nothing alien to our emotional praxis. Rather, it derives or finds its root from the mundaneness of our life. Maybe, such concern influenced Freud to theorize dream and propound the idea of “dream thought” and “dream content”.

The concept of “uncanny” is related in many ways to the concept of “return”, be it a memory, an unhappy recollection or a traumatic revisitation. Such “return” definitely accounts for a psychological interpretation with probable reference to “hauntology” and unconscious. One thing has to be clarified at this point of our discussion about “uncanny, that is, this phenomenon should be distinguished from “magic realism” which rather problematizes the reality and our familiarity with the reality. But in the context of “uncanny”, the reality should be recognized as an expression of the unconscious.

The translation of textual “uncanny” is something which deals with the visual physicality of the objects. The “uncanny” what we perceive through words is quite different from what is spelt out by means of visuals and sound. The elaboration of popular culture and the invention of cinema technologies have facilitated and innovated a new mode of presentation of the “uncanny”, that is film. Film as a new sign system can different modes of presentation to render the familiar unfamiliar ranging from shots, set-design, settings to sound cuts. As “uncanny” became the key supplement to gothic literature, so gothic films (generic term for horror movies) inculcate the depiction of the so-called unfamiliar (the unheimlich). Film plays, as Lesely Stern argues, with “indeterminacies: here/there, appearance/disappearance, life/death, past/future [...]” thus knocking our “imagination, our unconscious, to produce a sensory affect of dissonance at the very moment of identity.”[1] The fluctuation between such indeterminacies is what renders the “uncanny” possible and helps question our own senses. The interplay of presence and absence is what makes “uncanny” popular as a spice to horror film.

Interestingly enough, the rise of horror as a popular genre in film followed Freud’s popular conceptualization of the “unconscious”. Popular horror classics started to be translated in visual media from the 30’s of the twentieth century. Frankenstein, Dracula, Werewolves are some of the buzz titles in the cinematic world which emerged out of the popular vive of the horror. People were no more content with what was real, rather a surge for what is unreal or unfamiliar or familiarly unfamiliar began. Such craving for the unconventionality of human representation also explains the rise of “superhero” genre in literature and film. The concept of unconventionality has a queer connection to threshold, margins, borders, and liminality as argued by Nicholas Royle in his The Uncanny: An Introduction (2003). Transgressing the borders of our common reaction to reality is what made “uncanny” an enchanted aesthetics in cultural adaptation. This is no wonder that the uncanny depiction of fear about the zombies in Night of the Living Dead turned it into a cult film. Thus unfamiliarity of the commonness constructs an additional appeal in film.

Two film directors namely Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen are reckoned as the most able visual translator of Freudian propositions who respectively dealt with Freudian “unconscious” and “desire”. Hitchcock is his career as bi-national director launched a number of visual representations of psychological concept of repression, dismemberment, memory, haunting, and doubling to name a few. The present paper constitutes the reading of select films by Hitchcock- Rebecca (1940) and Vertigo (1958). The objective of this paper is to look into the variety of ways how Hitchcock turned the mundane into the aesthetics of strangeness, that is to say how the familiar has become the unheimlich in Hitchcock. In doing so the author will include some screenshots from the select films to spell out the visuality of uncanny.

Uncanny – Quotidian turned into Unhomely

The notion of apparitional entities/”return of the repressed” has been defined in two distinct manners in recent scholarship: one is the structural definition given by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jean Piaget, for instance, and so on while the other belongs to the post-structuralists such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Sigmund Freud et al. Structuralists such as Piaget define the belief in “ghost” in terms of the anthropological structures inherited by the individual and, more specifically, by the child. Hence, the influence of the prevailing narrative in a certain society has its due share in cementing the belief-structure of the population of that particular society.

Sigmund Freud is the first to foreground the distinctive nature of the uncanny as something weird or mysterious which is strangely familiar. Freud elaborated the notion of “phantasy” in The Interpretations of Dreams (1913) especially in his 1919 essay “The Uncanny”. Freud revolutionized the psychoanalytical approaches to literature. As Anthony Easthope[2] notes, his concept of “phantom”, acknowledged the existence of a supernatural appearance that resulted from the interrelation between art and the unconscious. The fantasizing individual is present on the spot but the phantom itself changes into different “concrete images and narrative”, an experience Freud identified as the transformation of a thought into an experience” (“The ‘Uncanny’”, 1973-86, Vol. 1: 161). Easthope further investigates the shift in Freud’s notion of art as fantasy; initially Freud was convinced of the writer or artist’s own investment in the fantasy, but later he became more interested in the effect of the artistic text on the audience or reader. According to Freud, art creates fantasy by means of creating a “fore-pleasure” which is art’s “innermost secret”[3]. Maybe, this “innermost secret” is what exerts the “aesthetic of astonishment” in Tom Gunning’s term. This shift is connected to the contemporary rise of reception theory, which, like Freud, acknowledges the contribution of the reader or audience in creating the meaning of a text. Of course, the meaning also accordingly constructs the psychological impact on the receiver of the text.

Freud’s understanding of the historic development of the “self” is narcissistic in a manner which has its preoccupation in the “pleasure principle”. Hélène Cixous underwent an extensive reading of Freud’s 1919 essay in a very succinct paper entitled “Fiction and Its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud's Das Unheimliche (The “Uncanny”)” (1976). Freud elaborated that the “uncanny” was based on the notion of the “double” being intertwined with the Id (that is, the reminder of our repressed impulses). The “uncanny” occurs from the “repetition of the same thing” which occurs mainly when someone has lost sight of the physical entity of something or someone: among these returns of lost beings, a “procession of ghosts is clandestinely ushered in”. (Cixous, 1976: 529). Cixous pursues her analysis:


[1] (accessed on June 22, 2012)

[2] Anthony Easthope, The Unconscious. London and New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

[3] Cf. Ibid, p.110.

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Visual Uncanny. Freud's Screen Translation in Hitchcock
Jahangirnagar University
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visual, uncanny, freud, screen, translation, hitchcock
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Kazi Ashraf Uddin (Author), 2012, Visual Uncanny. Freud's Screen Translation in Hitchcock, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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