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On Familiar Hauntings

Uncanny experiences remind us of how we are strangers to ourselves.

"We are all haunted houses." —H.D.

Source: Vilhelm Pedersen/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Source: Vilhelm Pedersen/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

When E.T.A. Hoffman published his short novella, The Sandman (Der Sandmann) in 1816, he added a dark twist to the mythical character often portrayed in Western and Scandinavian folklore. Quite benevolent in much of this folklore, the Sandman is often portrayed as helping people sleep and inviting good dreams by sprinkling magical sand into the eyes during the night. Or, as Roy Orbison put it in his 1963 hit, “A candy-colored clown they call the Sandman, tiptoes to my room every night, just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper, Go to sleep. Everything is all right." The myth may have its origins in making sense of the sandy rheum (eye goop) that dries and gathers as a crust in the corners of the eyes while one sleeps. Or, maybe we just like the idea of someone kind who can “bring us a dream.” In any case, Hoffman’s Sandman was a dangerous, virulent figure, and his tale could only bring on nightmares.

As recounted in Freud's The Uncanny, the central character, Nathaniel, is "unable... to banish certain memories connected with the mysterious and terrifying death of his much-loved father":

"On certain evenings his mother would send the children to bed early with the warning, 'The Sandman is coming.' And sure enough, on each such occasion the boy would hear the heavy tread of a visitor, with whom his father would then spend the whole evening. It is true that, when asked about the Sand-Man, the boy’s mother would deny that any such person existed, except as a figure of speech, but a nursemaid was able to give him more tangible information: 'He is a bad man who comes to children when they won’t go to bed and throws a handful of sand in their eyes, so that their eyes jump out of their heads, all bleeding. He then throws their eyes in his bag and takes them off to the half-moon as food for his children. These children sit up there in their nest; they have hooked beaks like owls, and use them to peck up the eyes of the naughty little boys and girls.'"

Facing the terror of losing his eyes, Nathaniel is torn between what is real and what is not. Can he trust what he thinks he sees? And what happens when he imagines the unimaginable? As a young boy, Nathaniel believes he saw the Sandman hiding in his father’s room—masquerading as a friend of the father, Coppelius. Both had been carrying out dangerous forms of alchemy. Many years later, Nathaniel meets a man named Coppola and mistakes him for Coppelius. Clara, the sister of a friend of Nathaniel, tells him that it is all in his mind. Compounding the mystery, Nathaniel falls in love with the beautiful Olimpia, a mechanical doll. Much later, Coppola sells Nathaniel small telescopes (“pretty eyes, pretty eyes”), which re-awakens Nathaniel’s childhood fears of the Sandman. There is both strangeness and horror to what happens—Nathaniel falling in love with an automaton and the hallucinatory threat of losing his eyes. As one might imagine, it doesn’t end well.

It probably does not come as a surprise that Hoffman’s novella would capture Freud’s interest. In his 1919 essay, Das Unheimliche (The Uncanny), Freud expanded upon (and indeed, offered a critique of) a previous essay by Ernst Jentsch, an exploration of what it is like to experience something as eerie. Jentsch believed that Nathaniel’s unwitting love for the doll is the most uncanny feature of the story. To Jentsch, the Sandman was a kind of morality tale: beware of what you think might be true; appearances can deceive. But Freud took a deeper interest in what might be going on with The Sandman.

For starters, Freud took a good deal of time exploring the German etymology of the words heimlich and unheimliche—both opposites but not contradictory. Neither translates perfectly in English and the terms respectively refer to homely and familiar vs. unhomely and concealed. For Freud, the uncanny comes from both. To experience something as uncanny is to experience it as strangely familiar. When the robotics professor Masahiro Mori put forth his hypothesis of the uncanny valley—the increasing revulsion we experience when a robot more closely resembles a human—many connected this with the conception of the uncanny, as described by Jentsch and Freud. However, this was not just a sensory-based discomfort for Freud. As he developed in his essay—both with personal anecdotes as well as an interpretation of The Sandman—uncanny feelings surface when something seemingly inconsequential evokes repressed content from our past. Put another way, the scholar David B. Morris described how the uncanny, “derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but—on the contrary—from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it.”

In the Freudian account, The Sandman is an Oedipal drama and castration anxiety lies at its core. What Nathaniel needed to keep hidden from himself was the fear of his father, a threat to his own burgeoning sexuality. The torture of Nathaniel by Coppelius as well as the nightmarish murder of Nathaniel’s father is, for Freud, a retelling of infantile sexuality. And for Freud, “the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes” is the most uncanny element of The Sandman, with its allusions to blindness caused by castration fears.

In his essay, Freud seems to have anticipated our hesitation in viewing all uncanny experiences as being linked with infantile castration anxiety. As the philosopher F.W.J. Schelling put it, “Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.” Freud also examined the uncanny feelings that come from body doubles (doppelgängers), repetition compulsions, and the evil eye. To focus on just one of these—the uncanniness of one’s one simulacrum, he related:

"I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a traveling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass on the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance."

This is the uncanny feeling that comes from an encounter with a double. Not quite fear, but as the psychologist Stephen Frosh put it, “more a kind of unhappy shiver, a dislike at being brought face to face with something slightly disreputable.” One thinks of Kubrick’s film (and adaptation of the Stephen King novel), The Shining, which made frequent use of doubles to elicit uncanny dread and creeping terror. This is the uncanniness Freud described as belonging to, “the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread.”

Stephen Frosh wrote that, “There is a lot in psychoanalysis that comes under the heading of ‘haunting’.” Indeed, he makes the case that psychoanalysis itself can be viewed as a kind of exorcism. One might say something similar about psychotherapy more generally. The psychoanalyst Hans Loewald once remarked that the goal of psychotherapy, particularly in addressing issues related to trauma, helps patients “turn ghosts into ancestors.” These are the ghosts of our relational history, and the uncanniness in our experience is a particular kind of nostalgia—like déjà vu gone awry. It is not a fear of something about to happen, but being haunted by what lies outside our awareness concerning our own history. In this uncanny way, we are ghosts to ourselves.

© 2018 Bruce C. Poulsen


Freud, S. (1919). The Uncanny. New York: Penguin Classics.

Frosh, S. (2012). Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and ghostly transmission. American Imago, 69(2), 241-264.

Hoffman, E.T.A. (1817). Der Sandmann (The Sand-Man). English Translation by John Oxenford.

Morris, D.B. (1985). Gothic sublimity. New Literary History, 16(2), 299-319.

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