CACS Case Studies: Uncanny

 Background for this post is here, rest of the series is here.



UNCANNY (unheimlich)
That which is unfamiliar—or more literally, un-homely—in the familiar or homely (what we know). In a famous essay, ‘Das Unheimliche’ (1919), Freud argued that the uncanny is the feeling we get when an experience that occurred by chance suddenly feels fateful and inescapable. His own quite humorous example of this is an anecdote about an afternoon walk he took in a small provincial Italian town in which he happened upon the brothel district and though he hurriedly exited the area the continuation of his walk somehow brought him back there, twice, a discomforting fact that he felt was noticed by the locals. He traces the uncanny feeling this provokes in him back to infantile psychology because it clearly evidences a compulsion to repeat and he then argues that anything that reminds of this aspect of our childhood will be perceived as uncanny. Literature then is able to create the same feeling by evoking situations in which a character acts without reason, or, more particularly, returns when they are thought to be gone—the archetype of this is the ghost or the zombie. The uncanny is not a new thing; it is always an old, and usually repressed, thing that recurs in the place where it is not expected. Russian literary critics Tzvetan Todorov uses the concept of the uncanny in the development of his theory of fantastic literature in The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970).
(Buchanan 2010, 476)

Supporting concepts:
An abstract term for the complex set of beliefs, practices, rules, and traditions groups of people adhere to. Society is always greater than a single individual, and as such it is often defined in the negative as the opposite of the individual, or as that which constrains the individual and prevents him or her from living out their desires. But it is also used in more affirmative terms to classify the ensemble of institutions, organizations, and relationships that give support to the individual. It is often contrasted with culture, with the implication that society is the form to culture’s content—it is organized and organizing, whereas culture is not. To put it another way, society speaks in the imperative, whereas culture uses the interrogative.
(Buchanan 2010, 441)

An aesthetic mode of reproduction or replication that strives to produce an effect that is more real than the real thing being copied. Italian author, semiotician, and cultural critic, Umberto Eco, coined the term in an essay entitled ‘Travels in Hyperreality’ (1975) which tries to account for the particular attraction to Americans of waxwork museums, Ripley’s ‘Believe it or Not!’, and the seemingly relentless replication of icons of European culture, such as Las Vegas’s mini Eiffel Tower. Somewhat snobbishly, Eco regards the logic behind such exhibitions as compensatory. For the lack of an authentic culture of its own, he argues, America creates pastiches of European culture. But because their inauthenticity cannot really be disguised, they strive to be more real than the original by trying to recall the affect of the presence of the original object. More generously, Jean Baudrillard, in his account of simulation, sees the hyperreal as part of global shift in the way culture communicates itself.
(Buchanan 2010, 238-9)

Useful thinkers:

Case Study:
Hoffmann, E.T.A.  1816, “Der  Sandmann” (“The Sandman”), Die Nachtstücke (The Night Pieces), (English translation available here:


This is an epistolary (written in the form of correspondence) short story, originally written in German. This tragic tale follows a structure which may seem unfamiliar to contemporary readers but which is uniquely suited for exploring the uncanny.  The epistolary form is common in Gothic texts (you might recognise it from Dracula) and it works to immediately build a sense of connection with the text. As a reader of what often appears to be personal documents, you are captured into the text by the second person (“you”) positioning, an interesting literary tool to use in texts that reference the Uncanny. The harking back to childhood fears, in this story, acts to remind the reader of their own childhood fears, at once distant but brought close by memory.  The jump from the epistolary style to straight 2nd person narration in the second part of the story, focused on the narrative techniques and how to convey the ‘uncanny’, draws us deeper into the story as it tells us those parts from the omniscient author/narrator which the characters cannot tell us from their perspective.

As you read this story, attempt to look at the way that the description of figures and characters makes the unfamiliar familiar.

Alternative Case Studies:
Mariko Mori 2014, Rebirth: Recent works, various works: sculpture, installation, video projection, Japan Society Gallery, New York

Transcircle 1.1, 2004. Stone, Corian, LED, real-time control system; 132 3/8 inches diam., each stone 43 3/8 × 22 1/4 × 13 1/2 inches. Courtesy of The Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. (

Mariko Mori’s multimedia exhibition Rebirth combines installations ranging from the sculptural through video and light-based works to encourage audiences to immerse themselves in her interpretations of the natural world. Mori’s works are a haunting combination of natural shapes, textures and lighting, many of which are based on in-situ installations, such as the yet to be completed Primal Reason which will be a permanent installation of a staff and floating rock which only comes to its full potential once per year on the Winter solstice ( When asked about the goals of her exhibition, Mori said: ‘Before religion, in pre-historical times, our ancestors shared a universal idea. It seems to me we were more connected to each other and to nature […] My goal is to re-introduce prehistorical ideas in order to connect ourselves once again’ (  It is the constant idea of reintroduction and repetition that makes Mori’s works somehow familiar yet strange, she suggests we all share a mythical history – yet it is one we do not know.

Watch a tour of the exhibition here:

Traktor 2001, “Basement Jaxx: Where’s your Head At”, Rooty, film clip, XL.

The film clip for the Basement Jaxx song ‘Where’s Your Head At?”, directed by the Swedish filmmakers, Traktor also engages with the familiar made strange. It tells the story of a music producer who visits a medical facility to see ‘the next big thing’. In a distinctly uncanny piece of filmmaking, the producer watches a group of monkeys wearing human faces who perform, accompanied by a nurse on a keyboard and mixed by the doctor. As the song progresses, the monkeys go mad, tearing up the surgery/studio and attempting to attack the music producer.  While the monkeys rampage, the doctor grows angrier and begins to act and look like a monkey. Filmed in a style that implies both the uncanny and the hyppereal, this film clip has been described as ‘startling and unsettling’ (

Watch the film clip and look closely at the resemblances between the human and monkey characters and the ways in which reality is shifted, layered and made hyperreal.

Petrina Hicks 2013, Venus, photograph: pigment print, 100 x 100cm, Rockhampton Art Gallery.


Harking back to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1482-5), Petrina Hick’s photograph of a woman holding a shell over her face draws to mind femininity, fertility and the eloquence of contemporary and historical allusions to womanhood. A highly controlled and almost fetishistic representation of the female face, Hicks states that this picture ‘explores the representation of women in current consumer image culture, and also refers to female identity and representation in art’ ( With the shell often acting analogously for female genitalia, the replacement of the subject’s face with the evocative pink curves of the shell acts to draw immediate comparisons, a blending of the familiar and unfamiliar.

Read this article for some discussions with Hicks about how she transferred her commercial photographic skills into the creative realm:

Peter Luisi 2011, Der Sandmann (The Sandman), DVD, Spotlight Media Productions.


This absurdist romantic comedy tells the story of an unlikeable man, Benno, who starts leaking sand that causes those who smell it to fall asleep and dream. It harks back to the Sandman myth also referenced in the ETA Hoffman short story. As the story progresses, the amounts of sand increase and Benno finds himself chasing a woman he has met in his dreams to help him solve the problem. Presented in the magic realism genre, this film plays with ideas of reality, blurring the lines between the sleeping and waking world. For Benno, the solution to his problem lies in telling the truth, forcing him to accept and acknowledge his reality to dig out of the surrealistic nightmare that has him buried (figuratively and literally) neck deep.

Watch the trailer for Der Sandmann here:

Sarah Lucas 1997,  Pauline Bunny, Wooden chair, vinyl seat, tights, kapok, metal wire, stockings and metal clamp, Tate, London, not on display.

Originally exhibited as part of a larger work, Pauline Bunny is a sculpture that evokes the eroticised Playboy ‘bunny girl’. Made from pantyhose and stockings stuffed with cotton and clamped onto a plain wooden chair, the figure hints at the feminine but with few human characteristics. Like Venus, this work hints at the female form through analogy, tracing the link between one of the more fetishized piece of ‘feminine’ garb, the stocking, and artistic representations of the female body. Despite the lack of identifiable human characteristics, the material and posture of the figure hint at sensuality and availability. The Guardian said that ‘her obsession with tabloid sexuality has a “critical” flavour’ ( and this stylised imagining of the female form cannot help but raise questions of what we see when we look at a female body.

Read the review of this work at and use your online research skills to find other examples of Lucas’ work. See if you agree with the Guardian’s conclusions about her work.

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