The term uncanny is a hard one to pin down. It can be traced back to the 16th century, when it meant mischievous, and it came to be used in Scotland and the north of England in the 18th century to mean associated with the supernatural. It’s more modern applications, however, were inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud.
In his 1919 essay Das Unheimliche, Freud used the German word unheimlich to refer to objects which we project our repressed desires onto. These objects might be everyday things which are rendered strange to us when we see them in this new light. The term was translated as uncanny in English, and came to refer to the sensation of the familiar rendered somehow unfamiliar in a manner that’s difficult to explain or identify. This cognitive dissonance, the simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity of something, is at the heart of the effect of the uncanny. Continue reading