The Uncanny

The term ‘uncanny’ infers, quite literally, the idea of something which is "un-homely". It is the concept of something being familiar, yet foreign at the same time; resulting in a feeling that is uncomfortably strange. It is the alienation of the self from a discernible object but then faced with the absurdity of acknowledging the unknown. Anything new is always feared by mankind at first glance, almost instinctively so that it can be likened to a primal defense. The uncanny, in this manner, creates anxiety.Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates a cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalize.

But if we look at aesthetics, we know that it involves a branch of psychology that deals with beauty, art and taste. It is the psychological response behind every one of us and our emotional response to the external world; aesthetics and psychoanalysis merge here. The concept of the uncanny can therefore be a subject of aesthetics because it has to do with a certain kind of feeling or sensation, with emotional impulses. A conventional study of aesthetics, however, has often neglected the uncanny, preferring to concentrate on beauty and, generally, on more positive emotions: the attractive, the sublime, etc. The uncanny, by contrast, is evocative of something fearful and frightening. Modernism marks a turn in aesthetics in general toward a fascination with the ugly and the grotesque: a kind of "negative" aesthetics. Sigmund Freud's essay on “The Uncanny” makes a contribution to this supplement to the aesthetics of the beautiful by examining what we might call the “aesthetics of the fearful,"; “the aesthetics of anxiety.”

“According to Freudian terminology, the uncanny is the mark of return of the repressed. Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of Hoffman’s The Sandman refers to a childhood fear [which had been] repressed [and] ultimately returns in adulthood that reminds the protagonist of his earlier traumatic stages which were unconsciously ‘uncanny’ to him. The uncanny arises as the recurrence of something long forgotten and repressed, something superseded in out psychic life—a remainder of our psychic past.”

Upon reflecting on Freud’s essay, I have come to a realization of the uncanny experiences from my own past. I have many, but among them the most frightening is a creature that was beyond my imagination at the time. It was a surreal being from the movie called ‘Alien’ (1979), directed by Ridley Scott. I would shut my eyes tight whenever a glimpse of its abhorring facade flashed across the screen—afraid that if had stared at it long enough, it would stare back. As I grew older and became exposed to different levels of anxiety, the predominant fears of this haunting creature faded away. At least I had hoped they would. More recently, my investigations into the subject of the uncanny have allowed me to examine some of these nightmarish archetypes from my childhood. To explain the aesthetics behind the creation of such a gruesome ‘Alien being’, I looked into the intentions fuelling its creator: Swiss painter and sculptor, H.R. Giger.

“H.R. Giger's original design for the Alien [was] based on his earlier work ‘Necronom IV’ ... Giger designed the alien creature's adult form and the alien architecture. The designs feature the creative use of bones in the architecture. Giger received an Academy Award for his work on the original film. The design of the creature with strong Freudian sexual undertones and multiple phallic symbols, while simultaneously presenting an overall feminine figure, provided a compelling androgynous image, conforming to archetypal mappings and imagery in horror films that often redraw gender lines. The adult alien appears predominantly black in color, similar in cast to heavily tarnished silver. In keeping with Giger's blending of biological and mechanical life-forms, some shots reveal a metallic patina. It has an elongated shiny head with no eyes. (Some production stills reveal a human skull used in the sculpture beneath its translucent anterior shell). Below, the jaw holds the razor-sharp metal teeth. The mouth houses a tongue-like body part with a second mouth on the end. On the alien's back stand four curved black pipes (Giger designed these for the purpose of breaking up the back). Apart from this, the alien has an anthropomorphic form, with two legs and two arms, its hands each armed with six long, black, razor-sharp claws. The "blood" of the creature, a powerful acid, also serves as a natural defense mechanism.”

In order to understand Giger's art, one must first acknowledge the primordial nature that is endemic through the world. Giger’s universe is a vast expanse of matter and energy, like ours, one of life and death, hot and cold. It is a balance of creative and destructive forces at work. Giger uses those forces as the basis of something new. He adds life to what had been inanimate; he imparts metals and plastics with a warm, living, secreting essence. Similarly, he strips the life away from demons, monsters, and ghouls, rendering them obedient and easily manipulated. In the course of composing his new, improved universe, not everything fits together perfectly.In Giger's realm, fear is the constant; it is that all-encompassing blackness, that "absolute zero" of total negation.

This short summary of an uncanny realm points us to the direction of observing the artifact that is the basis of the creature’s design – “Necronom IV” (1976 painting by H.R Giger). If we look closely to the design it is evident that Giger’s originality resonates from the creature’s anatomy. By merging human forms with amphibian life structure, he generated something unique, something unknown and ‘alien’- endoparasitoid extraterrestrial species The outer bone construction is reminiscent of an endoskeleton which implies the monster deep within everyone, here Giger took the liberty to take it out of the flesh and show its horror to the world. The creature’s head elongates into a male genital organ-like design where once again we see Giger’s ability to infuse organic elements into powerful sexual symbols.

One of the most significant differences between the “Necronom IV” and the final design for “The Alien” in the movie are the eyes—which the first design bears, but is later changed in the final version. One may analogize this with Ernst T.A. Hoffmann’s fable of ‘The Sandman’—an uncanny entity who visits children when they refuse to go to bed (a wrath that comes from refusing to conform to social norms), and sprinkles a handful of sand in their eyes, separating the eyes from their sockets while he puts them in a sack and carries them off to the half-moon to feed his children. And Freud claims that the source of the uncanny in this tale is the eponymous figure of the sandman himself, it’s the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes –‘Fear of castration’. Perhaps Giger’s own removal of the eyes from the Alien indicates non-conformity; a residual insurgence that echoed through the creature’s evolution. In addition, blinding the eyes of the creature made it look more sinister and possibly gave the eerie way that its sees the world or made the design a bit more obscure to the audience about its dark agenda.The texture on the Alien is an infusion of organic and metal, representing humanity's inevitable amalgamation with machinery. Fused with the alien circuitry—which Giger refers to as the “Biomechanical Matrix”. The script for the movie was done in 1979 and Giger started to work on the design referring to his original painting of “Necronom IV” which was painted in 1976; so he was more or less involved during the era of post modernism.

“According to Charles Jencks- Postmodernism describes anything that was build after 1972, this is the year in which the Pruitt-Igoe project in St Louis for low-income families was declared a failure and the experiment in high-rise public housing eventually destroyed with dynamite. (Jencks, Charles, ed .1977. “The Language of Post-Modern Architecture”) This was for Jencks a symbol of the end of modern architecture. Everything before 1972 was modern, what comes after is postmodern.”

From a literary perspective, Postmodernism, follows, rejecting boundaries between high and low forms of art, rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, distortion, irony, playfulness, reflexivity and self-consciousness, disintegration and discontinuity, simultaneity, and an emphasis on the destructured, decentered, dehumanized subject; which is exactly what we see from H.R Giger’s Alien design. And this fusion of fantasy and reality raptures the frame of mind and the experience of the uncanny transferred from the domain of the fictional world to the receptive world of the audience.

“Necronom IV” by H.R. Giger, which served as the inspiration and basis for his design.


  • (See “Uncanny” in dictionary; links:

  • R. Gray (2009)"Freud and the Literary Imagination"

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