How do we write a truly scary story? What unsettled us in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House? What tension building secrets did Stephen King employ when drafting the locker room shower scene in Carrie? It wasn’t only the epic tampon barrage that made readers feel a sense of dread in King’s work. There was something else at play, just below the surface, that writers can access to skillfully create frightening scenes and characters: the uncanny. Let me show you how it can work for your writing.
Uncanny (adjective): strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way.
An uncanny experience is one that excites dread, unpleasantness, or even revulsion. Sigmund Freud wrote on the subject in 1919, although he wasn’t the first. We’ve always been attracted to that which repulses us. Freud tried to dissect the experience of the uncanny to determine what stimulates the unsettling reactions. He arrived at 3 major conclusions which are of use to writers, and I’ll use examples from King and Jackson to illustrate.
Defining the Uncanny for Writers
1. We are terrified of the uncanny because it is the experience of something once familiar now made unfamiliar. Carrie White is a meek basket case (familiar) who possesses telekinetic powers (unfamiliar). Hill House is haunted by ghosts of the past (familiar) and seeks to gain new souls from its present occupants (unfamiliar).
2. The experience of the uncanny is the surfacing of one’s repressed emotions in reaction to the uncomfortable situation. Carrie White is an obedient girl (familiar, repressed emotion) who takes murderous revenge against her controlling mother (unfamiliar, unrepressed emotion). Eleanor Vance is a devoted servant to her ailing mother (familiar, repressed emotion) who commits suicide to remain at Hill House (unfamiliar, unrepressed emotion).
3. The uncanny can be produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality. Carrie White teeters between believing her telekinetic powers are a natural ability (reality) versus a curse from God/Satan (imagination). Eleanor Vance teeters between the comradery of Dr. Montague and Theodora (reality) and communion with the Hill House spirits (imagination).
In essence, to create the experience of the uncanny, a writer must take something familiar to her readers and make it unfamiliar. That unfamiliarity should involve an unrepressed emotional state and teeter both characters and readers on the very edge of reality.
Let’s discuss another example to see how master writers use these principles to craft unsettling scenes.
In Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, young protagonist Coraline Jones lives an ordinary family life (familiar, reality) in which she is relatively well behaved but unsatisfied (repressed emotion). This current state is what Freud called heimliche or something kept secret and hidden. Heimliche is how most of us live by abiding laws, being polite, and avoiding violence. More importantly, the word suggests something that should be kept hidden. To create an uncanny experience, Gaiman begins to explore unheimliche scenes, where that which should be hidden is brought to light. Coraline discovers a tunnel within her house (unfamiliar, teetering on reality line) that leads to an alternate dimension populated by the Other Mother (unfamiliar, unheimliche, imagination).
The Other Mother offers suggestions that lead Coraline to release repressed emotions and consider leaving her real family behind forever. She teeters between reality and imagination, until the Other Mother asks to sew buttons into Coraline’s eyes (unfamiliar, unheimliche, imagination). The story then unravels as the Other Mother’s body and mind become increasingly more unheimliche, and Coraline fights to return to heimliche and reality.
Constructing the Uncanny in Your Writing
Through examples by King, Jackson, and Gaiman we can begin to see how the uncanny works to create horror. To use Freud’s theories to your benefit, I suggest the following when constructing a character, but these suggestions can also be applied to plot. See if you can dissect how I used the uncanny in my story “Crack Stepping.”
Constructing an Uncanny Character
1. Define your character in terms that are familiar to our reality. Who is your character when what should be hidden, is? Carrie White is a subdued and shy teenage girl under the care of a controlling, fundamentalist Christian mother.
2. Define your character in terms of their imaginative, unrepressed selves. Who is your character when all of their true emotions are brought into the light? Carrie White is desperate to be adored by her peers and to escape her mother’s domineering nature.
3. Decide: how does this unheimliche physically manifest in your character? This should border or cross the line between reality and imagination. For Carrie, it was mind-control of her entire physical environment.
4. Bring the unheimliche into action. This unrepressed, otherworldly character should interact with their normal environment in catastrophic ways—usually ending with their destruction. Reality does not allow unbridled emotion to exist for long. Carrie White uses her telekinetic power to destroy her fellow classmates at the Prom, after which she is runs amok for some final revenge and then dies.
Note: Freud theorizes that most uncanny characters have both evil intentions and the special powers needed to bring their intentions to fruition. This doesn’t always have to mean fantasy-type powers like telekinesis, but could also suggest supreme political power, uncommon intellect, or renowned combat skills.
In the end, put the darkness back where you found it. Uncanny elements are only unsettling because they are unfamiliar, yet vaguely recognizable as a something we cherish gone horribly wrong. If heimliche things become unheimliche and stay that way, then a new heimliche is established and the occurrences will no longer have their uncanny ability to frighten. After the catastrophic end, turn the flashlight off and put on your polite, law-abiding face again to confirm that what was experienced within your story was indeed a horrific moment in time that still may linger in the shadows, just below the surface of our heimliche lives.
For continued study, read Freud’s full text.
Or explore The Uncanny Valley hypothesis.