A hand with all of the fingers the same length. Eye whites that aren’t white. Seeing a stranger in the mirror. A subtler cousin of horror, the uncanny is more about discomfort than fear. Sigmund Freud* described it as, in greatly paraphrased form here, making the familiar unfamiliar. It’s usually characterized by something that looks real, seems real, but is just not quite… right. Uncanny elements in a story raise suspense, put readers on edge, foreshadow later components, and set an eerie tone without the need to show your cards and reveal any monsters. Here’s how to use it.
Anatomy of the Uncanny
For brevity’s sake, I’ll continue to use the vocabulary first laid down by our outdated-psychologist-in-chief, whose terms “heimlich” and “unheimlich” are used prevalently today to describe uncanniness. Heimlich things are the canny: normal, ho-hum, la-dee-da, nothing new. Unheimlich things are these normalcies once the uncanny twist has been administered. For this uncanniness to take place, something unfamiliar and strange must be added or something familiar must be changed.
Heimlich: A mitten.
Unheimlich: A mitten with the thumb in the center of the palm.
Freud described a whole host of ways to administer the twist. Doubles, for example, carry connotations such as death, shadows, and spirits. A doppelgänger is uncanny; it’s a reflection that, by all logic, should not exist. Inanimate objects taking on living attributes is also uncanny, as are parts that should not be separated from the whole, like limbs and appendages.* Humans’ relationship to our own mortality is another uncanny theme that stretches from zombies to ghosts to resurrection. Why is the embodiment of death considered scary? Because death is something that has no body and no substance, giving it such is unheimlich.
The concept of unheimlich also extends to ideas and characteristics. Characters repressing certain emotions and feelings is normal; it’s heimlich. Characters without control, with nothing holding back their rawest selves, are unheimlich. The titular character in Carrie is one example of this on several levels. She’s cannily meek and demure, yet she possesses devastating, uncanny telekinetic powers. Over the course of the book, she goes from obedient to homicidal, bringing out her unheimlich side in a series of bloody murders. The portrayal of her powers, too, is a juxtaposition of the canny and uncanny – a natural occurrence versus a curse from God or Satan. The uncanny is an essential part of her character arc.
Now that we have a framework of terms and concepts, how can you use the uncanny to your advantage? There are innumerable answers to this question, but let’s split it into two of the most common major categories.
Using Uncanny Imagery to Build Atmosphere
Perhaps there are supernatural elements on your story’s horizon. Maybe your setting needs to feel spooky. Trouble is brewing, characters are becoming unsettled, something is about to happen. Inserting uncanniness into your writing can help the audience feel the same way. One method of doing this is to add unheimlich description. Let’s say your setting is an empty field.
Heimlich: Wind blew across the field and made the leafless trees sway on its path toward the sky. On the frozen ground, bushes’ thin branches spread in search of sunlight. Dusk turned the clouds yellow.
Trees and bushes: familiar, normal. Now let’s turn it around. This is a case of inanimate objects needing animation; we can personify this field into uncanniness while also livening up the description.
Unheimlich: Wind hissed across the field, snaked through the bony limbs of the leafless trees standing sentinel, before spiraling into the overcast sky. On the frozen ground, bushes stretched thin branches toward the sky like infants beseeching an uncaring mother for milk. Dusk seeped across the skyline and stained the clouds the yellowish tinge of old flesh.
Inhuman things such as trees are given bones and stand as guards; the bushes become helpless infants and the sky an indifferent mother. The clouds aren’t just yellow; they’re the color of skin. The wind is more snake-like and malevolent. The unheimlich has successfully set an eerie tone. Readers know from the description that something is important about this creepy field, and it’s much more interesting to read about.
But, you argue, an empty field could be considered pretty creepy on its own, right? Well, believe it or not, this method works just as well on other mundane places – though naturally it’s easier to insert unheimlich into something that has an element of uncanniness to begin with. Perhaps your scene takes place at a shopping mall.
Heimlich: Shoppers with bags bustled to and fro in the hallways between shops. Lighted displays of models decorated the walls, and pop music drifted out from somewhere overhead. The mall was busy this time of day.
Unheimlich: The sharp scent of undiluted cleaning fluid pierced the air, the blindingly white floors and gilded marketing murals a testament to flawless chemical perfection. Models, primped beyond recognition and gaunt in the harsh light, cast smiles as empty as their gazes from their places plastered on the walls. The sea of faces became one blurred mass; shuffling feet, rustling bags, and the tired murmur of conversation did little to block out the tinny music blasting from unseen speakers overhead.
The shoppers become a faceless throng beneath blank model eyes; chemicals and harsh light call to mind artificiality and insincerity. Although not quite as uncanny as the first example, this description nonetheless places the mall in a negative light, signifying its wrongness and strangeness.
When using uncanniness to set tone or atmosphere, it’s important to keep the end goal in mind. What purpose does using the uncanny serve? This particular brand of descriptive unheimlich works best to establish important places and set audience expectations about what will happen there. It can also be used to foreshadow plot elements. If the aforementioned empty field masked a slumbering elder god, the personification it was given in my description would set up readers for the reveal.
Creating Uncanny Mysteries
Uncanny mysteries go much deeper than description. Their unheimlich attributes are important, not just set dressing. Perhaps an encounter with such an element starts your hero’s journey, or maybe the McGuffin is just strange enough to seem… off. Not to mention the spooky manor your protagonist just inherited! In these cases, there usually needs to be an explanation for the element’s uncanniness. It should raise all sorts of questions that will then get answered. Is there a ghost living inside it? Is it alien technology? Was it created by the serial killer who’s lurking behind the door? It’s true that some authors can get away with leaving things up to the audience’s imagination, but it’s a thin line between mysterious omission and frustrating omission.
It’s also important to note that including a mystery is a promise to readers that it’ll be addressed, and if that’s not part of your plan, it’s better to stick to description. Description makes promises for a scene or a particular place, not the whole world or plot.
There’s two main ways to approach making an unheimlich mystery. You can either start with the object or start with the explanation. I recommend starting with the object, because the whole point of uncanniness is modifying what’s normal, and that can be hard to do if you’re working backward. Remember, uncanniness can also be part of a personality and can aid the development of an arc. It’s also not limited to the small things. Your mystery can involve the entire setting! The world your characters inhabit and the location in which the story takes place – be it a spooky house, an alternate dimension, a quarantine zone, an entirely new planet, or anything else – is an enormous opportunity. The memorable eeriness of places like the Keyhouse or Area X doesn’t just happen. These are the products of carefully applied uncanniness that develop over the course of each story. Inserting the unheimlich into an entire setting or place is more labor intensive, but it has enormous benefits from a narrative standpoint, as I’ll demonstrate. Let’s start with the heimlich.
Heimlich object: A music box.
Heimlich setting: A long series of winding caves your characters get lost in.
Next, decide on the unheimlich aspects of your mystery. How can it be twisted?
Unheimlich object: The music box, when wound forward, plays a tune that seems oddly familiar to the main character. When wound backward fast enough, it makes a noise like a woman laughing.
Unheimlich setting: The main characters come across oddly smooth and symmetrical stalactites, strange crystal formations, flights of what appear to be stairs hewn into the floor, rock formations made of hexagons and pentagons – nature can’t form those shapes on its own, right? Their maps are useless; the cave system seems to go on forever, branching into large, cathedral-like chambers they’ve never heard mentioned before. The caverns are filled with the sound of flowing water, like waves rushing in and out – yet they’re nowhere near the ocean. On the contrary, this cave is in the mountains. The strangest thing yet is the raised patterns of what seem to be haphazardly scattered sticks carved into the walls and floor.
Now these changes are raising questions. What’s the tune that the music box plays? Is that really a woman laughing, or is it just the music being distorted? In terms of the caves, is there a reason the spelunkers can’t get out? What’s waiting for them down there? Is there any danger that could overshadow their lack of food and supplies? What could alert them that there’s something else going on? Naturally, this will also involve plenty of uncanny description.
Next is background. Answer those questions.You need to know what’s going on, even if your readers don’t (at least at first). You also need to decide how much to reveal to the readers, and whether you want to give a full clarification or trickle the information in as time goes on. As elements of the plot, uncanny things need to fit smoothly into the story and affect it in some way.* Usually explanations go one of two ways: they dispel the unheimlich, returning the state of things to comfortably normal, or they push the boundary past uncanny into horror.
Dispelling the uncanny typically involves a logical explanation, since uncanniness is built on lack of logic and by inserting it, things become heimlich again.
Re-heimlich object: Your protagonist’s mother disappeared when they were just a baby, and because she knew she wouldn’t come back, she left the music box with her laughter and the tune she used to sing as a lullaby to the protagonist.
Now the uncanny element is logical and bittersweet rather than unsettling. Conversely, crossing into horror is done by making the uncanniness an active threat. It’s no longer an odd, disconcerting quirk or random, unexplained phenomenon – it’s actively dangerous, and your protags should watch out!
Horror setting: The unmapped cave system used to be part of an old cultist temple devoted to worshipping a hungry, forgotten god. Their strange nature is due to a botched summoning: when the cultists tried to raise this god, something went wrong, and instead of becoming a physical entity, it merged with the caves, bringing an enormous surge of ethereal energy that still lingers there (it sounds like flowing water). The worshippers were consumed by the cave, and the strange raised stick patterns became the scattered remains of their skeletons. For a long time, the god-cave stayed separate and neglected until erosion opened an entrance between a normal cave system and the mutated one. When our intrepid spelunkers stumbled across the barrier, the otherworldly nature of the caves took effect on their minds, and the god-cave began trying to consume them, too.
In the setting I’ve crafted, we now see the beginnings of a plot. It’s easy enough to discern where to go from here: the main characters get trapped, they wander, they act strangely. Maybe one gets injured and stays behind, and the others later find him as another, fresher set of bones hewn into the cave wall. They start to piece things together, and maybe escape if you want a happy ending – and boom, you’ve got your gripping tale.
Use of the uncanny is a part of storytelling that usually happens by accident. Writers choose things that sound creepy and put them in their stories with no idea how they fit, how to use them, or where they go. As a result, the unheimlich seems forced, unnecessary, or aimless.* Being able to use uncanniness to your advantage begins with understanding it. Develop it and soon you’ll be sending the shivers like a pro.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?