The Uncanny : what makes Polar Express so scary and Oppenheim so good

It’s the Holidays, and if the thought of sitting down to watch Polar Express sends shivers down your spine, then you’ve been a victim of the Uncanny.

“It is undoubtedly related to what is frightening …it is something secretly familiar”

What is The Uncanny?

Famed by Freud, it’s a psychological phenomena where something looks familiar, recognisable, or human, but isn’t quite. Often based around mysterious, ambiguous, or taboo imagery.  This sensation creates conflict and contributes to an unconscious anxiety that Freud viewed as a driving life force.

The Uncanny Valley


This is a hypothesised relationship between familiarity, and humanoid resemblance in appearance and movement. The concept is that things that look human, but aren’t quite, are the most unsettling – or elicit feelings of the Uncanny. The relationship of human resemblance with familiarity should be pretty much proportional, but theres a big dip right where its almost recognisably human: hence ‘valley’. This is why it seems as if it should be familiar, but isn’t, and thus makes us feel uncomfortable. Its normally associated with robots or dolls. Or, for instance, the chilling lifeless eyes of Billy :




High Brow:


In his writings on the uncanny, freud talks about aesthetics. Perhaps it is this visual emphasis on the concept that made the Uncanny so popular with 20th Century artists.

For example, Meret Oppenheim in her Luncheon in Fur 1936. Oppenheim was a Surrealist artist, and the Surrealists were interested in Freud. Particularly, in his studies on dreams, and Oppenheim even referred to this sculpture as a ‘dreamt object’. Ideas on the Uncanny are common in dreams, and it makes sense she integrates the two in this piece.

The porcelain teacup covered in fur makes for a striking visual juxtaposition, disregarding its utilitarian function. The resemblance to a familiar object, yet simultaneously not being this, evokes the Uncanny and feelings of discomfort. So much so, that a woman is reported to have fainted at MoMa when Luncheon in Fur was first exhibited.

Oppenheim also hints at the often sexual undertones to the Uncanny and Freud’s dream theories. The furry void with the implication of being filled with hot liquid makes the object resemble a vagina, and the implied sensory function presents a possible reference to lesbian sex. Though you may think this is a bit of a stretch, Oppenheim undeniably captures a disconcerting visual image that does Freud justice.



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