The ‘uncanny’ is a concept in art associated with psychologist Sigmund Freud which describes a strange and anxious feeling sometimes created by familiar objects in unfamiliar contexts.
The term was first used by German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch in his essay On the Psychology of the Uncanny, 1906. Jentsch describes the uncanny – in German ‘unheimlich’ (unhomely) – as something new and unknown that can often be seen as negative at first.
Sigmund Freud’s essay The Uncanny (1919) however repositioned the idea as the instance when something can be familiar and yet alien at the same time. He suggested that ‘unheimlich’ was specifically in opposition to ‘heimlich’, which can mean homely and familiar but also secret and concealed or private. ‘Unheimlich’ therefore was not just unknown, but also, he argued, bringing out something that was hidden or repressed. He called it ‘that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’ (source).
Surrealism aims to revolutionise human experience. It balances a rational vision of life with one that asserts the power of the unconscious and dreams. The movement’s artists find magic and strange beauty in the unexpected and the uncanny, the disregarded and the unconventional. At the core of their work is the willingness to challenge imposed values and norms, and a search for freedom.
The word ‘surrealist’ (suggesting ‘beyond reality’) was coined by the French avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire in the preface to a play performed in 1917 (source).
Artists, including some associated with the surrealist movement drew on this description and made artworks that combined familiar things in unexpected ways to create uncanny feelings (source).
“Uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression” SIGMUND FREUD (source).
‘The negative prefix un- is the indicator of repression’ Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny.
To experience the uncanny is to experience ‘the return of the repressed’, the coming back into consciousness of a fear, once intimate and familiar, but since made strange or ‘othered’ by disavowal. (unheimlich – unhomely)
The Uncanny Handbook Presentation by Phil Gomm
Light, shadow and harsh contrast plays with mood and emotion
The fact that Stanley Kubrick had full control over the design of the sets in The Shining suggests that any errors or inaccuracies in its design were intentional; as a result, instead of creating a functioning space, he presents us with an implausible and irrational design. The space within the hotel therefore is spatially impossible. The film has been studied by a number of enthusiasts who have attempted to map out the space of the hotel. They have discovered numerous errors – doors and hallways lead to nowhere, while impossible windows, such as Stuart Ullman’s office window, exist in a number of rooms
The interiors of the hotel, where we spend much of our time over the course of the film, were constructed at the Elstree Studios in England. In using three different settings, Stanley Kubrick was interested in achieving a specific look for his film, one that required him to use different locations for these establishing scenes. In addition, constructing the interiors of the hotel in a studio provided him with full artistic control over the space (source).
At a base level, the Hotel resembles just an enormously empty hotel for a horror narrative to play over. However, referring back to Affron’s framework of set design, the Overlook is much more than a setting and is crucially ‘set as embellishment’ (1995:38-9) as it ‘does have a relationship with the real, but at the same time is striking and unfamiliar.’ Fundamentally the set at its base level is in-fact verisimilitude. However, in its design, there are countless surreal anomalies such as; televisions projecting images without power-cords, geographically impossible windows, and doors that essentially can lead to nowhere.
Overlook itself is presented as an omniscient being that entraps its protagonists.According to Kuter (1957: 5), ‘[t]he modern day art director must be very nearly a modern-day Leonardo Da Vinci in a wide range of his interests, capabilities, talents and knowledge.’ This statement can be true in regard to Roy Walker’s position of art director, as it appears his set was designed to work perfectly in simpatico with Kubrick’s idiosyncratic; cinematography, high key lighting, and innovative camera movement with the inclusion of the newly invented Steadicam (source).