Critical Analysis of The Uncanny Theory by Sigmund Freud
People are no strangers to the concept of family, what it means to play a role in a household in order to paint a portrait of normalcy for society. Yet, since the introduction of Charles Addam’s the Addam’s Family (1938), a family who delights in the macabre and are arguably unaware or do not care, that other people find them bizarre, the appearances of unconventional and noticeably dysfunctional families in media has grown considerably over the past decades. Evident in recent films by the production company LAIKA studios, the families in Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014), and Kubo and The Two Strings (2016) possess similar traits in the fact that they can all be linked to one thing: the uncanny.
In this dissertation, I will dispute that the families presented in the contemporary stop motion films by Laika can be deduced as the source of the uncanny, by connecting Freud’s theory into a singular theme: internal threat. Moreover, I’m will be analyzing the families in terms of the uncanny theory proposed by Freud and how his psychoanalytical theories on the uncanny can be linked to the concept of the threat coming from within the home, with the word uncanny or ‘unheimlich’ being the antonym to ‘Heimlich’ translating to familiar or homely. It is this recognition of the families we see depicted on screen being familiar yet so unfamiliar, or ‘unheimlich’, that potentially provokes a reaction of doubt and unsettlement in the viewer.
Famulus. The word family in its original Latin form; its meaning is translated to that of “servant”. Whilst the adoption of the term into modern English has evolved its description to that of “household” the fact remains that both the word and concept of family are ever-changing to adapt to the current social and political climate; it is “constantly reworked, contested and remade.” (Tinchnell, 2005). In the words of Bourdieu (1996:19), the normal family is just a “constellation of words”, an apt description of a notion that “while seeming to describe social reality, in fact, constructs it.” Therefore, it can be argued that the introduction of television and film have played an integral part in constructing the ‘reality’ of the ideal family for viewers spanning generations, molding what we consider significant familial kinship ties.
In the history of televised media, it is not difficult to see how in the beginning its main aim with regards to depicting the family sought to legitimize a ‘norm’, mostly commonly by constructing a set of domestic values, obscuring families with opposing ideologies. The 1950s or dubbed by some academics as ‘The Golden Age of the Family, saw the introduction of the nuclear family which reflected the social norms of the time: a working father, a subservient housewife, and tame children.
Specifically, in America, television came at the perfect opportunity to coincide with “the rise of utopian discourses about post-World War II suburban domesticity” (Spigel & Mann, 1992) and as stated by Haralovich (1989:112) became a “primary means of resocializing the American family” explaining how programs broadcasting the ‘American Dream’ lifestyle were so well received by the working and middle class. However, going into the 1960s people witnessed a rise in alternative, less conventional families that contradicted many familial dynamics coinciding with “when social movements, such as the anti-war and counterculture movements, created a tumultuous time for the nuclear family” (Schatz, 1991). The families that emerged including The Munsters and The Addams Family were on the surface viewed as dysfunctional in comparison to other families on television. In these shows, the dynamic of the characters gave the opportunity for the viewer to criticize the image of the nuclear family by contrasting it with the grotesque and bizarre.
Throughout the following decades, the decline in nuclear families became apparent whereas the critique of it and the ‘dysfunctional’ family gained more popularity. Questioning the long-held traditional family values, satirical parodies of the nuclear family such as The Simpsons (1989 – ) and Married With Children (1987 – 1997) took to disrupting the classic ideology. They challenged television’s “sentimental portrayal” (Zoglin, 1992) of the family by showing children undermining authority figures and disparaging the patriarch.
One TV family previously mentioned known to be especially effective in upheaving the nuclear family image whilst demonstrating strong kinships ties to each other was The Addams Family (1964). Based on the 1938 cartoon by Charles Addams, The Addams Family sitcom revolved around the close-knit group of macabre individuals and their eccentric antics at their home in suburbia. The show made commentary on the hypocrisy of traditional family values whilst contrasting the conventional nuclear family by adopting the gothic aesthetic.
“Gothic figurations of kinship both contest and reinforce orthodox notions of the nuclear family.” (Andeweg, Gothic Kinship, 2016. p.2)
Encapsulating Addam’s family dynamic, the title sequence is a great example of how the family can be perceived as nuclear and anti-nuclear, and therefore arguably dysfunctional, simultaneously. As Morreale (2003) addresses it they simply “[manifest] nuclear familial in a different form with unconventional families trying to live the conventional life.” In the opening sequence, the viewer is greeted with a wide shot of the whole family. Considering the presence of Gomez, the father, Morticia, the mother, and the two children, Pugsley and Wednesday, they are in keeping with the classic nuclear family, but it is contradicted by the presence of the other characters. In addition to this, in the close-up of the children’s faces, they are scowling, displaying their rebellious and unruly nature through a single look to the camera. Reinforcing these different gender roles is Morticia who sits in the center of the frame. Her placement reflects her status in the household as not just a stereotypical housewife but that of the leader of the group.
Despite the ghoulish appearance of their house and their eerie choice of clothing, the family themselves are welcoming and friendly, yet it is the community in the suburbia of their home that shuns them despite their nice demeanor. Subsequently, the lyrics of the upbeat theme song echo the views and opinions of the outsiders who interact with them.
Whilst the overall aim of the song is meant to convey the peculiarity of the family in general, the use of the word “mysterious” implicates there is an element of fear in the unknown. This can be associated with one thing categorically to do with the Addams: The Uncanny.
Regarded as an important piece of psychoanalytical criticism, Sigmund Freud explored the theory of the Uncanny in his essay of the same name in 1919. In a said essay, Freud defines the uncanny as that which belongs “to the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread” (p.123) and believed the uncanny to be something “strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it’ (Morris). His analysis evolves around the return of the repressed, something that should have stayed hidden but is brought to light, more than often to the detriment and unease of the individual.
Furthermore, it can be noted that Freud explores the origin of the word, from the German ‘Heimlich’ meaning the ‘home’ to the later ‘Unheimlich’, or the unhomely. It is from this word of unhomely that the translation of uncanny derives. Though perhaps coincidental on Freud’s part, there is no mistaking the link between the uncanny and the home, both being linked by language but also in the theories, Freud proposes in his essay. Despite not applying them to familial examples, the topics he discusses such as the castration complex and the double can all be applied to a common factor; the threat from something familiar or “Heimlich” being the source of the uncanny. With at least one theory suited to each of the family in the films I’m analyzing, it implies that all modern families are in some way uncanny; but how or why is this true? To answer this question, I will need to contextualize the technique of stop motion before proceeding with my main analysis.
“It’s alive, it’s alive!” (Frankenstein, 1931); in 1823, Mary Shelley wrote one of the most memorable lines in literature history, prompting countless film adaptions to depict the powerful moment where Doctor Frankenstein gives life to the once dead monster. Terrific yet also terrifying, the scene is cemented in the minds of many, with comfort in the reality that, although disturbing, the dead once deceased can never roam the land of the living again. Two decades before the 1931 film, however, it seemed Polish filmmaker Ladislas Starevich was making that impossibility, possible.
In 1911 Starevich created the first ever animated puppet film using the corpses of beetles, entitled Lucanus Cervus. Attaching wax to their thorax and using wires for the insect’s legs, his film gave the animals movement and started the revolutionization of stop motion animation.
Knowing the context behind these imaginative short films, it’s undeniable in how watching these animations gives the viewer a profound sense of the uncanny as the “ghostly images of the now-dead [are] resurrected into the appearance of life” (Mulvey, 2006). Being especially applicable to Starevich’s works as he’s using puppets that could be pieceved as real since they used to be living insects, Mulvey in his analysis of stop motion articulates that the “status as a signifier of pastness (of ‘having been there’) and its status as a signifier of presence (that pastness is now here) evokes the threshold of uncertainty between life and death” (2006), a notion that Freud linked strongly to the uncanny. It raises the question whether stop motion will always produce this uncanny effect on the viewer, but as Laika’s main production style, they demonstrate this idea can be used to a story’s advantage.
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