Mediums of the "uncanny". A brief archaeology of ghosts' vehicles

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Meneses Reyes
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Mediums of the "uncanny". A brief archaeology of ghosts' vehicles
Mediums of the "uncanny". A brief archaeology of ghosts' vehicles
Mediums of the "uncanny". A brief archaeology of ghosts' vehicles
Mediums of the "uncanny". A brief archaeology of ghosts' vehicles


In his essay The Uncanny from 1919, Sigmund Freud states the circumstances in which a person can get a feeling of uncanniness. The term uncanny comes from a German term: unheimlich (uneasy, eerie, hidden, dangerous, a ghostly experience), which is at the same time related to the term heimlich (familiar, friendly, intimate). According to Freud, “uncanny” is a terrifying feeling that comes from something previously known or familiar that has been repressed and suddenly comes to light. The terrifying experience of dread or horror “occurs either when repressed infantile complexes have been revived by some impression, or when the primitive beliefs we have surmounted seem once more to be confirmed”. Ghosts, doubles, demons, living dead, etc., are certainly included within those “primitive beliefs” we think we have surmounted long time ago, and which are mainly seen nowadays as ways of entertainment (1). Terry Castle claims in her text The Female Thermometer (1995), that the rationalist period of the Enlightenment (2) was also the period in which the uncanny and many of its mediums or vehicles were invented. It was during the eighteenth century, asserts Castle, “with its confident rejection of transcendental explanations, compulsive quest for systematic knowledge, and self-conscious valorization (sic) of ‘reason’ over ‘superstition’, that human beings first experienced that encompassing sense of strangeness and unease Freud finds so characteristic of modern life”. This essay explores a brief archaeology of the mediums of the uncanny, and compares the characteristics of some old devices with more contemporary ones. The technologies used for the depiction of the uncanny vary from proto-cinematic devices, literature, painting, photography, up to contemporary horror cinema. The first part of this essay focuses on proto-cinematic devices, while the last part will be a contemporary case of study from horror cinema: Shutter, a Thai horror film from 2004, directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, in which ghosts use photography as an specific mean of appearance and through which the directors convey uncanny feelings to the spectators.

The Uncanny and its proto-cinematic devices

During the period of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Europe (approximately during the late 15th and 16th centuries), pagan people (3) were pointed out as heretics, persecuted and sometimes even murdered in the most horrible ways imagined. One of the reasons why people believed in superstitions was the lack of knowledge or of scientific explanation of certain natural disasters. If, for instance, crops grew badly people considered it as doings of spirits, demons or witches. During the Enlightenment period those sorts ofsuperstitions were supposedly surmounted. The new “Age of Reason” would bring science and philosophy. However ironically, new technology developments also revived the curiosity for the supernatural and the possibility of its manifestation or projection in the external world. On one hand, scientists themselves were fascinated with the production of uncanny feelings in the spectators. Audiences, on the other hand, were at the same time afraid and curious about witnessing what they thought were supernatural events. There were different proto-cinematic devices invented during the eighteenth and nineteenth century used in order to amuse, but also to produce uncanny feelings. Within others Castle mentions: automatas, magic lantern shows, shadow plays, projections onto smoke, phantasmagorias, Pepper’s ghost shows, and some other spectral illusions. The first automaton (designed by the French scientist Vaucanson) was exhibited in England in the 1740’s. Inanimate apparatuses –robots, dancing dolls- suddenly started interacting with people producing an effect of strangeness on them. These automatons are still used for different scientific and artistic purposes. In Fellini’s Casanova (1976), for instance, there is a bizarre interaction between a dancing doll (automata) and a real or alive person (4). Apart from this, the magic lantern (5) was also used during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ frightening shows because it produced ghostly images that resembled real apparitions. “The illusion was apparently so convincing that surprised audience members sometimes tried to fend off the moving ‘phantoms’ with their hands or fled the room in terror” (6).

From then on until 1812 several projectors were invented and shows were improved. In 1770, François Dominique Séraphin used Chinese shadow plays with fantastic silhouettes and marionette puppets, and by the same period Guyot introduced apparitions projected onto smoke (7). Between 1801 and 1802, Paul de Philipstal and Madame Tussaud gave several spectre shows. Around 1860, the Pepper’s Ghost was also an important show in which the audience could even hear the voices of the ghosts or spectres floating before them (8). All those proto-cinematic devices influenced the first twentieth century motion picture shows gave by Méliès (9) and the Lumière brothers. "Yet amid all the technological breakthroughs and the refinements in cinematic technique, the ghost-connection, interestingly enough, never entirely disappeared. Well into the twentieth century motion-picture shows continued to be advertised in the manner of the old ghost-shows, and many early films (...) featured explicitly phantasmagorical illusions. In various ways the new medium of motion pictures continued to acknowledge and reflect on its "spectral" nature and origins" (Werner, 154). It was in 1780 that Etienne Gaspar Robertson created what he used to call ‘fantômes artificiels’. “In darkness, with the screen itself invisible, images could be made to appear like fantastic luminous shapes, floating inexplicably in the air.” (Castle, 146). Robertson improved the magic lantern using a roller under the rear-projector so that the images changed their size. Skeletons, ghosts, demons, spirits, etc. tried to get out the screen terryfying the audience. Robertson realized the “uncanny illusionistic potential of the new technology and exploited the magic lantern's pseudo necromantic power with characteristic flamboyance”. His shows had the specific purpose of producing uncanny feelings in the spectators daring them to face once again their dead beloved ones by conjuring up their spirits. Robertson used painted pictures of the spectators’ dead relatives or of some very well known dead people and projected them in a way that seemed to be fluttering, floating or moving as animated souls. In one of his phantasmagoria shows from 1979, Robertson began with a speech: “ ‘Citizens and gentlemen’, he declared, ‘It is ... a useful spectacle for a man to discover the bizarre effects of the imagination when it combines force and disorder; I wish to speak of the terror which shadows, symbols, spells, the occult works of magic inspire’ […] ‘I have promised that I will raise the dead and I will raise them’” (Warner, Marina “Darkness visible”).

Before such devices were invented, ‘enlighted people’ tried to explain such apparitions as hallucinations, dreams, sicknesses, “projections of the mind”, or, in other words, as internal more than external ghosts. Hence,shows such as Robertson’s usually challenged intellectual minds and were even advertised by him and his followers as real horror shows. Albeit “one knew ghosts did not exist, yet one saw them anyway, without knowing precisely how”. Therefore, the division rational/irrational to which the Age of Reason appealed also revealed a paradox: the modern fusion of sciences, technology, psychology, and metaphysics. The boundaries between real/unreal,inner self/external world, and Heimlich/unheimlich seem since then (and perhaps have always been) unclear or blur.

Internal Ghosts

The proto-cinematic devices mentioned above, evidence the implicit desire to externalize or project spectres and spirits in the external world. However in literature, the idea of ghosts was more an internal or subjective one and its externalization was only seen as a trope for the subject’s feelings. Ghosts, asserts Castle, were absorbed into the world of thought. In The sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Goethe refers to the magic lantern as a metaphor for Werther’s soul and love for Charlotte. “Desire, like Kircher's amazing invention, produces marvellous ‘phantoms’ in the mind's eye. Thus Werther, overwhelmed by his passion for Lotte, speaks of seeing her inside his head—‘in my forehead, at the focus of my inner vision’—like a kind of apparition: ‘How her image haunts me!’ (S, 124)” (Goethe, 156). Some contemporary literature also reveals the blurry limits between inner and outer ghosts. The Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote Morel’s invention in 1940. The book tells the story of a fugitive who finds an island where he can finally hide. Every week, along with the high tides, a group of people appears anddisappears eight days after. The fugitive falls in love with one of the apparitions: Faustine, a woman who seems to ignore him all the time. After some time, the fugitive finds out that those people are only images projected by machines. Every week they appear and repeat their routines. The fugitive’s desire for Faustine is
just as strong as Werther’s for Lotte, but the images of the women are also as unreal as a ghosts’ might be. Besides the uncanny feeling such images produce, their repeated apparition in the men lives make them look and feel even more real than reality itself. Therefore, the external/internal and real/unreal are no longer clear oppositions, which emphasize the feeling of uncaniness (10).

Contemporary Mediums of ‘The Uncanny’

Up to this point, we have analysed how the mediums or vehicles of the uncanny vary depending on the inventions from different periods of time. The apparatuses or mediums can reflect internal fears or desires through the external projection of ghosts, spirits, spectres, etc. It has been even said that ghosts or spirits look for mediums to become visible in the external world; those mediums, nowadays, are most of the time electronic devices such as cameras, mobile phones, television, cinema, screens in general, etc. Horror cinema has depicted very well the uncanny also using such devices within the stories. Many examples could be mentioned, but this paper focuses only in a contemporary Thai film: Shutter (2004) directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom. Shutter shows how spectres, ghosts or spirits communicate with their beloved ones through photographs. Freud stated some of the ways in which the uncanny can be presented and which are also depicted in this film: there is a confusion between the real and the imaginary, scenes or circumstances are repeated several times, and ghosts or doubles appear in order to produce the feeling of strangeness in the spectator. Those manifestations of the uncanny will be explored in this text. One of the vehicles presented in Shutter is photography. According to Barthes (1981), photography seems to be unclassiafiable; it shows what ‘cannot be seen’ any longer in the outer world, it “repeats what could never be repeated existentially”. This ‘unclassification’ defines photography as linked to the idea of the uncanny. A photograph represents a signifier that is not longer there, it is, in other words, a fiction representing reality. “Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see”. In a normal photograph, hence, people can see their feelings and/or fears reflected. This uncaniness, however, becomes stronger depending on the technologies or techniques used to change or modify the pictures. Those techniques have to do with the history of photography. Tracing such history is a difficult task. We can even go back to Plato’s caveand think about people shadows reflected in the outer world as photography’s predecessors. There were as many pre-photographic forms as there were proto-cinematic devices. Photography started as a scientific tool capable of depicting the world outside in a realistic or objective way. Portraiture had a similar objective. According to Warner, it was thought that a very objective depiction could even show people’s characters. “A shadow - she claims -, preserved on paper, acted as an epitome of the subject’s character. For all their schematic stillness, silhouettes can present the liveliest studies of family groups and friends” (Warner, Marina “Darkness visible”).

The first photographs taken (with a camera) date from around the first decades of the nineteenth century. Daguerreotypes were imprinted onto silver-coated copper sheets and the images didn’t appear properly sometimes, or seemed to be floating or fading on the surface. In 1841, after Honoré de Balzac had his portrait taken by the photographer Félix Nadar, he expressed that an image of that kind, depicted for him “peelings off life”, retaining one of the layers of the body, or one of its ghosts. Even long after their death, the images of those that have passed away were still preserved within the photographs. Balzac’s anecdote “captures more immediately the uncanny aura hanging around daguerreotypes from the very beginning and which then began to emanate from photographs too. Images made of light and shadow cast by people, things, and places seem to preserve action at a distance: the transmission of the person through time” (Warner, Marina “Darkness visible”). Photography is indeed related to spirits and, therefore, to Freud’s Uncanny. On one hand, photography is capable of capturing and preservingan image of a person through time and, along with it, perhaps his own character; on the other hand, most of the time blurry and phantasmagorical images produce uncanny feelings. Certain technological reasons, such as double exposures or photoshop applications, explain why ghosts-kind images appear in photographs; and yet the double exposure effect has been considered “the ultimate ghost-producing technology of the nineteenth century” (Castle, 167). In his book Photography and Spirit, John Harvey (2007) asserts: "…Today photography is no longer a mysterious, magical and necessarily trustworthy medium. Spirit photographs meet with wry smiles of incredulity that betray the percipient’s knowing acquaintance with the seamless and sophisticated ways in which, by means of contemporary technology, images can be influenced, appearances adjusted and fantasies fabricated". The “fabrication of fantasies” is yet very interesting to explore. Despite knowing that spectres can be faked in photographs –or in horror cinema-, they still produce uncanny feelings on the spectators and spectators long for them. Films might not produce uncanny feelings, unless they have a previous and strong enough introduction. As we mentioned before, Robertson’s introduction speech for the phantasmagoria, was essential in order to convey the feeling of strangeness among the people witnessing the show. Therefore, along with ghosts’ vehicles, uncanny situations have also been fabricated and improved.

The double

The film Shutter is capable of provoking uncanny feelings, even though the viewer already knows the
techniques used to create “ghosts pictures”. Tun is
a portrait photographer. One day, after a tragic
accident, strange shadows start appearing in
his photographs. Tun does not really know how to explain those apparitions, as they do not look like double exposures. After several strange situations related to the shadows in the pictures, Tun and his girlfriend decide to look for somebody who works with spirits photos. After going to a ghost-images newspaper, Tun and Jane find out that ghosts pictures are often manipulated and changed with Photoshop; but yet there are some pictures impossible to fake or modified: those taken with a Polaroid camera. “What about Polaroid’s? Can you fake them? You load the film and press the shutter. The photo ejects. Tell me then... how can they be faked?” says the man from the newsreel. Tun’s girlfriend starts taken pictures with the Polaroid, looking for the spirit who seems to be cursing them. The Polaroid creates an uncanny feeling in the spectator. While images taken with a digital camera can be easily manipulated, ghosts appearing in pictures taken with a Polaroid camera make discarded beliefs come to light again.

According to Freud, the “double” is one of the strongest reasons and most common situations that generate feelings of uncanniness. In order to support such idea, Freud remembers Hoffmann’s story of the Sandman, an evil man who spreads sand in people’s eyes and take them out to feed its children. In Hoffmann’s story, a student, Nathaniel, reproduces an evil father-series through time, all of them interfering with his love stories (11). Coppelius (the sandman) is the double of his father, and later on, Professor Spalanzani is also the evil Sandman who interferes with his love for Olympia, the automata doll. The double might be a person that suddenly appears and has not been seen for a long time; or is just another person that looks very similar or reminds us the one missed.The original father used to be seen as something familiar and friendly in a way (heimlich), but later becomes terrorific or strange as a double (unheimlich). As Freud states: "The quality of uncanniness can only come from the circumstance of the “double” being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage, long since left behind, and one, no doubt, in which it wore a more friendly aspect. The “double” has become a vision of terror, just as after the fall of their religion the gods took on daemonic shapes". The notion of double is essential in Shutter in order to terrify the spectator. But the context in which the double emerges is also important to create that feeling. Long ago in high school, Tun used to date Natre, a very shy girl that had been teased all the time by Tun’s friends. She loved him at the point of trying to commit suicide when Tun left her. One day, Tun’s friends rape Natre and make him take pictures of it. Tun never hears anything else about her anymore. Natre’s spirit then uses Jane’s body -his current girlfriend- as a sort of double means. Sometimes Jane appears in the processing room without actually being there (12). Some other times she appears as a friendly person (as she used to be), and only after becomes a terrifying image.

The repetition-compulsion principle

Freud also mentions the repetition-compulsion as a sort of uncanny situation. It is also repeteadly used in horror cinema. The principle consists in repeating several times something unpleasant - or even pleasant -, until it gets too difficult to stand it, and even acquires a demonic character. Compulsory repetitions create a sense of helplessness similar to the one felt in dreams or nightmares. Freud exemplifies it telling us one of his own anecdotes: "Once, as I was walking through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy, which was strange to me, on a hot summer afternoon, I found myself in a quarter the character of which could not long remain in doubt. Nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses, and I hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning. But after havingwandered about for a while without being directed, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence was now beginning to excite attention. I hurried away once more, but only to arrive yet a third time by devious paths in the same place. Now, however, a feeling overcame me which I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad enough to abandon my exploratory walk and get straight back to the piazza I had left a short while before". Compulsory repetitions of this kind are reproduced in Shutter. Tun is trying to escape from Natre’s spirit, and he runs down the stairs. 
Helplessness, he always gets to the same
floor: the fourth one in the building. Thesituation is repeated over and over again, leaving Tun in the middle of a helpless situation. Another repetition-compulsory scene occurs in a room where Tun takes portraits. Out of the sudden the lights turn off, and the camera starts taking pictures on its own, over and over again. The shadow of the spirit appears among the flashes scarying Tun and the spectator (13).

As we mentioned before, Freud’s uncanny is felt, when passed surmounted beliefs come to light again due to certain circumstances. “As soon as something actually happens in our lives which seems to support the old, discarded beliefs, we get a feeling of the uncanny; and it is as though we were making a judgment something like this: ‘So, after all, it is true that one can kill a person by merely desiring his death!’ or, ‘Then the dead do continue to live and appear before our eyes on the scene of their former activities!’ and so on”. Shutter, among many horror films, lively re-creates those uncanny circumstances. The vehicles or mediums of ghosts and spirits such as film, and several electronic devices function as the means through which the invisible becomes visible; they are, therefore, a visible representation of the viewer’s own fears and desires. The mediums, especially films, have the privilege of creating fantastic circumstances difficult to imagine in real life. As a result “there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life”. This might be one of the reasons why spectators, paradoxically, look for horror cinema as a way of amusement or entertainment.


The way in which spectres, ghosts, spirits, etc. have been depicted through several centuries, evidences also a history of electronic devices, live shows, paintings and literature behind. All those mediums reveal the paradox of being afraid of facing fears, but still desiring to see them as material objects projected in the real or actual world. Spectres produce ‘the uncanny’; a term that, according to Freud, expresses a terrifying feeling - unheimlich - that comes from something repressed, previously known or familiar, and which suddenly revives. Robertson’s phantasmagoria was one of the most famous live spectre-shows during the eighteenth century. He not only made the spectres look like animated pictures, but also encouraged the audience to face once again their dead beloved ones. Literature and painting also reflected the curiosity or anxiety for ghosts, but instead of being externally projected they were internal reflections or projections of the mind. After the analysis made here, it can be seen that the division internal/external, Heimlich/unheimlich, etc., is not a clear one. The contemporary film Shutter represents the use of modern a technological device to reproduce or create spirits: photographs. Different circumstances in which the uncanny can emerge are depicted in the film. Doubles, repetitions that become strange, and broken boundaries between real and imaginary are all depicted in the film.

1) For Noel Cärrol the question of why do we like to get scared is an essential research question. In The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the heart he states the following questions: “1) how can anyone be frightened by what they know does not exist, and 2) why would anyone ever be interested in horror, since being horrified is so unpleasant?”.
(2) According to some historians a period from the 14th to the 17th century.
(3) The term refers to people holding religious beliefs different from the Catholic ones, especially believing in many gods, not paying indulgences and practicing rituals considered strange by the Catholic Church.
(4) Many different examples of automatas can be found in Contemporary cinema. See, for instance, Wong-Kar Wai’s 2046, in which through a long train journey the characters get involved with automatas that suffer from delayed reactions to emotional feelings.
(5) Whose invention is credited to the German priest Athanasius Kircher in 1646 and after to the Dutch scientist Christian Huygens in 1650
(6) Today’s slide and motion picture projectors are similar to the magic lantern in that the latter used hand painted images (photographic slides) projected in transparencies made of glass that also moved.
(7) These devices might be the predecessors of today smoke screens.

(8) In Disneyland there is an example of Pepper’s ghost effect used on The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
(9) See for instance Melie’s early film: Le Manoir du Diable, 1896.

(10) Just like the phantoms of love in literature, 
phantoms of war and death have also been
reproduced in painting. Castle
 mentions the example of Thomas Carlyle and his 
French Revolution. The figures of the murderers are
depicted as an anticipation of the terror and the
dead figures as pale phantoms. “The world is all an
optical shadow”(141), asserts Carlyle according to
 Castle. These ghosts or spirits of death were also
imagined and ‘seen’ by the Spanish painter
 Francisco Goya (1746-1828), who depicted them as terrifying creatures in his so-called black paintings. After have been a witness of the Napoleonic wars and the cruelties of the government, and also old, deaf, and ill, Goya painted in the walls of his own house what seems to be dark creatures, superstitions, and deadpeople. These paintings reflect what people usually consider Goya’s ghosts, also a topic of several films such as: Carlos Saura’s Goya en Burdeos (1999) and Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts (2006).
(11) Freud asscociates the double also with the infantile complex of castration. The eyes taken out represent for Freud the castration itself.
(12) The viewer knows this because the real Jane calls him on the phone one minute after her apparition in the room, then the double disappears.
(13) The repetition-compulsion principle is an important characteristic of many horror films, being Shutter just one example. In Ringu (1998) directed by Hideo Nakata, a phone call announcing the date of death always occurs after seeing a strange video. The idea of the eternal recurrence is represented in Ringu (stated also in the philosophy of Nietszche and in reference to some ancient myths just as Sysyphus’ one). In order to skip the curse, the characters have to show the video to somebody else before a week; otherwise, Sadako’s spirit would get out of the television and her penetrating gaze would kill them almost instantaneously.

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Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida, reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. Hill and Wang, New York, 1981.
Bioy Casares, Adolfo. La invención de Morel. Norma: Bogotá, 1993.
Castle, Terry. The Female Thermometer. New Yor: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Not known. 1919. 
Harvey, John. Photography and Spirit. England, Reaktion Books Ltd, 2007.
Warner, Marina. Darkness Visible. Cabinet Magazine. Issue 24. Shadows winter 2006/7.