Written by Wendy Faunce

Almost 100 years ago, Freud analyzed the qualities of things considered uncanny. He referred to the uncanny in his study of the subject as the “Unheimlich,” saying, “‘Unheimlich’ is the name for everything that ought to have remained… hidden and secret and has become visible” (Freud 934). He later refers to the “Unheimlich” as closely associated with “ghostly.” Along with childlike tendencies and doubled reflections, he describes repetition as an essential quality. Often a part of childlike behavior and neurotic tendency, to repeat results in a “repetition-compulsion” is, “perceived as uncanny” (Freud 943).

Alice Rayner’s book Ghosts: Death’s Double and the Phenomena of Theatre focuses specifically on ghostly and uncanny aspects of the stage. Rayner states, “The double… is not a reflection or imitation of an original but an appearance of a dynamic contradiction or opposition that cannot come to rest in either what is visible or what is invisible” (Rayner xii). Both stage and film actors utilize repetition in their ability to repeat the script. However, a film actor on screen appears to replicate the exact performance down to the smallest details. This use of the medium allows the film actors’ performances to be uncanny in ways that a stage actor’s cannot.

This applies to the actors and the medium in which their performances are conveyed. Ghostliness is a feature of the endless repeatability of a filmed performance. On film, performances are not altered or made human and familiar in any way. For example someone watching Lawrence Olivier’s portrayal of Hamlet now will see the same frames that audiences saw when the film was released in 1948. Film is uncannier and more ghostly than theatre also because the actors on the screen are, quite literally, ghostly reflections of flesh and bone. As opposed to stage actors, actors on a computer, television, or movie screen are not real people, but images of people who have since died, aged, or changed in some way.

Hamlet dies night after night on a stage, but the actor’s portrayal of Hamlet’s death varies from show to show. A slight cough may cause him to alter his lines or his performance may be reliant on another actor’s. Noticing these subtle differences, the audience is forced to view the actor as an actor, as opposed to the inhuman character come to life. On film, however, Hamlet repeats his death in the exact same fashion again and again with no variation. The medium enables Kenneth Branagh, David Tennant, and Lawrence Olivier to repeat Hamlet’s final words–“On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;/ So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,/ Which have solicited./ The rest is silence. ”–in the same manner and likeness, no matter the time, place, or situation in which their performance is watched.

Film’s repetition is both ghostly. According to Freud, “[T]he ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar” (Freud 930). With the aid of repetition, these filmed performances become familiar to the point where audiences can even mimic the actors’ speech and actions. However, he also states, “what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” The more often these performances are repeated, the more emphasized these uncanny qualities become to their audiences. Performances captured on film are uncanny in the sense that they are both familiar and unfamiliar.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Cain, William E.; Finke, Laurie A.; Johnson, Barbara E.; McGowan, John; Williams, Jeffery J. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001. 929-952. Print.

Rayner, Alice. Ghosts: Death’s Double and Phenomena of Theatre. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.