Q&A with English Professor Christie Harner
Christie Leigh Harner, professor of English and creative writing, specializes in Victorian and 19th century literature. She has authored several papers on the subject of science and visual arts in Victorian literature. This fall, she is teaching a course on Victorian children’s literature.
What is “the Uncanny”?
CH: From a psychoanalytic perspective, the word uncanny comes from Freud’s use “unheimlich.” In an essay, he discusses the relationship between two German words, “heimlich” and “unheimlich,” meaning literally “homelike” and “un-homelike,” and he discusses the way in which unheimlich is actually homelike, but also that which is the opposite of home. So the “unhomely,” or the uncanny, comes to mean that which is strange but familiar and discomforting in its familiarity. So it’s not simply the exotic. He says we find the exotic so alien as to not scare us, whereas the uncanny is familiar, it has familiar textures and sounds and images and it startles us with its proximity to the familiar.
What’s an example of the uncanny in Gothic novels?
CH: I focus primarily on 19th century British novels, and I teach a course that thinks about Gothic novels in a couple of ways. The Victorian Gothic often defines it differently from the Gothic back in the 18th century. Some people argue that the first Gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” in 1764. “The Castle of Otranto” is not a novel you will find scary in any way. There are enormous pieces of armor that fall from the sky, like giant helmets and giant metal feet. It’s very specifically about this kind of eruption of the familiar into a space where it’s not supposed to be ... in an unfamiliar way. That’s the uncanny working.
The Gothic reaches a height in the late 18th century with novels like Ann Radcliffe’s “Mysteries,” which fits all of the stereotypical qualities of the Gothic — think of innocent heroines and locked rooms, secrets. It’s dark, stormy. It’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s often backdated to the past. British Gothic is almost always set in a Catholic country because the Catholics are seen as being more connected to ancient rituals and more superstitious. Parents are almost always dead in Gothic novels, and that allows the children to be victims. You have authority figures who are frightening. A lot of the trends in the late 18th century, we still use today.
And one of the best explanations for describing all of these categories is that the Gothic is about things that shouldn’t be kept apart but are kept apart ... like your own [lack of] access to your interior psychology. You shouldn’t be separate from that, but you are. That’s what creates the horror. It’s the proximity between something that is familiar and something familiar that shouldn’t be.
How does the Gothic concept and the uncanny interact in a modern sense?
CH: We use horror figures that have been established in trends to make something new for the same uncanny feelings. I think what was happening in the 19th century is still happening. So there’s all these tropes that we accept as part of the horror of our homes. The idea of scary spaces, intimidating spaces is continually seen.
One way they write, and I think this speaks to contemporary concerns, is much more about who is occupying all of the figurative subject positions. So in the traditional Gothic, it’s the evil villain who’s older and male, and it’s the innocent victim who is a young and beautiful and sweet girl. I think a lot of contemporary versions are thinking very critically about intersectional politics, but also about how you position people in the subject positions ... so that people don’t occupy the stereotypical roles in horror, which in some ways makes it more frightening.
Another one is “The Haunting of Hill House,” which has the idea of playing horror within a family house and a family’s own relationship to themselves. That is in some ways emblematic of the Gothic and the uncanny because it’s is the idea of something that should be a sacred, kind of calm domestic space that is familiar and safe but that has been completely inverted into something that is unfamiliar and terrifying. But at the same time still there. So it walks that fine line between home and not home.
What’s your favorite trope of the uncanny?
CH: I think probably the repetition. I think the idea that the more something repeats, the stranger it is to us, is really interesting. Once is familiar, twice is coincidence and after that things get stranger.
If there was an uncanny novel set at Dartmouth, what would it be like?
CH: That’s an interesting question. They would have to use some of the old buildings, but I think it depends if it was like a typical Gothic or if it was meant to be more comedic. To me, what’s often most Gothic is are the aspects of the past that we don’t entirely ignore but also don’t entirely confront. So I think you have to do something with a re-emergence of this past.
I think there can be uncanny experiences anywhere that has a deep history. It just depends on how willing people are to expose themselves and have their eyes open. I mean, I think for some people, it could be an uncanny space just because it is a space that is familiar and it looks like an idealized college campus. But there’s also something deeply disorienting about that space because they might not feel at home here for whatever reason. And I think that it’s all pretty uncanny: the discomforting juxtaposition of what they think they want from college and what it actually is.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and style.