‘The uncanny depends on a disruption to the self’

Our journalist Ella Rhodes uncovers uncanny thoughts and cognitive paradoxes…

11 October 2021

I have a clear childhood memory of standing on the high edge of a deep, green valley during a walk when a friend of my mum’s asked me whether I ever felt I wanted to jump into the vast space. As a lifelong acrophobic the answer was a firm ‘no’, but she wasn’t the only one to feel the uncanny pull of such a place.

This phenomenon – l’appel du vide, the call of the void, also known as the High Place Phenomenon in research – is a startling example of a reaction to a normal situation becoming strangely skewed. Even among people who have never had suicidal thoughts this feeling is common, and can also encompass other fatal urges. Have you ever thought, just momentarily, about driving into oncoming traffic or stepping into the path of a speeding train?

Some studies have linked this urge to the anxiety felt while in a high place, others suggest it could be due to our inaccurate perception of vertical distance – we tend to overestimate heights, particularly if we’re afraid of them. Meghan B. Kelly, writing for Boston public radio station WBUR, spoke to associate professor of psychology April Smith (Miami University in Ohio) who has researched the phenomenon and co-authored a paper on the topic, titled ‘An urge to jump affirms the urge to live, an empirical examination of the high place phenomenon’.

Smith found that around half of people have had this feeling of being pulled ground-wards when in a high place. She explained to Kelly: ‘It could be the case that when you’re up somewhere high, your brain is basically sending an alarm signal – you know, be careful. And that could actually lead you to take a step back, or notice your surroundings... Then that more deliberative process kind of kicks in and you start to think, why did I just take a step back? I’m totally fine. There’s no reason for me to be afraid. Oh, I must have wanted to jump.’

Cognitive paradoxes
In l’appel du vide, then, our body’s natural, unconscious, reaction to a threat is suddenly brought to the fore. If you’ve ever found yourself enjoying a grisly true crime podcast, horror film, or apparent ghost sightings caught on CCTV, you may just for a moment wonder to yourself – why am I actively enjoying scaring myself silly? Why am I choosing to insert horror into my otherwise mundane, regular life?

The University of Chicago’s Coltan Scrivner, a fan of horror films and all things spooky, started his research career looking into cognitive paradoxes and ended up exploring why violent sports, like boxing and mixed martial arts, were popular. He later asked why people put themselves in scary situations for fun, and now his work has moved into exploring morbid curiosity.

Scrivner tells me that there has not been a huge amount of research in the area and one of his first missions has been to define what morbid curiosity really is. Does it encompass ghosts, witches, the supernatural, violence, death? So far Scrivner has found that people seem fascinated by anything that might lead to death – rather than death itself – such as aliens, cults, serial killers, and violence in general. He says that people who are social rebels tend to be more morbidly curious, as this kind of curiosity involves exploring those things that your culture says you shouldn’t. ‘Social rebels are interested in things that are threatening probably because they’re interested in the counter-narrative or the counter-culture. Another personality trait that tends to correlate with morbid curiosity is social curiosity – people who are interested in what other people do. This may be due to the fact that many threats come from other people, things like serial killers and true crime.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who have a lower sensitivity to disgust are also more likely to be morbidly curious, and despite what you may have heard men and women tend to be quite similar in their levels of morbid curiosity. However, men and women do differ in an interesting way – with men being more drawn to violence and women more likely to have an interest in true crime.

When I ask Scrivner about any work on the development of morbid curiosity across the lifespan, he sensibly points out that getting ethics approval to test this in children would be more than a little tricky. However, as people get older they tend towards being less curious about the morbid. ‘Maybe that’s not too surprising if morbid curiosity is a motivation to learn about threats. Hopefully as you age you do learn about those things whether you intentionally expose yourself or not and so they become less important.’

It also makes sense that children would be relatively morbidly curious – many enjoy gruesome fairy stories, cartoons can be outlandishly violent at times, and games such as hide and seek and tag have a predatory overtone. Why might we have developed this uncanny curiosity? Scrivner says that seeking out information about threats in our environment, rather than facing those threats head-on, gives us a safe way to learn about what might be out to harm us.

‘When Coronavirus cases started to grow in the US the number of people watching the movie Contagion spiked. Why would people seek out a pandemic movie at the beginning of a pandemic? Of course people weren’t watching it to learn about Covid, you’re watching it because you want to be entertained, but entertainment is fuel for learning. People are probably subconsciously feeling motivated to learn about a threat – rather than going outside and catching it to learn for themselves.’

Around the start of the Covid pandemic, Scrivner began exploring whether people who were horror fans were dealing with the pandemic better or worse than those with no interest in horror. If, in Jaques Lacan’s terms, people were regularly toying with the uncanny, putting themselves in positions which blurred bad and good, pleasure and displeasure, might they be better at coping with feelings in the real world? Scrivner’s hypothesis was that people who purposely expose themselves to feelings of fear and anxiety through entertainment would not be feeling as distressed as non-horror fans.

And that’s what he found, ‘even when you control for a lot of other things. For example it could be the case that people who are really good at escapism are getting along better, but we did control for a general interest in movies. We also thought about the personality traits that could account for this – things like neuroticism or extraversion might be influencing how well you’re handling the pandemic, but even when you control for those, and the rest of the big five traits, you still get this effect.’

Scrivner also asked participants whether they were struggling with physiological symptoms during the pandemic, such as sleeplessness and anxiety; whether people were still able to find things they enjoyed doing; and whether they were finding the pandemic interesting, even if it was scary. Horror fans were experiencing physiological symptoms less, and morbid curiosity was correlated with still being able to find things enjoyable, and interested in the pandemic unfolding.

Dividing the self
According to Sigmund Freud, the uncanny ‘is undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror’. But there’s something more everyday about the uncanny too. Freud’s essay on the topic was titled Das Unheimliche, and he noted that the German word is the opposite of ‘heimlich’ [‘homely’] and ‘heimisch’ [‘native’], casting the uncanny as ‘the opposite of what is familiar’. There’s a circular nature to the uncanny, with Freud deciding that coming at the uncanny from different directions will ‘lead to the same result: the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familia'.

Inevitably it’s also more complicated than that, with Freud saying that ‘something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny’. Consider the concept of doppelgangers. Ever glimpsed someone who looks exactly like you? Perhaps a wave of unease followed – but why? Dr Stephanie Lay (Open University) tells us that doppelgangers featured heavily in the writings of Freud and Jentsch, who related doppelgangers to a fear that we could be usurped by something that is almost, but not quite, like us. Our original selves are left as ‘broken echoes’. Lay says this is a trope which we see playing out in popular culture in ideas about robots or AI taking over the world.

Lay questions whether this is a truly uncanny experience or more of an existential fear that our individuality could be replaced by something we don’t understand – something familiar yet altogether different. ‘From my perspective, the doppelganger fear steps outside the uncanny valley into something a little more primal about our individual sense of place in the world, our agency and ability to control our lives. It’s more than just uncanny… it could be downright terrifying and we don’t need to access a subtle sense of disquiet to understand why people might be unhappy.’

Freud talks of the uncanny in terms of ego disturbance, of ‘a doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self’. What could be more familiar than our own sense of self, our own bodies? Dr Ben Alderson-Day (Durham University) is a co-investigator on the Hearing the Voice Project, and has spent much of his career researching voice-hearing and auditory hallucinations, and presence hallucinations, in clinical and non-clinical, populations. He says that roughly 5-15 per cent of people, in the non-clinical population, have reported hearing voices in their lifetime (though these estimates vary quite considerably).

Some of the more common experiences include hearing someone calling or shouting your name. People may hear particular sentences or be able to converse with the voices in their minds, sometimes using them as a confidante. Certain contexts are much more likely to induce people to hear voices – when swaying on the boundary of sleep people often have unusual experiences including hearing sounds and voices. Alderson-Day tells me this is likely due to the way the brain gradually ‘switches off’ from the outside world as we drift off to sleep. ‘The resting networks for the auditory areas of your brain tend to stay more active – even when the rest of your brain is essentially going to sleep, which is why we can get woken up by different sounds.

'But it also means, for example, that areas of the brain related to things like reality monitoring or executive function are not carrying out their usual oversight processes on auditory regions. One idea is that, essentially, our auditory perception is still ongoing, perhaps taking guesses at what’s out there, but we’ve let the wheels keep spinning, and so people start to hear unusual things – often just single words, a shout, or a sudden noise or murmuring.’

Social isolation may also lead to a higher likelihood of hearing voices. Alderson-Day points to Ralph Hoffman’s social deafferentation hypothesis of hearing voices in schizophrenia, which suggests that without the usual sensory input we come across in our daily lives, our brains will start to generate their own signals. ‘We see examples of that in things like Charles Bonnet syndrome with visual hallucinations. But Hoffman argued that maybe you could have Social Deafferentation – where a complete lack of social contact leads to us to create our own social percepts.’ The solitary, monotone, environments often experienced in endurance sports see people often reporting voices, visions, or a sensed presence.

There have also been links drawn between childhood trauma and adversity and hearing voices, although it is difficult to find a cause-effect relationship in this case. But Alderson-Day says that there does seem to be a set of people who have a completely different experience of the world from a relatively early age, with vivid perceptual experiences which persist into adulthood. ‘Those might be of deceased relatives, or of magical or mystical figures, and they might be quite meaningful and important for the young people having them… Their perceptual world is different, they see the world through different eyes, they hear the world through different ears.’

It makes sense, Alderson-Day says, that such experiences can lead people towards a community that ‘believes that spirit is something that people can connect with’, including after death. Religious studies scholar Dr Adam Powell (Durham University) and psychology researcher Dr Peter Moseley (Northumbria University) recently released the results of a survey with people from the spiritualist movement in the UK. Almost 45 per cent reported that their experience of hearing voices they believe are from the spirit world started before they joined the spiritualist community. ‘I think we’re surrounded by unreality,’ Alderson-Day adds. ‘We think that everything’s fairly on the straight and narrow in the outside world but unusual things are happening, and mostly people don’t talk about it. There’s a lot more of it out there than you might think.’

Alderson-Day is also interested in presence hallucinations – the feeling that someone, or something, is near you. After writing an article for The Psychologist in 2016, he began collecting accounts via a survey. Around 250 people shared their experiences, across a range of contexts. ‘The big question is are we talking here about different experiences where the term presence is a bit of a misnomer – it’s just people struggle to describe these experiences and grab onto the best term – or psychologically are we talking about pretty similar phenomena?’ There are intriguing differences though: ‘My feeling about bereavement experiences is that identity often really stands out, it comes first. In something like sleep paralysis it’s almost like a feeling of intent first – the malevolent intent. In survival situations the presence emerges with a function first – it’s what we need from this experience right in that situation.’

The exact cause of all these unusual, uncanny phenomena is somewhat murky, but Alderson-Day tells me many of these experiences will be linked to self and non-self experiences. ‘I would argue that, more often than not, the production of the uncanny depends on a disruption to the self in some way. We know from various studies on the embodied self that there are ways in which you can convince people that other things are part of their own body usually via processes like synchronisation of cues and multi-sensory integration – the rubber hand illusion is a classic example of that. As soon as you start disrupting the sense of self then you very suddenly start to get feelings of the uncanny, and very often but not always, people start to get feelings that another person is present.’

Another related process, Alderson-Day says, is predictive processing or predictive coding, which suggests our perceptions are a product of a balance between prior expectations or knowledge and prediction error. Someone may make a prediction about a sensory experience, based on prior experience, which doesn’t quite fit the sensory signal coming in. ‘I’ve done research myself which supports this idea. It certainly seems like there’s a range of different contexts in which some people seem particularly susceptible to drawing more upon prior knowledge and expectation in how they perceive the world, and seemingly that relates to their propensity to have unusual experiences too.’

King of the castle?
Alderson-Day also points me to the work of medical and psychological anthropologist Professor Tanya Luhrmann (Stanford University) who has explored many aspects of uncanny experiences – including how cultural differences in theories of how the mind works impact upon how people interpret unusual experiences.

‘Tanya’s thesis argues that if you think the mind is this inviolable place that only you have control over, something passing through it that doesn’t belong can be seen as a violation. But if you think of the mind or the body or the soul as being something which can be open to other spirits, for example, or other people’s thoughts or other people’s voices, then you might still get distressing experiences, but it’s not like that that impregnable castle has been pulled down… there isn’t necessarily this world-changing impact.’

Luhrmann has, for example, compared people hearing voices in America, Ghana and India. ‘If we look at someone in America,’ Alderson-Day says, ‘that idea of you being in charge of your own mind is so powerful that actually then it makes some of these voice experiences even more distressing. Your reaction to them is based on your core belief about what the mind is and the way the mind should work.’
I wonder whether our sense of how the mind should work is shifting, uncovering the uncanny. Life has always, and will always, included the light and dark, paradoxical urges to live and to die, pleasure and pain. But as a whole host of familiar experiences – work, travel, communication, dating and the like – become more unfamiliar in our ‘new normal’, perhaps the boundaries will begin to blur. The uncanny awaits… 

Box: Already seen, or even lived…

A moment, a phrase, an image, a sound… you stop and wonder, hasn’t this happened before?

According to a Science Focus article by Thomas Ling there is no definitive model of what is happening in the brain when we experience déjà vu, but it is likely it occurs when information is sent to frontal areas suggesting that an experience from the past is happening again. Dr Akira O’Connor (University of St Andrews) told Ling that the frontal areas of the brain will explore whether a person has actually seen or experienced this occurrence before. ‘If you have actually been in that place before, you may try harder to retrieve more memories. If not, a déjà vu realisation can occur.’

Déjà vu affects younger people more regularly than older people, can be more common if someone is tired or stressed, and drugs which involve the dopamine system can also increase experiences of it. There have been cases of persistent déjà vu, including one man in Finland who took a particular combination of flu drugs. Some people even experience an uncanny phenomenon without the instantly dismissible quality of déjà vu. With ‘déjà vécu’ or ‘already lived’, the sensation is that a whole sequence of events has been lived through before…

- Ella Rhodes

[email protected]