Freud, Phantoms And Psychic Phenomena
Updated: Jan 17
As the nights draw in, and the shadows lengthen, the thin place between our world and the afterlife is said to open up allowing us to connect with ghouls, ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. This has become known as All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween.
The idea that consciousness survives after death, and that it can return, is as old as human existence, and whilst it has inspired the imagination of writers, theologians, occultists, and alchemists over the centuries, it was the late 19th Century that would become 'the golden age of ghosts'.
In 1886, the year Sigmund Freud established his clinical practice in Vienna, Robert Louis Stephenson published The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This would be followed by M. R. James' Lost Hearts (1895), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) and Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (1898). Just a few years earlier, in 1882, some of the greatest rational minds of the time had come together to form the Society of Psychical Research; their mission, to prove through scientific investigation, the authenticity of spiritualism and the existence of paranormal phenomena. Members included Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lewis Carroll, but despite all the scientific possibility offered by the development of electricity, photography and telecommunications, many an eminent career was derailed by the belief in a fraudulent medium, charlatan table tapper, or improbable spirit photograph.
One of my favourite characters associated with the S.P.R. is Ada Goodrich Freer. Known to her friends as ‘the Freer’ and professionally as ‘Miss X’, she became one of the first female members of the society in 1888, the same year that news of the Whitechapel Murders was gripping London. According to contemporary accounts, Ada was charming and persuasive, and went everywhere with her faithful Pomeranian dog called ‘Spooks’. But who was Ada Goodrich Freer, and where had she come from? Having infiltrated what was ostensibly an old boys club, she set herself up as a folklore magazine editor, ghost hunter, medium, and crystal ball gazer. In an age where family name and class defined your position in society; her background was less clear. Not that this stopped Ada and she soon attracted the patronage of an S.P.R. vice president, the immensely wealthy Marquess of Bute, which must have put a few stuffy noses out of joint. Armed with all the latest ghost hunting equipment, the pair went on ghost hunts around the country, often over-staying their welcome at stately homes. Their most famous investigation was at a large house in Perthshire, Scotland, which became the subject of her best-selling book, The Alleged Haunting of B---- House. Not everyone was impressed by Ada though, and one newspaper report described a lecture she presented about seances as, ‘a peculiarly nauseating recrudescence of offensive spiritualistic balderdash’. Unfortunately, the knives were out, and her career ended in ignominy with accusations of plagiarism and fraud.
Whilst both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were also members of the S.P.R., the focus of their careers was to take them into an even darker place - the unconscious. Jung had grown up in a household where his mother held seances, and he would never lose his fascination with the paranormal:
‘Paranormal psychic phenomena have interested me all my life, usually as I have said, they occur in acute psychological states, (emotionality, depression, shock etc.) or, more frequently, with individuals characterised by a peculiar or pathological personality structure, where the threshold to the collective unconscious is habitually lowered.’
Freud too, viewed ghostly encounters as a manifestation of the unconscious, but for him, this was a ‘neurosis’. However, he never lost his curiosity for 'the uncanny', which can be defined as 'a feeling that may be strange and unsettling about something that is familiar.' Here we enter the weird world of irrational fears and dread: china dolls with small sharp teeth, glassy-eyed waxworks and the phenomena of doppelgangers.
Freud wrote an essay about this, titled The Uncanny, in which he explores the similarity of the German word 'heimlich' which means ‘homely’ with the German word for 'uncanny' which is 'unheimlich', therefore ‘unhomely'.
At this point, Freud’s mind goes into overdrive as he presents his hypothesis that neurotic men, and by this he probably meant homosexual men, find female genitalia ‘uncanny’. According to Freud, this neurosis is a repression which may also express itself as a horror of being buried alive. He interprets this as a fear of returning to the mother’s womb, a punishment for deviating from societal norms.
One of Freud’s favorite authors was the early 19th century German gothic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann who Freud called the ‘unrivalled master of the uncanny’. Hoffmann's short stories are populated by asylums and grand balls, spectres and maniacs, and even a beautiful woman who turns out to be animatronic. One character is haunted by an irrational fear of the Sandman, a benevolent character from Mittal-European folklore, who sprinkles ‘sleepy dust’ in children’s eyes to help them have good dreams. Freud explains Hoffmann’s version:
‘The Sandman comes to children when they won’t go to bed and throws a handful of sand in their eyes, so that their eyes jump out of their heads, all bleeding. He then throws their eyes in his bag and takes them off to the half-moon as food for his children. These children sit up there in their nest, they have hooked beaks like owls and use them to peck up the eyes of the naughty little boys and girls.’
Freud wrote The Uncanny in 1919, at the end of the First World War, a time when irrational fears had become a devastating reality in the mud and decay of the trenches. As he rode trams around Vienna, he saw street posters offering seances to contact the dead; and for a while it seemed that talking to the dead would become more popular than lying on a couch, talking to the living.
Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling that is more powerfully experienced in art than in life, and whilst he had the opportunity to explore this further, he turned down all offers to write a movie script. In Hollywood, it was Hitchcock who became the master of the uncanny, whether that was in his use of close-up camera angles in Psycho, the doppelganger of Madeleine in Vertigo or Cary Grant being chased into a corn field by a crop duster in North by Northwest.
Meanwhile, a whole cinematic sub-genre known as the 'English uncanny' has emerged with films such as The Wicker Man and The Witchfinder General, and TV series like The League of Gentlemen and more recently The Third Day. Here, archaic themes of fertility and legacy are played out in local customs within a half-remembered nostalgic setting. The outcome is often predictable: queer folk draw you in making it difficult to leave, whilst someone licks a toad, and phallic corn dollies hint at sinister goings-on.
As may be expected, horror movies and psychoanalytic themes have gone hand in hand. The idea of a decapitation or castration in slasher movies can be interpreted as the cutting off of tricky emotions or trauma, the victims are often teenagers who are grappling with unfamiliar feelings around sexuality and body changes. The psychoanalytic idea of ‘splitting’ is explored with great effect in The Babadook, where the little boy, unable to cope with his mother's grief and anger, unconsciously internalizes it into his own behaviour. As this is unacceptable, he projects these feelings on to the Babadook, in the mysterious pop-up book.
As for my own experience of the uncanny, I try and stay attuned to the strangeness of the ordinary. And whilst I take a broadly psychoanalytic view on paranormal experiences, I also leave space for the ‘unknown’.
A few years ago, I drove to the village of Borley in Essex, which was the location of Borley Rectory, ‘the most haunted house in England’ and the subject of numerous books by paranormal investigator Harry Price in the 1930s. On that day, the vast Essex skies were heavy and overcast, and blustery winds whipped through the wheat fields on the edge of the village giving the place a suitably spooky atmosphere. Nothing remains of the rectory, it burnt down in 1939, and today there are modern bungalows built on the site. An ominous guard-chain stops cars from parking in front of the village church across the road; sightseers are evidently not encouraged. I was there with my partner, and whilst we were in the graveyard, we heard someone walk up the flag stones to the church door. The church was locked so we hoped a villager might have a key and let us in to have a look around. But as we came around the corner of the building, no one was there, the door of the church remained locked. We were both convinced we had heard someone, and at that moment the temperature became slightly chillier. We made a hasty exit from the village, unsure about what what we had experienced. Curiously, the late Peter Underwood, the famous ghost hunter and President of the Ghost Club, has written extensively about the phenomenon of 'distinct and deliberate' footsteps being heard around Borley Rectory and the churchyard, though he also writes, back in 1994, that due to 'structural alterations' of the rectory and village, no events of a psychic nature have been reported recently.
If you are a fan of spooky books and the uncanny you may enjoy:
The Voices by F. R. Tallis
The Other Girl by C. D. Major
Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley
Affinity by Sarah Waters
The Natural History of Ghosts - 500 years of hunting for proof by Roger Clarke
The English Ghost by Peter Ackroyd
Nights in Haunted Houses by Peter Underwood