“The Uncanny” in The Twilight Zone

In Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny”, he describes the concept of the uncanny in psychoanalytical theory as, “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” (825). Similar to defamiliarization, the idea of the uncanny is one which takes what is familiar and presents it in a new light. However, while defamiliarization presents the thing in a way that is pleasing, the uncanny is what is not pleasing at all, and is instead based in fear. Freud makes reference to the German word ‘unheimlich’  which directly translates to “unhomely”. He describes this as “the opposite of what is familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” (826). The idea of the uncanny about the fear of things coming to light which were meant to remain unknown, or hidden under the familiar. The feeling of the uncanny manifests from fears which have been pushed deeply into the back of one’s mind, but remain present. These fears resurface when what is familiar no longer feels “homely”. This concept is often the basis of the 1950’s series The Twilight Zone, particularly in an episode titled “The Hitch-Hiker”.

In this episode, a 27-year-old woman is driving across country from New York to California for a vacation, alone. She first sees the hitch-hiker after a minor breakdown in Pennsylvania, where he appears in front of her car and sticks out his thumb. She sees him again at the gas station a few miles down the road. Her fear grows quickly when she spots him for a third time 50 miles later, again in Virginia, again on the turnpike, and at a construction stop, a railroad crossing, etc. No matter how far she goes, he’s always there. Nobody else can see the hitch-hiker, which she learns from a Navy man who travels with her for some time. Eventually she gets to a phone to call her mother, as she needs to hear a voice, “A warm, familiar voice so I won’t lose my mind.” She is told that her mother is in the hospital from a nervous breakdown, due to the death of her daughter. She gets back in the car, and the man is in the backseat. She looks at him calmly, and the episode concludes.

It can be argued that the woman’s terror manifests from her fear of being alone, or particularly being alone with a strange man. She spends so many hours driving at a time, without seeing anyone familiar, that this man is created in her mind. He becomes a familiar face, but not one which brings her comfort. It’s common to have a fear of strangers, as we are taught from a young age to be weary of those we don’t know. The man is constantly described as being very plain, not particularly scary in his appearance or his actions. He is dressed in a drab, gray suit, and does nothing but stand in front of her. The fear does not stem from his menacing look, his violent actions, or his threatening words. He is frightening because he does nothing at all. He has become familiar in a way which does not make sense, and becomes a disturbing figure because his purpose is unknown. His reappearance cannot be explained as it isn’t logical, and this lack of logic in itself creates discomfort.

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Most women can agree that they’ve been told at least once in their lives when venturing out on their own to fear strange men. Women are told not to travel alone, not to be out at night alone, not to talk to men you can’t trust. This woman is put into all of these situations, and faces this odd man, completely alone. The hitch-hiker has become the uncanny; the unfamiliar man who becomes familiar in an unsettling way. The man who must have cruel intentions. He is the fear which lived inside the woman the moment she set out for her long, lonely trip across the country. She is heading as far away from what is “homely” as she can get by car, and her desire to turn around grows with every mile.

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1 Comment

  1. Michael K. Johnson

     /  March 14, 2017

    I guess the twist at the end of the episode suggests another uncanny element, as what is ultimately uncanny is the person who has become familiar to us, the female driver who, it sounds like, learns that she is dead. The hitch-hiker is a version of the grim reaper?

    Reply

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