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Familiar, Unfamiliar: Uncanny

Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress
An original painting by Carl Jung from his unfinished masterpiece, the “Red Book” (an exploration of his own unconscious).

Fear and curiosity are sometimes so intricately interwoven in my poor rattletrap psyche that it’s hard for me to separate them at all – a trait I think I share with a lot of people.

When faced with uncertainty, the unusual, or the unexpected, who hasn’t experienced an odd combination of repulsion and fascination? All of us live our lives in a flow of sorts. When something happens that jars us, that forces us out of our routine, it resets our perception in interesting ways.

Hereby hangs a tale.

I’m a juvenile-onset diabetic (meaning I have diabetes mellitus type 1). That’s the diabetes you get from having a treacherous autoimmune system and an unlucky combination of genes. (The more common type, which often can be controlled with diet and medication, is diabetes mellitus type 2.)

I was diagnosed when I was a toddler, which is even early for someone with type 1 diabetes – it usually manifests itself like the lamest X-man power imaginable around age 11 or so.

Some of the high points of my youngest days took place at special camps offered for diabetic kids. For the purposes of this story, let’s call my old stomping grounds “Camp Uintah.” Camp Uintah’s summer program was offered in an appropriately woodsy area in the mountains, and we participated in the usual camp activities – hiking being one such activity.

I was probably eight or nine – a prime age for nature hikes and the high tide of my fascination with bugs &c. – when I had an experience that shaped my views on both fear and curiosity quite deeply.

Uintah’s hikes were a great chance to get out into the pine forests that blanket the mountains of my home state. They’re beautiful, and the scent of the air there is unlike anything I’ve experienced anyplace else. In the spirit of encouraging any budding naturalists in the group, the appointed leader of this particularly memorable hike was a biologist from some local college or another. He certainly looked the part, with that weird disdain for normal fashion that becomes a sort of narcissistic fashion in and of itself among some academics.

At first, I had a great time. The trail wound through the fragrant shade of the woods. The sun was out, but the temperature was mild. As we rounded a switchback, a few kids noticed a gargantuan grasshopper lying prone in the dust on the trail. Ordinarily, a dried-out grasshopper husk would be quite a trophy, but unfortunately our appraisal of its condition was initially… off the mark.

The damn thing was obviously dead. Its limbs were frozen in that stately Pharaoh pose that deceased insects favor and its wings were partially extended and dry. But it jumped. Our little band of naturalists stepped back and formed a circle around this weird phenomenon. The grasshopper carcass was, indeed, hopping jerkily, almost like a popcorn kernel dancing on a griddle.

Then, with no further ado, one side of the grasshopper’s abdomen burst outward, and a Horror from Beyond came writhing and wriggling out – a black thread, legless, unlike a centipede or larva or earthworm or anything I’d ever seen.

As the grasshopper carcass twitched like a malfunctioning wind-up toy, a seemingly endless rope of writhing ebony life came pouring out. It was sickening and mesmerizing. If you think you’ve got the stomach for it,  you can watch for yourself.

As the size of the thing became apparent, our hiking group’s brave Naturalist-In-Chief quickly shooed us back, obviously quite shaken by the spectacle and unfamiliar with the ecological horror-show unfolding – literally – before us. “Get back, kids,” he said a little too loudly. A few moments later he herded us well clear of the revolting display and we were on our way.

Like a lingerie insert in the Sunday paper or a particularly grisly bit of news on TV, though, the otherworldly black thread had a strange hold on my young mind. It repulsed me and attracted me in equal measure. The feeling was that of wanting to see, because that which I would see was so far from ordinary, mixed with the knowledge that what I would see would change me – and perhaps not for the better.

Regarding our friend the black, writhing thread from the Void, don’t worry about him. Only recently did I bother to track him down and figure out his habits. He is the humble horsehair worm (phylum Nematomorpha), and is perfectly harmless to humans. The horsehair worm is also known as the Gordian worm for his habit of curling his very long, very thin body into a dense knot in water or damp soil.

I think that my inability to look away from Agent Horsehair as he finished his infiltration mission was born of a part of me that thrives on the uncanny.

Oxford defines uncanny as “strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way; ‘an uncanny feeling that she was being watched.'” The uncanny, and humanity’s attempts to explain our reaction to it, constitute a rich and deeply-drawn-from well. Freud summarized E. Jentsch‘s definition of the uncanny as Das Unheimliche; 

…The “uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar…The German word unheimliche is obviously the opposite of heimlichheimish, meaning “familiar,” “native,” “belonging to the home”…

Freud goes on to say that a better definition of uncanny is that which simultaneously has the properties of being familiar (a big, fat grasshopper) and utterly unfamiliar (a featureless whipsawing nightmare hatching of the dead). This same familiar/unfamiliar tension underlies Otto Rank’s concept of the doppelgänger .

What all this means to me is that in pondering my experience with the horsehair worm, I think I’ve figured out my longstanding love of novels, movies, and other art that dwells on the bizarre, the unsettling, and the unusual. That moment when the parasite first broke free of its victim – the moment of suspended reality when your reflection in the mirror slowly moves its hand even though you are standing stock still – the moment that freezes your limbs and your lips and renders you little more than a pair of clear, cold eyeballs that must see what is so un-homelike, so familiar but so lethally strange – that’s the moment that drives my love of the uncanny.

It’s a moment of pure clarity, uncluttered and fresh, when the old becomes new and the new pushes you further than you ever thought you could go.

A version of this post was originally featured on Salt City Sinner.

1 thought on “Familiar, Unfamiliar: Uncanny

  1. […] from the supposedly neutral world of commerce to the red altar of carnage, into the cold light of the uncanny, a light by which we are presented with the terrifying truth that the store – the mall – was […]

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