Freud’s Uncanny and Hero Worship

According to Sigmund Freud, “The uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” In other words, when an event occurs that confirms an infantile fear, it is uncanny. For example, if you’re scared of plane crashes (despite the virtually nil chance of them happening) and you see a commercial airliner go down on the news, your mind will justify your irrational fright.

Hope works the same way. We put our faith in people or things that take us back to “Superman” expectations that rationality should’ve long since erased.

Freud, in his piece “The Uncanny,” says the essential factor in uncanny feelings is intellectual uncertainty. When we’re vulnerable and uncertain, we cling to hope.

This is most often expressed through religious fanaticism but also explains hero worship.

Freud exemplifies the uncanny through E.T.A. Hoffman’s story of the Sandman, a madman who tears out the eyes of children, which is figurative form of castration. The fear of castration reproduces itself as an uncanny feeling when a man is emasculated in real life.

Instead of the Sand-Man, hope produces the Super Man. This is generally a person who comes along and gives us hope he/she can lift us up when we are vulnerable.

We create heroes based on our own limitations and desires. Often we exaggerate their stories or hold on to myths about them to maintain the uncanny feeling.

For example, when Tupac Shakur was the victim of a robbery in 1994, the official story was that he was shot five times by the assailants. Many use this story of survival to convey the legend of Shakur.

However, in the book “Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice” author Ethan Brown disputes the widely accepted narrative. He asserts that Shakur was shot in the hand when he grabbed for one robber’s gun and accidentally shot himself in the groin while trying to pull out his own. Brown notes that the medical examiner was not able to release a full report because of the wishes of Shakur’s family, which allowed Shakur to tell a more harrowing story.

Once Shakur becomes human because of a differing account of the story, it reminds us that the black superhero doesn’t exist. It extinguishes the uncanny feeling of hope for such a presence, which many cling to because of the long history of black activists being murdered in the US.

Author Manning Marable caused similar controversy when he released “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” earlier this year. Malcolm is a cultural icon, whose legend has been exaggerated in both his autobiography and Spike Lee’s biopic.

In these works, Malcolm X was portrayed as an uneducated black boy who became a notable hustler and then learned to read in jail before becoming arguably the most influential black leader in history. Marable countered these claims by noting that Malcolm was always a student of Marcus Garvey’s teachings because his parents were followers.  Similarly, while Malcolm was portrayed to have an unflinching stance, Marable asserts that he often second guessed himself. Other claims in the book include bisexual behavior during the hustling days and infidelity.

These assertions certainly go against the godlike portrayal of Malcolm in the autobiography and movie. However, they don’t make him any less important.

What made this superhuman image so effective was that it gave young freedom fighters something to strive to be. The idea that it was completely real played on our childlike urges for a mythical prophet.

There’s a scene in “The Life of David Gale” where Kevin Spacey asserts that living by ideals is the point of life. He says fantasies have to be unrealistic because once we get what we seek it’s no longer a fantasy. Thus, he says we must live by ideals and and measure the significance of our own lives by valuing the lives of others.

This is the ideal contained in feelings of hope. Once we find someone or something to believe in, usually when we’re at our most vulnerable, we have to maintain an unattainable image of our hero.

As soon as the Super Man becomes mortal it figuratively castrates believers. These people lived their lives and saw their aspirations through the hero. They too become mortal and limited once the superhero image no longer exists.

While it would be easy to tell people to stick to rational desires, it is human nature to fantasize. This desire is what underlies the entire spectrum of political rhetoric. All sides crave total power and/or harmony, which are both unattainable.

Some strive for these goals to the point where they can’t live without them. Often they become martyrs and are transformed into ideals they never achieved in life.

Even the world’s most powerful people are rarely satisfied. As long as you can hope for more than the feeling of hope is irrational.

However, irrational desires are what motivate society. Thus, the uncanny feelings of fear and hope will persist because complete harmony and total satisfaction don’t exist.


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