Writing

How to Use the Uncanny in Your Writing

Annihilation: Master of the uncanny both conceptually and visually.

A hand with all of the fingers the same length. Eye whites that aren’t white. Seeing a stranger in the mirror. A subtler cousin of horror, the uncanny is more about discomfort than fear. Sigmund Freud* described it as, in greatly paraphrased form here, making the familiar unfamiliar. It’s usually characterized by something that looks real, seems real, but is just not quite… right. Uncanny elements in a story raise suspense, put readers on edge, foreshadow later components, and set an eerie tone without the need to show your cards and reveal any monsters. Here’s how to use it.

Anatomy of the Uncanny

The Matrix: Neo’s mouth sealing itself shut is a truly unsettling sight.

For brevity’s sake, I’ll continue to use the vocabulary first laid down by our outdated-psychologist-in-chief, whose terms “heimlich” and “unheimlich” are used prevalently today to describe uncanniness. Heimlich things are the canny: normal, ho-hum, la-dee-da, nothing new. Unheimlich things are these normalcies once the uncanny twist has been administered. For this uncanniness to take place, something unfamiliar and strange must be added or something familiar must be changed.

Example

Heimlich: A mitten.

Unheimlich: A mitten with the thumb in the center of the palm.

Freud described a whole host of ways to administer the twist. Doubles, for example, carry connotations such as death, shadows, and spirits. A doppelgänger is uncanny; it’s a reflection that, by all logic, should not exist. Inanimate objects taking on living attributes is also uncanny, as are parts that should not be separated from the whole, like limbs and appendages.* Humans’ relationship to our own mortality is another uncanny theme that stretches from zombies to ghosts to resurrection. Why is the embodiment of death considered scary? Because death is something that has no body and no substance, giving it such is unheimlich.

The concept of unheimlich also extends to ideas and characteristics. Characters repressing certain emotions and feelings is normal; it’s heimlich. Characters without control, with nothing holding back their rawest selves, are unheimlich. The titular character in Carrie is one example of this on several levels. She’s cannily meek and demure, yet she possesses devastating, uncanny telekinetic powers. Over the course of the book, she goes from obedient to homicidal, bringing out her unheimlich side in a series of bloody murders. The portrayal of her powers, too, is a juxtaposition of the canny and uncanny – a natural occurrence versus a curse from God or Satan. The uncanny is an essential part of her character arc.

Now that we have a framework of terms and concepts, how can you use the uncanny to your advantage? There are innumerable answers to this question, but let’s split it into two of the most common major categories.

Using Uncanny Imagery to Build Atmosphere

The Shining: Ghostly twins are two levels of uncanny at once.

Perhaps there are supernatural elements on your story’s horizon. Maybe your setting needs to feel spooky. Trouble is brewing, characters are becoming unsettled, something is about to happen. Inserting uncanniness into your writing can help the audience feel the same way. One method of doing this is to add unheimlich description. Let’s say your setting is an empty field.

Example

Heimlich: Wind blew across the field and made the leafless trees sway on its path toward the sky. On the frozen ground, bushes’ thin branches spread in search of sunlight. Dusk turned the clouds yellow.

Trees and bushes: familiar, normal. Now let’s turn it around. This is a case of inanimate objects needing animation; we can personify this field into uncanniness while also livening up the description.

Example

Unheimlich: Wind hissed across the field, snaked through the bony limbs of the leafless trees standing sentinel, before spiraling into the overcast sky. On the frozen ground, bushes stretched thin branches toward the sky like infants beseeching an uncaring mother for milk. Dusk seeped across the skyline and stained the clouds the yellowish tinge of old flesh.

Inhuman things such as trees are given bones and stand as guards; the bushes become helpless infants and the sky an indifferent mother. The clouds aren’t just yellow; they’re the color of skin. The wind is more snake-like and malevolent. The unheimlich has successfully set an eerie tone. Readers know from the description that something is important about this creepy field, and it’s much more interesting to read about.

But, you argue, an empty field could be considered pretty creepy on its own, right? Well, believe it or not, this method works just as well on other mundane places – though naturally it’s easier to insert unheimlich into something that has an element of uncanniness to begin with. Perhaps your scene takes place at a shopping mall.

Example

 Heimlich: Shoppers with bags bustled to and fro in the hallways between shops. Lighted displays of models decorated the walls, and pop music drifted out from somewhere overhead. The mall was busy this time of day.

Unheimlich: The sharp scent of undiluted cleaning fluid pierced the air, the blindingly white floors and gilded marketing murals a testament to flawless chemical perfection. Models, primped beyond recognition and gaunt in the harsh light, cast smiles as empty as their gazes from their places plastered on the walls. The sea of faces became one blurred mass; shuffling feet, rustling bags, and the tired murmur of conversation did little to block out the tinny music blasting from unseen speakers overhead.

The shoppers become a faceless throng beneath blank model eyes; chemicals and harsh light call to mind artificiality and insincerity. Although not quite as uncanny as the first example, this description nonetheless places the mall in a negative light, signifying its wrongness and strangeness.

When using uncanniness to set tone or atmosphere, it’s important to keep the end goal in mind. What purpose does using the uncanny serve? This particular brand of descriptive unheimlich works best to establish important places and set audience expectations about what will happen there. It can also be used to foreshadow plot elements. If the aforementioned empty field masked a slumbering elder god, the personification it was given in my description would set up readers for the reveal.

Creating Uncanny Mysteries

Locke & Key: The Keyhouse holds secrets both deadly and inviting.

Uncanny mysteries go much deeper than description. Their unheimlich attributes are important, not just set dressing. Perhaps an encounter with such an element starts your hero’s journey, or maybe the McGuffin is just strange enough to seem… off. Not to mention the spooky manor your protagonist just inherited! In these cases, there usually needs to be an explanation for the element’s uncanniness. It should raise all sorts of questions that will then get answered. Is there a ghost living inside it? Is it alien technology? Was it created by the serial killer who’s lurking behind the door? It’s true that some authors can get away with leaving things up to the audience’s imagination, but it’s a thin line between mysterious omission and frustrating omission.

It’s also important to note that including a mystery is a promise to readers that it’ll be addressed, and if that’s not part of your plan, it’s better to stick to description. Description makes promises for a scene or a particular place, not the whole world or plot.

There’s two main ways to approach making an unheimlich mystery. You can either start with the object or start with the explanation. I recommend starting with the object, because the whole point of uncanniness is modifying what’s normal, and that can be hard to do if you’re working backward. Remember, uncanniness can also be part of a personality and can aid the development of an arc. It’s also not limited to the small things. Your mystery can involve the entire setting! The world your characters inhabit and the location in which the story takes place – be it a spooky house, an alternate dimension, a quarantine zone, an entirely new planet, or anything else – is an enormous opportunity. The memorable eeriness of places like the Keyhouse or Area X doesn’t just happen. These are the products of carefully applied uncanniness that develop over the course of each story. Inserting the unheimlich into an entire setting or place is more labor intensive, but it has enormous benefits from a narrative standpoint, as I’ll demonstrate. Let’s start with the heimlich.

Example

Heimlich object: A music box.

Heimlich setting: A long series of winding caves your characters get lost in.

Next, decide on the unheimlich aspects of your mystery. How can it be twisted?

Example

Unheimlich object: The music box, when wound forward, plays a tune that seems oddly familiar to the main character. When wound backward fast enough, it makes a noise like a woman laughing.

Unheimlich setting: The main characters come across oddly smooth and symmetrical stalactites, strange crystal formations, flights of what appear to be stairs hewn into the floor, rock formations made of hexagons and pentagons – nature can’t form those shapes on its own, right? Their maps are useless; the cave system seems to go on forever, branching into large, cathedral-like chambers they’ve never heard mentioned before. The caverns are filled with the sound of flowing water, like waves rushing in and out – yet they’re nowhere near the ocean. On the contrary, this cave is in the mountains. The strangest thing yet is the raised patterns of what seem to be haphazardly scattered sticks carved into the walls and floor.

Now these changes are raising questions. What’s the tune that the music box plays? Is that really a woman laughing, or is it just the music being distorted? In terms of the caves, is there a reason the spelunkers can’t get out? What’s waiting for them down there? Is there any danger that could overshadow their lack of food and supplies? What could alert them that there’s something else going on? Naturally, this will also involve plenty of uncanny description.

Next is background. Answer those questions.You need to know what’s going on, even if your readers don’t (at least at first). You also need to decide how much to reveal to the readers, and whether you want to give a full clarification or trickle the information in as time goes on. As elements of the plot, uncanny things need to fit smoothly into the story and affect it in some way.* Usually explanations go one of two ways: they dispel the unheimlich, returning the state of things to comfortably normal, or they push the boundary past uncanny into horror.

Dispelling the uncanny typically involves a logical explanation, since uncanniness is built on lack of logic and by inserting it, things become heimlich again.

Example

Re-heimlich object: Your protagonist’s mother disappeared when they were just a baby, and because she knew she wouldn’t come back, she left the music box with her laughter and the tune she used to sing as a lullaby to the protagonist.

Now the uncanny element is logical and bittersweet rather than unsettling. Conversely, crossing into horror is done by making the uncanniness an active threat. It’s no longer an odd, disconcerting quirk or random, unexplained phenomenon – it’s actively dangerous, and your protags should watch out!

Example

Horror setting: The unmapped cave system used to be part of an old cultist temple devoted to worshipping a hungry, forgotten god. Their strange nature is due to a botched summoning: when the cultists tried to raise this god, something went wrong, and instead of becoming a physical entity, it merged with the caves, bringing an enormous surge of ethereal energy that still lingers there (it sounds like flowing water). The worshippers were consumed by the cave, and the strange raised stick patterns became the scattered remains of their skeletons. For a long time, the god-cave stayed separate and neglected until erosion opened an entrance between a normal cave system and the mutated one. When our intrepid spelunkers stumbled across the barrier, the otherworldly nature of the caves took effect on their minds, and the god-cave began trying to consume them, too.

In the setting I’ve crafted, we now see the beginnings of a plot. It’s easy enough to discern where to go from here: the main characters get trapped, they wander, they act strangely. Maybe one gets injured and stays behind, and the others later find him as another, fresher set of bones hewn into the cave wall. They start to piece things together, and maybe escape if you want a happy ending – and boom, you’ve got your gripping tale.


Use of the uncanny is a part of storytelling that usually happens by accident. Writers choose things that sound creepy and put them in their stories with no idea how they fit, how to use them, or where they go. As a result, the unheimlich seems forced, unnecessary, or aimless.* Being able to use uncanniness to your advantage begins with understanding it. Develop it and soon you’ll be sending the shivers like a pro.

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Comments

  1. Dvärghundspossen

    “Seeing a stranger in the mirror. A subtler cousin of horror, the uncanny is more about discomfort than fear.”

    Seeing a stranger in the mirror is EXTREMELY SCARY in real life, but maybe it’s just a little eerie in fiction? I was just surprised to see it as an example of something “more about discomfort than fear”.

    • Cay Reet

      I think Bunny doesn’t mean seeing a stranger standing behind you (which is definitely, 100% scary), but rather looking into the mirror and seeing a face which isn’t really yours. Like, there’s some lines to your face which you can’t remember or some glow in your eyes or a scar you haven’t had before. Looking at something you know and realizing it’s not like you remember it, that is what we German-speaking people would call ‘unheimlich.’

      • Dvärghundspossen

        Yeah I got that, but this is an experience I’ve often had due to my mental illness. You look into the mirror, and the face there isn’t yours, just a face that resembles yours, but it isn’t quite right, it isn’t really yours. This is VERY FRIGHTENING, and everyone I’ve talked to who have had this same experience (seems like it’s pretty common among people on the schizo spectrum) says the same thing.

        I’ve had to consciously desentisize myself against this, since it’s something that still happens to me from time to time, by forcing myself to just stand still in front of the mirror and keep looking when it happens. Through this exercise, I’ve eventually managed to make myself less scared of the experience. But without this kind of training it’s EXTREMELY scary, and I don’t think I’ll ever be completely fine with it.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        I mean before I managed (well into my adulthood) to desentisize myself a bit, if this happened, and it was dark outside so that the very windows showed my reflection, and the curtains wouldn’t completely cover the windows, I would literally be crawling around on the floor on all fours, just so I wouldn’t have to glance into the reflective surface of the mirror and see that alien, not-quite-right face. That’s how frightening it is in real life!

        • Cay Reet

          I can see how it would be scary as hell in this case.

          For me, it would be something which made me nervous, since I don’t have a mental illness (at least none I know of or have been diagnosed with). For someone who normally thinks they can trust their eyes and their memory, it’s uncanny to see their face, but have the feeling something is off.

          • Dvärghundspossen

            Maybe, though, the crucial difference is between “my face looks weird, something is off” and “that’s not actually me in the mirror, but someone/something that mimics me”. I guess the former might just be a bit unsettling rather than scary.

          • Dvärghundspossen

            Further clarification: Even if you don’t actually believe that it’s not you but something mimicking you in the mirror, it might still LOOK like that, and that’s really scary, and probably different from merely “my face looks a bit weird, something seems off”.

          • Cay Reet

            Well, uncanny means you think there’s something weird and you don’t look like you normally do, but you don’t actually doubt (yet) that this is your face. The moment the face is so different that you think it’s not you, it becomes scary for everyone.

  2. Sam Victors

    I’ve been using something like this when describing mythical creatures in my stories, especially the humanoid/human-looking ones. For some example, some mythic humanoids would have different shades of eye color (sickly green, dark purple, inky blue). They would also have other, not uncanny but telltale physical signs; thin fingers, pallid/thin/thick/different colored lips, puffy and spotted cheeks, different shades of hair color like bloody red or pale blonde.

  3. crimson square

    While I very, very greatly enjoy this article, part of it is perhaps for the wrong reason: While in modern-day German, “unheimlich” does mean creepy, “heimlich” most often is used to mean “secret” (adj). Which… well, the word’s obviously derived from Heim (=home), and is still sometimes used to mean heimelig (ca. homey; also, it’s very, very fascinating that a word that literally means “connected to the home” is used for “secret” in German), but…
    Well, part of me insists on reading everything with the meaning I’m rather more familiar with, which results in:
    “Secret: A mitten.”
    “Secret: A music box.”
    “Dispelling the uncanny typically involves a logical explanation, since uncanniness is built on lack of logic and by inserting it, things become secret again.”
    I’m well aware of how it’s meant, I just… cannot help but read it this way and cracking up all the time.
    I don’t know whether this is amusing to anyone else, especially to Bunny (thanks for writing this!) but I thought I’d share it.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, me too.

      Heimelig and heimlich are not the same (plus it’s the name of the Master of Magic in a novel series I read, so there’s that),

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It gave me a chuckle, thanks for sharing!

    • Bunny

      That’s hilarious! Now I can’t read my own article the same way again.

      When I was researching, ‘heimlich’ and ‘unheimlich’ were the terms that were used everywhere, so I just stuck with that. I’m not exactly well-versed in German.

      • crimson square

        Well, Duden (very important Germany-German dictionary, think around Oxford Dictionary for BE; I’m supposed to use the Österreichische Wörterbuch AKA Austrian Dictionary since I’m Austrian, but eh) still lists “heimelig” – so approximately homey – as a possible meaning for heimlich. Albeit as an outdated one.

        And Sigmund Freud’s career was a bit less than a century ago, so… yeah. Some language choices really, really don’t update well.
        Although now I’m really curious about your sources and especially their age, if you want to share?

        • Bunny

          I don’t recall everything I read, but I know I first heard the terms ‘heimlich’ and ‘unheimlich’ in a writing class a while ago. Here’s one of the articles I remember reading, which is a good discussion of uncanny personalities: http://deaddarlings.com/writing-uncanny/

          It’s not very old, and now that I’m rereading I see it spells the words differently, too. I don’t know whether that would have changed anything? I also used a few analyses of Freud’s original text as reference, which I couldn’t find verbatim, and a few other advice posts from various websites. As far as I can tell, none are much older than 2015. But who knows what /they’re/ using as sources, and so on and so on . . . Maybe everyone’s just outdated!

    • arta

      That was quite interesting to hear from a German-speaker; thanks for sharing!! I’m glad I wasn’t the only one getting distracted by the word, though it felt odd for me personally because when I was growing up, first-aid courses taught us to use the “Heimlich maneuver” — a series of abdominal thrusts — in emergencies when someone was choking.* Definitely off-topic, so it was amusing to hear some dissonance from your perspective as well.

      *therefore ‘UN-Heimlich’ would be trying to lodge an obstruction back IN to someone’s throat? xD

      • crimson square

        Well, as far as I know, the Heimlich maneuver was named after Henry Heimlich, so that’s just… something named after a guy whose name would literally translate to Henry Secret.
        Which – it is so hard to not make jokes about Secret Techniques right now.
        (It doesn’t quite work in German, because declination, unfortunately… it would be “das heimliche Manöver” so it’s obvious Heimlich Manöver is meant as a name.)

  4. Matty

    I think you have to be cautious when trying to make human/oid figures uncanny – a lot of times this thoroughly stumbles into ableism. The idea of “parts that should not be separated from the whole, like limbs and appendages” only just skirts this, for example. I understand you’re talking about disembodied moving hands and such, but how does that concept mirror onto amputees &/or their prosthetics? A lot of things people might use to signify uncanniness with human/oid bodies often map very closely (or exactly) with real life differences and disabilities and treating these characteristics as creepy and a sign of something being off pretty directly feeds into real life ableism

    • Chris Winkle

      That’s a great point, thank you Matty. I’d like to add that this can also be an issue with depicting uncanny behavior. You don’t want to give your creepy person traits that unintentionally code them as neurodivergent.

  5. Cass

    This is the exact article I didn’t even know I was looking for! Is your eldritch-cave-god example based on anything that’s actually written? Because I would read the hell out of that.

    • Bunny

      Awesome! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! The cave example remains to be written, but if you’re up to the task, caves are certainly an underutilized horror setting. I’d love to see what someone would do with this premise!

      • arta

        I just wanted to echo Cass; thank you for the article! That specific example really stood out to me as well and is helping me wrangle some plot bunnies together — not that I’m trying to steal it or anything; it’s just aiding my brainstorming process.

        *saves to my Pinterest board* Looking forward to more of your articles!

        • Bunny

          Aw, you make me blush! Hopefully there will be another soon. So happy you got through your plot bunnies – no pun intended!

  6. Brigitta M.

    I love the uncanny and my current WIP is loaded with it. Which brings me to some questions. How much uncanniness is too much–ie when it becomes an over the top parody of itself (a la B movies) and how do you balance it with being too little ie: such subtle uncanniness that it’s missed in the grand scheme of things. The second one isn’t so bad as it can make for enjoyable re-reads (In an early paragraph of my WIP for example, a green-eyed character’s eyes flicker gray– an early symptom of a plague based on the idea of “fog as disease”).

    Still, I’ve had an earlier story a few years back load with surrealism and uncanniness that a bunch of people said they loved and wanted to know when I was going to write the sequel…and…well…I had to tell them that the MC was dead and actually died before the story started and the whole thing was about her coping with how her parents had ritualistically murdered her.

    Sure, they said they understood it better with that piece of info…but well…stories need to stand on their own without authorial explanation.

    • Cay Reet

      From a personal point of view, I’d say that I like having uncanniness which brings up a full picture over time – you know, when you look back at the end of the story and suddenly all the strange details make sense. Little details easy to oversee – like those green eyes turning grey, but not too often and in a side sentence – which form a picture over time. Small stuff which isn’t even that noticeable until you learn new information (like what that colour-change of the eyes means).

      Keeping your uncanny stuff subtle is always a good idea, if you heap up too much, it’ll go into b-movie territory (there’s nothing wrong with that, if you want to write it, but it’s annoying for yourself, if it happens otherwise).

      • Brigitta M.

        Thanks for the rather quick reply. I love the idea of each uncanny nugget working to create an overall picture. This seems to fit the tone of my WiP since I’m approaching it more as a ghost story as opposed to the usual plague/apoc type of tale.

        In the meantime, I’m going to create a sidelist of uncanniness and in some future project I’ll just cram it all in for some over the top fun.

        • Cay Reet

          For a ghost story (or something like it), subtle uncanniness which only forms a picture over time definitely is the right way to go. Ghost stories are based on people not believing there’s a ghost (or other supernatural entity) until well into the story. If you start out with bleeding walls, what will you do later on?

          The mini-series which they made out of Stephen King’s Rose Red is actually pretty good with the early uncanniness. There’s shadows and suggestions and a few outright scary pieces early and things get much more horrible over time.

  7. Kathy Ferguson

    Thanks for this article. I really enjoyed it. I wonder if the effect of uncanniness can be created in non-fiction writing? I can see how to write about it (as this article successfully did) but not how to write with it.

    • Bunny

      So glad you liked! This can absolutely translate to non-fiction. To see it in action, I’d recommend The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, about the Chicago world’s fair and the serial killer H.H. Holmes. The way Holmes is depicted through small details in Larson’s reconstruction of his murders sets him up as uncanny. For example, the nature of his first murder, of the owner of a drugstore, is never shown. Instead, Holmes is stated to have “modified the story a bit” – nothing more. This makes the reader uneasy and sets an ominous tone. Since Larson didn’t explicitly show the murder, the reader is left to ponder it for themself – and, as countless horror stories have shown us, the things that aren’t seen can be much more frightening than the things that are. In essence, Larson makes Holmes into a psychological horror – a monster who operates on a different level than the ho-hum World Fair architects with their everyday numbers and measurements – and this contrast with the real world is even more disturbing. That is, uncanny!

      If you’ve got any advice on how to improve my examples, I’d love to hear it! Anything to make my writing better is really appreciated

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