Art Dolls Aesthetic Inspiration

Using art dolls was a new aesthetic approach for me, as it’s something I’ve only recently become interested in. In terms of the uncanny, the aesthetics of art dolls are well suited. They are often hyper-realistic, which is why a lot of people find them disturbing. They have the properties of automaton, and walk a fine line between life and death with their beautiful yet eerily accurate physical features. Often the dolls are used to embody complex themes or act as a vessel of sculptural exploration.

art dolls

Whilst exploring art dolls I found many of these ‘curious art dolls’ which were very appealing to me. Again, dolls in general embody the concept of automaton, as do these, and although they are not realistic creatures, per say, they have many realistic properties and features. They also incorporate some of the paranormal concept features, often being interpretations of mythical creatures, or cryptozoological ‘specimens’.

curious art dolls


Set Design Aesthetics

set design

I have already uploaded this as a post, but felt that I needed to revisit it and clarify the reasoning behind my decision to use this aesthetic style for the set design. I used the key words; ‘Abandoned’, ‘Familiar’ and ‘Lonely’ to describe these ideas, which relate closely to Freuds basic clarification of the Uncanny as a ‘species of frightening that…was once known and had long been forgotten’. The abandonment and disrepair of forgotten buildings is such a perfect aesthetic representation of the idea that something that was once known has become something forgotten, whilst still remaining nestled in the realm of the familiar. Abandoned buildings that still contain remnants of the lives once lived within are an example of blurred boundaries: wavering on a line between past and present, liveable and derelict, and often in the midst of being reclaimed by nature, a man made home for new natural life.

Aims and Objectives

My further research will be in interpreting works of painting, sculpture, film and animation, now that I have fully realised the perimeters I’m working in. These example pieces are just the beginning of a much larger library of interpretations. Parallel to this research into existing examples, I will be conducting my own practice led approach. Creating paintings and sculptural development pieces which will lead to the final outputs of the project. Which are, a series of sculptural pieces that embody each of Freuds conceptual theories, which will then be used in a stop motion animated film. The aim of the final film is as a tool for universal embodiment of all of Freuds concepts. Each one will be used in the film, which will have a carefully considered narrative and draw on the true aesthetic of the uncanny. The aim of the final output is to create a narrative piece that will inspire interpretations of its own. I believe that although the uncanny has very identifiable themes, Freuds concepts should not be regarded as something with a solid explanation, it is open to interpretation, which is why the metaphorical and psychoanalytical approach to the conceptual understanding is so fundamental.

Research and Development Context

I have identified that analysing interpretations of the uncanny is useful in three main areas. Education, art and entertainment. In terms of education Freud explained that less is known about the aesthetics of the unpleasant than of the positive, so to explore these concepts, even now almost a century after the publication of Freuds ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), adds to the pool of knowledge still being gathered. Through past research I have already determined a close relationship between surrealism and the uncanny, so further exploration of the concepts and the interpretations of artists and film makers will hopefully draw out more links. The realm of the uncanny has been a focus of many artists and film makers, and one may argue that there is no difference between art and entertainment, which I agree in many respects, especially in the context of those concerned with using uncanny concepts to convey their messages. Both artists and film makers working in this contextual discipline are aiming to meet the same end. To deliver an important message through aesthetic and narrative uncanny principles. The difference is that where the artistic industry has been applying these concepts for centuries, dating back to artist interpretations of myths and legends, the entertainment industry is only recently using concepts of the uncanny, and it has been developing more and more in recent years due to the increase in independent studios and film makers. Independent developers of games and Indie film makers are using concepts of surrealism and the uncanny to convey deep messages through their creations, aiming to set themselves apart from leading competitors by using narrative concepts that larger commercial studios are afraid to touch on. Those games that do this properly are critically acclaimed and have become increasingly popular with online ‘Let’s Players’ who find more content and pleasure from playing indie games with hidden meanings, open to their own personal interpretation and user experience. Dominant examples include Fran Bow (2015), an indie game, and Seed (2011), a short stop motion film.

I will be using all of the research and interpretations of existing media to develop my own artistic and conceptual direction.

Blurred Boundaries

The final concept is the blurring of boundaries. This is at the base of all of the other concepts and has been touched upon throughout the explanations and examples. Freud observes that “an uncanny effect often arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary.”  The boundary between fantasy and reality, between animate and inanimate, between the known and the unknown, coincidence and intention, life and death. This concept references back to Jentsch’s original idea about intellectual uncertainty. We believe we know something, in fact we are quite sure of what is reality, what is life, and what is coincidence, but our conceptions can be called into question, and at this point this is where we feel the sense of frightening that is uncanny.

fran bow

Fig.6 ‘Fran Bow’

From previous research I have found that most practitioners working with concepts of the uncanny choose to exploit the boundary between life and death as the core narrative concept. I have observed in recent forms of digital media that adopt uncanny concepts as narrative and aesthetic conditions that different boundaries are now explored. There are many games that employ supernatural elements, and more that explore the boundary between fantasy and reality. One such game that does this very well is ‘Fran Bow’ by Killmonday Games (2015). In this point and click horror adventure the player takes the role of a ten year old girl, Fran Bow, who has recently witnessed the gruesome murder of her parents. Your journey starts in a psychiatric institution for children, where you receive pills that alter your reality into one of gruesome fantasy, populated by monsters, spirits and anthropomorphic creatures. As the game progresses, and you escape the hospital and venture on your path to try to return home to your aunt, the difference between these two states of reality become less and less distinguished. The normal world is also populated by strange creatures and surreal environments, and the ‘pill world’ only serves as a more gruesome version of what is slowly becoming obscured reality. Eventually, the two worlds are merged in such a way that there is no distinguished fantasy or reality, there is only one world combining elements of both. It is a cleverly constructed narrative that delivers a story of pain, loss and acceptance

Castration Complex

The castration complex refers to thought process behind the fear of losing something precious from the body. This mainly refers to the fear of genital mutilation, particularly in men, but also extending to women. This fear has been extended to other body parts, the eyes in particular. Freud writes;

…psychoanalytic experience reminds us that some children have a terrible fear of damaging or losing their eyes. Many retain their anxiety into adult life and fear no physical injury so much as one to the eye…The study of dreams, fantasies and myths has taught us also that anxiety about one’s eyes, the fear of going blind, is quite often a substitute for the fear of castration.”

Here Freud goes on to relate to his theories of the oedipal complex and the role of the castration complex in the mental health of neurotic patients. He provides an example of this concept from the story of the ‘Sand Man’ by E.T.A Hoffman, in which a man, terrified since childhood of the legend of the Sand Man and the physical form he took as his fathers lawyer, experiences a neurotic breakdown and commits suicide over the re-emergence of the terrifying entity in his adulthood, who has taken the form of an optician.

…many other features of the tale appear arbitrary and meaningless if one rejects the relation between fear for the eyes and fear of castration, but they become meaningful as soon as the Sand Man is replaced by the dreaded father, at whose hands castration is expected.”

(Freud, 1919)

The Paranormal

To many people the acme of the uncanny is represented by anything to do with death, dead bodies, revenants, spirits and ghosts.” (Freud, 1919) In the realm of magic, sorcery and, particularly, paranormal activity, the notion of lost souls is one of great fear. Those who believe in such things, or even those who are simply unsure of their position of the matter, are fearful of the intellectual uncertainty surrounding notions of the magic or supernatural. Again, here we see concepts eluding back to Jentschs idea on intellectual uncertainty. Notions of magic, sorcery and the paranormal are all conceptually similar, and they can all be used in conjunction with all the other concepts that have been discussed so far. When used in a situation that would otherwise be completely normal and everyday, magic or paranormal activity can inject frightening conditions into the mix. Inanimate objects are possessed, the same person appears everywhere you look, apparently teleporting constantly, the number 666 appears everywhere, and the dead are reanimated.

An extension that I have observed is one of the age old ghost story. The use of a mantra based on paranormal beliefs to explain features and functions of the world that have since been explained scientifically. They also include tales of mysterious and terrifying figures, or monsters, used as a tool to frighten or intimidate children into doing what is wished of them. Examples like the Sand Man, who plucks children’s eyes from their heads if they don’t go to sleep, or Krampus who punishes naughty children at Christmas by whipping them and leading them off of cliffs, amongst other penalties. There are also the stories of ‘things that go bump in the night’, urban legends and scientific mysteries of the unknown.

Fig.5 'the Rake'

Fig.5 ‘The Rake’

In modern media, there is a phenomenon known as ‘Creepypasta’, a set of online ghost stories based on urban legends, myths and ‘real life’ atrocities. Any of these examples could be used in conjunction with the concept of the paranormal, but my personal favourite is the story of ‘The Rake’. This creature, which was spurred into existence by a photograph published in The Independent newspaper which later turned out to be a hoax, is meant to explain the times when you awake fromsleep without explanation. It is said to sit at the end of your bed, staring at you, and it is this presence that disturbs your sleep. As you wake the creature retreats, although rarely it has been seen before it takes its leave.


Animism and automata is the concept concerned with “doubt as to whether an apparently animate object really is alive and, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not perhaps be animate.” This fear concerns the soul, or rather, the idea that inanimate objects possess a soul or can become possessed by one. This belief stems from the superstition, or belief, that the earth is populated by souls, those of the departed, and that these lost souls can seek reanimation in objects, machines or toys. Freud notes Jentschs’ observation that:

One of the surest devices for producing slightly uncanny effects…is to leave the reader wondering whether a particular figure is a real person or an automaton, and to do so in such a way that his attention is not focused directly on the uncertainty, lest he should be prompted to examine and settle the matter at once, for…the special emotional effect can easily be dissipated.”

This fear, one of intellectual uncertainty, has grounds in our early childhood, where it is commonplace for us to pretend our toys are alive. At this point in our lives, though, it is not frightening, it is a happy fantasy constructed by active imagination. As an adult, we know that toys and dolls are not alive, they don’t have souls. These constructed worlds of childish fantasies are just that, fantasy. But we are frightened when we are confronted with evidence that says otherwise. For example; it is certainly true that many very competent adults have a severe distaste for porcelain dolls because they make them feel uneasy. They may not be able to explain it, but the essential fear is that the inanimate doll will come to life. “Here, then, the sense of the uncanny would derive not from an infantile fear, but from an infantile wish, or simply from an infantile belief.” (Freud, 1919) It is also worth noting that the uncanny feeling produced by dolls and automaton become stronger the more realistic the object looks. The better it imitates life, the more likely that the fear will arise.

Fig.4 'Jabberwocky'

Fig.4 ‘Jabberwocky’

In Jan Svankmajers films he uses a wide range of everyday objects, especially toys and dolls. A fine example of this in which he creates an uncanny atmosphere using automaton is Jabberwocky (1971). Here we see a nursery coming to life, the furniture and toys alike. One particularly uncanny scene is one in which a group of dolls sat at a table are taking tea, in the form of other, smaller, amputated doll parts. The scene evokes the observation of the differing perspective of a child and adult on the same material. To a child, exploring though play and meaning no malicious intent, this would not be a fearful experience, instead a fantasy realised. To an adult, however, we read into a scene and project our own fears and interpretations onto the content. For some, this is the fear of automaton, a fear realised through the art of stop motion, which physically allows the dolls to appear animate and emotive

The Omnipotence of Thoughts

The omnipotence of thoughts is essentially obsessional neurosis. The feeling that we experience when a thought becomes realised without our own direct influence. Such as when you find yourself thinking of a distant friend, only to meet them in the street the next day. Freud tells the story of a patient suffering from obsessional neurosis who recalled:

he had once visited a hydropathic institution and found that has health improved greatly. However, he was sensible enough to attribute this improvement not to the healing properties of the water, but to the location of his room, which was next to the office of a very kind nurse. So, returning for a second visit, he asked for the same room, only to be told that it was already occupied by an old gentleman. Whereupon he gave vent to his annoyance with the words, “Then he should be struck dead!” A fortnight later the old gentleman did suffer a stroke.”  

Freud explained that his patient did indeed identify this as an uncanny experience, and clarifies that every obsessional neurotic could tell similar stories, in which they described these phenomenon, which are utterly coincidental conditions, as being “”presentiments” that ‘usually’ came true.” These patients, and undeniably many others who would not be considered as suffering from obsessional neurosis, attach importance to their thoughts in a manner that turns coincidence into something almost supernatural.

Fig.3 'Bioshock'

Fig.3 ‘Bioshock’

Freud also observes another, and what he considers most widespread, notion of the omnipotence of thoughts called the ‘evil eye’. This presents itself as the fear that something one possesses, precious to themselves, is the envy of all around them, and, by extension, the “overrating of one’s own mental processes”. I have regarded this in the context of digital media, and have concluded that, in the world of gaming predominantly, this manifests itself as the notion of control within a narrative environment which is eventually revealed to be constructed by another power. As an example, I have looked at the popular game Bioshock, by Irrational Games (2007). In this first person shooter horror game, the player begins the game as Jack, guided by a voice, via radio, to safety. Along the way you are asked by the guiding voice to dispatch enemies and complete tasks to ensure your safety. Eventually, upon being compelled to kill his own father, Jack becomes aware that the phrase “would you kindly”, which has preceded many of the guides commands, is actually a hypnotic trigger. This realisation opens the player to the terrifying notion that every act they have committed has not been of their own choice. The players’ entire understanding of the world has been a projection of the one controlling them

Unintended Repetition

The concept of unintended repetition sits closely with that of helplessness. In Freuds paper he speaks of the experience as one:

that transforms what would otherwise seem quite harmless into something uncanny and forces us to entertain the idea of the fateful and the inescapable, when we should normally speak of ‘chance’.”

In dreams this would manifest itself in the same helpless states that we have just discussed, or nightmares in which one is walking along a long hallway, going through the door at the end and finding yourself in the same hallway again. Other, real life, examples would be what we would otherwise refer to as chance, as Freud identifies, but manifest themselves in a way we consider frightening. For instance, the same number cropping up constantly in one day, such as using a classroom, getting an order number and a train seat that all share the number 34. These events are not causally related, but when they occur close together we find this uncanny.

Fig.2 'Neverending Nightmares'

Fig.2 ‘Neverending Nightmares’

When we entertain the experience of unintended repetition in the same field as helplessness, and combine the experiences, we can also consider experiences of dreamlike states where the repetition of situations lends to a feeling of helplessness. An excellent example of this is in the independent game ‘Neverending Nightmares’, by Infinitap Games (2014). In this dark survival horror, the player takes the role of a man plagued by a string of nightmares. Each time the player navigates Thomas, the main character, through the current nightmare they encounter a variety of monsters, depression inducing conditions and even scenes of self-harming. When the player dies via one of these encounters he ‘wakes up’ in the next nightmare, which become increasingly terrifying, gruesome and monster populated. The repetition of the narrative makes the player feel helpless in a world which they cannot control, and seemingly never escape. The games creator based the narrative on his own battle with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, stating that he was “trying to create that feeling of bleakness and hopelessness in Neverending Nightmares.


‘The feeling of helplessness that we encounter during certain dreamlike states’ is how Freud (1919) opens up the explanation on this uncanny factor. I’m certain many have had these kinds of dreams. Opening dozens of doors in a hallway but unable to get out of the building, instead finding yourself in more rooms and more hallways with more doors to open. Feeling fixed to the floor incapable of moving your legs, or the dreams where you’re trying to run but as the world around you continues at a normal pace, you seem to be moving in slow motion, completely powerless to move any faster. These dreams wouldn’t be considered particularly scary. You’re not being chased, there’s no threat of death, but the inability to escape is still fearsome. They fall into the ‘the realm of the frightening’ that is uncanny. This is not to say that a dreamlike state can only refer to illusions whilst we sleep, however, as Freud here identifies with a personal experience as his example. He recalls an experience where he was wandering through the streets of a small Italian town and found himself lost on a street where ‘…heavily made-up women were to be seen at the windows of the little houses…’, and proceeds to tell how ‘…after wandering about for some time…I suddenly found myself back in the same street…Once more I hurried away, only to return there again by a different route.’ Freuds experience is that which embodies the essentials of this concept; finding oneself in a situation out of their control, bringing on a sense of fear of the unknown, a fear of perhaps never finding ones way out, ultimately, feeling helpless. Freud provides another example in his explanation of the sense of helplessness, which I have found is perfectly reiterated in the game, ‘The Path’ (fig. 1). Freud speaks of;

having lost ones way In the woods, perhaps after being overtaken by fog, and, despite all ones best efforts to find a marked or familiar path, one comes back again and again to the same spot, which one recognises by a particular physical feature.’

the path

Fig.1 ‘The Path’

In this psychological horror game, developed by Tale of Tales, you play as one of six sisters, all reminiscent versions of little red riding hood. The instructions for the game play are simple, “Go to Grandmothers house. Stay on the path.” (The Path, 2009) The player then finds themselves standing on a path in the middle of a large forest with a small cottage in the distance. If the player strays from the path and explores the forest the feeling of helplessness arrives as they find themselves wandering through the foggy forest, unable to see very far into the distance, passing small landmarks yet entirely unable to get back to the path. The game does not allow the player to return to the path on their own once lost in the forest unless they encounter the ‘saviour’, a child in a white dress who leads the player by the hand back to the path, or the ‘wolf’, whose identity differs depending on which sister the player chooses. The game received praise for its use of revolutionary storytelling and experimental narrative, described by one critic as a triumph of atmosphere, coming much closer than the cruder shocks of games such as Silent Hill or BioShock to a dramatization of what Ernst Jentsch and Freud analysed as the “uncanny” in literature.” (Poole, 2009)

Using Freuds Uncanny Concepts

The uncanny is a concept that I have frequented regularly. Every theorist and artist has a different approach to the subject, a different idea of the guidelines surrounding the conception of uncanny models but none of them particularly agree to a set of universal rules that can be applied to all works on the subject. However, Freud wrote a large body of work on the uncanny, and developed a set of studies around the subject using a psychoanalytical approach. The main paper of importance in this collection is the one which I will be using to build my conceptual theories and carry out my research. ‘The Uncanny’ by Sigmund Freud (1919 ) is the source text for my project. In it, Freud sets out to describe the main conceptual fingerprints of uncanny (or unheimlich, in the original German account). In the study he talks about the uncanny as a branch of aesthetics that ultimately lays in the ‘realm of the frightening’, one which, even now, is not fully explored by psychoanalysts. Freud (1919) observes that the accounts of aesthetics;

‘…prefer to concern themselves with our feelings for the beautiful, the grandiose and the attractive- that is to say, with feelings of a positive kind, their determinants and the objects that arouse them- rather than with their opposites, feelings of repulsion and distress.’

Freud usually does not concern himself with the analysis of aesthetics, but here recognises the need of the psychoanalyst to procure an interest in aesthetics because of their relation to feelings. The relationship between aesthetics and emotion is one that cannot be denied, and should be exploited. I feel it is of huge importance in the realm of digital media, in an age where creatives are striving to render complex ideas and concepts in universally accessible and innovative new ways.