Materials and method
Our empirical investigation is based on an archive of over 200 unsolicited letters about people’s everyday uncanny experiences. They were sent to the research project Mind and the Other (see Honkasalo 2017b) after the project gained public visibility in the Finnish media. The letters bring forth a diverse range of experiences. Some writers mention lonely experiences of intuitive thoughts, visions and weird feelings, and others speak of vivid and powerful encounters with mysterious beings or dead relatives, friends and pets. Some people recount having the obscure sense of a presence or someone touching them when no one seems to be around.
The letters in question have been sent by people from all walks of life and with diverse educational and occupational backgrounds. In contrast to some previous work on therapeutic spiritualities (e.g. Tucker, 2004; Heelas & Woodhead, 2005), writers are often not practitioners (healers, mystics, clairvoyants, etc.) or participants in spiritual movements and well-being practices, although as will be shown through our examples, uncanny experiences have led some of them on paths of helping others. One part of the letters is from writers who are keen on finding an (scientific) explanation for particular uncanny incidents. For others the uncanny has ‘always’ been a part of life and the experiences are further elaborated upon in autobiographical letters. For the purposes of this chapter, we unpack three such autobiographical narratives which neatly illuminate the various therapeutic dimensions of uncanny experiences.
We read the narratives closely, combining elements of narrative studies, thematic content analysis and Latourian-inspired material semiotics. We have carried out thematic content analysis of these assemblings on a case-by-case basis, paying close attention to how different actants emerge and come together to enable therapeutic knowledge production on oneself and the world. The analysis is further informed by ethnographic studies on ‘illness narratives’ focusing on people’s personal experiences and the subjective truths that have generally been neglected in medical accounts. Narrative approaches often draw attention to ‘disruptive’ (Bury, 2001) or ‘exceptional’ (Rancken, 2017) moments and experiences. The uncanny, especially when it occurs repeatedly, often constitutes a major instance of ‘autobiographical disruption’ (Bury, 1982), and thus, similarly to illness narratives, stories of uncanny experiences can be understood as narratives of disruptions which shed light on personal meanings, relations towards the world and wider cultural/societal issues (Bury, 2001, 264). Furthermore, it could be argued that uncanny experiences and their narration also serve as disruptive instances that ‘make the truth happen’ in terms of self-understanding and one’s social reality.
We have organised the narratives analysed in this chapter under three key themes based on the idea of the therapeutic as active work one engages in: work on the self work on the society and work on social relationships. The analysis follows this three-fold structure, and in each section we seek to illuminate one theme through one particular narrative while also seeking to link distinct narratives. Focusing on one narrator at a time enables us to concentrate on the whole of their personal narratives. This in turn allows us to grasp the processual, event-like
Uncanny experiences as therapeutic events 193 nature of uncanny experiences and their therapeutic effects, as well as recognise transformations that take place in the narrators' relations to the self, others and the world through the assembling of uncanny and other actants.