The uncanny and work on social relations

Maija is a mother of three adult children. She is academically trained as an economist and has worked as a teacher and entrepreneur. Although retired, she is still in charge of a family-owned firm. Her father was a pilot in the Second World War and died in a plane crash when she was only five months old, yet Maija is convinced of her father’s continuing presence and protection. After her mother’s new marriage, Maija had a good life with her stepfather and siblings. She writes of her uncanny experiences, ranging from telepathic abilities to an ability to communicate with the deceased, and mentions her family’s benevolent attitudes towards them. Most of the uncanny experiences she writes about are intertwined with social practices that seek to strengthen the social bonds between one’s closest. Importantly, she does not draw a practical distinction between life and death, that is, this world and ‘otherworld’ in terms of social relationships. In this narrative the ‘otherworld’ does not denote a distinct 'place’, but rather a continuum of human existence and care relations, and the fact that ‘everything is well and goes on'. The ‘otherworld' appears as an actant that arranges one’s social assemblage in a way that is simultaneously old and new, as Maija’s social relations persist, albeit mediated through a novel arrangement of actants.

Maija, like Joonas, describes the uncanny as an intrinsic part of her life, and like Elisa, she has both gone through uncanny experiences and made use of them to benefit other people. Through the uncanny Maija has gained a powerful sense of trust and gratitude towards continuous care relations which she seeks to turn into hope and comfort for others by volunteering in the local church and hospital. However, in contrast to Elisa, Maija’s therapeutic assemblage is not so much about changing society as it is about preserving and stabilising one’s personal social circle. As an actant, she resembles both a caretaker and the one who is being cared for; both a subject and object of the practice of care. Making no distinction between care of the living and the dead, she vividly describes her contacts with friends, relatives and neighbours and the signs they send her from ’afterlife'. These signs convince Maija of the well-being of her deceased loved ones who nevertheless remain very important actants in her life. For her, uncanny experiences have thus been empowering and positive, convincing her of the continuity of her most important social relationships.

Maija recounts examples about two friends whom she supported when they were dying. An important moment was when she got a guarantee of their status after death by receiving a sign. Reflecting the tendency of the uncanny to intertwine with the material context of human life and technology, the sign was mediated by candles that became lit. This can be seen as another ‘therapeutic event’ through which the transgressive and continuous social relation is actualised:

I was standing on her grave and the candle had gone out. I had that candle in my left hand and I was putting my right hand in my pocket to find the matches when the candle suddenly lit. ‘Wonderful, Hilda, wonderful! ’ was my immediate reaction. I succeeded in putting the burning candle in the lantern, and for a while I was jumping, excited.

In another story, she speaks of feeling ‘bottomless happiness' after receiving a sign from a deceased neighbour whose spouse had passed away before. In this story too the candle was decisive as an actant that propagated a hope that the neighbours would be able again ‘to enjoy togetherness’ in the afterlife.

Most of the signs of the uncanny actants which convince her of the well-being of her loved ones are visual. In these occurrences the lights can also turn on and off without perceptible cause. Moreover, she speaks of getting other visual signs that have warned her of a danger or threat to herself or others. For example, Maija writes that a flickering of lights, for which she had no explanation at the time of occurrence, turned out to be a sign of skin cancer that was consequently diagnosed early and healed. In this way, Maija’s story resembles Joonas’ account about the uncanny as work on oneself, as she has come to consider herself as ‘loved and protected’ as part of a larger bundle of relations that transcends the boundaries between material and non-material, human and non-human, life and death.

Last spring I was sitting in my study and solving sudokus and the tabletop lamp went off by itself. I thought it was a blackout but other lamps were working. After a while the lamp turned on by itself. The same thing the next day. And the next. And the next. I got nervous. And I said that I know something is wrong, but I don’t know what it is, so stop that. I realised that I was receiving a message [...] At some point my husband was washing my back and said that I have a strange mole. It was black. I called a dermatologist. Melanoma. It was removed and it had not spread. The doctors said that never before had they found a melanoma at such an early stage. [...] I am thankful every day for being truly loved [...] I am convinced that my loved ones take care of me even after death, and most likely I will carry on the tradition.

Maija, like Elisa and Joonas, also acknowledges the stigmatising character of uncanny experiences, and in her own way is also politicised to change social perceptions of such experiences. However, we interpret her narrative also as reflecting a need of continuous confirmation of the ‘truth’ of the uncanny. Maija meticulously reports on how the candles work, in which situations they light up and in which they don’t, and in general about the profoundly powerful and unexpected nature of uncanny occurrences, as evident in the previous description of the unlikely event of just one lamp going off repeatedly. In this way she ‘validates’ signs from the afterlife. This can be seen as further therapeutic work that seeks to actualise the existence of life after death and nurture the social relations that she finds dear to herself. Furthermore, in addition to feeling ‘protected’ in this life, Maija expresses a wish to herself keep looking after loved ones after her own death as well. This reflects the reciprocal character of care in Maija’s personal circle, as she expresses a will to continue her care work and the maintenance of social relationships after her own death.

Maija’s narrative also highlights the embodiment of the uncanny as part of therapeutic assemblages: how the presence of the uncanny, and thus the existence of the social relation, is confirmed through the body, by way of emotions and sensuous experiences rather than direct communication and interaction with uncanny beings. Maija recounts the way in which she recognised the presence -and well-being - of her deceased stepfather in her body. After receiving word of her [stepfather's death

I was crying a lot and was very anxious. On Saturday night I was crying and turning around and around in my bed, it was as if I had an iron belt around my chest. Just a horrible feeling. And then, suddenly, the feeling started from my head and moved down gradually, and I was gasping for breath like a fish on dry land, out of relief and happiness. I am sure that my dad wanted to tell me that self-pity and a heavy conscience are futile, that he was pleased with me and he was doing well.

Here Maija felt the presence of the deceased in her body in much the same way the traditional healers describe iconoclastic elements in the healing process (Taussig, 1993, see Bowman and Valk, 2012). The healers explain how they were able to make a ‘diagnosis' by recognising and feeling the other’s ailment in their own body and how they are able to take over the patient’s pain while healing. This is also what happens in healing ceremonies with ancestral possession rituals (see Schmidt and Hutchinson, 2010), where the ritual subject is able to speak - and know the world - through the ancestor’s often powerful voice. It is by mimesis4 and replication that the healer is able to cure.

In summary, we interpret Maija’s story being about the strengthening of social bonds beyond the binaries present in everyday perceptions of the world. Maija’s dealings with the uncanny extend the reciprocal care relations into the domain of the ‘otherworldly’. Making social bonds - instead of ‘working them out by grief work’ - is a theme that has recently been vividly studied and discussed (see Walter, 1999, 2007). People’s ties with the deceased are interpersonal and multifaceted. As Maija’s narrative demonstrates, they also manifest in bodily acts in addition to emotions and memories. Generally, by forging such ties, grieving persons construct a durable biography that enables them to integrate the memory of the dead into their ongoing lives. According to Walter (1999), the process by which this is achieved is principally considered a conversation between the living and the dead. Rather than being abandoned, the relationships with the deceased are renegotiated and sustained in one way or another. They can be a salient aspect of everyday life. In his phenomenological research of the mind, Ratcliffe (2017: 205-206) points out that the grieving process can include several embodied ways of experiencing and relating to the dead. Walter emphasises that the grief process hinges on talk more than feeling; and the purpose of grief includes moving on with, as well as without, the deceased. However, what is unique in Maija’s narrative is the content and reciprocity of her way of relating to the dead, that of sustaining social relations.

Conclusion: uncanny experiences as therapeutic events

We have presented three autobiographical narratives of uncanny experiences and demonstrated not only how uncanny experiences are thoroughly social practices but how uncanny actants can become an integral part of people’s therapeutic assemblages. The analysis of Joonas’ narrative shows how uncanny experiences shape one’s self-understanding and how they relate to self-care in the face of personal and political, local and global, (dis)continuities. Elisa’s narrative focuses on how uncanny experiences have promoted actions of helping others, as well as politicised her to conduct transformative work on society. Maija’s narrative is about working on personal social relations that transgress the impenetrable boundary between life and death. In many respects these narratives overlap, yet also reveal distinct ways of ‘assembling’ the uncanny into one's life and further into social discourses.

We argue that uncanny experiences can thus be understood as ‘therapeutic events’ that propagate social knowledge production; that is, new and/or old ‘truths’ in relation to oneself, the world and one’s social relations. Importantly, we do not see uncanny experiences as a priori positive phenomena or being in essence about healing. In certain assemblages and situations they become productive of anxiety and chaos rather than healing and stability, yet even as such they can be ‘worked with’ in order to self-care and/or change society. Through an understanding of uncanny things as contingent ‘actants’ within people’s therapeutic assemblages in everyday life - as they appear in the narratives above - we may seek to look beyond the question on the objective reality of such events and

Uncanny experiences as therapeutic events 203 better focus on the role that such experiences play in the social shaping of reality and lifeworlds. After all, the uncanny vividly produces effects and materialises in the language, bodies, technologies and practices of human culture.


The authors would like to acknowledge support from the following projects: Mind and the Other, Academy of Finland, grant number 266573; Tracking the Therapeutic, Academy of Finland, grant number 289004; Crossing Borders for Health and Wellbeing, Kone Foundation and the Finnish Cultural Foundation. The authors specifically wish to thank Ülo Valk and Jon Mitchell and all our colleagues who have been involved in working on this edited book for sharing their thoughts and insights on earlier versions of this chapter.


  • 1 In this work we want to avoid the term ‘supernatural’ due to its normative bias. The term ‘uncanny’ originates from Freud (1919), for whom it refers to ambiguous experiences that are simultaneously familiar and frightening. Despite its Freudian baggage, we think that the uncanny is the most suitable analytic concept for our work.
  • 2 Peter Lamont (2007) has made a critical notion that in cognitive psychology uncanny experiences are typically reduced to ‘paranormal beliefs’ and/or explained as errors or anomalies in mental functions (see Rancken, 2017). In an evolutionary sense, in the cognitive theory of religion, the uncanny may be seen, for example, as an anomaly that stems from the human mind’s tendency to anthropomorphize and animate its surroundings for adaptive purposes (Guthrie, 1993: 3-6; see also Boyer, 2001: 145-147).
  • 3 According to Latour (2005, 72) things as actants ‘affect’ the world in a variety of ways: ‘Things may authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on’.
  • 4 Mimesis is an old healing technique by which threat and danger are warded off by means of imitating and consequently taming them.


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