The Uncanny Function of Photographs in Film… The Shining, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Blade Runner

About the only law that I think relates to the genre 
is that you should not try to explain, to find neat 
explanations for what happens, and that the object of
the thing is to produce a sense of the uncanny. Freud 
in his essay on the uncanny wrote that the sense of 
the uncanny is the only emotion which is more powerfully 
expressed in art than in life, which I found very
illuminating; it didn't help writing the screen-play, 
but I think it's an interesting insight into the genre. 

And I read an essay by the great master H.P. Lovecraft 
where he said that you should never attempt to explain
what happens, as long as what happens stimulates people's
imagination, their sense of the uncanny, their sense of
anxiety and fear. And as long as it doesn't, within itself,
have any obvious inner contradictions, it is just a matter
of, as it were, building on the imagination (imaginary 
ideas, surprises, etc.), working in this area of feeling. 

Stanley Kubrick, "El Pais Artes" (1980)

In the early part of the 19th century in Germany, E.T.A. Hoffman wrote a famous, and at the time very influential, short story.  His tale opens in an epistolary style with three successive letters, recalling a traumatic childhood event, before the narrator introduces the disturbing nature of events to come.  He tells us, “gentle reader, nothing can be imagined that is stranger and more extraordinary than the fate which befell my poor friend”(Hoffman 1969: 148).


Readers were captivated by this unusual tale of madness because something pricked them, resonating deep in their bones.  An unexplained and uneasy feeling of fright emanates from The Sandman, written by E.T.A. Hoffman in Germany, 1815.  What caused this ‘uncanny’ feeling in the hearts and minds of readers?  Numerous psychoanalysts and philosophers have researched into the causes of such intangible feelings, which, has resulted in complex and varying definitions of the term.  The uncanny feeling, and the reasoning as to what provokes it, has evolved and transcended mediums.

Akin to gothic literature, which created this uneasy feeling in the reader, spectators of both photography and cinema have also felt that sinking feeling of fear in their stomachs.  The feeling of the uncanny is often felt (or heightened) with the inclusion of photographic images within a film.  Revealed through a revised notion of the uncanny, in combination with photographic theory and filmic analysis, the uncanny function that accompanies the inclusion of photographs in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Francis Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (1982) will ‘come into light.’  These films contain several images of photographs, whose, upon narrative, formal and symbolic analysis, uncanny function is exposed.

The notion of the uncanny and more importantly, that which arouses feelings of the uncanny is a highly debated concept.  However, there are several common strains that unite the varying theories into a comprehensive, although certainly not complete, account of what evokes an atmosphere of uncanniness.  In Sigmund Freud’s paper, “The Uncanny,” he describes it as “related to what is frightening, to what arouses dread and horror” and it “tends to coincide with what excites fear in general”(Freud 1990: 339).  His argument commences by recalling and refuting previous work on the uncanny by Ernst Jentsch.

Freud states that “Jentsch did not go beyond this relation of the uncanny to the novel and unfamiliar.  He ascribes the essential factor in the production of the feeling of uncanniness to intellectual uncertainty”(Freud 341).  After denial of Jentsch’s claims, Freud’s analysis uncovers this result: “the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar”(Freud 340).  Freud extends this to include, “everything […] that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light”(Freud 345).

In Jentsch’s claims to ‘intellectual uncertainty,’ he cites the most striking instance of the uncanny can result from “doubt as to whether an apparently living being is animate, and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be inanimate”(Jentsch 1995: 11) Although Freud agrees that the confusion between animate and inanimate objects can contribute to a sense of uncanniness, he does not agree that the figure of the doll, Olympia, is the main source of the uncanny in Hoffman’s tale.  Therefore, Freud must look elsewhere to locate the main source of the disturbing atmosphere in The Sandman.

Freud suggests “the main theme in the story […] reintroduced at critical moments: it is the theme of the ‘Sand-Man’ who tears out children’s eyes”(Freud 348).  He then links the loss of the eyes, a highly sensitive and precious organ, to the fear of castration, assuming that “the fear of going blind, is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated”(Freud 352).  Many, in their own evaluation of The Sandman, have argued that Freud undervalues (the automaton) Olympia’s role in the creation of uncanniness, and in doing so, greatly overvalues the fear of castration as the main source creating an uncanny atmosphere.

Sarah Kofman, in her book Freud and Fiction, argues against the idea of the fear of castration as the primary cause of uncanniness.  “Freud sees little point in differentiating between the uncanny effects of The Sandman and the tragic effects produced by the Oedipus story in which the same ‘theme’ occurs”(Kofman 1991:129).  She instead turns to the doll Olympia and her invocation of the figure of the double and death, because “there can be no instance of the uncanny that does not always already imply repetition”(Kofman 137).

She uses a pivotal scene from The Sandman to further refute the argument for the castration complex. From Nathaniel’s point of view, Coppelius “unscrewed my hands and feet, and fixed them on again now in this way, now in that”(Hoffman 142).  Kofman argues that this scene provides an essential link between Olympia and Coppelius, undermining Freud’s claim to the significance of the castration complex in the production of uncanniness.  Freud claims that this scene represents another example of castration, whereas, Kofman argues that this act signifies treating the human body as machine which, in turn, invokes death.  “Nathaniel’s fear of being broken up into separate parts is the fear of dying”(Kofman 145).  Thus, this scene provides an essential link between Coppelius and Olympia, who, in a perverse doubling, is a machine treated as a human, creating an uncanniness in a Jentsch sense of the word.


Both Kofman and Freud agree that the ‘blurring of the real and the imaginary’ can contribute to a sense of uncanniness. Freud admits that such an instance is likely to create the feeling of uncanny, “that an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced”(Freud 367) If this is true, then Jentsch definition of the uncanny may have more value then Freud gave credit.  “It is difficult to dismiss the factor of uncertainty (decisive in Jentsch definition) as ‘negligible’, given its prime importance in producing the uncanny feelings associated with death”(Kofman 124) They also insist that the figure of the double, in many forms (ie. repetition, resemblance), can play a significant role in the production of uncanniness, especially when it evokes the fear of death.  Kofman argues “the feeling of uncanniness that arises from the double stems from the fact that it cannot but evoke what man tries in vain to forget”(Kofman 148).

Freud himself makes this connection, he states that then “the double reverses its aspect.  From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death”(Freud 357).  This connection is at the heart of Kofman’s analysis, she asks “Is not the uncanniness of the death instincts […] the supreme form of Unheimlichkeit, the conditions of all effects of the same type?”(Kofman 158).  Therefore, Freud’s underlying definition of the uncanny resurfaces, it is “nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old established in the mind and which has become alienated from it through the process of repression”(Freud 363).

Kofman seems content to utilize this definition because his notion reassures her idea that death is the ultimate instance of uncanniness.  Death, in light of Freud’s terminology, as “a universal case of repression, a case that is the most resistant of all: the repression of the presence of death within, and at the origin of, life itself”(Kofman 158).  After analysis, the basis for the uncanny nature of photographic images in cinema will hinge on these few notions relating to the production of the uncanny; ‘intellectual uncertainty,’ a confusion of animate and inanimate objects, a blurring of the real and the imaginary, the figure of the double, the familiar which, illuminated after a process of repression, becomes unfamiliar, and finally, death.

The invention of photography was a substantial moment in the history of art and civilization.  There has always been a struggle in the plastic arts to capture the real, to achieve statuary, “the preservation of life by a representation of life”(Bazin 1967: 10).  Since, photography allowed for an instant mechanical reproduction of an image, which, as Andre Bazin in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” suggests, “has freed the plastic arts from their obsession with likeness”(Bazin 12).  Bazin argues that this was a result of the objective character of photography, which, provides an aura of credibility to the medium.  The viewer is “forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented […] this transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction ”(Bazin 13).

Bazin was not the only one to notice the ‘credibility’ inherent in the photograph,  Roland Bathes, in his work Camera Lucida, restates the argument, adding that is was not until the invention of photography that the “past could be as certain as the present, what we see on paper is as certain as what we touch”(Barthes 1993: 88).  In his project to discover the nature of photography, he finds this objectivity to be the crucial element.  Yet, it is this ‘objective quality’ of the photographic medium that results in the uncanny function of the photograph.  Garrett Stewart, in Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis, discusses the relation between the photographic image and the cinema, stating that there can be something “uncanny about the form of photography itself, even before the superaddition of the content – the unsettling imprint of time past”(Stewart 1999: 10).  What about photographs provokes the feeling of uncanniness?  A further exploration into the photographic theory will bring that question into light.

The photograph can create the feeling of uncanniness through the notion of ‘blurring the boundaries between the real and the imaginary.’  Bazin argues that, because of the photographs’ ‘objective character,’ if it is manipulated for “surrealist creativity it produces an image that is a reality of nature, namely, a hallucination that is also a fact”(Bazin 16). The ‘objective quality’ of the photograph does not only suggest reality, but it also is inextricably linked with the past.  “I can never deny that the thing has been there.  There is a superimposition here: of reality and the past”(Barthes 77).

As a result of the photographs’ necessary link to the past, by suspending the subject in time, it gives “the disturbing presence of lives halted at a set moment in their duration”(Bazin 14).  Therefore, the stasis of the photographic image is symbolically linked to death.  “There is always a defeat of time in them: that is dead and that is going to die”(Barthes 96).  The inescapable correlation between the photographic image and death is essential for any discussion of the photographic medium.  For Barthes, photography is a ‘flat death,’ and the “photographer must exert himself to the utmost to keep the photograph from becoming death”(Barthes 14).

In addition to the photographs relation to the past and its fixity, it also, according to Freud and Kofman, produces uncanniness through the evocation of the double, itself a sign of death.  All photography is a doubling, it is an ‘object being reproduced’ through a process of mechanization.  An uncanny atmosphere is the result of the several characteristics of the photographic medium, especially its; ‘blurring reality and the imaginary,’ connection with death and the double.  Hence, it is clear why there is, a priori, an uncanny nature to photographs regardless of their specific content.  This is not to say that the specifics of the image cannot contribute, or intensify the uncanniness associated with photographs.

There are hundreds, upon hundreds, of photographs that line the walls of the gothic Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  This tale of a family; Jack (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd), is one of madness, akin to Hoffman’s The Sandman.  The film includes images of photographs in almost every shot not in close-up.  Their repeated inclusion signifies that the past of the Overlook Hotel is always around them watching, in every hallway and every room.

For the purpose of this discussion on their uncanny function in the film, the photographs will be grouped into four categories; references to pictures, random groupings of photographs, the photographs in the hallway entrance to the Gold Room, and the enigmatic final image of Jack at the July 4th 1921 party.  The first two will be glossed over briefly, however, that does not mean that their significance in the creation of uncanniness is not significant.  The third and fourth categories are interconnected, as the final image, the period photograph, is situated within the Gold Room hallway.


The film references photographs or ‘pictures’ in the dialogue at two interesting points in the narrative; when Danny has the ‘come play with us’ conversation with the girls and the scene in the bathroom between Jack and Mr. Grady.  Riding his tricycle, Danny turns the corner to find what appears to be twin girls in the yellow hallway, the colour significant in its connection with the Gold Room and its corridor.  Danny, frightened, ‘shines’ with Dick Hallorenn (the chef/hero), who reassures him that the images are no different then ‘pictures in a book.’

This reference to photography is uncanny for several reasons.  The specific reference to ‘pictures’ recalls photography’s intrinsic relation to both the double and death, revealed in Barthes’ analysis .  The images accompanying the reference also evoke the double, with the appearance of the ‘twin’ girls, which, in turn, highlights death because of the fact that the girls are deceased, shown with inter-cutting of their hacked up corpses.  The next verbal reference to a ‘picture’ has similar implications, therefore, creating a similar sense of the uncanny.

In the bathroom, after an encounter during a ‘party’ in the Gold Room, Jack and Mr. Grady discuss the eerie history of the Overlook Hotel.  Talking about the past murders, Jack implicates Grady’s involvement, saying that he saw his ‘picture’ in the newspaper objectively confirming that he did, in fact, hack up his family with an axe as the caretaker in 1970.  This reference to a picture functions much in the same way as the previous example.  The photograph’s association with the double and death is mirrored by many of the details that are happening in this scene.

There is a doubling of Grady (Charles and Delbert), who himself, doubles Jack, signified by the placement of a mirror in Jack’s eye-line and punctuated by “a series of reverse-angle shots that render Jack and Grady mirror images of each other”(Rasmussen 2001: 269).  Oddly, Grady informs him that no, ‘Jack has always been the caretaker’ suggesting their doubled nature, highlighted by the fact that Grady, like his daughters, is also deceased.  In both instances, the familiar images of a family, repressed in the Overlook’s past, are made unfamiliar because of their status as dead, just like the ‘pictures’ referenced.  In the next category of images of photographs (random groupings), in the film, one instance in particular produces an uncanny feeling.

Wendy finally reads what Jack has written and the spectator sees her horrified face in front of a group of photos before cutting to a similar group in the entrance.  After a slow pan across the entrance lined with photos, “we see Wendy in the distance, with her back to the camera and looking like just one more portrait in the Overlooks gallery”(Rasmussen 273).  The notion of Wendy herself as a photograph has a twofold effect; it freezes her into the past, ‘like just another portrait,’ and it also foreshadows violence and death, accentuated by the eerie, grinding soundtrack.

Rasmussen expands, stating that after Jack enters the frame we see her “as he now sees her, Wendy is little more than an abstract character out of the Overlook’s past.  She has become Delbert Grady’s interfering wife”(Rasmussen 273).  This is uncanny because, through the inclusion and reference to photographs, a doubling occurs between the Gradys and the Torrences, the past and the present, photograph and film, symbolizing death through the impending repetition of the previous murders.

The importance of the photographs in the Gold Room hallway is not revealed until the final ‘enigmatic picture,’ however, there is an interesting progression at work.  The first time Jack enters this hallway, is in a long shot and the camera tracks backwards, away from the photographs on the far wall, as Jack walks towards the entrance to the Gold Room.  When he reaches the door way, the camera becomes static then pans right to watch him enter the bar from behind, before cutting inside the bar itself.  The camera movement signifies a movement away from the photographs, a distancing effect from the past and death that they imply.

More importantly, it shows that Jack has not yet been integrated into the Hotel’s past and everything that entails.  (Interestingly, similar camera placement and movement follows Wendy’s first, and only, visit down the hallway to the Gold Room.)  However, during Jack’s second trip to the Gold Room, the camera work is not so innocent.  The camera sits static, in extreme-long shot, at the base of the hallway by the entrance.  The photographs are in deep focus, in the background, as Jack enters.  Although, he and the camera are still distanced from the photos, this time there is no movement away from them, or from the past.  The camera, from this static position, tracks left through the wall in perfect sync with Jack’s entrance into bar.  Jack is no longer moving away from the past and, not only that, he is being seamlessly inserted into it.  The next time the film moves through the Gold Room hallway, the spectators encounter the uncanniest image of a photograph in The Shining.


The last shots of the film also involve movement down the Gold Room hallway.  After witnessing the frozen death of Jack, shown in a violent jump-cut, the camera glides down the familiar corridor, tracking towards the photographs on the wall for the first time.  The group of photos becomes one photo, and for the first time we are “within range of the image’s separate legibility”(Stewart 182).  The frame of the photograph perfectly aligns with the cinematic frame only for an instant before it enters the picture, revealing Jack smiling with a restrained wave of recognition. The camera actually enters further into the space of the photo through a pair of dissolves, until it pans down to reveal the “photograph and caption together, the one posing the impossibility of the other”(Stewart 182).

Once again an uncanny feeling emerges from this ‘blurring of the real and the imaginary’ created by the contradiction with the supposed ‘objective quality’ of photography.  In fact, the caption is actually on Jack, a label informing the spectator of the supernatural forces at work within the Hotel.  Rasmussen argues that the “successive dissolves bring that past closer and closer”(Rasmussen 284).  However, the final camera movements down the Gold Room hallway; the slow track in on the photos with the two dissolves, signify more then just bringing the past closer.  Jack has actually entered into the past and death, represented onscreen with his photographic imprint.

The repetition of the Gold Room hallway grouping of photographs creates an uncanny instance of doubling, highlighted by the actual death of Jack minutes ago and punctuated by his photographic death in the final shot.  Stewart makes this analogy, “photographic time is the proleptic stopped time of ones eventual death: once long ago for the deco swinger, and just now for the axe-wielding madman”(Stewart 183).   The doubling of a figurative death with a literal death in the closing minutes of The Shining makes the final image of the photograph all the more uncanny, however, Kubrick’s film is not alone in utilizing the potential of a photograph to create an uncanny atmosphere.

In Francis Coppola’s adaptation of the gothic tale, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there are two key images of photographs, which produce a feeling of the uncanny in the spectator.  The first, a picture of Renfield (Tom Waits), mentioned in conversation between Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) and, the newly arrived in Transylvania, Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves).  The camera cuts to, a small photograph of Renfield affixed to, a large certificate in canted close-up, before zooming in.  The certificate would be flush with the frame if it were not angled, the offset angle signifying something strange, something ‘off’ about this particular picture.  This photograph creates a feeling of uncanniness in the spectator through several interconnected factors.

In the photo, Renfield appears very professional, in his attire and emphasized by the fact that the picture is affixed to a certificate.  Therefore, there is a doubling effect on the character through the use of the image of the photograph; the former sane and professional self contrasts with his newfound insanity.  This, in turn, casts implications on Harker’s future because, as a replacement for Renfield, he his double.  The dual nature of Renfield signifies death, through the symbolic use of the photograph, in what Christian Metz refers to as abduction.  Although Renfield is not actually a corpse as such, but “what is dead about a corpse is not only its stasis but the sense of subtracted life it conveys, the sense of what has been evacuated from behind its eyes”(Stewart 37).

The doubling of Renfield by the photograph suggests such an ‘abduction,’ that his professional, sane life has been subtracted, taken away leaving only death.  This is the reason he constantly screams about his need of ‘eternal life,’ because his life has been stolen from him.  Renfield’s insanity, which was familiar to the spectator, becomes unfamiliar when his repressed sanity comes into light, through the use of the inset photograph.  This confusion with the past and the figure of the double, creating intense uncanny emotions of death, figure prominently into the second, more important image of a photograph in Coppola’s film.

d3d42550508f94bb508aceb2bafb68a2One image of a photograph is constantly repeated throughout Bram Stoker’s Dracula; the pale, black and white photograph of Mina (Winonna Ryder) is ‘quoted’ in the film at four distinct moments in the narrative.  The spectator’s first glimpse of the image is during Jonathan’s train ride to Dracula’s gothic castle in Transylvania.  A quick dissolve, from Mina’s letter to an image of Jonathan’s reflection in her photograph, is followed by a rack focus, bringing the photographic image into clarity.

All of this occurs under the watchful eyes of Dracula, superimposed in the sky.  Another dissolve occurs, mirroring the action, which shows Mina looking at a similar photograph of Jonathan.  This parallel action implies a connection of “body and it’s distant duplication”(Stewart 238), as well as, foregrounding the themes of love, loss and death.  The doubling effect of the ‘body and it’s duplication,’ is further developed through the doubling of Jonathan and Dracula, life and death, both looking at Mina’s photograph.  The love triangle’s intrinsic connection with death, emphasized by the inclusion of two images of photographs, recalls Hoffman’s triangle between Nathaniel, Clara and Olympia.

After Jonathan’s arrival in Transylvania, the image of Mina’s photograph is repeated twice in a matter of a few minutes.  In the first instance, her photograph, once again revealed through a dissolve, sits motionless on a table in the castle.  Through another dissolve, Dracula’s finger appears on top of the photograph while he stamps his official seal on the latest real estate purchase.  The brief insertion of the photograph, ‘under Dracula’s thumb,’ foreshadows the power that he will soon hold over her, also reflected by his stamp of ownership.

Accompanying these dissolves on the soundtrack is an eerie, sexual slurping suggesting that this possession of Mina is erotic.  The uncanniness of this scene is marked by this foreshadowing of Mina’s love of the dead vampire, and also her eventual death, symbolized by her fixity in the photograph.  The dissolve, a doubling itself in the overlapping of one image with another, between her photograph, her death image, to Dracula, the living dead, emphasizes the close and uncanny bond between the two characters.

Like the dissolves in The Shining, which emphasized Jack’s movement towards, and closeness to the past, the use of the dissolve in Bram Stoker’s Dracula functions on a similar level bringing the lovers together.  The development of the relationship between Mina and Dracula, her uncanny love of the dead, is highlighted by the use of the photograph, the dead representation of her.  The connection to the double and death, represented by photographs, is developed even further through a repeated insertion of the same picture.  The spectator is also aware of the doubling of Mina and Dracula’s dead bride (Elizabetha), which becomes relevant in the next instance of Mina’s photograph in the film.

The third time the photograph of Mina is visually present in the film occurs only minutes after the last example, and directly after the photo-certificate of Renfield. Since the two Renfields, the present and the past, are completely dissimilar, one could argue that the photograph evokes an uncanny feeling because of the strong resemblance between two different people.  This effect produced by the photo of Renfield, highlights the uncanniness of Mina’s photograph only minutes afterwards.

Dracula spots Mina’s picture on the counter and the “single framed image recalls for the protagonist a past erotic scenario sprung from the eerie resemblance between Mina and his lost medieval bride (a detail new to the film version)”(Stewart 239).  Excitedly, Dracula’s shadow, his double, reaches towards Mina’s photo, spilling ink all over it.  The unmoved photograph on the table looks like a negative, perhaps another doubling of life and death, before being picked up by the Count.  The ink appears to be “bleeding across the neck of the black-and-white photo, this blot, this shadow of blight – becomes not only the index of Dracula’s recalled desire for Mina’s precursor but the proleptic moving image of his subsequent bloodletting”(Stewart 239).

In addition, this ‘bleeding across the neck’ adds movement to the fixity of the photograph, which symbolizes the double of  life and death, the last remnants of life being drained out of the image.  The ‘bleeding’ of the photograph occurs while Dracula covets the photo in his hands, similar to the way Jonathan held on the train.  The doubling of Dracula and Jonathan is reinforced when Mina’s picture is directly referenced in dialogue, much like the examples in The Shining.  Jonathan, shaving in front of a mirror, mentions the photograph to the Count, whose reflection is uncannily missing.  The mirror implies their doubled nature, however, one is visible and one is not, a reflection of the living and the dead.  The transition between these poles (from Mina to Elizabetha, the familiar made unfamiliar) forms the basis for the final insertion of Mina’s photograph in the narrative.

imagesThe last insertion of Mina’s photograph occurs directly after Harker and Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) have burned down Carfax Abbey, Dracula’s home.  Through another dissolve, signifying their even deeper connection, the photograph appears in the fire, which, in turn, is reflected in it, signifying the passion between Mina and Dracula.  This is reinforced by another dissolve from the photograph to Mina in bed having recently been bitten by the vampire.  “Mina’s framed picture is returned only after Dracula has vampirized the woman herself and brought her partially under his spell”(Stewart 239).

Dracula himself appears, superimposed stroking his lovers’ hair.  Mina, now dying herself, is transforming into her deceased double, Dracula’s former bride Elizabetha, a movement highlighted by the inclusion of the photograph.  As Dracula’s bride, Mina becomes the photograph, foreshadowed by Jonathan’s earlier personification of the photo, ‘oh I see you’ve found Mina, I thought I’d lost her.’  Jonathan has lost her, she has become her double, her image frozen and dead in the past.  The repetitious insertion of images of photographs, in their symbolic reference to confusion with the past, endless doubling and evocation of death, create the uncanny feeling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut a similar effect occurs from the inclusion and central part that images of photographs play in the narrative.  There are two specific photographs, and one large grouping of images of photos, which have an uncanny function in the film.  The first significant photograph, which performs an uncanny function, is discovered by Deckard (Harrison Ford) in the Replicant Leon’s apartment.

Searching the apartment, Deckard finds a series of photographs hidden in a drawer, photos ‘once hidden that have now come to light.’ He flips through the photos like a deck of cards, emphasizing their flatness, therefore, stressing their representation as a ‘flat death.’ They are photos of families, which could not possibly be Leon’s because of his status as a Replicant, and therefore, like Olympia, a double.  Deckard singles out a photo of an apartment, which, after confrontation with other photos, will receive another look later in the story.


Rachael (Sean Young) arrives at Deckard’s apartment with ‘objective proof’ that she is human, a photograph.  In a medium shot, she holds out the photo, a barely visible white line, for Deckard to take, he refuses.  The flatness of the photograph again is highlighted, symbolizing that the life she is trying to prove never existed.  “It is merely a photograph of a mother she never had and a girl she never was”(Stewart 10).

Like Renfield’s photograph, it is uncanny as an ‘abduction,’ a symbol of a life taken away, subtracted by the knowledge that she is a Replicant, a double.  After she leaves, Deckard picks up the photo from the floor, reframing a medium close-up into a close-up, before the photo is flipped over and re-flipped.  The photograph fills the entire frame and the spectator enters into a past that never existed, which produces and uncanny feeling akin to the final image in The Shining.  After the repressed knowledge of Rachael’s replicant status comes into light, the familiar image of a mother and daughter, is made unfamiliar and uncanny.

Before returning to the photo found in Leon’s apartment, Deckard sits at his piano surrounded by photographs revealed by a slow pan left.  Stewart argues that this movement creates a “counterpoint between motion and stasis that deepens the scene by further flattening the time-space of the photos”(Stewart 12).  The disparate images themselves reveal another doubling, the question of whether or not Deckard himself is a Replicant.  “From the fragmented unrelated images that lie on the piano in front of him, we understand that Deckard’s family photographs no more belong to him than Rachael’s photo belonged to her”(Marder 1991: 101).

This would indicate that an uncanny feeling arises from the photographs on Deckard’s piano because the spectator is unsure whether of not he is human, ‘a confusion of animate and inanimate beings.’ However, this point relies on the fact that these are Deckard’s photographs and not others in Leon’s collection, which seems an equally plausible explanation because of the photo of his apartment within this grouping.  After panning back to the right, still in medium close-up, this particular photo is selected, turned and then brought into extreme close-up, flush with the film’s frame.  Once flush, Deckard flips the photo over, once again exploring the ‘flat death’ of the photograph, a death that becomes questioned after an uncanny digitalized exploration in the next scene.

Once again, like Rachael’s photo of her mother and the final image of The Shining, the spectator actually enters the space of an image of a photograph, this time through the aid of a device called the Esper Machine.  An uncanny feeling arises immediately because of a ‘blurring between the real and the imaginary’ in the impossible change of perspective, an altering of the ‘objective quality’ of the photography.  “For a flat ‘dead’ photograph – a trace and testament to a past event – cannot shift perspectives after the fact, and remain what we call a photograph”(Marder 102).

Garrett Stewart argues that the result of this machine is that “the photo is, in short, cinematized – edited, cut, motorized, even lent the illusion of three-dimentiality”(Stewart 11) What happens then is the addition of life, through cinematized movement, to the photograph, which, evokes doubling of film and photography, life and death.  The new photograph produced from the Esper Machine, another double, an uncanny copy with no referent, itself leads directly to death.  Rachael’s photograph is also a photograph with no referent, which provokes an aura of uncertainty, an uncanny feeling related to the confusion of her status as a human being.


The final images of photographs in the film, which provoke an uncanny feeling in the spectator, are themselves a doubling, a repetition of the group of ‘fragmented’ photographs on Deckard’s piano.  From behind Rachael in a medium shot, we see her standing in front of the photographs on top of Deckard’s piano.  In close-up, Rachael picks up an old Victorian photo, oddly reminiscent of the one of Mina in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  It is of a woman with parted hair resembling Rachael’s, “her own hair has a similar part, and is also pulled back from her face”(Silverman 1991: 125).  Rachael, through resemblance, doubles this woman, who, by the both the era of the photo and the symbolic nature of the photograph, is assuredly dead.

The uncanny feeling of this symbolic doubling, is doubled further in light of a comparison between film and photography.  Rachael, captured in movement embodies life, but through her doubling in the photograph, she is also dead, alluding to her status as an automaton.  The feeling of the uncanny is created through the ‘confusion between animate and inanimate objects’ and the evocation of death through the doubling.  In close-up she replaces the photo back in the ‘fragmented’ line and remaining static, the camera focuses on another photograph of a woman, this time with curly hair.  The entire event is then repeated.  After a few moments Rachael then “rearranges her own hair in a fair approximation of the woman in the second photograph, all the while looking intently in front of her, as if a mirror”(Silverman 125). The uncanny feeling of these, and all of the images of photographs in Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut, is most strongly felt when in relation to the figure of the double and the subsequent evocation death, ‘the supreme form of Unheimlichkeit.’

Scott’s film contains several parallels to The Sandman, in its references to automatons, figures of the double which, through their perfection and unnatural creation evoke thoughts of death.  Elissa Marder, in her analysis goes one step farther, “Blade Runner likens androids to photographs […] they are designed to reflect the human figure perfectly – to cast back an image of humanity in order to confirm our own”(Marder 97).  The image they reflect is indeed just that, our humanity, which, in turn, implies our mortality and creates a feeling of the uncanny.

In final analysis of the uncanny function created by the inclusion of images of photographs in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Francis Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut, it is worth examining the uncanny relationship between photography and the cinematic medium itself.  The fact that the familiar image of the photograph is repressed, as the ‘specular unconscious’ of cinema, when it is brought to the surface as ‘quoted photographs’ the nature of the photograph is seen in an unfamiliar light.

When the ‘familiar, alienated through repression, becomes unfamiliar’ it results in an uncanny feeling.  The contrasting images of fixity and movement created on screen, in combination with the doubling nature of both mediums, produces a feeling of uncanniness from the symbolic representation of death in its direct opposition to life.  It is a confrontation with mortality.  The specific content in the images of photographs in the three films heightens the atmosphere of the uncanny that is produced.  This quote, from the end of Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut, represents a poetic analogy for the photograph, and a large part of why photographs, especially through their inclusion in film, have an uncanny function.  ‘All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.  Time to die.’

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland.  1993.  Camera Lucida.  London.  Vintage Books; Random

House United Kingdom Limited.

Bazin, Andre.  ed.  Gray, Hugh.  1967.  “The Ontology of the Photographic

Image.” What Is Cinema?  Vol 1.  University of California Press.  pg.  9-16.

Freud, Sigmund.  (1919) 1990.  “The Uncanny.” Art and Literature: Pelican

Library vol 14. Harmondsworth. Penguin Publishing.  pg.  339-376.

Hoffman, E.T.A. eds. and trans.  Kent, Leonard and Elizabeth Knight. (1815)

1969. “The Sandman.” Selected Writings of E.T.A. Hoffman, Volume 1: The Tales.  Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Jentsch, Ernst.  (1906) 1995.  “On the Psychology of the Uncanny.” Angelaki. 2.1:


Kofman, Sarah. (1974) 1991.  Freud and Fiction.  Cambridge.  Polity Press.

Marder, Elisa.  1991.  “Blade Runner’s Still.” Camera Obscura 27.  pg.  87-107.

Rasmussen, Randy.  2001.  Stanley Kubrick: Seven Films Analyzed.  Jefferson.

MacFarland and Company Inc., Publishers.

Silverman, Kaja.  1991.  “Back to the Future.” Camera Obscura 27.  pg.  109-133.

Stewart, Garrett.  1991.  Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo

Synthesis.  Chicago. University of Chicago Press.


1.  Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut.  Dir.  Scott, Ridley.  1982.

2.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  Dir.  Coppola, Francis.  1992.

3.  The Shining.  Dir.  Kubrick, Stanley.  1980.

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