I’m sure it’s happened to you, too. After some time away, you return to somewhere familiar. For some reason this doesn’t seem to apply to places you spend only a little time—for example, the cabin where I tend to go on vacation every year. Rather, it impacts quotidian spaces, the places you see nearly every day. Returning after an absence, the place looks strange, as if you’d forgotten what it was really like. A fairly common example is a college dorm room. When you return to it after, say, the winter holiday, it looks not quite how you remembered it. It’s a little smaller or larger than you recalled, or you didn’t remember that the floor tiles were that color. Within a day or so the feeling disappears and you accept the “new normal.”
The strange, or unfamiliar, is the source of many monsters. Freud famously phrased the uncanny as “unheimlich,” un-home-like. It is close to what you expected, but not exactly. The uncanny valley is that place where things are about right, but slightly off. It generates a creepy feeling, as if reality is being distorted. On a business trip to Boston a few years back I visited Boston University School of Theology, a place where I spent over two years in my twenties. 745 Commonwealth Avenue hadn’t been renovated, but I stepped inside and was stunned by how wide the hall was. In my mind it had become far narrower. It was downright disturbing, as if I’d walked into somebody else’s past. It made me wonder—is any of this really real? Or more frighteningly—is my memory that fragile?
I recently spent a day working in the New York office. While the office itself seemed the same, the city did not. Emerging from the Port Authority Bus Terminal I knew exactly where I was. Or did I? I’d walked roughly the same route daily for almost five years, and two years before that a similar track. It was as if the bus had exited the Lincoln Tunnel into an alternate Manhattan. Unheimlich. I’ve returned to many places after being away for awhile and this distortion of absence always creeps me out. Can my memory be that faulty or is all of this an illusion? The gap between present reality and remembered reality provides crevices into which monsters crawl, waiting. By the time I reached the block of my office the feeling had gone away. But somehow, the monsters remained.