“Poor creature, trapped in existential solitude forever”: Gothic Dreams of the Uncanny, Repetition, Temporal Loops, and the Double in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina





Gothic, Dreams, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Television, Freud

How to Cite

Speakman, B. I. (2020). “Poor creature, trapped in existential solitude forever”: Gothic Dreams of the Uncanny, Repetition, Temporal Loops, and the Double in <em>The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina</em>. M/C Journal, 23(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1642
Vol. 23 No. 1 (2020): dream
Published 2020-03-18


According to Sigmund Freud (A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis 90), dreams can be seen as a “substitute for something else, unknown to the dreamer”. In Freud’s theory, dreams are regarded as a “depiction of the subconscious, a screen onto which the subconscious projects its suppressed desires and hallucinations about their fulfilment” (Khapaeva & Tweddle 6). It is likely due to these aspects that dreams and dreaming have become prevalent in contemporary literature, film and television, and an outlet for a greater examination of Freud’s work on the origins and nature of these "desires and hallucinations" (Eberwein). While considerable discussion exists on Freud’s psychoanalytical approach to dreams (Eberwein; Khapaeva & Tweddle; Moore Jr.), as well as the theoretical parallels between dreams and the mediums of storytelling, literature and film (Rheinschmiedt; Perlmutter; Khapeava & Tweddle), there has been limited research and representation of dreams in Gothic television. The Gothic is a “malleable notion” that is able to remould itself into various narrative forms and media (Piatti-Farnell & Brien 1), and is also “about the return of the past, of the repressed and denied, the buried secret that subverts and corrodes the present, whatever the culture does not want to know or admit” (Lloyd-Smith, 1). Given that in Freudian theory, dreams are generally regarded as a vehicle for the return of suppressed desires and the unconscious, dreams and nightmares themselves can be seen as inherently Gothic. Dreams and nightmares are often spaces where characters must confront the unfamiliar, the unknown, and the unseen future, and yet, these spaces also seem to contain aspects of the familiar, the known, and the previously seen past (Moore Jr.). 

Taking the inherent Gothic nature of dreams and nightmares into account, this article will critically examine the representation of dreams and nightmares in “Chapter Five: Dreams in a Witch House” in Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018-present). At the end of the previous episode, “Chapter Four: Witch Academy”, Sabrina inadvertently frees the sleep demon, Batibat, from her prison. In Chapter five, Batibat, in an effort to force them to release her from the house, places Sabrina, Ambrose, Zelda and Hilda into a deep sleep curse where they are tortured in their dream-turned nightmares. The episode features a number of Gothic tropes and conventions, including the return of the repressed and the unconscious, the uncanny and the double, and the blurring of the boundaries between reality and fantasy. This article will primarily focus on Ambrose, whose dream sequence highlights how dreams in Gothic texts are often spaces where the boundaries between everyday reality and fantasy scenarios become blurred, producing uncanny interactions. This can be seen in Ambrose’s experience of a dream loop, where he is compelled to repeat his death over and over again; this repetition produces a blurring of the boundary between the past, present and future. Additionally, this article will discuss how the episode uses both the “aesthetics and the politics of horror and the Gothic” (Piatti-Farnell and Mercer 1), in order illustrate how the realisation of our deepest fears and anxieties in dreams and nightmares are both terrifying and horrifying. 

Uncanny Doubles and the Repressed Unconscious 

According to Royle, the uncanny is “concerned with the strange, weird, and mysterious, with a flickering sense (but not conviction) of something supernatural” (1). The uncanny is a crisis of the proper as it entails a critical disturbance of what is proper (including names, places, people), and is concerned with the familiar becoming unfamiliar. Royle argues that the uncanny is described in terms of making things uncertain and the sense that things are not as they have come to appear through habit and familiarity, which often challenges rationality or logic. According to Wheatley (3), Gothic television narratives often involve a “proclivity towards the structures and images of the uncanny” including repetitions, déjà vu, doppelgangers and the double, and severed body parts. Ambrose’s dream, in particular, support’s Wheatley’s claim that Gothic television has a proclivity towards the images of the uncanny, as it includes a number of key features of the uncanny, including repetitions, the double, and severed body parts, are used to evoke the terror of Ambrose’s pain and death. 

At the start of Ambrose’s dream, he is in the Spellman Mortuary with Hilda opening a body bag – upon opening the bag, the corpse is revealed to be Ambrose’s body. This revelation produces an uncanny effect, as the double operates as a figure of displacement in that it characteristically appears out of place to displace its host (Webber). This displacement of both self and time can be seen with Ambrose’s reaction, who struggles too come to terms with seeing his double on the Mortuary table. According to Babicka, the doppelganger is perceived as both self and other, and the uncanny element is the fact that they are both familiar and strange. The encounter with other selves opens up possibilities for the uncanny, as any attempt at “a reflexive grasp of this mutual imbrication of self … involves a potential for precisely those uncanny figurations that people experience from the Gothic” (Collins & Jervis 6). 

After the body on the Mortuary table is revealed to be Ambrose’s double, Ambrose questions his aunt Hilda about the corpse, asking “doesn’t he remind you of someone, Auntie?” Collins and Jervis’s claim that the doppelganger is perceived as both self and other is supported by this interaction, as Ambrose’s question indicates that he recognises the corpse as himself, but given that the corpse appears to be his double, he also regards it as other. Furthermore, the uncanny resemblance between Ambrose and the corpse evokes a sense of terror and awe in him. Morris (307) argues that the uncanny "derives its terror not from something external, alien, or unknown but … something that is strangely familiar and defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it". Terror has the potential to freeze the mind and body, and derives from whatever evokes in us an apprehension of pain or death. This apprehension of pain and death can be seen with Ambrose, as open seeing the body, a close up shot of Ambrose reveals his shock and terror of his own mortality.   

Moreover, the existential threat of death which the double poses can be connected to a key theme within the Gothic and the uncanny – our compulsion to return to the repressed moment or act. According to Mishra (294), the double can be regarded as the uncanny harbinger of death, and "death is the always recurring or repeating presence that threatens the subject to which it compulsively returns". In Ambrose’s dream, while his double is a direct visualisation of his death, he cannot seem to remember or understand how is body came to be on the table, as its presence appears to avoid all rational logic. In his discussion of the Gothic and psychoanalysis, Punter (307) argues that we work "continuously to maintain a simulacrum of congruence between fantasy and reality". However, those boundaries frequently blur in the most routine of everyday events, such as daydreams or dissonance between what other people mean as opposed to what we want to hear. When we can’t fill in this gap in knowledge, Punter argues that this gap can call forth the uncanny which is produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced. This dissonance between reality and fantasy can be seen with Ambrose’s reaction, as although his double’s corpse is right in front of him, he struggles to understand the gravity of the situation, and how he died.  

Unlike Ambrose’s dream, where the return of the repressed, his corpse, is a symbol of his desire to be free of house arrest, the return of the repressed in Sabrina’s dream is more literal as Harvey remembers a memory he had previously forgotten. Botting (107) argues that the uncanny is “easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced and occurs when infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impression”. The uncanny is the recurrence or return of the repressed – something which is familiar and old established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through processes of repression. The return of repressed memories can be seen in Sabrina’s dream, where she reveals to her then-boyfriend, Harvey, her identity as half-witch and half-mortal. This revelation causes a moment of déjà vu for Harvey who, in the dream, remembers when Sabrina had cast a spell causing Harvey to forget about Sabrina’s identity. 

According to Royle (173), déjà vu can be defined as the "peculiar feeling or sensation that we have, in certain moments of situations, of having had exactly the same experience once before, or of having once before been in the same place". However, Royle argues that despite our best efforts, we never succeed in clearly remembering the previous occasion, and therefore the feeling of déjà vu corresponds to the recollection of an unconscious phantasy – we can never consciously remember it because it has never been conscious. In response to Sabrina’s revelation, Harvey asks “why am I suddenly having a strange sense of déjà vu?” Sabrina answers: “because I told you once, in the woods, and then I made you forget”. Harvey reveals that, despite Sabrina’s memory spell “a part of me remembers, even when you made me forget”. This revelation produces another uncanny moment where a repressed or ‘forgotten’ memory comes back to haunt the past. In Freud’s understanding of the uncanny, everything that was intended to remain a secret comes into the open, and the uncanny manifests itself when the repressed aspects buried in our unconscious suddenly return. By revealing her secret, the past event, the memory spell, suddenly returns and this forgotten moment causes Harvey anguish as he struggles to recollect the past experience. 

Repetition and Dream Loops

The episode is segmented to focus on how the individual characters come to realise they are dreaming, before it brings them together. When first centred on Ambrose, we see him performing an autopsy on his double; after performing the operation, Ambrose is paid a visit by his coven’s High Priest, Father Blackwood, who informs him that he is no longer under house arrest. In this way, his dream initially appears to mirror the Freudian theory of dreams as simply being wish fulfilment; throughout the first season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Ambrose’s key storyline is his desire to leave the Spellman house and be free of his imprisonment. However, Ambrose’s wish is never fully actualised, as he is ultimately murdered by Batibat, and after his death, the episode jumps to the same close up shot of Ambrose and Hilda opening the body bag, like at the start of his dream. It appears that Ambrose is stuck in a time loop or a repetition of his own death, unable to leave the house forever – his greatest wish has become his greatest fear. 

Although it appears that Ambrose is ‘fated’ to die in his dream on a continuous loop, it is never clear when the loop actually begins, as at the beginning of the dream, we already see Ambrose’s corpse. Juranovszky argues that Gothic temporal loops play a key part in endeavours to establish sites of trauma re-enactment, and the aim of temporal confusion is to “evoke a disturbing sense of backward-pointing progress” which “allows for a reconsideration as well as a resolution of the past” (para 12). The re-enactment of Ambrose’s trauma, in this case his death, is seen in his dream, as he is stuck in an endless cycle of discovering his own corpse to only then be killed himself again. The temporality in the dream is non-linear as time flows in a circled repetition where Ambrose is at the Mortuary, is killed, and then the cycle repeats itself. Given that that dream loop begins at the Mortuary table, after Ambrose’s death, time itself in the dream is unclear as there is a blurring of the past, present, and future. 

Despite his awareness of being stuck in a loop of his own death, Ambrose is compelled to repeat the same action again and again until he relents and frees Batibat from the Spellman residence. This instance of repetition, where characters are compelled to act in a certain way, is a hallmark of the Gothic, and is one of the central characteristics of the uncanny (Lloyd-Smith). Lloyd-Smith argues that Gothic characters are often shown struggling in a web of repetitions caused by their unawareness of their unconscious drives and motives. However, in this case, Ambrose is shown struggling with the repetition of his own death, yet he is compelled to repeat such actions. Furthermore, the sequence highlights how dreams are a space outside of time, where the past and present are blurred. According to Perlmutter, “something happens to the narrative” when dream sequences in film and television begin, as “characters leave behind rational external reality and … cross over into a ‘between’ world where reality and imagination converge into hypothetical realms that are scrambled” and achronological” (128). Because of this blurring between reality and imagination, dreams in Gothic texts are often spaces where the past and future are highly contested, and are an extreme form of solitude outside of time. Ambrose’s home has become an unfamiliar place of torture, as although he is surrounded by familiar people and surroundings, it appears that he is stuck in solitude with little hope of escape. It is Ambrose’s awareness of being trapped in a time loop that results in his own death, and the realisation that he is trapped in existential solitude, as well as his inability to distinguish between nightmare and reality that makes his dream so terrifying.  

According to Piatti-Farnell and Mercer, “in our contemporary moment”, Gothic horror and terror “tend to merge and intersect, often forming hybrid visions”, that shifts between the two modes. Conventionally, terror has been “linked to fear triggered by indeterminate agents” (Cavallaro vii), and to hold characters and readers in anxious suspense about threats to life, safety, and sanity mostly out of sight or suggestions from a hidden past (Hogle). The claim that Gothic terror and horror often merge and intersect in contemporary texts can be supported by the revelation of the corpse on the Mortuary table. This revelation puts Ambrose in an anxious state, where he can only imagine the circumstances in which his double died. However, this terror of his mortality quickly shifts into horror when Ambrose realises that he is doomed to repeat his death in an endless cycle. Horror is usually triggered by “visible fear” (Cavallaro vii), and confronts characters “with the gross violence of physical or psychological dissolution, explicitly shattering the assumed norms … of everyday life with wildly shocking, and even revolting, consequences” (Hogle 3).

This visualisation of fear and gross violence is explicitly shown when Ambrose performs an autopsy on his double for the second time, as he pleads “no … no … no … Auntie, please don’t leave me…” As Ambrose has encountered his death and entrapment in the Spellman residence, his fear of death has been realised as nothing remains for his imagination. The close up shot of Ambrose cutting into his own body can be considered as an instance of body horror, which Reyes argues, occurs when a “text generates fear from abnormal states of corporeality, or from an attack upon the body, we might find ourselves in front of an instance of body horror” (1). Reyes’s claim that body horror generates fear from an abnormal state of corporeality can be seen with Ambrose, as he is compelled to cut into his own body, knowing regardless of his actions, he will be killed by Batibat continuously, unless he relents and frees the demon from her trap. This compulsion to act creates a sense of horror, dread, and revulsion, which can be seen in a close up shot of Ambrose’s face, where he has an extremely visceral reaction to being stuck in his time loop, and being abandoned in solitude with no one to help him. 

While dreams in Freudian theory were considered as wish fulfilment, they can also be seen as a space where repressed and unconscious desires and fears manifest themselves. As seen in Ambrose’s dream, the return of these unconscious and repressed desires produced a number of uncanny and horrifying interactions. Ambrose’s growing realisation of being trapped in a nightmare loop of his death illustrate how dreams are Gothic because they disturb the boundary between the material world and fantasy. The use of Gothic horror and terror techniques and conventions in Ambrose’s dream demonstrate the horrifying nature of nightmares, not because it featured a single disturbing moment, but because Ambrose’s dream morphed from wish fulfilment to a narrative of his repressed and unconscious desires and fears. The inherent Gothic nature of dreams means they are highly effective and popularly used in literature, film, and television to evoke a sense of terror and horror because of the visceral reaction the return of the unconscious and repressed produces. 


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