scary movies

Me and my murderous shadow

  • Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is a terrifying film about a family and their subterranean doppelgängers
  • The idea of the spooky double is as old as storytelling itself. It features in ancient Egyptian myths, Russian novels and sci-fi B movies
  • The horror comes from looking in the mirror and recognising our own flaws, desires and perversions

By Pamela Hutchinson

“They look exactly like us. They think like us… They won’t stop until they kill us… or we kill them.” So whispers Lupita Nyong’o’s character in Jordan Peele’s latest horror movie Us, as her family is terrorised by a set of perfect doubles – their own murderous mirror image. This is not a new fear. The German word “doppelgänger” was coined in the 18th century to describe an idea that had been around for centuries before then, and has stuck around in the centuries since. The brilliance of Peele’s film is that his creepy doubles, the subterranean “Tethered”, draw upon almost all of this extended history, updating it in the process.

Peele has confessed to a longstanding fear of doppelgängers. In fact, he claims that he once had a vision of seeing himself across a subway platform. The seed of the idea for Us, he has said, was a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone (Peele is the showrunner for its revival), called “The Mirror Image”, in which a woman meets her double in a bus station, and comes to believe that it has been sent from a parallel universe to replace her.

'The Mirror Image', an early episode from 'The Twilight Zone'

Us expands on this premise in several directions. “When I got the idea of a doppelgänger family, I knew I had something that was gonna forge new ground in the pantheon of doppelgänger tales,” he told Sight & Sound. “If you see a family of four that looks like your own standing outside your house, that is an iconic horror image because of the questions that are unanswered. How? What? Where did they come from? What do they want?”

The basic doppelgänger idea is as old as storytelling itself: there are versions of it in Ancient Egyptian and Norse mythology. In Irish folklore, a “fetch” is a ghostly double whose appearance is usually an omen of death. But literature’s interest in the doppelgänger probably begins with Gothic horror, as in ETA Hoffmann’s 1815 novel The Devil’s Elixirs or Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story William Wilson, about a man whose double haunts him as a manifestation of his moral conscience. The 1913 silent film The Student of Prague was partially inspired by this story, and it may not be a coincidence that Wilson is the name of the family in Us, too: mother and father Adelaide and Gabe, and kids Zora and Jason.

Jesse Eisenberg in Richard Ayoade's 2013 film 'The Double'

The most famous doppelgänger tale in literature must be Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double, first published in 1846, just a couple of years before Catherine Crowe’s paranormal text The Night-Side of Nature (1848) would make the word better known. In Dostoevsky’s novella, which was filmed in an updated adaptation by Richard Ayoade in 2013, a clerk named Golyadkin’s descent into madness is accompanied by his encounter with his exact double. Confident and extroverted where the protagonist is conflicted and socially awkward, the double only exaggerates Golyadkin’s failings. Only one of them can prosper, so the double’s insinuation into Golyadkin’s work and social circle prompts his own exit to the madhouse. He tells his doppelgänger: “Either you or I, but both together is out of the question!” Vladimir Nabokov described the book as a “perfect work of art,” and his own 1934 novel Despair is heavily influenced by it.

It’s not just literature. Historical figures including Abraham Lincoln, Goethe and Elizabeth I are said to have seen their own doubles, though evidence for such assertions is naturally shaky. That said, there could be a medical explanation for doppelgänger experiences. Dostoevsky’s Golyadkin, and those in the same plight, may be experiencing heautoscopy, a symptom of schizophrenia that takes the form of hallucinating one’s own body at a distance.

In fiction, at least, the sight of a doppelgänger often precipitates a mental disintegration. For much of the running time, Us exploits the idea that Adelaide Wilson’s encounter with her double in childhood has traumatised her for life. In the Robert Altman film Images (1972), Susannah York plays a writer experiencing a psychotic breakdown who hallucinates her own self as well as her past lovers, but it is her own doppelgänger that proves most lethal.

Ben Barnes in 'Dorian Gray' (2009), based on Oscar Wilde's novel

In supernatural fiction, the doppelgänger can also be an expression of hidden, transgressive desires, what Freud would call an “alter ego”. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) both feature the “shadow selves” of outwardly respectable protagonists. Mr Hyde commits murder and runs amok on the streets, while Dorian’s portrait accumulates the physical signs of its subject’s moral degeneracy and criminality. Similar doubles exist in our reading of literature, too: feminist critics have identified the deranged Mrs Rochester, living in the attic of Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre, as the heroine’s shadow, acting out against social expectations of young women.

The doppelgängers in Us are not just more violent than the people living above ground, but visibly more grotesque: human replicas without souls, who eat raw rabbit meat and are distinguished by scuttling movements, burned skin, distorted mouths and strange vocalisations. In Freudian analysis, the doppelgänger embodies the unheimlich, or uncanny, in which the familiar becomes terrifying, because it exposes what should remain hidden, as well as the struggle between id and ego for control of the self. The Tethered are terrifying both because they do and don’t look human – like a waxwork or a robot.

In science-fiction, the exploration of robots, parallel universes, clones and time travel has led to an explosion of doppelgänger fiction, although they don’t all have the same unheimlich impact of a “mirror-image” apparition. Many of those that do have become allegorical or satirical touchstones.

Donald Sutherland in 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers', (1978)

Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers was filmed a year later by Don Siegel as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and then again in 1978: in a small town in California, residents are switched out one by one for emotionless “pod people” grown from seed. The 1956 film has been interpreted both as an allegory for the communist infiltration of America and, conversely, as an attack on McCarthyism and conformism. In Ira Levin’s 1972 satire The Stepford Wives, filmed in 1975 and 2004, suburban women are slowly replaced by lifelike robot clones, programmed to be submissive, as a backlash against the women’s lib movement.

The natural successor to both of these is Peele’s debut movie Get Out, in which brain transplants keep old white people alive in young black bodies. In one especially chilling scene, the tear on the face of the family maid as she insists “the Armitages are so good to us” is pure unheimlich. The Tethered in Us reside in their own literal Sunken Place, an underground tunnel network, and their existence is the result of similarly sinister meddling – in this case, a failed government cloning experiment.

It may have been Mark Twain who first used a doppelgänger motif as a form of social critique, though. In his 1881 children’s book The Prince and the Pauper, two identical but unrelated boys from vastly different social backgrounds swap situations. Upon the king’s sudden death, the poor boy proves himself able to rule wisely, while his counterpart the prince is learning from experience about the deprivations that accompany poverty, especially from the forces of law. “My idea,” wrote Twain, “is to afford a realising sense of the exceeding severity of the laws of that day by inflicting some of their penalties upon the king himself and allowing him a chance to see the rest of them applied to others.”

Us, with its disenfranchised, voiceless and abused doppelgängers emerging from underground to take their revenge on society, makes an equally explicit critique of inequality – contradicting and contorting the false statement of unity enacted by the 1986 Hands Across America charity stunt. In Us, with its visual-pun title, when Gabe asks who the Tethered are, their leader replies: “We’re Americans”. In its own sophisticated and bloody way, Us upholds Twain’s contention that the underclass and the ruling class are distinguished only by twists of fortune, not divine right, and that extreme measures are required to highlight the injustice.

Olivia de Havilland in 'The Dark Mirror' (1946)

Fictional identical twins inspire a similar shiver of doppelgänger recognition, or at least distrust. While in comedies they inspire identity-switch pranks, in horror they often follow the ego/alter-ego mapping of the creepiest doppelgänger tales. In Robert Siodmak’s 1946 noir The Dark Mirror, two sisters, both played by Olivia de Havilland, are suspects in a murder case. Although a psychologist is able to identify that one is healthy and the other psychotic, he can’t be sure which woman committed the crime. Four decades later, David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) featured the twin gynaecologists played by Jeremy Irons, one of whom rapidly becomes seriously paranoid and violent.

Nevertheless, it’s one of the contradictory aspects of the doppelgänger phenomenon that we seem to be drawn to our doubles. While the internet renders us more susceptible to identity theft (as in last year’s doppelgänger webcam horror Cam), it also provides more opportunities to seek out your mirror image. The website twinstrangers.net promises to “find your lookalike from anywhere in the world” and, as I write this, boasts 4,904,959 matches. Simply upload your photo, hand over some money, and you can search through your matches to find your own lookalike.

Madeline Brewer in the 2018 horror film 'Cam'

But there may be another, more terrible cost to finding your other self. The 1991 Krysztof Kieslowski film La double vie de Véronique explored the idea of having a distant double, with Irene Jacob playing two young women in Paris and Poland who never meet but share a psychic connection. When one dies, the other inexplicably grieves. Last year’s documentary hit Three Identical Strangers picked up on what seemed like a quirky news story about triplets, separated at birth, who discovered each other by chance, only to uncover that they were separated by design, and were in fact among the subjects of a vast and deeply worrying psychological experiment. Watching this film helps us to understand the mysterious pangs involved in meeting your double. When you find your other half, you confront the pain of your earlier separation.

At least, you might say, the twins and triplets in that film have an explanation for the eerie feeling of meeting their own double – and someone else to blame. For most fictional victims of the doppelgänger effect, and for those of us who have nightmares about it, the horror comes from recognising our own weakness, our own darker desires. In Us, Jordan Peele harnesses the uncanny horror of the doppelgänger to point a finger not just at our individual failings, but also at those of a divided, unjust America. The Tethered become a moral mirror for a broken society, and a harbinger of its own imminent and turbulent demise.

Further reading

There are plenty of movies mentioned above, but others are mentioned in the list which Jordan Peele gave to his cast before filming Us – including the fine South Korean horror A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

In this interview with Polygon, Peele reveals some of the other inspirations behind Us.

As for doppelgänger literature, there are, again, a lot of books mentioned above. If you only read one, however, best to make it Dostoevsky’s The Double.

This medical paper includes a case study about a patient suffering from heautoscopy, as well as a general overview of other autoscopic conditions.

Images by Universal Pictures, CBS, Magnolia Pictures, Alliance Films, Getty Images, and Netflix