Look-alikes, doubles, or doppelgangers are a common trope in horror. There’s the Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy, that pits an evil side against a good one, and there’s the appearance of an imposter that threatens to replace by force. In any case, a double implies a tension, and therefore a struggle between two forces that must either find a way to live in harmony or recede, while one side reigns dominant. Decades of excellent horror films have kept the tool fresh, reinventing and adjusting the eerie encounter of the duplicate to resonate with the times — suffice it to say, we’re really excited about what Jordan Peele has up his sleeve.
To celebrate the upcoming release of Peele’s Us, we thought it’d be timely to look back at some of the most iconic uses of doubles in horror, and how the visual and narrative tool is used to convey psychological distress, societal tension, generational anxiety, and the ol’ crippling fear of death.
The Stepford Wives (1975)
The women in Stepford, Connecticut are uh, unrelatable. Not just a few, but all of them relish in their roles as housewives — cleaning, cooking, and pleasuring their husbands on the daily with a genuine smile on their faces.
A staple of feminist horror, Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives imagines a community in which real living, breathing women are eradicated and replaced by robotic doppelgangers, i.e. the “perfect wives” to a gang of controlling husbands that form the town’s secretive men’s society. The double in question here represents the patriarchy’s pigeonhole understanding of what women ought to be, but The Stepford Wives also plays into our internalization of gendered social codes — wearing makeup, shaving our legs, the whole shebang — and demonstrates it as a final showdown between doubles. Because sometimes being a woman does feel like being strangled to death with a pair of pink pantyhose by a version of yourself that men prefer.
David Lynch loves to tinker with doubles– reality and fantasy, the light and dark sides of human nature, the strange and the mundane– in order to create his signature dream-like worlds. In Lost Highway, Lynch buries us in the disturbed psyche of jazz musician, Fred (Bill Pullman), who a third of the way through the film is convicted of murdering his wife, Renee (a brunette Patricia Arquette). What follows is a disembodied jailbreak, the manic rupture of space and time, and Renee’s reappearance in the form of bombshell Alice (Patricia Arquette again, but with old Hollywood bright blonde hair). Creations of Fred’s deranged purview, Arquette’s dual roles embody two feminine archetypes, the devoted wife and the sexy vixen; two figures that Fred is unable to reconcile as one person but that begin to collapse into one another as Fred increasingly loses his shit. In the end, in a final mad dash from the cops along a pitch black highway, Fred’s head literally splits into two, as if to say one body can’t sustain so many conflicting realities in the same tank.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Philip Kaufman’s 1978 adaptation of the Jack Finney novel The Body Snatchers is a gritty alien invasion story that offers the sort of atmospheric paranoia and uncertainty that would characterize John Carpenter’s The Thing a few years later. Is it a friend you’re speaking to, or an inhuman replica? Horror movies often set up the doppelganger binary as a fight between good and evil, but what makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers so downright creepy is the way its alien invaders recalibrate what “normal” actually means. When a bunch of jelly aliens are kicked off their planet, they come to Earth and assimilate really efficiently into society by switching out people with manufactured look-alike bodies. As the swaps take over San Francisco, actual humans become the minority– and that pesky human tendency towards emotion will make you stick out like a sore thumb.
First thing’s first: this movie is batshit insane.
But then I guess that’s what they say about marriage. Andrzej Żuławski 1981 cult classic is a monster movie, a domestic drama, a psychological thriller, and a black comedy all rolled up into one surreal package. Isabelle Adjani plays Anna, a wife and mother who announces upon her husband’s return from abroad that she wants a divorce. Distraught husband Mark (Sam Neill) hires a private investigator to see what his wife’s up to and from then on a series of bizarre discoveries snowballs into madness complete with nervous breakdowns, self-mutilation, bloody miscarriages, murder, shootout, and beastiality. Where do doubles come into play, you might ask? Long story short, Adjani does double duty as the quaint Helen, her son’s school teacher who steps in to babysit the young boy while his parents are…doing their thing. Meanwhile, Anna keeps an oozing tentacled creature as a lover/pet in her apartment, and get this – it’s slowly transforming into a replica of Mark! So flattering. What to conclude from Żuławski’s dead ringers? Perhaps that what we desire in our romantic partners is often characterized by horrifying contradictions.
Catholic guilt won’t stop the best of us from getting it on before marriage, but a cursed STD might do the trick. The titular “it” of It Follows isn’t any one particular thing, it’s a manifestation of random people — from complete strangers to family members and friends — as the eternally recurring evil spirit that hunts down those unfortunate enough to catch the clap. Playing into the gothic trope of the doppelganger as an abject human, Jay (Maika Monroe) encounters entities that look wounded, sick, or diseased; they’re harbingers of fate should they ever manage to catch up with our hero. “It’s” ability to assume the likeness of grandma, dad, or any everyday person walking the streets, conveys shame — the notion that everybody knows and judges your secrets — and elevates it to a source of terror.
Natalie Portman’s Nina is a soft-spoken, delicate little thing when she lands the coveted lead role in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake. Depicting the white swan comes easily to the virginal good girl, it’s tapping into her buried inner black swan that will prove as horrific as the final climactic performance is virtuosic. As Nina progresses in her quest to master the role of the black swan, she begins to see a dark apparition of herself, and coincidentally starts hanging out with her enemy black swan alternate, Lily (Mila Kunis). Tortured by the desire to succeed and perfect her role, which demands the union of two contrasting feminine personas (the virgin and the whore), Nina essentially loses it, undoing herself to the point of schizophrenia and self-mutilation. Her two halves destroy one another, but leave artistic perfection in their ruin.
If the patent on doppelgangers could go to only one filmmaker, Brian DePalma might very well have the strongest claim. With a filmography bursting with body doubles, the iconic director has proven he has quite the obsession with dueling manifestations of replicated bodies (see what I did there?). But if I had to pick one representative, the sash would go to DePalma’s phantasmagorical riff on Hitchcock– Sisters. Starring Margot Kidder as both halves of a pair of formerly conjoined twins, this tightly executed slasher has Danielle, the normal or “good” twin, wrestling with the deranged demands of “evil” twin, Dominique — all captured with the disorienting pizzaz of DePalma’s split-screen compositions. A voyeuristic glean activates this 1973 classic with erotic energy and a touch of humor, a tension that moves us forward as we get to the bottom of just how interdependent and fucked up these sisters really are.
Grandpa might find it flattering, but it’s mostly creepy when family insists you look like a dead relative. Consider it a warning if said member of the fam was burned at the stake or punctured to death by having a spiked metal mask pushed into her face. In Black Sunday, the horror godfather, Mario Bava, puts an occult spin on the family curse with this tale of doomed reincarnations. A maleficently styled Barbara Steele does double duty as both Asa, the 17th-century witch with a bone to pick, and Asa’s targeted descendent, Katia. Bava toys with our expectations by making the damsel in distress indistinguishable from the killer; one particularly provocative scene has corpse-Asa draining Katia, who ages as the other assumes her youthful appearance. Rule of thumb: there’s only ever room enough for one of a kind.
If I were having sex with an identical twin I’d insist on leaving some sort of identifying trail mark — hicky, bite mark, anything! — to ensure I wasn’t falling for the ol’ switcheroo male twins in movies seem to always pull on unsuspecting young women. David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers is one of the most distinctive “double” movies in history, a showcase for a young Jeremy Irons who plays a pair of twin fertility doctors with interdependent means of getting laid. Elliot seduces patients and then passes them down to the introverted Beverly when he grows tired of them, a cycle of give and take that maintains the twins in perfect harmony. When Beverly, also the more sentimental of the two, falls in love, this balance is fatally disrupted and presented in signature Cronenberg fashion: with drug abuse, manic depression, and delusions of mutant genitalia.
This indie breakout isn’t exactly premised on the idea of the doppelganger, but the film’s climactic scene — admittedly one of the scariest reveals I’ve seen in the past decade or so — makes use of the trope in an unexpected way. When Alice Palmer is found dead and washed ashore, her family struggles to find closure and soon discover that Alice was leading a double life — as mistress to a couple she used to babysit for. Like Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer, Alice’s fraudulent lifestyle was cause for insecurity and mental instability. Lake Mungo takes a mockumentary approach to solving the mysteries behind Alice’s existence, showing the members of her grieving family as they try and put the pieces together to who exactly Alice was prior to her death. After somewhat of a scavenger hunt, they unbury a cell phone Alice kept hidden, which contains footage of her walking at the beach alone at night. The film is mostly restrained and devoid of jumpscares, so when Alice’s recorded beach walk ends with the encounter of a doppelganger corpse of herself, the result is jarring — a nightmare image that prophesies things to come…