The Doppelgänger: A Scientific, Historical and Cinematic Look.
The doppelgänger, or double, has a remarkable history in art, antiquity, neuroscience, and psychiatry.
Jordan Peele’s Us is a surprising and brilliant cerebral masterpiece of social horror, but the contextual information of the doppelgänger is interesting in itself, as is our accompanying list of films also dealing with the doppelgänger.
Probably the most prevalent of those themes is the doppelgänger, (German for “double walker”) or non-genetically related double of a person — that double usually being an evil entity. Us — from what we know so far — centers on a family (played by Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) battling their doppelgängers.
This certainly adds interesting challenges for the actors in playing two (essentially) separate people in Peele’s film — this does have some symbolic meaning of us being our own worst enemies — which actually ties in to what the doppelgänger as a neurological and psychiatric phenomenon can tell us about the neurobiology behind emotion and how we construct a sense of self (more on this below).
Yet, what of the doppelgänger’s larger impression in art, culture, science and even history? Indeed, there are many documented occurrences of famous figures like President Abraham Lincoln (who allegedly saw his double the night of his inauguration), Queen Elizabeth I (who saw hers shortly before she died), and Percy Bysshe Shelley (who’s story is below) encountering their doppelgängers very much in the flesh — and usually right before they died. Surely, considering the expressly social content in Get Out, Peele will draw on this huge record too.
Spiritualists and mystics have often labeled the doppelgänger “a demon”, echoing that idea that they are a portent of doom. Others (including the extensive use of the doppelgänger in Gothic literature) have detailed it as some type of ghost, phantom or specter. Still others have said the doppelgänger is us traveling through a number of different dimensions or wormholes in time. Broadly relates a story about a man who was walking down the street when he saw himself walk by in the opposite direction. Eight years later, the same man walked past himself going the same way in the opposite direction (his story oddly echoes Goethe’s story below). There is even a whole subreddit dedicated to these types of occurrences.
Science has proffered a number of explanations for the doppelgänger phenomenon. The evolutionary one basically says that because you don’t see much of the diversity between how humans look in other species, it really isn’t surprising to think there’s someone who looks exactly like you somewhere. For instance, can you really tell two squirrels apart? Thus goes this explanation that maybe we are to some degree, just seeing what we want to see there, and that diversity does not really exist — at least, not to the level we believe. Ergo, there could be someone out there who looks exactly like you. The possibility of the genetic lottery randomly combining the same options a number of times also adds credence to this idea.
Still, other studies have pegged the likelihood of an exact doppelgänger as about 1 in 1 trillion. And even if there was a higher likelihood, this explanation really doesn’t say anything about the malevolence that is so often ascribed to the doppelgänger.
What neurology and psychology have to say makes more sense (and is infinitely interesting). Psychology and neuroscience may hold a partial (but better) answer to this in describing “the doppelgänger phenomenon,” or delusions characterized by a belief in a doppelgänger or some variant of it. These include hallucinations of seeing a double (known as “syndrome of subjective doubles” in psychiatry) and so-called “out of body experiences”.
“Autoscopy” (also spelled “Heautoscopy”) is another component of the neurological and psychiatric explanation of the doppelgänger. It is characterized by seeing one’s double at a distance and is often a symptom of schizophrenia, brain damage or epilepsy — particularly temporal lobe epilepsy, which often produces profound hallucinations and has also been correlatedwith intense religious visions. Even anti-Parkinson treatment with levodopa can cause all the delusions described in this article. These occurrences can also be co-morbid with other psychotic disorders and even bi-polar disorder.
“Polyopic autoscopy” is seeing more than one double. One case was noted of a patient who saw five doubles and was later found to have a tumor in his temporal lobe. While another related phenomenon called “negative autoscopy” is not seeing one’s reflection when looking in a mirror.
This type of psychiatric pathology can get even more bizarre than the doppelgänger phenomenon and include something seemingly right out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That, in fact, is basically what “Capgras Delusion” is: the belief that a person close to you is the same physically but that a different intelligence and personality is controlling them or that the person has been replaced by an identical looking impostor.
One interesting thing about Capgras: it generally does not occur in the sufferer when they are talking to the person who is the subject of their delusion over the phone (or otherwise out of sight). All is (relatively) normal and placid. It is when visuals are a factor that the delusion takes hold because of the specific wiring affected in the brain of the sufferer. Their facial recognition system is what is at fault here in the brain. As the incredible behavioral neurologist, researcher and author Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran (whose books, especially “Phantoms in the Brain”, I highly recommend interested parties seek out) has noted: this delusion causes incredible upset and fear in the sufferer too, when they fundamentally cannot rely on their faculty of visual recognition. Capgras can also happen with inanimate objects.
“Intermetamorphosis” is a variant of Capgras where the sufferer perceives that object of their delusion has been transformed physically and psychologically into another person.
“Fregoli’s Delusion” is similar to Capgras but different. It is the delusional belief that different people are in fact the same person changing form or in disguise.
The best proof of how this all relates to emotion and our sense of self (besides the involvement of the temporal lobe in these various delusions) is ultimately in two hypotheses which have been proffered to explain these “syndromes of misidentification”. The first is that of “prosopagnosia”, or “face blindness”, where all other intellectual faculties are intact but the ability to recognize familiar faces (including one’s own) is absent. This is often a direct result of damage to the temporal lobe or a disease affecting it, like Alzheimer’s Disease.
The second hypothesis is the opposite of the first: it is over-identification, where the brain imputes too much information in identifying a face and consequently major emotional regions like the temporal lobe are over active.
Certainly the medical literature on this is very interesting in its own right. Yet, no matter what the medical, psychological, or biological basis of the doppelgänger (if any) is, there have been a number of recorded instances of cultural luminaries seeing their doubles, often before death or some other horrible occurrence. Others have put in the historical record stories they themselves have encountered of the doppelgänger, likely with varying degrees of truth, yet they are all entertaining in their own right and have shaped the popular mind and zeitgeist for many years.
American politician and social reformer Robert Dale Owen related the story of 32-year-old French teacher Emilie Sagée who was teaching at a girl’s school in Latvia in 1845. One day as she wrote at the chalkboard, her exact double came in and stood next to her, copying her every movement (still somehow — the story goes — she didn’t see it). Thirteen of Ms. Sagée’s students allegedly witnessed this. The next year, Sagée’s double allegedly appeared again — this time in front of the entire school while Sagée could be seen working in the school’s garden. When the students approached it, the double vanished.
French novelist Guy de Maupassant was inspired to write his short story “Lui?” (“He?”) after an 1889 experience — he alleged — with his doppelgänger, who he says dictated the story. He would later claim several experiences with his doppelgänger over the years. The author would be institutionalized in 1892following a suicide attempt. He died one year later. De Maupassant had syphilis, which — if it damaged his temporal lobe — could explain his experiences with his double.
The great author of “Faust”, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, wrote of an experience with his doppelgänger in his autobiography “Dichtung und Wahrheit” (“Poetry and Truth”). He describes riding to the town of Drusenheim to visit Frederike Brion, a young woman he was romantically involved with. As Goethe describes being “emotional and lost in thought” he saw his double dressed in a gray suit, trimmed with gold. Eight years later, Goethe found himself riding that same road to see Brion, this time wearing the gray suit with gold trim when that initial memory resurfaced in his mind and gave the writer great comfort.
Poet and husband to “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, told his wife he had seen his double on several occasions — not long after he told Mary about this, he died at sea in an accident. One time, his double spoke to him, saying, “how long do you mean to be content?” Jane Williams, a close friend to Mary, had seen Percy’s double when it passed by her window one night.
Film, in its comparatively short history, has done a lot with the concept of the double in various permutations. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 magnum opus Vertigobeing probably the finest example, where the double becomes the way to hide misdeeds and murder. David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (which takes more than a few cues from Vertigo, something I’ve written about here) also touches on the idea of a double in the juxtaposition of the film’s dream world and real life. In fact, the double often recurs in Lynch’s work, as it also is a factor in 1997’s Lost Highway and 2006’s Inland Empire; only it is a factor in different ways in those films than it was in Mulholland Dr. in 2001.
Now that this fascinating context has been established, my review of Us is here. Read on only if you have not seen the film:
Us Review: What happens when our shadows run free? And what is with the rabbits?
WARNING TO THE READER:
I have done my best to keep spoilers out of this review. It would — however — be impossible to affect my interpretation of Us without a few of them. That said, I thank you for reading The 405 Film section (as always), but I would most recommend reading this review AFTER you see Us, if you’re planning to — which you really should be. The film is really best approached cold and meditated on after viewing.
If you’re fine with that warning, read on.
Are humans ever born evil? Or are they made evil?
The nature versus nurture debate has long raged in science, philosophy and art. Indeed, thinking on the question has also forged central areas of thought in early psychology — which seemed to take the stance that evil and good are partitioned in the human psyche into what becomes one’s personality.
That great but flawed early psychologist Sigmund Freud called the dark part of the human psyche “the id.” The id in his psychoanalytic theory of personalityoperates on purely instinctual drives, and seeks to satisfy these base, primitive needs as quickly as possible because it operates on the Pleasure Principlewhich seeks to maximize pleasure and avoid pain whenever possible.
In Freudian theory, the id is balanced out by the seat of morality and inhibitory (and thus very controlling) “superego” and “the ego” which seeks to moderate the drives of the id and the often controlling nature of the superego. The ego is essentially caught in the middle of the two. It is the conscious part of the personality under Freud’s model (although not all parts of the ego are conscious).
Swiss psychiatrist (and former friend and collaborator of Freud’s) Carl Jungtook a different approach to the central question here. He conceived of our dark side as “the Shadow” — which, like the id, is totally separate from our conscious personality (what he also called “the ego” with other parts — which Jung conceived of as archetypes or innate tendencies that mold and transform the individual consciousness — like “the Persona”).
The Shadow is composed of instinctual drives but also whatever we may consciously deem unacceptable — drives like power, lust, domination, greed, envy, wrath… murder. All these things get pushed into the Shadow. As Jungian analyst Aniela Jaffe said, the shadow essentially is the “sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life”.
It is thus interesting — and immediately piqued my attention as a longtime student of Jung’s writings — that Jordan Peele as the writer of Us decided to use the term “shadow” to describe the doppelgängers of the family in the film: dad, Gabe Wilson (shadow named Abraham) — played by Winston Duke; mom, Adelaide Wilson (shadow named Red) — a tour de force performance from Lupita Nyong’o — we ultimately get our understanding of what’s happening principally from Adelaide and Red; daughter Zora Wilson (shadow named Umbrae) — played by Shahadi Wright Joseph; son, Jason Wilson (shadow named Pluto) — played by Evan Alex.
So, in essence what is happening in Us, is (at first) a home invasion thriller with the shadows as invaders (and all that means symbolically). It is here that we see some of what we can presume were cinematic influences here too: Michael Haneke’s Funny Games immediately came to mind, as did (paradoxically) 2008’s The Strangers. But that is — of course — far from the totality of Us.
Peele’s deft hand as director is really evident throughout, even when the home invasion part of the film is ostensibly over. He effortlessly and perfectly guides the film over a razor’s edge of tension. One can only speculate that he learned the art of perfect timing in the comedy he’s done. As Jonathan Kite (another creative with experience in both genres) told me in our interview (which you can read here):
“In general, I think that comedy always serves horror. I think that they’re extreme emotions being … Getting yourself to laugh is a natural reaction and being scared and jumping is a natural reaction. And, they’re both, they’re both shared experiences. Which is why, I think, comedies and horrors do so well in large groups because you scare one, you’re probably gonna scare everyone in the theater. Or you get one person to laugh, a lot of people are probably gonna laugh.”
Which is another interesting part of Us: there is a good amount of effective (and overt) comedy here. It very effectively balances out the tension throughout. It is also for this reason that people who don’t do well with horror should not be dissuaded from catching Us in the theater: Peele knows almost intuitively when the audience needs a break in a moment of levity.
Of course, the film does evolve from the point of the home invasion. Which gets to the social statement inherent in Us — and, indeed, the USA’s zeitgeist right now — what would happen if all our shadows were running around in bodies that look exactly like ours but are paradoxically untethered from ourselves? With Donald Trump in the White House despite scandal after scandal and him showing some of the worse penchants of humanity (even with the summary of the Mueller Report finally being out and saying that the Report “did not establish” Russian collusion) — and the President’s penchants for the horrible not phasing many of his supporters — the premise of Us fits the times we are living in like the gloves the red jumpsuit-clad shadows all wear.
But there is still more fertile psychological fodder at play in Us. What happens when we use violence to combat the evil, violent and base? Circumstances — nurture — paradoxically can make us more like what we’re fighting when we do that. We too can be debased.
This nature versus nurture theme becomes ever more prevalent as we progress through the film and towards the ultimate twist which evokes yet another great film that revolves around the idea of the doppelgänger or double: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The variable of madness as a central force affecting the behavior of the shadows is also thrown in.
Beautifully cerebral social horror is what Us ultimately is. It probes the psychology of the individual and abstracts that to the social in a very eloquent — and highly entertaining — way. Some reviewers — however — felt a little intimidated by those cerebral qualities.
For instance, many were fussing over the meaning of the rabbits in Us. I think the symbolism here is pretty straightforward though: first, when Red tells her fairy tale during the home invasion part, she speaks of having to eat raw, white rabbit as Adelaide would eat food. This suggests the idea of the white rabbit being equal to a white lamb or white dove in symbolism — innocence, moral purity, goodness. The shadow by definition thrives on the evil or that which destroys the innocent, morally pure and good.
Second, rabbits are also often the prototypical animal for visual similarity among individuals in a species of animal in nature. This gets to the scientific side of the doppelgänger and its possibilities in nature. To quote my original article looking at the science and history behind the doppelgänger before Uscame out (read it here):
“Science has proffered a number of explanations for the doppelgänger phenomenon. The evolutionary one basically says that because you don’t see much of the diversity between how individuals look in other species, it really isn’t surprising to think there’s someone who looks exactly like you somewhere. For instance, can you really tell two squirrels [substitute rabbits] apart? Thus goes this explanation that maybe we are to some degree, just seeing what we want to see there, and that diversity does not really exist — at least, not to the level we believe. Ergo, there could be someone out there who looks exactly like you. The possibility of the genetic lottery randomly combining the same options a number of times also adds credence to this idea.
Still, other studies have pegged the likelihood of an exact doppelgänger as about 1 in 1 trillion. And even if there was a higher likelihood, this explanation really doesn’t say anything about the malevolence that is so often ascribed to the doppelgänger.”
In summation: go see Us. There are less than a handful of films that evoke all these questions in such an incredible, entertaining and moving way. Us is insanely cerebral, superbly-conducted psychological and social horror that — in my view — eclipses the also superb Get Out.
Cheers to that. Cheers to seeing what else Peele has in store for us too.
A few other films about a double or doppelgänger include Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) about two rival magicians, Brian De Palma’s Obsession(1976) and Femme Fatale (2002), Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), Roman Polanski’;s The Tenant (1976), Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980), and Ingmar Bergman’s iconic Persona (1966) which also was a huge influence on David Lynch. Check out trailers for each of these below as all these movies are well worth watching.
Wess Haubrich is a freelance writer and journalist specializing in film and crime, the former contributing editor of London’s award-winning The 405 Film, staff writer at Citizen Truth, and ½ of the weekly true crime podcast Real Monsters. Follow him on Twitter here or email him here.