Why Horror Is so Obsessed With Twins
‘Dead Ringers’ shows us that we could be engaging with someone’s double rather than the real person.
Horror has a long history of portraying twin images as sinister. The first images that your mind conjures when you hear the word “twin” or “double” is probably the little girls from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), Jeremy Irons’ Beverly & Elliot Mantle from Dead Ringers (1988) or one of the many adaptations of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Modern examples include the disturbing Austrian psychological horror movie Goodnight Mommy (2014) which was remade in English in 2022 for Amazon Prime Video and Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) which revolves around doppelgängers.
The little girls in The Shining aren’t supposed to be twins. It is explicitly stated that they were different ages by Stuart Ullman early in the film when the hotel manager explains the gruesome backstory of a previous caretaker’s familicide at The Overlook Hotel. However, Kubrick chose identical twins Lisa and Louise Burns for the roles. This is one of many choices the director made to unsettle the audience, both because we know what we are looking at does not line up with the facts of the story and because the double image is inherently disturbing.
Evil twins and doppelgängers are part of many culture’s mythology. Ancient Egyptian mythology has stories about “spirit doubles”, Norse mythology has vardøgers (a “ghostly double”), and Greek Mythology abounds with twins, including gods Apollo and Artemis. Mary Shelley (the inventor of the science fiction genre) says her husband met his doppelgänger a week before he drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. John Donne has a similar story about seeing his wife’s doppelgänger that supposedly heralded the stillbirth of his daughter. One theory is that twins instantly remind us of the Other, the shadow of the self onto which bad things are projected so that we can separate our idealized selves from the presence of evil in the world (and in ourselves).
Dead Ringers (1988) was inspired by the true story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, twin gynecologists who practiced together in New York City prior to their untimely deaths in 1975. The twins in the film, Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both portrayed by Jeremy Irons), use their status as twins for nefarious endeavors like passing women between them. Throughout the film the brothers trade places again and again, culminating in the addict brother (Beverly) sobering up and the sober brother (Elliot) dying of barbiturate addiction. The final moments of the film show Beverly in despair when he is asked for his name on the phone. Unable to come to terms with having an identity separate from his twin, Beverly returns home and dies in the arms of his brother.
Dead Ringers captures another creepy aspect of twins/doubles that applies to people who don’t even have a twin/double: the idea that you could be engaging with someone’s copy rather than the real person. This fear is at the heart of horror movies like The Stepford Wives (1975), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1976), and The Thing (1982). In these films, people are replaced by a double and those around them are either ignorant that the switch has happened, or put in the position of trying to constantly authenticate the identity of those around them.
An upcoming Dead Ringers psychological thriller miniseries based on the 1988 film will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on April 21, 2023. Rachel Weisz will portray a gender swapped version of Elliot and Beverly Mantle, twin gynecologists who are now women practicing in New York City. While plot details are under wraps, the synopsis reveals that this time, the twins have an ominous goal of “changing the way women give birth.” All six episodes of Dead Ringers will drop on April 21.