On Horror, Hitchcock, and Doppelgängers

Doppelgänger - German, literally meaning "double-walker", a person who resembles another person, associated with the ancient folkloric spirit double, and in some traditions, the evil twin. Freud put it among the class of frightening things he called the uncanny.

My daughter and I recently had a Hitchcock movie marathon while she was home sick from school. We watched one of my all time favorites, Vertigo, and The Birds. I've never studied Hitchcock, but I couldn't help but notice a few reoccurring motifs, namely eyes (or pecked out empty sockets) and doppelgängers, and it got me thinking about Freud and the uncanny.

In short, Freud defines the uncanny as a particular brand of horror felt when something that is familiar is suddenly unfamiliar, or vice versa. Like when the dead Madeleine's doppelgänger, Judy, suddenly dons the necklace worn by her counterpart, or when Scottie finds Madeleine in the museum sitting in front of a century-old painting of herself. So wonderfully creepy. It all comes around full circle with Scottie's veritgo affliction, as the experience of uncanny horror has a spatial destabilizing effect very similar to the physical sensation of vertigo. I know, as someone who has experienced it. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that Vertigo is a fucking brilliant film. 

One of the most famous depictions is Rossetti's "How they Met Themselves" depicting two medieval lovers coming upon their glowing doubles. One falls into a deathly (vertigo-like) swoon.

As for doppelgängers, Hitchcock and I share an interest. I mean, just imagine seeing yourself standing there in front of you. Even writing it makes me scream inside. But I also find it fascinating that people have been imagining this scenario for as long as written history. The doppelgänger phenomenon is one that dates back to ancient Egypt with the "ka", a tangible spirit double having the same feelings and memories as it's counterpart. A "ka" of Helen was used to trick Paris in an Egyptian account of the Trojan War. The Norse had the "vardøger", a ghostly double that arrives in advance of its counterpart performing all his/her actions in advance, so that people think they are witnessing the same events twice (adding déja vu to the mix). The Celts had the "changeling"; the Finnish had the "firstcomer"; the Bretons had the "Ankou", a personification of death, sometimes appearing in the form of one's double. In many traditions, doppelgängers are harbingers of bad things. 

It is written that Abraham Lincoln saw his doppelgänger soon after he was elected. He told his wife that he looked into the mirror and saw two of himself, one "five shades paler than the other". Mary believed it was a bad omen, that he would serve his first term but not survive to finish the second. Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed he met and spoke to "the figure of himself" on his terrace a month before his sudden death by drowning. John Donne saw his wife's doppelgänger on the night of the stillbirth of their daughter. Modern psychiatry and neurology call it heautoscopy, the hallucination of seeing one's own body at a distance. It is a symptom of schizophrenia and epilepsy, and can also be a result of a brain tumor — all bad things. 

Hitchcock's Manderley

Hitchcock's Manderley

But back to Hitchcock and horror movies, because there are two more I plan to scare myself silly with this Halloween weekend and, maybe not surprisingly, they both involve doppelgängers. The first is Rebecca, the film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel about a man who remarries a woman who slowly becomes his dead wife’s doppelgänger. The second (if I can work up the courage), is a film that could be this film’s doppelgänger, if I may. Though I suppose there are many stories involving young women entering ruinous mansions where dark, brooding men keep family secrets. The film is Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. I’m not really sure if I can handle this level of scary, but I really, really want to. 

del Toro's Allerdale Hall, complete with spatially destabilizing staircases, ghostly doubles, creeping apparitions, and just pure gothic gorgeousness.