Collage of Norman Rockwell, “Girl at Mirror,” 1954. Licensed under CC0 4.0.
Sylvia refused to wear her glasses, which is why she saw me everywhere on campus. It seemed like it was every day that she’d come to our dorm’s living room and tell me about the not-Katy. “I yelled at her again,” she sighed, flopping onto the worn couch. “It wasn’t you.” It never was.
There wasn’t only one not-me. There were several other girls on our small liberal arts campus who had dirty-blond hair and shaggy bangs, girls who wore knee-high boots and short skirts, low-rise jeans and V-neck sweaters and too many tangled necklaces. In 2005, I didn’t stand out. I still don’t. My face, I suspect, is rather forgettable. I’m neither pretty enough to be remarkable nor strange enough to be interesting. This is true for the majority of people, though I have wondered if I have “one of those faces” that is particularly prone to inducing déjà vu. Some people seem like permanent doppelgängers. I became hypervigilant, on the lookout for not-mes that were also, sort of, me.
Looking back, I’m not surprised that I became obsessed with these look-alikes during this particular time period, in those heady and exciting early days of social media. Although the idea of doubling and mimesis dates back to the ancient Greeks and flourished in the popular imagination in gothic horror, my experience with doppelgängers still feels distinctly contemporary to me, an anxiety that arose with the camera in the nineteenth century and was then compounded by social media and its endless catalogues of faces. Although Facebook back then was limited to college students, it was still a place where one could get lost. You could lose hours searching, as I did, for people with your exact same name and friend requesting each and every one of them. You could meander through the uncanny haze of “doppelgänger week,” a destabilizing moment in the early 2000s when my classmates’ pimpled, imperfect, earnest faces were suddenly replaced by thumbnails of Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, and Halle Berry. It was more than just embarrassing. It was a massive Freudian slip, a sudden reveal of latent desires and delusions. We wanted to replace our faces with better, more beautiful ones—but not completely. We wanted to represent ourselves with images that weren’t us, exactly, but that were close.
One of my favorite doppelgänger stories is Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson,” which I read around the same time that my not-me began appearing in the edges of Sylvia’s blurry vision. This Poe tale is about a boy named William Wilson who meets another William Wilson and is dogged, throughout his life, by the disturbing presence of this other William Wilson. As the story progresses, we learn that this weird fellow is not actually our narrator’s evil twin, as we might have expected. He’s better than our narrator. He stops our narrator from doing a number of bad things before the original William succeeds in reasserting his uniqueness—by an act of murder, naturally.
William Wilson is not a funny story, exactly. But it’s full of little ironies that start to feel like jokes, from the name (William, son of Will, a pseudonym that’s also an echo) to the weird origins of the text itself. First of all, the story is a homage to a story that Washington Irving wrote called “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron.” Poe even wrote to Irving, sending him a copy of his tale, and asked him for a blurb to help sell the story. Later, in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Poe wrote that one of them, “Howe’s Masquerade,” was very similar to “William Wilson,” so much so that “we observe something which resembles a plagiarism—but which may be a very flattering coincidence of thought.” A few years later, in 1846, Fyodor Dostoyevsky published his own similar novella, The Double: A Petersburg Poem, which he later rewrote and republished in 1866.
This type of doppelgänger story continued to multiply. Vladimir Nabokov called The Double a “perfect work of art” in his classroom lectures, though of course the story was ripe for rewritings—hence Nabokov’s own beleaguered and haunted narrators. The novels Despair and Lolita feature not quite doppelgängers but pairs of men behaving badly. In the twentieth century, we became adept at capturing, manipulating, and presenting precise visual copies of individuals through photography, film, and digital manipulation. Humans no longer had to use a hall of mirrors (or a skilled portrait artist) to see themselves doubled, tripled, quadrupled. We also became better at selective breeding and genetic manipulation. Dolly the sheep emerged from an adult cell in 1996, and attendant anxieties and sensational interest in the literal copies spiked Eventually, the concept of the double in art was superseded by the clone, as we slouched closer and closer to literal self-replication.
It makes sense, then, that in twentieth-century cinema and television the question was no longer “What if there was another?” but rather “What if there were many others? What if there were closets full of others, or storage facilities packed with others?” Slowly, the fear of the double stopped being about individual bodies and their capacity for violence and perversion. In the early double stories, characters were often forced to confront their failures, their fragility, their mortality. Clones could present this sort of threat, too, but they gestured toward even larger menaces. The Twilight Zone and The X-Files both featured story lines about clones, suffused with that same ambiguous mixture of desire and loathing that I’ve always felt toward my own mirror image. In these narratives, the clone could be a replacement for a lost loved one, or it could be an extra self employed to do our dirty work, but it was also always, by necessity, a reminder of powers vaster and greater than any one person could possess. Structures, institutions, governments, laboratories—these things all came together to make clones, just as movies and TV shows are products industry, vast teams of people working to represent visions of futuristic dystopia.
In the twenty-first century, bioethical questions about cloning took a back seat to the driving narrative force of physical replication. The idea that one could be replaced—or perhaps that one is a replacement—is closely tied to our obsession with authenticity, mimesis, and originality. People are supposedly unique. But what if we weren’t? What if we had already been divided and reproduced? What if it wasn’t the future we needed to fear but the present? In the 2009 movie Moon, astronaut Sam Bell is a clone of a clone of a clone, a chain of men with hangdog expressions. In the television show Orphan Black, there’s a group of clones who team up to take down the Big Bad. In Never Let Me Go—a 2010 adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel—we’re given a tale of body horror and cloning, longing and dread. Usually in these narratives, the enemy isn’t the cloned body or consciousness. It’s the biotech corporations that created the clones, the governments that want to control the clones, the police who are hunting the clones, the religious sects that want to murder the clones. In these science-fiction dystopias, we’re not supposed to be afraid of a couple of extra bodies. We’re supposed to fear instead their connection to something far more diffuse–the illuminati-like, omnipresent powers of surveillance and control. Jordan Peele’s 2019 film, Us, hits a similar note. He sets the viewer up to fear the doppelgängers, slowly building dread around their upsetting intrusion into one family’s rosy reality. Eventually, Peele pulls back the curtain and reveals the true source of horror. It’s not the twin-like bodies who fail to follow the rules of society that we need to fear; it’s the state. The horrible thing isn’t intruding upon us. It was already there, under our feet. It’s not invading our homes. It lives here, too.
There’s another type of doppelgänger. More ephemeral than the look-alike is the double self that is actually, in some fundamental and destabilizing way, really you. This second sort of doppelgänger is trickier to pin down and rather older, more mysterious, and often coded more feminine. Unlike the biological marvel of the clone or the intrusive physicality of the body double, this trope tends to be psychological or supernatural or both. This not-you might appear as a ghost, a mirage, or even an unwanted alter ego. In some stories, it’s a version of you that hides from your consciousness, doing things you wouldn’t normally do. (Though maybe you want to.) It’s your Tyler Durden, your Mr. Hyde. It’s not your replica; it’s maybe even more fully you than you are yourself.
By the time I went to college, I had already been acquainted with my depressive side for years. I’d gone on and off SSRIs, never finding quite the right fit. Like most depressives, I was a bit self-obsessed when I fell into my pits. I tended to mythologize the blue periods, turning them into phases of inescapable, indescribable, utterly unique suffering, though of course they were nothing of the sort. When I was well, I told romantic stories about my shadow self without even realizing how boring I was being, or how repetitive.
My vision of feminine suffering had been shaped, perhaps a little too heavily, by Romantic and gothic narratives. I’ve always loved stories about girls and their ghosts. These evergreen tales tend to follow certain patterns: the beautiful protagonist is going mad—or maybe she’s really haunted. She’s unfamiliar with her surroundings or entering into a new stage of life. She’s destabilized somehow. She’s a governess on a new job (Jane Eyre), a second wife brought to her new home (Rebecca), or even a ballerina playing her dream role (Black Swan was inspired by Dostoyevsky). Often, mirrors are central to the plot, or at least a device used to both reveal the characters’ vanity and their split nature. The reader or viewer can see that her demons are real, or at least partly so, but no one else can see the flames that lick the sides of her face. No one else can see the face that floats behind her own.
Sometimes these apparitions appear as omens. There are dozens of examples of ghostlike doubles appearing, and some of these are supposedly true stories. The American writer Robert Dale Owen made Émilie Sagée, a French schoolteacher, world famous when he published the supposedly substantiated account of her wraith. According to Owen, Sagée’s students saw her apparition frequently on campus. Once, she even appeared to be both in a classroom and on the lawn, within sight of over forty people. John Donne supposedly saw his pregnant wife’s doppelgänger appear to him, holding a baby in her arms, at the very moment when she was actually delivering her stillborn child. Percy Shelley saw his own wraith once, reported Mary Shelley, as did a few of their mutual friends. His second self approached him on a garden path and asked him how much longer he planned to be content. Not long, apparently.
What’s appealing about these ectoplasmic excesses and shadow-self lurkers is the same thing that’s terrifying: they could be real. You might really want to cook human fat into soap. You might really crave destruction. You might actually have unaddressed crimes, secret knowledge, and repressed memories hidden within you. There might be darkness in your mind, a place you can’t see. It’s an idea that underpins our entire understanding of psychology—that we have an unconscious mind, a second self beneath the surface.
It was only after I had a baby—a daughter—that I stopped looking for my doppelgänger. I was suddenly more absorbed in her face than in my own. Of course, this is when I finally stumbled across a doppegänger story that would really scare me. I picked up Helen Phillips’s novel The Need without knowing much at all about its plot. It was, I thought, a horror story about an intruder. This is correct, but the intruder that climbs out of the hallway trunk in the middle of the night isn’t a rapist or a murderer. It’s the narrator herself, visiting from another timeline. In this timeline, her children are dead. The doppelgänger wants what doppelgängers so often want: to take the place of the original. She wants to breastfeed her baby, take her children, share her responsibilities. To offer her body for consumption; to be consumed.
According to horror theorist Mark Fisher, the weird is a category defined by the presence of something that shouldn’t be there. The eerie is the absence of something that should be present. The Need is horrible because it’s both. There’s a longing and a lack. The intruder is, in a way, both types of doppelgänger: the external replacement and the shadow self. The other woman is an existential threat to the narrator, but she’s also a mother who wants to breastfeed and hold the baby. Reading this, I felt sick to my stomach. The idea that my baby could die is abhorrent in a way that feels contaminating—just thinking it is dangerous. None of the other double stories have affected me in this way. I’ve always found the idea of a second self a bit exciting, a frisson of possibility that borders on the sexual. While so many of these earlier stories end with a slash or a bang, Phillips ends hers with something far stickier. It’s not clear whether one mother supplants the other or if they somehow meld into one woman. The Jungian shadow self is integrated—or is she banished? The depressive lack is gone—or has it taken over completely? With “William Wilson” you know more or less what happens, even if it ends violently. Phillips gives us no such resolution.
This ambiguous ending conveys the instability of my own experience. Motherhood has been nothing if not destabilizing. It drew my focus inward during pregnancy, then outward during my daughter’s infancy. Suddenly, as she grows into a toddler and pulls away from me, I’m left alone again with my vague face and unfinished self. The truth is that I’ve been looking in the mirror far too much lately. I’ve been snapping selfies and setting my phone up so that I can record a video on the front-facing camera, since I’ve heard this is more accurate than a flipped screen. I’ve been trying to figure out what I actually look like, who I actually look like. When I scroll through photos on my phone or look at images I’ve posted on social media, I have trouble figuring out which of the many flat versions actually represents me. Even pictures I have taken in the past year look terribly strange, not at all like the person in the mirror with her tired eyes and long nose. My face has changed over the past few years. It’s partially because of pregnancy, but it’s also stress, a pandemic, and the result of Zoom distortion. My face no longer feels like my own.
The other day, I used a Russian search engine to reverse image search my face, revealing hundreds of women with shaggy blond hair and bangs, women with white faces and blunt chins. I was curious if I’d recognize any of them as being my exact match, my true doppelgänger. I found a few that made me pause, but no one was close enough. There was no thrill of discovery, no warm feelings of belonging. I had hoped for more, for some evidence that my face is out there, living and breathing, moving through some city I’ve never visited, kissing people I have never met, maybe even smoking a brand of cigarettes I’ve never smoked. I wanted there to be someone who, despite looking just like me, isn’t.
Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer whose book of essays, The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, is due out in 2023 from Simon & Schuster.
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