The Monster is a Mirror: Questioning the Uncanny Power of the Doppelgänger

I have a twin.  This is something that you may or may not already know about me.  Since my twin also happens to be a girl, one of the most common questions that I am asked is this: “Are you identical?”.  Unfortunately, I am unable to provide anyone with the answer to this inquiry.  After all, there is a special medical test that twins have to take (I believe that it is a DNA test) in order to see if they really are identical and my twin and I never ended up taking it.  So, when asked this question, all I can tell people is that my twin and I look related; we look related enough that people sometimes have a hard time telling us apart, that the unsuspecting viewer will occasionally mistake us for one person, who happens to miraculously change clothes every 10 s.   Young children also seem to have difficulty wrapping their minds around the fact that there is two of us.  For some reason, they often make make my twin and I into one person; thus, when we happen to be standing together, the child will examine us with a sense of sheer bewilderment upon their face.  So, I assume that my twin and I look similar to some extent.

Me and my twin. See if you can guess which one is me!
Me and my twin. See if you can guess which one is me!

In his essay, “The Uncanny”, Sigmund Freud states that, in order to determine the source of the uncanny impression that one gains when reading literature, one “must content oneself with selecting the most prominent of those motifs that produce an uncanny effect, and see whether they too can reasonably  be traced back to infantile sources” (141).  Freud then goes on to explain that, in a particular piece of literature, these elements of uncanniness “involve the idea of the ‘double’ (the Doppelgänger), in all its nuances and manifestations–that is to say, the appearance of person who have to regarded as identical because they look alike” (141).  He even is so bold so as to state that this uncanny feeling brought on by the Doppelgänger is “intensified by the spontaneous transmission of mental processes from one of these persons to the other–what we would call telepathy–so that one becomes the co-owner of the oner’s knowledge, emotions and experience” (141-142).

This is one of the problems that I have with Freud’s “The Uncanny”.  First off, being a twin myself, I can state with certainty that twin telepathy does not exist.  At least, not to the extent that Freud is proposing here.  Believe me, there are times when I wish that my twin could read my thoughts and that we could have secret telepathic conversations.  However, I can’t project my thoughts to my twin or translate my experience into unto her.  And, as far as I know, she hasn’t been able to do any of these thing either.  However, sometimes, if you take my twin and I to the same place at different times, we have the tendency to do or say the same things.  For instance, when I was four or five, my dad took me to a job site of his.  I hopped out of his truck, put my hands on my hips and asked him what he was doing working way out in the middle of nowhere.  He just looked at me in shock.  Apparently, the other day, when he took my twin sister with him, she did and said exactly the same thing.  This is the closest thing that I have experienced to “twin telepathy”.  So, it seems that, to some extent, twins, perhaps, are able to relate their emotions unto one another (yet, I am not really sure if we become “co-owners” the emotion, meaning that we become equally effected and aware of the emotion).  However, this “telepathic” effect doesn’t seem to translate over to knowledge or experience.

Even if we accept that this whole telepathic thing is false, then Freud still holds that the presence of the double is enough to invoke an uncanny feeling in one.  Yet, if I saw a person who looked like me walking in the street, I wouldn’t feel particularly uncanny, even if I realized that this person was not my twin.  In fact, even if I discovered that I had a secret triplet, I would feel more undignified that my parents didn’t see the need to inform me of this rather than uncanny.  I mean, I have spent my whole life surrounded by the notion that there is another person who resembles me.  So, seeing another individual who looks like me does not seem particularly frightening or unusual.  In the only footnote for the third part of “The Uncanny”, Freud relates to an experience in which he is a passenger on a train.  Suddenly, the train lurches forward and the door to the toilet next to him swung open and a man similar in appearance to Freud walks out and turns to enter the compartment in which Freud was sitting.  When Freud attempts to inform the man that this is his seat, he realizes that the man wasn’t a man at all, but was his own reflection in the mirror in the bathroom door (162).   Even though Freud says that he wasn’t frightened by this experience, he still “found [the double’s] appearance thoroughly unpleasant” and felt particular “displeasure…at seeing [this] unexpected [image]” of himself (162).  I’ve had a similar experience, albeit it didn’t occur on a train, in which I have mistaken my own reflection for my double.  Taking my reflection to be my twin, however, I did not feel the same displeasure at my apparent double.  In fact, I started to ask my “twin” something before realizing my mistake.  Immediately, I began to feel embarrassed at my own confusion.  I’m not sure if you can take this experience to be uncanny, but if you can, then it is important to note that unlike Freud’s experience–in which the sentiment of uncanniness was the result of being confronted with one’s own image–in my case, the feeling I had was brought on by the apparent lack of a double.   So, I am wondering how we can attempt to fit this into Freud’s theory of the uncanny.  Even though Freud mentions somewhere in “The Uncanny” (I can’t seem to find the quote right now) that the uncanny effects that he describes won’t necessarily be considered uncanny to everyone, he states that what he describes will seem uncanny to most people.  But, I feel that there are enough twins, triplets, etc. present in society for them to be lumped in with “most people”.  Thus, I feel that it would be worthwhile to try and fit twins, and their experiences, in with Freud’s theory.

2 thoughts on “The Monster is a Mirror: Questioning the Uncanny Power of the Doppelgänger”

  1. Good point here at the end–as I mentioned in class, I think that Freud is discounting the experiences of twins when he talks about the doppelganger being uncanny. And I think you’re right, though I don’t have the book here at home with me this weekend, that he says not all of these things that produce the uncanny will necessarily do so for every person. If I remember correctly he even says towards the beginning that he himself is not particularly sensible to the uncanny feeling (though obviously he can get it sometimes, as that footnote indicates). I suppose if he thought about twins, he might say that seeing another person who is very much like you might be uncanny to some because it could be reminiscent of that childhood doubling we may engage in, that we have repressed. But for those for whom doubling (or tripling, etc.) is the norm, maybe he’d say they might not have repressed that childhood desire, so it doesn’t seem uncanny (if he is right that the uncanny results from the return of something repressed)? That’s what I can come up with based on his text, at least.

    1. Oh, okay. That makes sense, I guess….However, when I was little, I also referred to myself as “Cara”, even though I already had a double. In fact, I, apparently, called myself “Cara” so often that my elementary school teachers were concerned that I actually thought that I was two people, which, of course, I didn’t. Even now, sometimes, when I am not paying any particular attention to what I am saying, I call myself “Cara” (haha….). But, I don’t think that I am a separate person or that there are two Cara’s. I also know that I am not invincible, that I cannot create a physical copy of myself (which will live on if something bad happens to me) by calling myself “Cara”. So, I don’t really know what this says about me….By Freudian analysis, it would probably be concluded that I had/have a repressed desire to double myself. However, if it is possible for twins, triplets, etc. to engage in this doubling that other young children supposedly take part in, then shouldn’t the double (triple, etc.) also be uncanny to twins? I don’t really know if this question is answerable by just reading the text alone, but the uncanny nature of the double doesn’t really feel legit to me….

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