Monday, October 31, 2022

The Thirty-First Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE THIRTY-FIRST NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … on this SAMHAIN, when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest, when phantasms, goblins, and Yōkai come through to visit us in the night … I made a FLOooOOoOoooOoOOOWCHART!!! 

The flowchart below attempts to categorize all the species of doppelgänger that we have discovered over the course of our cinematic investigations. Keep it handy in case you run into a doppelgänger and are having trouble identifying what kind it is.


I became more obsessed with the doppelgänger theme than I intended to. I just had noticed that a lot of the movies on my watchlist happened to involve doppelgängers, so I thought underlining that commonality would be a good way to add some flavor to this year’s series. As I went along, though, it became more and more clear to me that not only do most horror movies involve doppelgängers in some sense or respect (as I had suspected), but further, the doppelgänger itself is not so much a species of monster as the mother of many different types of monsters—a meta-monster, if you will. For this reason, the doppelgänger is an almost boundlessly rich subject of investigation, both aesthetically and philosophically. 

The higher order conclusion I have come to, though, is that the doppelgänger is able to proliferate in so many mutually exclusive forms, across so many fields and dimensions, because fundamentally it is the product of a paradox. The necessary and sufficient condition a doppelgänger must meet in order to count as a doppelgänger is that it be an entity that is what it is not. This apparent contradiction creates a paradox which can then be resolved in various ways, according to the senses given to the terms of the condition. If by “an entity that is what it is not” we mean an entity that appears identical to another entity but is not fully, substantively, or internally equal to that entity, then the condition is no longer contradictory. Entities that are only superficially the same are certainly permitted by logic. Or, if by an “entity that is what it is not” we mean a mind that has split into separate aspects that are antagonistic to one another and that may or may not occupy different bodies, then, again, the condition is no longer contradictory.

As we have seen, there are many other senses we can assign to the condition so as to resolve the paradox. Each of these senses produces a different type of doppelganger. So, my conclusion is that the reason the doppelgänger is the mother of many kinds of monsters is that, in essence, it is a walking paradox, which is in turn a monstrosity on a meta-cosmic level. 

It is a well-known maxim of classical logic that a standing contradiction permits any and all statements to be proven true. That is, if one stipulates that an entity X both exists and does not exist, then one can use an indirect proof, i.e. a proof by contradiction—where if a statement leads to a contradiction, we can conclude that it is false—to show that any claim at all that one can concoct is true. For instance, statement A says that psychic vampires from space control the media and that psychic vampires from space do not control the media. Given that A is true, if I then suppose that it is not the case that all readers of this post are immortal, I can conjoin this supposition with statement A to show that it cannot be true that it is not the case that all readers of this post are immortal. Therefore, all readers of this post are immortal. Then, instead of “all readers of this post are immortal,” I can substitute in any statement I want and prove that it is true as well. This is called the principle of explosion. 

For a monster (or meta-monster) to use its essential paradoxicality to threaten us with such an explosion of entities from the nether reaches of the imagination puts one in mind of Pandora’s box. If the Doppelgänger’s Paradox is allowed to stand, then the existence of all monsters is substantiated. That is, the gates of hell are thrown open and all the demons of our nightmares are free to walk the earth. 

And with that … thanks for joining me! See you next year, and have a Happy Halloween Forever!!!

The Thirtieth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE THIRTIETH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … the Eve of Samhain … I reread the most influential and probably the all-time best horror short story about doppelgängers, “William Wilson” (1839), written by my favorite author, Edgar Allen Poe. Let’s go through it together. 


The narrator calls himself “William Wilson,” but this is a pseudonym. He doesn’t want the present account to further increase the infamy attached to his real name. The name chosen by the narrator already indicates the presence of a doppelgänger. He is Will, son of Will. Two wills mirror one another between the given name and the surname, with one the progenitor of the other. 

The narrator begins at the beginning by explaining that he was born into an especially “imaginative” and “excitable” family, hinting at a history of mental illness. He suggests vaguely that he had shown signs of his family’s “evil propensities” in early childhood. He will return to this point at various moments in the story, but never to clarify it, only to ominously emphasize its significance. 

The narrator then moves on to his preteen years at a primary school in a gothic English village. He is well-liked by all the other schoolboys—except one. This one happens to have the same first and last name as him. The narrator’s namesake competes with him at whatever activity he engages in and challenges every assertion he makes. The narrator always comes out about equal in these struggles with his double. But this equality itself causes him to fear that he will lose his distinctness among his peers. The double seems more interested in personally tormenting him than in gaining status, though. In this section, the narrator circles back several times to place special weight on the double having his same name. It’s almost as if the double has been conjured up out of an accidentally repeated incantation of the name, as in an echo. 

Not only does the narrator share a name with the other boy, but the two also arrived in the village on the same day. This causes older classmates to assume that the two are brothers. What’s more, as the narrator later learns, he and his double were born on the same date. The narrator notes that his double’s one comparable deficiency is that some throat abnormality makes it impossible for him to speak above a low whisper. This is perhaps the creepiest aspect of this story’s doppelgänger: his inability to speak at standard volumes actually amplifies the effectiveness of his words in the quiet, pregnant moments that he must wait for to communicate. 

Over time, in dress, physique, attitude, and mannerisms, the narrator’s namesake comes to resemble him more and more. And the double gradually learns to mimic the narrator perfectly in habits, gestures, and thinking as well. Strangely, the other boys never say anything about the double’s extensive campaign of imitation. The double’s motive for mirroring the narrator in every way lies in his desire to aggravate the narrator, for he knows that every point of similarity vexes him. Added to this, the double adopts a patronizing air toward the narrator, wherein he constantly offers unsolicited moral advice. Worst of all, the advice usually turns out to be good. That is, if the narrator had followed it, he would have been better off. During one especially heated argument, something in the double’s expression reminds the narrator of his earliest unformed memories. The excellent prose here suggests movement of an unconscious truth fighting to break through the liminal barrier. 

One night, the narrator creeps out of his room to play a prank on his double. He finds him asleep in his room. When he accidentally shines a lamp on him, he sees to his horror that his double’s face has changed to become identical to his own. It’s as if by imitating the narrator for so long, the double’s face has been reshaped to match the narrator’s. This causes the narrator to flee from the school that night, never to return. 

The narrator continues his education through secondary school, during which time he becomes a habitual partier, booze hound, and general ne’er-do-well. One night, his double tracks him down and briefly harasses him before disappearing into the night. The narrator is unable to locate him again. Soon the narrator progresses to university, where he becomes even more of a sot, womanizer, and gambler. He finds that he actually excels at gambling, though, which leads him to become a card shark who bilks his rich young associates. He manages to totally ruin one of them, taking his entire fortune in one game. At the moment of the narrator’s triumph, the double returns and reveals how he won through cheating. As a result, the narrator is expelled from university and must flee to Europe.

Wherever the narrator goes, his double follows him and frustrates all his schemes. So, the narrator resolves to kill his double the next time they meet. This occurs at a masquerade ball in Rome. The narrator is about seduce the host’s wife when his double stops him by whispering in his ear. The narrator grabs his double and throws him into a side room with a large mirror. The pair draw the rapiers that they each have as part of their identical matador costumes. They battle. The narrator gets the better of his double and stabs him repeatedly. The door is then thrown open by the other guests. When the narrator turns back, he finds that the double is gone. Only his reflection in the mirror remains. And this allows him to see that he has mortally wounded himself with his own rapier. (Presumably this whole account has been given while the narrator is on his death bed.) 


A common interpretation of this story is that it is an allegorical representation of conscience and the role it plays in a person’s life. Under this interpretation, the narrator’s doppelgänger is said to be an elaborate delusion that began in boyhood and grew progressively worse, due to ignoring his conscience while engaging in various vices. This is of course supported by the narrator’s own repeated reference to his family’s history of mental illness. That would make his doppelgänger of the antagonistic-self type, manifested as a dissociative hallucination, like what we saw in The Other and Black Swan

But to me, this interpretation seems too simple. Perhaps schoolboys are more apt to get away with behaviors that would otherwise be seen as symptoms of psychosis, such as carrying on one-sided debates with imaginary friends. But why then, if the narrator’s delusion starts small and grows progressively worse over the years, does his double begin fully formed as a boy that shares his name but is still distinct in other respects—a boy whom the other students acknowledge and interact with? I think that the story allows for a reading in which the doppelgänger exists outside of the narrator’s head just as much as it supports the reading in which it is entirely imaginary. 

If the doppelgänger does have some substantial reality, it might be as a psychic emergence through the narrator’s obsession. Perhaps some force within the narrator, like an ethereal beacon—as a product of his family’s weird affliction—drew a boy with the same name and the same birthday to be enrolled at the same school. And perhaps this force imposed the narrator’s obsession with his own conscience onto this other boy, so that he was mentally and physically transformed over time into the narrator’s doppelgänger. This condemned the other boy to become the puppet and the shadow of the narrator’s unconscious self. Then, in their final confrontation, the narrator was able to fully absorb the double into himself in the psychically volcanic act of stabbing the vessel of his own conscience. 

This would be like Blacula imposing the identity of his dead wife reborn onto Tina, or Billy’s pa imposing the role of murderer onto Billy, but by physically transformative means rather than through social coercion. A psychic force reshaping the human body in this way is best exemplified in David Cronenberg’s film The Brood (1979).

In any case, that both of these interpretations are available in the text is only one indication of how innovative this story is. Doppelgängers had appeared in folklore throughout the world, such as in the changeling tales of Northern Europe we looked at, but the narrative of a double appearing and taking over a protagonist’s life is original to Poe. ETA Hoffman’s 1815 novel The Devil’s Elixirs concerns a monk who uses a potion to awaken his lust and manifest it as his evil twin. This version of the doppelgänger is closer to Stevenson’s later novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than to what Poe is up to, though. Soon after Poe introduced his much richer and trickier version of the doppelgänger in this story, other major authors started stealing his invention and repurposing it for their own mind-screw tales, most notably Nathaniel Hawthorne in his 1842 story “Howe's Masquerade” and Dostoyevsky in his 1845 novella The Double (which, as mentioned, was itself rebooted a century later as The Man Who Haunted Himself).  

What “William Wilson” has that all the works inspired by it lack is a terrifying intimacy. It depicts the narrator’s protracted close relationship with his double as he grows more and more like him. Poe is unflinching in working through the horrifying implications of this situation, to a degree achieved by no one else. What could be more unnerving about our doppelgängers than how touchingly close they come to us while remaining radically set against us?

Sunday, October 30, 2022

The Twenty-Ninth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE TWENTY-NINTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched The Dark Half (1993), directed by the late, great George Romero and based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name. 

A boy named Thad suffers from dizzy spells and hears birds that aren’t there. He undergoes surgery. The remnant of a parasitic twin, kind of a teratoma complete with an eye and teeth, is found in his brain. After the twin is removed, Thad’s condition improves. Twenty years later, Thad is an unsuccessful literary author who teaches creative writing at a college in Ludlow, Maine (one of King’s favorite settings, along with the fictional towns of Derry and Castlerock). Secretly, however, Thad writes pulpy slasher novels under the pseudonym “George Stark.” George Stark himself appears in the novels as a vicious hardboiled killer who sports a greaser look and drives a ‘66 Toronado. The Stark books are wildly successful and generate enough revenue for Thad to live comfortably in a large house with his wife and twin baby boys. One day, a blackmailer who has learned that Thad writes the Stark books threatens to expose him unless he pays out. Since Thad resents that his genre work sells so much better than his “serious” fiction, he decides to just announce the truth to the world. He “kills” George Stark in a mock burial for a People magazine article. Unfortunately, George Stark is more than a pseudonym. He is a psychic entity that inhabited Thad’s parasitic twin and has subsequently manifested materially as a tulpa through the George Stark novels. He doesn’t appreciate Thad’s attempt to get rid of him. In retaliation, he starts slicing up people in Thad’s life. The sheriff suspects Thad of these murders because he and George Stark share the same fingerprints and face. No one believes Thad’s story about a fictional character coming to life. Meanwhile, George Stark threatens to slice up Thad’s wife and babies as well if he doesn’t start writing another Stark sequel. 

I love the novel this movie is based on. I think it’s up there with Pet Sematary and Misery as one of the best horror novels from Stephen King’s prime, i.e. one of his best works period. It owes much of its success to the fact that it is essentially a retelling through the lens of supernatural horror of something that actually happened to King. During the late 70’s and early 80’s, King wrote a few of his more controversial works, including Rage, a novel about a school shooting, and Roadwork, a novel about a Ruby Ridge-type standoff, under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman.” A bookseller discovered that Bachman was really King and threatened to expose him, just as The Dark Half’s blackmailer does. Like Thad, King replied by going public and “killing” Bachman. The prose of The Dark Half reflects the author’s intimate familiarity with this situation and gives the reader a lot of insight into the writing process for both Thad’s “serious” work and his pulp novels. It also provides extensive excerpts from the George Stark novels, which are a delight to read for their exaggerated indulgence in salacious ultraviolence. 

While of course Romero is one of the all-time great horror directors, and while his talent for engrossing the viewer with clever shots and editing is fully in evidence here, a great deal is lost in the conversion from page to screen. I’m not sure a work that depends on the internal experience of reading and writing fiction for its best effects could ever work well as a film, even with a director as innovative as Romero. Still, it’s certainly an above average King adaptation. It’s just that I would very much recommend the novel over the movie. One highlight is Timothy Hutton in the dual role of Thad and Stark. Hutton manages to make Stark a terrifying monster who is completely distinct from Thad’s easygoing yuppie dad. 


As Thad explains to his creative writing class, “Each one of us is two separate beings. There’s the outer being, the one we show to the world at large, inhibited, timid, often a pathological liar. And then there’s the inner being, the truthful one, passionate, uninhibited, even lustful. Most of us keep that inner being hidden away, locked up. But the fiction writer doesn’t have to do that.” 

The Dark Half obviously deals with the doppelgänger as antagonistic self, along with many other aspects we’ve already encountered, but the new turn here is hinted at by the last line of Thad’s speech: the doppelgänger as fictional creation made flesh. All the way back to The Other, we have seen doppelgängers that are products of a traumatized mind forming alternate identities through delusion or disguise. But The Dark Half’s Stark goes much further. First, the particulars of his appearance and mannerisms have been richly detailed, and meat has been put on his bones in the form of a decades-spanning backstory. Next, he has been allowed to self-actualize himself over the course of dozens of adventures. Finally, he has come to life in the minds of millions of readers. Together these factors work to create a doppelgänger that is not merely a repressed aspect of Thad’s psyche or his memory of a lost sibling but is in fact a wholly independent being. If Stark were not a mass murderer, we would have to say that he has as much a right to live as the person whose face he shares. 

This is the doppelgänger as tulpa. A tulpa is a sentient being who comes into existence through the concentrated imagination of a creator, i.e. it is a being that is imagined into existence. King often speaks of his writing process in parallel terms. He claims that his characters have wills of their own, such that he must follow them wherever they go, whether he wants to or not. So, composition for King is closer to spirit channeling than to carefully designing a building. 

Meanwhile, once fictional characters are released into the wilds of the public imagination, they do seem to have their own wills. The more popular of these characters are materially embodied in many different forms, including various actors’ portrayals and fan cosplays. Each embodiment of, say, King’s most famous villain, Pennywise, is a doppelgänger to all the others. It’s also one cell of a larger body that allows Pennywise as a coherent entity on another plane to gain a stronger foothold in our world. That is, a tulpa becomes its own doppelgänger as it attempts to take on physical substance through its scattered presence in various bodies. Particularly powerful tulpas of this nature, i.e. figures of worship, plant their doubles in our highest institutions and have been known to elicit human sacrifice in order to further substantiate their reality.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

The Twenty-Eighth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE TWENTY-EIGHTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched Sea Fever (2019), an Irish sci fi horror film written and directed by Neasa Hardiman.

A marine biology PhD student is assigned to a research project that requires her to join a small fishing trawler with a crew of six on its last haul of the season. The skipper plots a course to a particularly bountiful spot, but the coast guard warns them off, as this destination has been designated an exclusion zone. The skipper ignores them, against the order of his captain (who is also his wife), and heads into the exclusion zone anyway. Sonar picks up a huge mass heading toward them. The trawler slams to a halt, as if having hit a shoal. The skipper claims the collision broke the radio, but he in fact disabled it himself to avoid the penalty for trespassing into the exclusion zone. The engineer notices strange contusions on the ship’s wooden hull, as if something is eating at it from outside. The student puts on scuba gear and dives in to have a look. She finds that a number of bioluminescent tentacles with lamprey-like mouths have grabbed the boat. The tentacles belong to a huge unknown creature, possibly a colossal marine worm, lurking in the darkness below. Slime from the creature leaks onto the boat. Though the creature releases the ship, the slime carries parasitic larvae that infect some of the crew. The crew and the student are soon at each other’s throats in a struggle to determine who has become a host for the creature’s offspring. 

Sadly, this movie annoyed me quite a bit. It opens strong, establishing its bona fides with authentic scenes that show the routine of life aboard the trawler. At times in the first act, it even feels like a worthy successor to Jaws. Its likable seadogs stand in contrast to the aloof science student while the boat heads out onto the open Atlantic to confront an unstoppable monster that will require everyone to put differences aside in order to survive. This all works well until we hit act two, after the student returns from her dive. Then, the movie runs aground on its own Sargasso sea-like obstructions, in the form of extremely poor characterization and a series of pointless anticlimaxes.   

It’s upsetting to me when scientists in movies don’t act like scientists. After the main character stumbles upon the greatest discovery ever for her field, she makes no further attempt to document it, can’t be bothered to offer more than a vague account of it, and doesn’t even ask if she can use the radio to report the finding. Again, this is a PhD candidate in marine biology encountering a huge unidentified bioluminescent organism with tendrils strong enough to stop a fishing trawler. Such a find (1) would guarantee her tenure, a lecture tour, and a lucrative book deal, i.e. it would grant an enviable career to a person who, just as a function of contemporary academia, must have been scrambling tooth and nail for years to gain any foothold at all; and (2) would revolutionize her entire field, impacting not just our understanding of the marine worm, if that’s what it is, but of the entire ecosystem in which such a large predator could go undetected. For her to react with mild concern instead of going into adrenaline-fueled, high-gear researcher mode would not happen. She simply could not have survived in contemporary academia long enough to have received this assignment if she were that indifferent to both her career and her field of study. That is, this moment reveals her to be a nonscientist scientist character. The maddening thing is that the narrative does not at all mandate that she be a nonscientist scientist. She could document everything she sees, be as excited about it as any scientist would be, and even attempt to send all her evidence back to shore, and the drama would play out the same. They are hundreds of miles out to sea in an exclusion zone with a broken radio.

Furthermore, entirely apart from this issue, which admittedly won’t bother some people, the script itself seems to be infected with a parasite that causes it to neutralize any momentum it manages to build up. The creature lets go of the ship all too easily, which prompts the characters to wonder if they are being baited for a greater trap. Nope, they just escape free and clear, no further attacks. The crew struggles to control an infected character, which strains relations between the character’s mother, his romantic interest, and the skipper. Will this lead to a schism involving a loose madman later on? Nope, the character abruptly dies before the argument about what to do with him is even over. One of the creature’s offspring is rapidly growing in the ship’s water tank. Should they kill it or, as the student insists, attempt to capture and release it? Neither. The creature escapes on its own before they can try either approach. And so on. It’s as if the film cannot stomach its own tension. This is really disappointing given the strength of the opening and the potential of the material.  


For its release to streaming during the pandemic, Sea Fever was reframed as a work about the horrors of fighting to establish a quarantine. But that’s really only one of the film’s many quickly resolved subplots. Nevertheless, let’s discuss the doppelgänger as an infection by a parasitic species. Sea Fever does get the science right in one respect: how its parasite affects its hosts’ minds is in keeping with actual terrestrial parasites. Unlike the cosmic organism in Carpenter’s The Thing, it doesn’t simultaneously assimilate and mimic the host’s cells, nor does it supplant the host’s mind with its own independent identity, like a puppeteer-type symbiote or a demon. Rather, it causes its hosts to generate neuro-active chemicals that create a desire to carry out certain actions, e.g. to immerse oneself in water, that promote its own survival and reproduction. This is a dynamic seen in, for instance, parasitic wasps and the so-called “zombie fungus.” Consequently, Sea Fever’s characters become paranoid, such that they hyperscrutinize each other’s every behavioral quirk. Since the double within here is not a coherent and purposeful will but a biological process that alters one’s thinking, the characters become alienated from their own brains. (I’m mostly extrapolating here, since, again, the film only briefly develops this scenario before deflating it. Actually, a much better version of this same plot, which does explicitly delve into these questions, is The X-Files episode “Ice” (1993). Like Sea Fever, “Ice” is inspired by Carpenter’s The Thing but replaces the alien entity with a terrestrial organism based on actual parasites.) This gets to the root of the horror involved with the doppelgänger as an antagonistic aspect of the self: we are led to wonder if control over our own minds was only an illusion to begin with. If a parasite can influence our behavior by excreting natural chemicals, our behavior must already be controlled by chemicals native to our bodies. That doppelgänger consisting of the biological urge to procreate was there from the beginning, pulling our strings and merely letting us believe that our minds were ever our own.

Friday, October 28, 2022

The Twenty-Seventh Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE TWENTY-SEVENTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), directed by Basil Dearden and based on a novel by Anthony Armstrong.

A pre-Bond Roger Moore stars as a button-down British businessman named Pelham. He so rigidly adheres to set habits that his marriage has become sexless and acquaintances regard him as tedious. One day, while driving to work on a London expressway, he experiences some sort of identity transfusion. He sees himself at the wheel of a silver Lamborghini Islero instead of the sensible Rover P5 sedan he is actually driving. He unbuckles his seatbelt, swerves into the fast lane, and floors it. This leads to an accident that lands him in the hospital with a head wound. He flatlines on the operating table. When he is resuscitated, two synchronous heartbeats appear on his heart monitor for a few seconds. Upon recovering, he resumes his habit-bound lifestyle. However, over the course of the next few days, various people mention having seen him gambling at a club, playing pool in a tournament, and chatting up an attractive young photographer—all of which he adamantly denies. And he has proof that he was at home during the alleged sightings. At the same time, his wife notices someone parked in a silver Lamborghini Islero outside their house. Things become serious when Pelham’s doppelgänger is accused of conspiring with a competitor to buy out the company he works for. Ironically, Pelham’s frantic paranoia and determination to unmask the imposter cause his wife and colleagues to conclude that he is not himself. Is Pelham suffering from a unique form of Capras delusion (i.e. "l'illusion des sosies," the illusion of doubles), as Pelham’s psychiatrist believes, wherein his own dissociated behavior has formed an independent identity? Or did his accident allow in another world’s version of him—a version that is more fun, sexier, and overall better liked than he is? 

This is a well-made conceptual chiller. Like The Tenant, I find the idea of the narrative more interesting to think about than actually watch play out. But Armstrong’s slick Hitchcockian directing together with Roger Moore’s abundant charm and layered acting make it a late-Swinging London treat. I think the pitch with Moore must have been to cast him against type as the dull Pelham so as to sell the idea that there is a restless tiger of a man lurking under the starchy surface. Moore wouldn’t star as Bond in Live and Let Die for another three years, but he had already played the TV version of The Saint’s titular man of intrigue. And for his part, Moore said that his favorite of his own films was this. (Not being a Bond fan, like at all, I’d tend to agree.)


As much as The Man Who Haunted Himself maintains a tone of frantic paranoia throughout, every scene ends on a melancholy note. It’s as if Pelham is already grieving the loss of his life to a worthier usurper, since no one really likes Pelham-prime anyway, least of all himself. This melancholy is inherited from the true source of the film’s narrative, a short story by Edgar Allen Poe called “William Wilson.” 

See, the novel that The Man Who Haunted Himself is based on, The Strange Case of Mr. Pelham, is itself just a twentieth century reboot of Poe’s story. The first person to steal this story was Poe’s Russian translator, Dostoyevsky, with his novella The Double. Probably the most recent iteration of the story is 2018’s Cam, which makes the double-haunted main character a cam-site sex worker. “William Wilson,” like all of the works derived from it, is about a protagonist whose life is progressively taken over by a doppelgänger with the same name and face. More on this story in a few nights (stay tuned), but suffice to say that it strikes the same melancholy note of resignation. 

The most interesting spin that The Man Who Haunted Himself puts on this story is the idea that refraction of identity through trauma can release a repressed version of oneself into the world as a physical copy. Pelham’s doppelgänger is both livelier and crueler than he is. Pelham-secundus is sexually vital, risk-taking, and confident, but he is also deceitful, mocking, and selfish. Pelham-prime is none of these things. So the self that is set free by the accident can be seen as a demon that has seized upon an opportunity to escape hell by manifesting as the id-oriented version of an existing man. Pelham caused this demon to be let loose by being untrue to himself. This new fold to the narrative speaks to what an antagonistic doppelgänger truly represents: an aspect of oneself that one is at war with. Whether one works to imprison one’s chaotic lustful side, as Pelham does, or one is instead enslaved by an addiction, the doppelgänger can symbolically embody one’s opponent in an internal struggle. On the other hand, as the psychiatrist who traffics in such psycho-symbolic explanations is horrified to discover in the finale, sometimes the inexplicable duplication of bodies and personas is all too real.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

The Twenty-Sixth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE TWENTY-SIXTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched The Medium (2021), a Thai supernatural horror mocumentary directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun.

A film crew sets out to make a documentary about the shaman culture of Thailand’s Isan region. They decide to narrow their focus down to one shaman in particular, a woman named Nim who serves as the vessel for a local goddess. Her older sister Noi was supposed to be possessed by the goddess, but she refused and converted to Christianity. So, the role fell to Nim. During interviews with the sisters, Noi’s nineteen-year-old daughter Mink, who tells the crew that she doesn’t believe in shamanism, begins experiencing odd symptoms. She suffers from blackouts, hears belligerent voices, sometimes behaves like a small child, lashes out at people without provocation, and in brief spells, bleeds from various orifices. Her doctor cannot explain her condition. Nim initially believes that the goddess is moving on to possess Mink, in lieu of her mother. After Mink is hospitalized for a suicide attempt, and the family learns of Mink’s other extreme acts during her blackouts, Nim instead realizes that evil spirits have been progressively invading Mink. When Mink returns from the hospital, their possession is complete. Mink spits up black fluid, cackles, makes lewd propositions, and tears up housewares in full Regan MacNeil-style. Nim calls upon a more powerful shaman to help her exorcize the legion of devils in an elaborate ceremony. Things don’t go according to plan. 

The Medium is steeped in a dense broth of Thai folklore. The first half especially functions as something of a real primer on the world of Isan shamans. Though the interviews are with actors improvising in fictional roles, what they say is based on intimate familiarity with rural Thailand’s actual spiritual practices. And the footage of the Loei province countryside and its local feasts and parades is gorgeous. The narrative has one too many family-drama surprises, but this ultimately only adds to the authentic feel of the documentary supposedly being constructed. A cascade of melodramatic shocks is after all de rigueur for the modern documentary. Going into the third act, however, The Medium transitions into found footage territory. As Mink grows more demonic and exceeds the family’s capacity to control her, the crew increasingly relies on hidden camera feeds and chaotic handheld coverage. This leads to something of a logistics disconnect in the conclusion’s explosive epidemic of cannibalistic evisceration. It’s unclear how the footage we are watching could have been recovered, or who was left to recover it. Regardless, there’s a lot to learn from and savor in both halves of The Medium. I definitely intend to watch it again.


It’s interesting that Nim becomes a shaman through a benign possession by a loving goddess. According to western folklore, i.e. Judeo-Christianity, all spirit possession is an invasive displacement of the self for evil ends. Even when the divine is said to speak or act through the believer, as in Pentecostal folk belief, it just does so temporarily in order to communicate revelation or healing. Only a demon, says western mythology, would take up permanent residence in us. The shaman tradition presented in The Medium challenges this assumption, though. Perhaps we have misjudged the doppelgänger. Perhaps not all alien spirits who come to reside within our bodies, or bodies identical to ours, do so with evil intent. Perhaps it is only our refusal—out of a misguided reverence for absolute psychic autonomy—to share our minds with others that opens us up to truly malign entities.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The Twenty-Fifth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE TWENTY-FIFTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched Three on a Meathook (1972), a no-budget exploitation slasher written and directed by William Girdler. 

Four young ladies in go-go shorts drive out to a lake for a day of skinny dipping. A young man named Billy watches them from his fishing boat. On their way home that night, the ladies’ car breaks down. Luckily, Billy happens to drive by and offers them a place to stay until they can call a garage in the morning. They hesitantly accept. Billy takes them back to the creepy old farm house where he lives with his pa. He serves the ladies dinner and sets them up in the guest rooms. All seems well. When pa learns of the guests, however, he starts berating Billy by ominously alluding to “what happens” whenever Billy is around women. Billy assures pa that this time, things will be different. Everyone goes to bed. Fifteen minutes later … cut to a killer POV shot. One by one, each of the guests is stabbed, chopped, or shot to death. In the morning, pa shows Billy the grisly scene in the guest rooms. He ruefully explains that Billy murdered the women while in a sleepwalking trance—just like he did before. Billy refuses to believe it and drives off. In town, he meets a young woman and invites her out to the farm house. This time, he’s sure things will be different.

This movie is awful. But it’s also pretty great. That’s not to say that it’s another obnoxious “good-bad” movie. Girdler was an accomplished and talented filmmaker with a really interesting career. He made all nine of his movies in six years, including a couple well-regarded works of supernatural horror, and he died in a car accident shortly after his 30th birthday. Three on a Meathook, his second picture, was self-financed and shot in his home town. 

What’s awful about it is that the entire middle 45 minutes (out of 85) consists of slow and pointless filler. There’s an extended sequence where we just watch Billy in a bar watching Gridler’s own funkadelic band perform (their music is actually pretty good, but it adds nothing to the story). 

What’s great about it is that the first thirty minutes and last ten deliver on the promise of a squirm-inducing, greasy slasher. It’s incredible that Three on a Meathook was made two years before that cinematic masterpiece often cited as the first slasher, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All the hallmarks of late 70’s and even 80’s slashers are somehow already in place here. There is an extremely silly axe-decapitation moment that would fit seamlessly in any Friday the 13th knock-off.

What’s also great about it is that watching it feels like being at a sketchy 70’s drive-in. I can think of no better example of what the term “grindhouse” means to me than this movie. First, “Three on a Meathook” is a title whose sole purpose is to snag eyeballs. Second, its narrative is abrasively sensationalist in that it’s very loosely based on the legendary exploits of a real American serial killer, Ed Gein (thus forming a bridge between two of the best horror movies ever made, Psycho and (again) Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Third, its opening scenes offer plentiful cheesecake nudity. Fourth, it actually played in those multi-billed runs at cheap theaters and drive-ins from which the term “grindhouse” derives—a “grind” was a back-to-back continuous presentation of movies that started at a cut-rate price in the morning and increased in cost toward nightfall. Fifth, the only version of it that I was able to find anywhere (on Youtube and Internet Archive) is a worn-out and yellowing video transfer. So, it’s still not in any sense a premier work. Can you name another horror movie that nails all five of these grindhouse characteristics so well?


The easily-predicted twist of Three on a Meathook is that Billy is not actually murdering the women, in a sleepwalking trance or otherwise—pa is. Pa has suffered from a dissociative break as a result of his wife becoming a cannibal for health reasons (this insane revelation drops in the last five minutes with no further explanation), which necessitated him locking her up, telling Billy she died, killing whoever showed up at the farm, and secretly feeding her the bodies. Pa could not cope with being a mass murderer, so he projected this role onto his son. Then, in a folie à deux, his son came to accept the projection. 

So, here we have an identity caused by a stress-induced mental break, as in Black Swan. Then, that identity is imposed on another to manipulate that person’s behavior and self-image, as in Blacula. This is done so as to deflect responsibility for murders, as in giallos like Opera. And finally, Billy internalizes pa’s delusion to the extent of reproducing it, as in Hour of the Wolf. Furthermore, this narrative was inspired by Norman Bates’ dissociative roleplay as his mother’s doppelgänger in Psycho. The appearance of this amalgamated psychological version of a doppelgänger in even such a typical piece of grindhouse fare as Three on a Meathook should stand as strong evidence that the doppelgänger is a specter haunting all of horror cinema.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

The Twenty-Fourth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE TWENTY-FOURTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched Black Swan (2010), directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie Portman. Portman’s tour-de-force lead performance here won her the 2010 Best Actress Oscar.

Nina is a ballerina at the New York Ballet company. She is in competition to play the dual role of the White Swan Queen and her wicked twin sister, the Black Swan, for a production of Swan Lake. According to the overly handsy director, Nina’s precise technique and innocent persona make her perfect for the White Swan. However, these same traits prevent her from embodying the more chaotically passionate Black Swan. So, the director initially casts another dancer. He changes his mind when Nina bites him in reply to an unwanted kiss in his office. Still, Nina struggles in rehearsals to perform adequately as the Black Swan. Then, a wild night out with a hard-partying rival dancer (played by Mila Kunis) breaks Nina’s immaculate shell. This in turn releases her doppelgänger, which appears with increasing frequency in a rising crescendo of hallucinogenic sequences.

Portman is perfectly cast, as she naturally has a ballerina’s poise, disposition, and physique. Her Oscar win was well-deserved. And I certainly enjoyed Black Swan’s propulsive emotional drama, accomplished cinematography and editing, and brief but effective bursts of phantasmal imagery. But the overtness of Aronofsky’s simple metaphors together with his sometimes absurdly high-key psychodrama tends to annoy me—which is why I have had this movie on my watch-list since it came out but put it off until our doppelgänger-horror marathon made it unavoidable. These signature Aronofsky traits are present in Black Swan, but I found them much less annoying than in, say, Pi and Requiem for a Dream. (Pi has the added annoyance of being a film about a mathematician’s descent into madness made by someone who clearly has only a rudimentary familiarity with the concerns of higher mathematics.) This is largely due to the fact that Portman and Kunis are so riveting in their respective roles, though.  


Black Swan contains lots of mirror imagery—mirrors mirroring mirrors when the dancers are in wardrobe together; walls of mirrors when they are dancing; mirrored movements in their synchronized dances; and dancers who from a distance look nearly identical, with the same clothes, hairstyles, and general physiques. Narratively, a number of dancers are competing to take on the same role and thus are intentionally striving to best serve as doppelgänger to a character ideal in the director’s mind. Added to this, Nina’s overbearing mother was herself a ballerina whose career was cut short. Thus, she wishes for Nina to become her duplicate so as to fulfill her ambition vicariously. No wonder, then, that Nina’s madness takes the form of an imaginary evil twin who originates in mirrors and migrates into the faces of the other dancers. A high pressure situation involving doublings and re-doublings of identity causes Nina’s reflection to come to life as the lustful and violently free spirit she has never let herself be. So, once again, we encounter a type of doppelgänger that actually exists in our reality, the doppelgänger created by a broken mind.

Monday, October 24, 2022

The Twenty-Third Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE TWENTY-THIRD NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched Blacula (1972), directed by William Crain and starring the profoundly sonorous William Marshall.

In the 18th century, the African Prince Mamuwalde travels to Count Dracula’s castle on a mission to enlist Transylvania’s aid in ending the slave trade. Sadly, along with being a diabolical blood-sucking fiend, Dracula is racist. In retaliation for being called out on this, Dracula assaults Mamuwalde’s wife Luva, turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, whom he dubs “Blacula,” and imprisons him in a crypt so that he will hunger in agony for eternity. Blacula is released two hundred years later when a gay couple (who are portrayed sympathetically—though, regrettably, the f-slur is used a few times later) purchase the castle and ship its furniture, including Blacula’s coffin, to an antiques warehouse in America. Blacula at last sates his appetite by feasting on the peculiar new-fangled denizens of 70’s Harlem. Soon, however, he runs into Tina, a woman who is the living image of his long-dead Luva. His conviction that she is in fact his wife reborn forces him to reconsider his undead purpose.

Blacula’s plot is surprisingly faithful to Bram Stoker’s novel. Mamuwalde himself parallels Jonathan Harker in that he visits Dracula’s castle in a professional capacity and dines with him, only to be attacked by Dracula’s brides. After becoming Blacula, he travels to America aboard a Demeter-like cargo ship and takes up residence in a Harlem warehouse just as Dracula did in London. Tina obviously corresponds to Mina. The other main protagonist, a medical examiner, is a combination of Dr. Seward and Van Helsing. And the medical examiner’s cop friend and wife play the Quincy and Holmwood roles respectively. Their investigation follows the same beats as the novel’s: they uncover a vampire in a cemetery and slay it; launch an attack on the prince of darkness’ lair; and try and fail to protect their friend from the fiend’s romantic obsession.

With its playful portmanteau title and mix-and-match premise, one would expect Blacula to be a comedy—but no. Aside from a few wry moments of satire, Blacula plays it straight. Both the source material and the new social context are handled with grave respect (pardon the pun). This direct approach thoroughly succeeds, though, both because a well-executed rendition of Stoker’s classic tale will always be engaging and because good drama in blaxploitation Harlem will always be incredibly fun. The wild contrasts between the original material and the milieu it’s transplanted into go off in the viewer’s head like fireworks. Added comedic commentary would just get in the way at the fireworks show.


Since we’ve already discussed the vampire as doppelgänger and vice versa, we can instead use Blacula to examine another type of duplication: reincarnation. Of course, we can say that Blacula is a doppelgänger of Dracula in a metatextual sense, as a cinematic reinterpretation. However, the reincarnation of Blacula’s wife is actually not taken from previous versions of Dracula. Although the vampire soap opera Dark Shadows introduced this plot a decade earlier, as far as I am able to tell, Blacula is the first adaptation of Dracula specifically to have his attraction to the Mina character be explained in this way. The addition works so well at adding a doomed romantic dimension that it has been repeated ever since, most notably in Coppola’s Dracula. Tina, as well as subsequent iterations of Mina inspired by her, obviously is not aware that she is a reincarnation, though. Rather, her status as a double is something that the vampire lord imposes on her. As such, identification with the dead wife functions as a predatory tool for Blacula to control her response to his advances and to shape her self-image. Thus, the doppelgänger as reincarnation is not the monster of this story but the victim. To some extent, we all experience such doppelgänger-ization whenever we are compared unfavorably to our “original” versions, i.e. our precursors in some role.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Twenty-Second Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE TWENTY-SECOND NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched Cemetery of Terror (1985), a Mexican zombie-slasher romp written and directed by Rubén Galindo Jr. 

Three narratives converge around a reanimated devil-worshiping serial killer named Devlon. First, we see the living Devlon gunned down after murdering a woman in an elevator. The psychiatrist from whom Devlon escaped demands that Devlon’s corpse be incinerated immediately, but a skeptical police captain refuses. Cut to the second narrative. Three jackass med students trick their dates into partying with them on Halloween night at an abandoned house next to a cemetery. Here, one of the students discovers a necromantic grimoire with “Devlon” written in blood on its cover. The students decide that the best way to keep the girls entertained is to steal a body from the morgue and read one of the grimoire’s incantations over it at the cemetery. The body they steal just so happens to be Devlon’s. Reading the incantation causes a flash storm to soak everyone, so they abandon the body and return to the house. The students’ ploy pays off because their dates all start making out with them. Unfortunately, the good times do not last. The incantation causes Devlon to reanimate, track the students down, and start efficiently slaughtering them one by one. Cut to the third narrative. This concerns the police captain’s young son and his group of friends journeying to the cemetery, where they are besieged by a horde of zombies under Devlon’s command. 

I chose Cemetery of Terror not because it’s well-regarded or even well-known but because I liked the poster. Luckily, my gamble paid off—this movie is very entertaining! The first half shall we say borrows piano riffs, stalker pov shots, and a whole kill sequence from Carpenter’s Halloween. But it hardly matters, since the mash-up of Halloween-clone slasher with demented Fulci-influenced zombie horror, by way of distinctly Mexican cinematic flourishes, makes Cemetery of Terror feel original throughout. Dropping the entire third-act cast of imperiled children in favor of more likeable and longer-lived med student characters would definitely have made for a more coherent script, but the result might also have felt less idiosyncratic. 


This time our film provides us with an opportunity to compare the doppelgänger to that workhorse monster of 80’s and 2000’s creature cinema, the zombie. Both the doppelgänger and the zombie appropriate our bodies* and make them do things out of our control. The key difference is that for the zombie, control is exercised through an unintelligent set of instructions (which are sometimes commanded by a warlock like Devlon and sometimes dictated by the logic of a virus), such as “(1) seek brains; (2) if found, eat brains.” The body thereby becomes a simple meat robot. Whereas, for the doppelgänger, control is exercised directly by an intelligent mind; it’s just that that mind is alien. In both cases, what we fear is a loss of control over our own flesh. But whether in sleep, in sickness, or in death, this loss of control is something none of us can avoid.

*Note that while we commonly associate zombies with dead bodies, even our living bodies can become zombies if they are unconscious and controlled by something other than our wills. So, zombies are not necessarily distinguished from doppelgängers by vital status.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

The Twenty-First Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE TWENTY-FIRST NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched Dario Argento’s Opera (1987). This film reinvents Phantom of the Opera as a late-period giallo epic. 

Betty is an understudy for the lead role in a highly anticipated Parma Opera House production of Verdi’s Macbeth. When the starring diva is struck by a car, Betty achieves sudden fame by performing as Lady Macbeth in the diva’s stead on opening night. Unfortunately, she just as quickly attracts a lethally obsessed fan in the form of a serial-killing stalker. The hooded killer on two successive nights manages to break in, tie Betty up, and fasten pins under her eyes. The killer does the latter so as to force Betty to watch the grisly murders of whomever she is with. As the third night falls, her only clue as to the face lurking under the hood is locked in an image from a recurring childhood nightmare …

I think Argento intended Opera to serve as a baroque swan song for the giallo genre, which had passed its prime a decade earlier. The Italian horror subgenre of the giallo, as we know, marries murder mystery sleuthing with gory slasher kills. Argento is himself regarded as the definitive master of the genre, with his Deep Red (1975) perhaps being the best giallo ever made. Opera is a much more expensive and ambitious production than most classic giallos, though, which balance artfulness with cheap sleaziness. And I think Opera suffers a bit because of its higher budget and grander aims, as it’s neither as aesthetically focused nor as convincingly written as Deep Red. But when rather viewed in the context of other operatic (here literally) gothic revival works of 80’s horror, it fares better. For one, it establishes itself as a worthy successor to the monumental 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera, certainly far beyond any of its other thirteen remakes. Its standout features include the authenticity of its behind-the-curtain scenes (which derives from Argento’s own abortive attempt to direct a production of Verdi’s Macbeth); some fantastic raven photography, the best moment of which comes when two ravens spar over a human eyeball in a shot that couldn’t have been choreographed but plays out like it was; and its innovative camera work, such as in a bird’s eye view that spins high over the opera audience, then dives down and strafes them in closer and closer circles. 


Opera’s killer is a traditional giallo villain in that he (or possibly she) wears a mask and black leather gloves and wields a knife. The giallo villain is an iconic visualization of the murder mystery culprit. In turn, this unknown foe explodes the doppelgänger dynamic, in that, as long as the mystery remains unsolved, the killer maintains a presence as a faceless monster that could be hiding inside anyone. That is, while the doppelgänger is an alien identity wearing someone else’s face, a mystery killer is an unknown identity hiding among a number of faces. The two coincide when, in works like Carpenter’s The Thing, there is known to be a deadly imposter within a group, but which among them is unknown. This explains the frequency with which identical twins, actors (or opera performers), and disguises appear in murder mysteries. A killer can lead detectives (and the audience with them) down the wrong path by becoming a doppelgänger of an innocent party before committing bloody deeds. In this way, the fear that the doppelgänger inspires in us is Lovecraft’s “oldest and strongest kind of fear”—fear of the unknown.

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Twentieth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE TWENTIETH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched You Are Not My Mother (2021), written and directed by Kate Dolan. This is an Irish psychological horror film that examines familial struggles with mental illness through the lens of malicious fairy-changeling mischief. (Spoilers, natch, as this one’s only just been released to streaming.)

Char is a teenage girl whose mother is suffering from depression. One day, after driving Char to school, the mother disappears, leaving her car abandoned in a field. Char’s grandmother and uncle alert the police and conduct a fruitless search that night. In the morning, the mother turns up at the front door with no memory of where she has been. The professionals’ conclusion is that she had a manic-depressive episode and simply needs proper medication. The grandmother, however, who is something of a cunning-folk adherent to the old Gaelic ways, tells Char that her mother has been replaced by an aos sí, a supernatural race of fairy creatures who live beyond the veil. The grandmother believes that this has happened because she frustrated the fairies’ attempt to replace Char herself with a changeling when she was an infant. Now they have sent this false mother thing to recapture Char. At first, Char doesn’t know what to believe. But soon she catches her mother doing inexplicable things, like reaching down her own throat and pulling out misshapen bones.

Most of this film is a patient meditation on coping with a parent’s mental illness, both within one’s family and among one’s unsympathetic peers. But the ambience of ancient Irish legend is constantly present, in the form of the approaching celebration of Samhain, i.e. the Celtic festival coinciding with Halloween; a field trip to a druidic site marking a “liminal space” where “fairy folk could enter the human world”; and the various talismans of protection the grandmother has decorated Char’s home with. This folkloric context gradually moves from the subliminal background to the forefront of conscious terror, thereby entirely eclipsing the modern psychiatric framework. Still, this is definitely a film about mental illness, since the mother is already suffering under its cloud before she is swapped. It uses the symbols, creatures, and sorcerous dynamics of hoary ancestral paganism to do a kind of nightmare work of manifesting a child’s fear of alienation from her mother. The film is successful in this, as far as it goes. My only real criticism is that I think it could have delved much deeper into Char’s relationship with her mother, both on our side of the misty threshold and on the eldritch-fae’s side. The key confrontations between Char and her mother’s doppelgänger all seem to abruptly conclude just as they are getting interesting.   


This film gives us an occasion to look at the changeling more directly. In the folk traditions of the British Isles, Scandinavia, Germany, and Poland, a changeling (or “auf”) is an unnatural creature of some sort that fairies replace a human baby with. The fairies may do this out of a desire to raise a particular child as their own or because they wish to plant a spy in our world. The changeling initially looks identical to the substituted child. Soon after, though, it begins to manifest telltale characteristics of its inhumanity, which can include abnormal growths, preternatural abilities, and ravenous hunger. One particularly grim theory is that the changeling myth spread across Northern Europe because it facilitated survival among peasant families. If a new edition to a peasant household showed signs of being unproductive due to a physical or mental defect, it may have been easier to commit infanticide (thus eliminating a food cost that wouldn’t pay off) if the child was believed already lost through exchange with an evil imposter. Similarly, as explored in You Are Not My Mother, when a loved one is transformed by disease or insanity into something unrecognizable, the idea that that person has been replaced with a doppelgänger may arise as a coping mechanism. In such cases, the doppelgänger is not a monster invading our homes from without but a pernicious notion that spawns inside us and imposes itself on others so as to enable unpleasant thoughts and actions toward them.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Nineteenth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE NINETEENTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched a vampire B-movie from 1973 called Lemora (alternatively known as Lemora: Lady Dracula, The Legendary Curse of Lemora, and Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural), written and directed by Richard Blackburn.

A golden-pigtailed teenage girl named Lila lives under the care of a Baptist pastor who seems obsessed with what he sees as Lila’s angelic purity. Lila receives a letter summoning her to a mysterious town so as to aid her dying father (who is apparently also a notorious gangster). Lila escapes the pastor’s house in the night and gains passage to the town aboard a sputtering bus driven by a grizzled creep. The bus is attacked by a hoard of bestial forest-dwelling cannibals with rotting flesh. Luckily, Lila is rescued by the servants of the woman who sent the letter, Lemora. They take her to Lemora’s gloomy manor house. Here, Lila at last meets the titular queen of the night herself, in all her hypnotically sepulchral glory. Lila demands to know where her father is, but Lemora is much more interested in introducing Lila to the delights of immortal darkness.

Given that Lemora has only ever had limited distribution, that it’s Blackburn’s only feature, and that it’s filled with bizarre and fascinating choices in scripting, editing, and acting, this is truly a cult film among cult films. It could not have been made other than as a passion project outside the studio system and in an era before straight-to-video (now -streaming) releases. First, there’s the fact that it thrusts its thirteen-year-old protagonist into a world of sexually predatory and violent men, each more unhinged than the last. Next, there’s its off-kilter pacing, where the first fifteen minutes cram in a gangland shooting, a fire-and-brimstone sermon, a stowaway’s road trip, a brutal zombie attack, and an abortive prison break—but the following half hour concerns a woman and a child having a vaguely philosophical conversation while preparing for bed. Finally, there’s its weirdly triumphant ending, where the protagonist succumbs to the vampiress’ wiles, but we are told that this is truly what both she and we want. The major standout of the film, though, is Lesley Gilb’s Lemora. The excellent makeup, wardrobe, and lighting for Lemora come together with Gilb’s striking features, poise, and delivery to create such an iconic mistress of evil that it’s unfortunate there were no further Lemora movies. Overall, despite the awkwardness of the dubbed-in dialog and other production cost-cutting measures, I really enjoyed the alluring nightmare logic of this strange piece of horror cinema. 


Let’s use Lemora as an occasion to compare the doppelgänger to the vampire. Over the past few decades, there has been a lot of discourse lamenting the domestication of the vampire into a heartthrob antihero, such that it is no longer a monster capable of inspiring fear. One remedy proposed for this is to introduce a more violent and inhuman type of vampire, like a more powerful and intelligent version of the zombie. This is also the wrong way to go, though, I think, because to me the most frightening vampire scenes involve victims who believe they are speaking to ordinary humans. In Lemora, the compellingly creepy moments all come when Lila is firmly in Lemora’s clutches, but Lila is only beginning to suspect that Lemora is anything other than an abnormally nice lady. In such scenes, the vampire’s next meal, or the target of her next enthrallment, doesn’t know she is a powerful and hungry killer, like a tiger wearing a human face. And this is what the vampire shares with the doppelgänger: the convincing external skin of humanity. An advantage the doppelgänger has over the vampire—or perhaps we should say the non-vampiric doppelgänger, if we count vampires as, in a sense, another subspecies of doppelgänger—is that we know much less about it than the vampire. We don’t know what it wants, what its weaknesses are, or what produced it. We only know that it isn’t what it seems.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Eighteenth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE EIGHTEENTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched The Mephisto Waltz (1971), directed by Paul Wendkos and based on Fred Mustard Stewart’s novel of the same name (which in turn derives from a Liszt piano piece). For the third night in a row, our movie’s plot is driven by ritual human sacrifice in exchange for the Devil’s supernatural favors.

A young Alan Alda plays a frustrated concert pianist turned journalist who interviews one of the world’s premier piano virtuosos. At first, the wealthy old virtuoso treats the journalist with austere contempt—until he notices his hands. The virtuoso deems the journalist’s hands ideal for piano playing. As a result, he instantly changes his demeanor toward the journalist, instead lavishing him with praise and inviting him to dinner parties. The virtuoso’s nubile daughter also abruptly turns her affections toward the journalist, to his wife’s chagrin. After we learn that the virtuoso is dying of cancer, it becomes clear that the uncomfortably close father-and-daughter pair have been grooming the journalist to serve as a corporeal host replacement. You see, the virtuoso and his daughter are in fact immortal Satanists who have mastered a black magic spell (involving a weird blue juice and plaster death masks) that allows them to move into other people’s brains.   

Despite being full of the hallmarks of witchy 70’s horror, including candlelit nude incantations and ominously symbolic occult décor, The Mephisto Waltz’s narrative defies convention in several major respects. First, its initially skeptical protagonist does not defeat the forces of darkness but instead herself devotes herself to Lucifer, in order to fight hellfire with hellfire. Second, refreshingly, there is no representative of Christianity at all to oppose diabolical debauchery with puritanical righteousness, however flimsily. And finally, the heroine is not punished for her sexuality; rather, her desire turns out to be her redeeming strength. Also, perhaps owing to its origin in a novel, the dialog is surprisingly clever, and the spell’s mechanics are unusually well-developed. So, although there’s nothing very indelibly disturbing here compared to the best works of 70’s demonic horror, it does offer some neat twists on the genre.


This film’s doppelgänger comes in the form of a dying man’s mind invading and possessing a healthy body. Through this process, the old virtuoso permanently steals the journalist’s face. Step by step, the virtuoso resumes his former habits by asserting his personality in ways that destroy what is left of the journalist’s life. One of these steps involves rekindling his romance with his own daughter, in his newly virile form. This strongly reminded me of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic short story, “The Thing on Doorstep,” wherein an aging sorcerer transfers his mind into his daughter’s head, much to the dismay of her husband. The incestuous implications of that earlier work are made explicit in The Mephisto Waltz (though the film doesn’t really know what to do with them, other than spell them out). In another interesting deviation from standard tropes, the spouse here isn’t immediately alienated by the changes to her husband’s behavior. Instead, she’s intrigued and even aroused by his new identity. Perhaps another fear behind the body-snatching subspecies of doppelgänger, then, is that our loved ones would actually prefer an alien soul over our own.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

The Seventeenth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE SEVENTEENTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched a second feature about demonic forces and Satanic rituals: City of the Dead (1960), directed by John Llewellyn Moxey. 

At the center of a Massachusetts village in 1692, a witch named Elizabeth Selwyn is burned at the stake (note that no actual accused witches were burned during the witch hysteria in the colonies—they were all hung). Cut to the present. A sinister professor of folklore who specializes in witchcraft (played by the one and only Christopher Lee) persuades an eager young grad student to travel to this same village for her dissertation research. She ignores the pleas of a local gas station attendant to steer clear of this village, which he says is cursed. After she arrives in the fog-shrouded community, she is booked into the inn by a woman who looks exactly like Elizabeth Selwyn. Soon, the student hears ritual chanting beneath her room’s floorboards. She finds a moldering tome called A Treatise on Devil Worship, which details the yearly sacrifices of young women such as herself made on Candlemas Eve and the Witches’ Sabbath. And she uncovers a network of catacombs beneath the village, which she unwisely ventures into alone.   

Perhaps owing to the fact that City of the Dead was an entirely British production with an American setting and characters, it’s fairly hammy and sometimes cartoonish, with a lot of shaky accents. This makes it rough in the early scenes but actually works in its favor once we get to the village in the modern day. The fog machines and extremely crooked wooden props are put to great use in creating an archetypically spooky, cemetery-dominated little community of secret witches. Every development is telegraphed, and every characterization is obvious. But this is surely what has made it such a stock work of Satanic cinema, with its dialog having been sampled by Iron Maiden, The Misfits, and Rob Zombie. Meanwhile, of course, as he always does, Christopher Lee steals the show.


City of the Dead’s doppelgänger is the head witch, in that her death in 1692 and her reappearance in the twentieth century makes her an identical reincarnation of herself. Her pact with Satan, wherein she offers annual blood sacrifices in exchange for immortality, has succeeded. The standard method by which the identical-ancestor trope is delivered is to have a character see a very old painting or photograph of the precursor and be shocked by the close resemblance to the modern iteration. Here, the viewer sees that the witch who is roasted in the seventeenth century and the current-day innkeeper are played by the same woman. But there is no reveal for the characters that the witch is her own doppelgänger across the centuries, which is a bit of a letdown. 

Another sense in which this film contains doppelgängers is that the members of its underground witch cult masquerade as ordinary citizens. The theory that such a cult has survived in secret for millennia, despite centuries of Christian persecution, was adopted by early British folk horror films like this from the anthropologist Margaret Murray’s notorious book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Though this book’s claims were largely discredited, the idea that adherents to an ancient pagan religion of ritual magic hide among us, wearing the faces of the most respectably conventional members of our society, has left a powerful impression on our collective imagination.

Monday, October 17, 2022

The Sixteenth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE SIXTEENTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), written and directed by Osgood Perkins.

Two girls are left behind at a Catholic boarding school after it closes for the winter, one by choice and one because her parents are mysteriously missing. In the night, a demon speaks to one of the girls on a pay phone and seems to take possession of her through her ear. This causes her to kill and decapitate the other girl and two nuns, so as to make use of their heads in a Satanic ritual in the basement.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a paradigmatic instance of a slow burn. Most of the drama in the first half occurs entirely in the subtext of superficially uneventful scenes of the girls going about their days. The music does a lot of work in building tension, even more than in most horror movies, since it doesn’t reflect anything we see on screen or otherwise understand to be happening. It’s as if the score knows what we don’t about the characters and their fates. This clues us into the fact that we are seeing things that will be important later in piecing together the film’s nonlinear narrative. The solution to the puzzle of how the three main timelines relate to each other succeeds in impactfully communicating the main character’s desperate isolation and fractured state of mind. The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a really artful work of horror cinema, if you have the patience for its creeping subtleties. 

Having saved the spoilers for our TWISTED TWINS & DUPLICITOUS DOPPELGÄNGERS theme section (which probably would have been a good idea in some earlier entries), we can now reveal that the doppelgänger of this movie is actually more of a reverse doppelgänger. Throughout, the stories of the two girls at the school are interrupted by cutting to a woman who has escaped from a mental institution and is making her way to the same school. This woman is offered a ride at a bus stop by the parents of the girl whom we will see decapitated, several years after this gruesome event. The father decides to offer her a ride because she somehow reminds him of his murdered daughter. This is grimly ironic, since we soon learn that, unbeknownst to the parents, this woman is actually the girl who was possessed and killed their daughter. The woman goes on to murder and decapitate the parents as well in a bid to appease the demon and invite it back into her mind. She does this because the demon has become her only friend, of sorts, given her extreme loneliness following the death of her own parents and her incarceration for the murders. So, since this woman is traveling under an alias when we meet her and looks different from her fifteen year old self, to us she appears to be two different people while in fact being one and the same person—a reverse doppelgänger. Meanwhile, when she is possessed by the demon, years earlier, she becomes a different person who wears the same face, so in this sense a true doppelgänger. The novel twist here is that when an exorcist expels the demon from her, she tearfully says, “Don’t go,” as she actually prefers to be inhabited by another entity, to be not herself. This speaks to the secret desire we might sometimes have for a doppelgänger to come and replace us in our lives so that we can escape to some other, easier reality. For The Blackcoat’s Daughter’s main character, this desire is undoubtedly what initially attracted the demon.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

The Fifteenth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE FIFTEENTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched Perfect Blue (1997) by Satoshi Kon. This is a psychological horror anime feature that unfolds like a labyrinth of distorted mirrors. 

Mima makes a career change from singing in a top 40 band to acting full time on a police procedural show called Double Bind. The show is about the pursuit of a serial killer who is obsessed with a pop star and murders people close to her as a result. Meanwhile, in Mima’s actual life, an obsessed fan of her singing stalks her and winds up killing her colleagues, who in the stalker’s mind have ruined her image. It soon becomes difficult for both Mima and the viewer to distinguish between scenes on the show and events in real life. To make matters worse, a double of Mima dressed in her former stage get-up starts appearing to her in visions and dreams. It seems that this doppelgänger is in league with the stalker in that she believes Mima’s reputation has been tarnished by her sexualized role on Double Bind. She wants to get rid of the new Mima and replace her in her former role as an undefiled idol. 

At one point, we are led to believe that Mima is being interrogated by an actual police psychologist, not a character on the show, such that her life as a singer and then an actress has all been invented to deal with the trauma of being raped in a night club—an event we had understood to be part of the show. In this version of events, Mima herself is the serial killer, and she’s been stabbing people who contradict her delusion. Then, the camera pulls back to reveal that this is taking place on a TV set—which could in turn only be another layer of Mima’s coping mechanism. 

Perfect Blue is an effectively dizzying mind-screw. Except for a few whirling dream-sequence transitions, however, it doesn’t really take advantage of Kon’s massive talent as an animator, as displayed in his later masterpiece Paprika. There’s no reason this couldn’t have been a live action movie, and it might have worked better as such.

“I’m scared that my other self will do something I don’t know about,” Mima declares, both as herself and as her TV character, which gets us to our TWISTED TWINS & DUPLICITOUS DOPPELGÄNGERS theme. Perfect Blue strongly reminded me of David Lynch’s use of doppelgängers in Inland Empire (2006). Lynch is well-known for his insertion of doppelgängers as reality-disrupting ploys in such works as Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Twin Peaks. But Inland Empire’s central drama revolves around a character becoming her own doppelgänger, as a famous actress crosses over into the reality of the part she is playing. In Perfect Blue, similarly, we watch Mima transform from the naïve and bubbly pop singer of the opening to a distressed and paranoid actress in an erotic crime thriller—only for her earlier self to return as a spectral double—all of which is itself doubled by the possibility that this is merely the fantasy of psychotic killer. So, again, the appearance of a doppelgänger causes us to contemplate the malleability of our inner selves and the ghosts of our old lives, who may wish vengeance against us for what we have become.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

The Fourteenth Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE FOURTEENTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … I watched Dead Ringer (1964), directed by Paul Henreid. 

Bette Davis plays a dual role as identical twin sisters Edith and Margaret. Margaret is lavishly wealthy as a result of marrying a man whom Edith was in love with, twenty years prior. Meanwhile, Edith is three months behind on rent for the dive bar she runs. When Margaret’s husband dies, the two meet again at his funeral. Edith grows jealous of Margaret’s extravagant life and becomes furious when she learns Margaret forced the man to marry her under false pretenses. Thus, Edith murders her sister, swaps clothes with her, and poses her body to make it look like it was Edith who committed suicide in her apartment. Edith then assumes Margaret’s identity and takes up residence in her mansion. Unfortunately, she fails to think through the details well enough to go undetected by Margaret’s staff. However, the sad thing is that it doesn’t matter, both because the staff hated Margaret and prefer Edith and because no one misses Edith enough to look into the incongruities of her supposed suicide. Things only go off the rails when a lothario whom Margaret was having an affair with appears and reveals that he and Margaret poisoned her husband. Ironically, Edith winds up sentenced to death for a murder committed by her sister. 

Dead Ringer is a tightly plotted picture full of gothic motifs and sly duplicity. Bette Davis adeptly distinguishes Edith from Margaret by maintaining a harshness to her face and a heaviness to her movements, evidencing the weight of her poverty, that Margaret lacks. The best scene is when Edith prepares to take her sister’s place after killing her. It’s chilling as we watch her undress her own sister’s corpse, one article of clothing at a time.

For our TWISTED TWINS & DUPLICITOUS DOPPELGÄNGERS theme, I want to briefly discuss this film’s twin, David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988). Cronenberg clearly intended to echo Dead Ringer with both his film’s title and many of its plot details. Jeremy Irons stars as both of its twins, confident Eliot and nervous Beverly. The two pose as one another not for financial gain but to experience one another’s sexual partners. Then, due to a drug-induced psychosis, the twins permanently switch personalities. A gory fiasco ensues. So, the plots of both films are driven by one twin’s jealousy over what the other has and the mechanics by which they switch places and come to learn the “be careful what you wish for” lesson. There is a kind of dynamic of identity that both films subscribe to, where for two people with the same biology, pivotal decisions lead to divergent lives, which in turn produce divergent personalities-- but one can become internally similar to the other again by living as her. That is, according to twins horror mythos, since twins are identical in nature, only nurture can produce a difference in them. But nurture is subject to change, depending on life circumstances that are chosen or imposed, so no difference between twins is final. The idea that twins horror communicates, then, is that we are all ourselves capable of whatever evil might be perpetrated by our doppelgängers.

Friday, October 14, 2022

The THIRTEENTH Night of Halloween 2022

ON THE THIRTEENTH NIGHT OF HALLOWEEN … a special treat … I rewatched a sci fi horror film about alien doppelgängers that I love: Invaders from Mars. Actually, in a double feature, I rewatched both the 1953 original version by William Cameron Menzies and the 1986 remake by masters of horror Tobe Hooper and Dan O'Bannon.

In both, the main character is a young boy who witnesses an alien ship land over the hill outside his window. The remake reproduces the original’s spooky hill design exactly: a winding path bordered by a wooden fence leads to a high rounded crest that obscures everything beyond it. The boy’s parents leave to investigate this, and they return changed. They look the same, but their minds are Martian. The imposters begin leading others over the hill. The boy struggles to convince unconverted adults that he is not just telling a made-up story from a sci fi movie. His town is quickly overrun with fakes. Luckily, before it’s too late, he finds a nurse who believes him and helps him alert the military.

Well, kind of.

At the climactic moment when the final attack is about to destroy the Martian ship, the boy wakes up in his bed. He runs to his parents’ bedroom to find that they are back to normal. It was all nightmare, his father reassures him. However, back in bed, the boy hears the same strange thunder storm from the opening begin again. The boy goes to the window and watches the alien craft land behind the hill, just as before. What the boy had experienced was not a nightmare after all but a premonition. We are left to wonder if perhaps this time it won’t be so easy for the boy to find such competent, trusting adults.

A movie about aliens replacing people and a paranoid protagonist attempting to warn those who are still human may sound like a knock-off of the much better known Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In fact, Invaders from Mars preceded Body Snatchers by three years. (Albeit, Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters was published before both.) Although Body Snatchers, particularly in its 1978 iteration, is probably the superior work on the theme, I find Invaders from Mars’ eerie final twist, along with its depiction of the acute helplessness of a child whose parents have been replaced, to be more haunting.

Let’s compare the twin renditions. The original is starker. Its replica people act more brutally robotic; it has a more steely blue color palette; and it opens with narration not found in the remake about how “the heavens have kept a secret.” The remake, meanwhile, is more psychological. It shows more of the boy’s warm relationship with his parents in order to put them in sharper relief with the versions who return from over the hill. The Martian doubles are less robotic, instead displaying sinister quirks. The remake also adds a creepy scene where a teacher played by Louise Fletcher is discovered eating a frog intended for class dissection.

By the same point in the original, the boy has already found two adults in authority who believe him and remain his guardians until the end. Together the trio quickly glean what’s happening and manage to alert the Pentagon. This results in a massive military mobilization against the invaders, seemingly within the hour. Most of the second act involves the military troubleshooting how best to blow up the Martians. In contrast, the remake affords the one adult who listens to the boy, a nurse played by scream queen Karen Black, much less power. The pair spend the second act hunted by doppelgänger police. This leads to a tense scene in which the boy explores the tunnels dug by the Martians on his own. In the original, a team of soldiers are the first ones to enter the tunnels. So, overall, the remake is much less trusting in the protection of established American institutions. There’s even a delightfully cynical moment where a cop preparing to murder a child in cold blood says with a smile, “It’s okay, we’re the police. We’re here to help.”

In both, though, getting the military to act and save the day seems a little too easy, almost like a boy’s fantasy of what would happen. The boy’s hope for an easy solution could be taking over the narrative from the genuine premonitory content of his dream. The remake retains the same ending, with the boy seeing the same Martian landing event from his dream, confirming that it was a premonition and not merely a nightmare. But it adds a final shot where the boy opens the door to his parents’ bedroom and sees something that makes him scream in horror—cut to black.

The only other major difference is that the creature effects are much more primitive in the original. The remake has awesome shark-mawed drones on spindly legs (made by Stan Winston). There is an uncanniness to the simplicity of the original’s designs that’s a bit lost in all the veiny details of the remake’s monsters, though.

I also appreciate that the remake retains the Martian origin of the invaders. With increased interplanetary exploration and a constant robotic presence on the surface of Mars, audiences have become more skeptical that an alien species visiting Earth would originate from our own solar system. But it’s actually far more likely that any biological species with technology at all comparable to our own, not to mention one having the motivation of planetary conquest, would come from our system. The reason is that interstellar travel within the lifespan of an organic species is impossible without the god-like ability to bend time and space. Relative to this, creating our own Earth-like planets out of cosmic dust would be a trivial task—thereby taking away the motivation to conquer other species, as well as the need to resort to infiltration to accomplish said conquest. Consider, if we were to prove the existence of a civilization in a nearby star system, we would lack the means to inflict harm on them, even if for some insane reason we wanted to, within any of our lifetimes—and likely this will remain true far into the future. However, if we were to prove the existence of a subterranean civilization on one of the moons of Jupiter (something not outside the realm of possibility), we could launch a mission to infiltrate this civilization within the decade.

Anyway … how both the original Invaders from Mars and the remake relate to our theme, TWISTED TWINS & DUPLICITOUS DOPPELGÄNGERS, is fairly straightforward. These are the classic doppelgängers of myth reimagined as alien imposters, best known as “pod people” thanks to the aforementioned Body Snatchers. A real psychiatric disorder called Capgras delusion causes people to believe that a pod people scenario has in fact occurred, such that their family members or close friends have been replaced by identical duplicates. While no change is detected on the surface, according to those suffering from the delusion, something is “off” about the person. It’s believed that this delusion is caused by a failure in the brain to connect visual recognition of a face with emotional identification of the person behind the face. Moreover, this delusion can take on a political dimension in that paranoia about ideological infiltration, which was particularly rampant during the Cold War, can lead people to believe that apparently ordinary members of a community are secretly evil terrorists. On occasion, though, as we have seen with recent white supremacist massacres, this belief turns out to be true. Meanwhile, radical internal changes can sometimes actually result in a new identity overtaking someone. In these cases, the person’s closest loved one may be the only one who notices telltale signs. So, the horror of the alien imposter narrative lies how in difficult it is to tell the difference between delusion and real metamorphosis.