There Can Be Only One (of Me): The Horror of Encountering Your Double

If you meet your double, you should kill him.

Alfred Hitchcock utters this aphorism in Johan Grimonprez’s 2009 film Double Take. It rings with familiar folkloric wisdom, hitting a number of primal chords: Shock at seeing yourself in the flesh, outside the confines of a mirror. Revulsion at this unnatural creature. Knowledge, bone-deep, that both of you cannot share the same space.

But why can’t doppelgängers (literally, “double-goers”) coexist alongside their originals? Is it a matter of overpopulation, of space-time-continuum paradoxes, or just the sheer awkwardness of two bodies inhabiting one life? We don’t know, because almost none of the stories get that far. The outcome has been preordained. That’s why we thrill to the familiar image of identical figures locked in symmetrical combat, sympathize with a clone conditioned to kill her sestras, nod knowingly when two doubles enter a room knowing that only one will exit. It’s a narrative ingrained so deeply that we don’t blink at what it requires of its heroes—not just murder, but murder of the self.

Not that the hero automatically starts the story suffused with bloodlust. Doubles don’t always start out hating one another. Initially there’s curiosity, amusement, some ego-stroking—after all, this is you, so special that you were copied over again so that you had the chance to observe yourself the way that everyone else sees you. Then reality sets in: This wasn’t supposed to happen. There’s a clear power dynamic: The original has a history, has roots, relationships, a future. The double is a passing amusement, a copy, a mistake, a freak. This life wasn’t made for two.

Orphan Black clone swap Sarah Rachel Alison

In its five seasons and a dozen clones, Orphan Black played this getting-to-know-you game over and over—sometimes hilariously, but always with an undercurrent of the disturbing. Each and every time that two Project Leda clones met face-to-face, Tatiana Maslany managed to play this horrifying encounter with a different degree of nuance. Some moments were played for laughs, like Alison tripping on mushrooms the first time she saw Cosima, or Krystal’s incredulous disbelief that she could ever resemble Sarah. But each time, viewers witnessed a woman shaken to her core with the realization that she is not unique, that someone with her face is living an entirely different life over which she has no control.

Then came the self-loathing. Put any two clones in conversation, and it was there: Alison’s judgment over Sarah’s poor mothering of her biological daughter; Cosima’s disgust at Rachel applying her brilliance to ensure that the clones remained more products than humans.

I would never have done that.

I never got to do that.

But who was to say that Alison was any better of a mother to her adopted children than Sarah to Kira? And while Cosima chose the “good side” without hesitation, perhaps the scientist would have regarded the Leda experiment differently had she grown up, as Rachel did, aware of her identity as a clone.

I could never be like her.

She’s too much like me.

Even once the Clone Club began to firm up their ranks and face their common enemy together, their interactions were plagued by these realizations of their uncanny differences and dangerous similarities.

This warring identity crises were best put to use in Helena’s upbringing, as her protectors manipulated her self-loathing and projected it outward at the other clones. They are all sinful aberrations, Helena grew up believing, copies of you, the blessed original. You must destroy all of the copies, until you’re the only one left. But for all that Helena parroted the dogma that the other clones are copies, the fact remained that each time she killed a woman with her face, she was exorcising her own demons, her own belief that she lacked the purity to be held above her countless doubles.

Orphan Black by no means introduced the trope of murdering one’s double as a metaphor for self-loathing, but it did provide consistently multifaceted takes on that stomach-churning mix of familiarity and revulsion. Interestingly, the one conflict that never really threatened the sestras’ relationships was the primal fear of being replaced. If anything, Orphan Black lampshaded that trope by having the sestras participate in increasingly twistier Clone Swaps, donning disguises to fool their enemies into thinking they were one another—whether to cover for an absent clone, or to utilize each other’s access to further a larger plan, and in doing so get a glimpse at an alternate life.

Other sets of doubles are not so lucky and don’t get the opportunity to play out such what-ifs. They can only yearn for them to the point of obsession.

This life is not made for two, the doppelgänger thinks, but who’s to say I don’t deserve it instead?

 

The actual fight to the death is usually conducted in a fairly faultless fashion: Doubles grapple on a cliff, and one falls over the edge. Identical faces turn toward the loved one holding the gun, beseeching and ordering in turn that you know it’s me, shoot the fake!, and the gun goes off. Twins roll over and over, or turn round and round, until the observer can’t figure out which one has gained the upper hand, to deal the killing blow.

Hopefully it’s the right one.

The killing is not the scary part. What’s truly chilling is whether your loved ones even notice the change. Whether they would recognize if the wrong double takes over your life.

Luckily for Molly, the eponymous heroine of Tade Thompson’s novella The Murders of Molly Southbourne, her parents could never confuse one of the mollys for her. These silent, single-minded creatures might resemble their fierce, brilliant daughter in appearance, but certainly not in personality. And once the bloodlust takes hold—a switch flipped in mere minutes, or after a few hours—they are driven by the sole need to destroy Molly. Each time Molly bleeds, from a scrape to a bloody nose to her period, it creates another molly—but they’re the ones out for her blood.

And here is where Thompson subverts the trope of self-loathing doubles. The mollys’ need to kill Molly is not a manifestation of her own self-hate; despite growing up in relative isolation with secretive parents who drill deadly skills into her, Molly seems pretty happy with her life. She’s not Helena, resenting her quasi-sisters’ existence while simultaneously feeling she has to atone for her own.

It’s not even clear if the mollys are driven by envy, like other doppelgängers; they lack actual personalities from which to draw any sort of conclusion about their emotional state. Instead, they seem to thrive on pure killing frenzy. To call it rage would imply too much of a personal stake; it’s simultaneously blinding to any other purpose in their lives, while focusing on Molly and nothing else. There’s no I want your life or why should you get the job/guy/love/respect/attention or it’s my turn. Just the all-consuming need in every molly’s DNA to tear down Molly Southbourne. And so Molly has to learn how to tear down the mollys first.

If you see a girl who looks like you, run and fight.
Don’t bleed.
If you bleed, blot, burn, and bleach.
If you find a hole, find your parents.

“If you meet your double,” novelist Tom McCarthy’s version of Alfred Hitchcock says in Double Take, establishing a conditional scenario: Should this incredible situation arise, here is the suggested way to handle it. Fate could have conspired that Hitchcock and his doppelgänger never have crossed paths, but that would not have made for a very interesting movie. Despite Molly’s parents using the same conditional sentence construction to lay out the mantra of her life, the truth is that Molly’s story very quickly shifts from “if” to “when”: Because she creates a new molly from the barest breaking of skin, there is absolutely no way that she won’t encounter her double.

Double Take Alfred Hitchcock doppelganger if you see your double you must kill him

Fictional Hitchcock’s aphorism grants permission for whatever sin a person may commit in the moment, a crime of passion that arises from shock, repulsion, desperation. The stakes of Molly’s story, by contrast, are based in her knowing exactly what she must do every single time she bleeds. She must never be taken by surprise, which means her every murder of the mollys must be premeditated. In other evil double stories, these conveniently distanced deaths can often resemble the resolution of a bad dream, a convenient solution that no one had to get their hands dirty for. Except for the early years, when her parents are still training her, Molly’s must be the hands around a molly’s throat, the pressure behind a knife blade, the fingers pulling the trigger.

It’s interesting that the aphorism does not say must or will; instead, should is a gentle but firm reminder, a best-practices for this impossible meeting of doppelgängers. It’s easy for both Hitchcocks, sitting down over tea, to regard one another and decide that one of them should not stand up from that table. But Molly does not have that luxury, of a single encounter; rather than make one awful choice to forever eliminate her double, she must arrive at that outcome over and over, for as many times as drops of blood. The Murders of Molly Southbourne takes this very familiar psychological horror of being replaced and grafts a grisly layer on top of it, constantly reminding the reader of the gory sacrifice that goes into disposing of one’s double.

It’s ironic: for all that Alfred Hitchcock and Molly Southbourne can justify their murders so that they, as the originals, preserve their individuality, making that decision erodes their sense of self regardless. They cannot allow the double to walk free without diluting their uniqueness, yet the decision to kill their other selves transforms them into someone they have trouble identifying with. Whether the story is literary or speculative fiction, it has a horrific ending.

Helena Sarah clones Orphan Black

Unless the hero can solve the paradox. Like Helena, who abandons notions of originals versus copies and simply regards all of the clones as sestras—sisters, orphaned but together. Like the rest of the Clone Club, who stop obsessing over their own shortcomings in comparison to one another and instead see where their strengths can complement one another. And, maybe, like Molly Southbourne, if she can stop worrying about reconciling who Molly has become and instead ponder who the mollys could be.

Natalie Zutter is so tickled that this random Hitchcock movie she saw almost a decade ago fit so well into this piece. Talk doppelgängers with her on Twitter!

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