The Myths Behind Jordan Peele's 'Us'

The filmmaker is the latest to play with doppelgangers, which date back thousands of years.

[A condensed version of this story was published in The Hollywood Reporter on Feb. 4, 2019. This is the longer, deep dive, waaaaay nerdier version.]

By Aaron Sagers

Despite what the Netflix movie The Princess Diaries may have you believe, meeting your exact double is not all wacky hijinks, or romance. The Vanessa Hudgens-starring Christmas film — where a young lovelorn baker swaps places with a Duchess who craves the quiet life — is closer to the lighthearted approach pop culture takes with regards to meeting your doppelganger.

But Jordan Peele's upcoming horror Us suggests there are darker consequences to meeting your exact double.

The film revolves around a family setting off on a beach vacation to a woman’s childhood home. Played by Lupita Nyong’o, Adelaide Wilson begins to relive trauma from her past, and notices eerie coincidences. She becomes certain something bad is going to happen to her family. According to the official synopsis, she’s right:

“When darkness falls, the Wilsons discover the silhouette of four figures holding hands as they stand in the driveway. Us pits an endearing American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.”

According to Peele, the concept behind the monsters of Us, called The Tethered, comes from the idea that “we’re our own worst enemy.” He said he wanted to explore duality, and the connections between characters, and their counterparts. The title itself is as likely to refer to the relationship between twin spirits as the relationship between family members.

Us differs greatly from the entire internet subculture of people who look like, or believe they look like, Kendall Jenner. Last year Scarlett Johansson met a 72-year-old double of her, took the woman to a movie premiere, and joked they got trashed together. The end of 2018 was seemingly spent with everyone sharing photos from PopSugar’s Twinning site, which pairs selfies with a person’s celebrity lookalike (like the TwinStrangers site that also uses facial recognition software to compare images in its database to find a user’s lookalike).

But Us is closer to folkloric, mythological, and paranormal pop culture evolution of doppelgangers.

Over time, doppelgangers have alternately been viewed as either malicious, or at best mischievous, entities which instill ugly thoughts, and offer misleading advice. They may be portents of doom, or bad luck. Doubles could be shapeshifting demons, ghostly twins, or the result of astral projection, and bi-location. And they might not cast a shadow, or have a reflection. And their faces aren’t quite right.

Notable paranormal community personality Grant Wilson of Syfy’s Ghost Hunters, and host of the YouTube show “What The Fetch?!,” said he doesn't know how to classify doppelgangers. But said if a doppelganger looks the "real" person in the eye, it disappears. He posits they may be "some obscure type of inhuman entities, or subconscious creation of the mind, or even possibly a hiccup in time... or all of the above." Meanwhile, science points to the cause of doubles as a result of limited genetic diversity, or heautoscopic hallucinations caused by brain tumors.

Yet the concept of doppelgangers goes back several millennia before the word was even coined, and long before evil Spock rocked a goatee.

In religion, doubles were sometimes considered benevolent/evil twin spirits, such as with Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu in the Zurvanism branch of Zoroastrianism, dating back to 5th century BCE. The Native American Hopi tribe believed in a duality between the Upper World and Underworld, where the worlds coexist, but as opposites of one another. 

In the Stephen King “The Dark Tower” series, the word “ka” describes fate, but the Ancient Egyptians viewed it as one-half of the soul (along with “ba”) a double that maintained physical needs which continued after death. But in “The Greek Princess” mythology, the Egyptian take on the The Trojan War, the ka takes on a slightly more deceptive role and represents the “ghostly likeness” and double of Helen, dispatched to mislead Prince Paris of Troy. In the Ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (2100 BCE), the wild man Enkidu is an equal, but opposite, of the cultured king.

And in the Jewish Torah, and Christian Bible, angels could take the form of humans, such as Moses, or Solomon. In the Book of Matthew, the disciple Peter escapes prison, and is mistaken by a servant girl to be his own angel.

Within folklore, the Norse vardøger and Finnish etiäinen are similar as they represent a ghostly counterpart, or first comer, that precedes a living person, and is seen performing tasks in advance. It has been described as something of a Deja vu in reverse (or premonition), but these spirit predecessors can also carry a warning of bad times ahead. Still, these aren’t as outwardly sinister as the fairies, or trow, of Irish and Scottish folklore that would replace a healthy human baby with a changeling, which would resemble the infant but may grow ill, or deformed. Even handsome young men or women were at risk of being swapped with a changeling. In German lore, a wraith may be an apparition that casts no shadow; it might be evil, an omen, or a shapeshifter.

As for the word “Doppelgänger,” it was invented by the author Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, or Jean Paul. In his three-volume German Romantic novelSiebenkäs (1796-1797), Jean Paul writes about a man who meets with his alter ego, fakes his own death to escape an unhappy marriage, and then goes on to fall in love with a new woman (and has a “wedding after death”). However, the word was used to describe a “double course” of a meal served together. But Jean Paul, also coined the term “Doppeltgänger” (with a “t”), which he said meant “the name for people who see themselves,” and when one “goes twice.”

Jean Paul’s Doppeltgänger is more closely associated with the twinning of 2019, rather than anything supernatural. But the connotation of Doppelgänger resembles a “fetch” from Francis Grose’s 1787 publication A Provincial Glossary, with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions. The book, which described everyday English language not covered in dictionaries, said a fetch is “the apparition of a person living.” More specifically, it defines a “swarth” as the fetch of a dying man, who would appear sweaty, black, dark, pale, wan. (Grose also wrote of changelings, and ways to spot them, e.g. If a child was considered an idiot, they were supposed to be one.)

Apparently “fetch” didn’t stick around in the lexicon because English novelist Catherine Crowe adopted Jean Paul’s Doppelgänger for her 1848 paranormal tome The Night-Side of Nature; Or, Ghosts, and Ghost-Seers
. Crowe was inspired by German writers, and likely knew Jean Paul’s work – even if she may have accidentally opted for his lookalike word for “lookalike.”

The most influential work to take doppelgangers mainstream, The Night-Side was a huge success within paranormal pop culture, and continues to influence theories to this day. It merged enjoyable “true” stories with spooky elements, and folklore with believable anecdotes, gossip, and real places.

Crowe’s multiple accounts of doubles included elements of sleepwalking, bi-location, and astral projection, but she primarily stuck with Grose’s definition. Seeing a person’s doppelganger, or “self-seeing” your own, meant that death, illness or bad luck were to ensue.

But not always.

Sometimes a double would be seen while the authentic version might be asleep in bed. Additionally, Crowe shares the story of the playwright Johann Wolfgang Goethe – “whose family, by-the-way, were ghost-seers,” she writes – traveling on horseback along a footpath when he encountered his doppelganger riding in the opposite direction. Eight years later, Crowe says, Goethe found himself on that path again, wearing the same clothes his lookalike had.

As influential as Crowe’s work was, dodgy doubles and doppelgangers appeared in other notable, contemporaneous works in the 19th century. The trend coincided with the popularity of Spiritualism, which promoted spirit communication as part of its religious philosophy.

In his 1860 book Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World, Scottish Spiritualist Robert Dale Owen dedicated a chapter to “Apparitions of the Living.” In it, Owen relates the tale of Emilie Sagee, a school teacher who was haunted by her own doppelganger over the course of at least 16 years – which was seen by others, and led to her frequent dismissal from schools.

Along with Abraham Lincoln’s own double sighting of doubles on the night he first won the presidency, Sagee’s may be the most famous doppelganger story; Lord Byron was also said to have a doppelganger, spotted around London, and jokingly described as “mad, bad, and dangerous” by Lady Caroline Lamb.

According to Frederick Burwick, in his book Playing to the Crowd: London Popular Theatre, 1780-1830, “Romantic literature is bedeviled by the look-alike, impersonator.” In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820), the double exists separate from its mortal self.

But most doppelgangers are portrayed either as demonic, or evil twins, and malicious identity thieves. Such is the case in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixers (1815); James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824); Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839); Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Shadow” (1847); Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Poor Clare” (1856); Willkie Collins’ The Woman in White
Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Double (1846).

While not strictly a doppelganger story, even 
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson explores a duality of good and evil, and a self fractured into doubles. A trope of Gothic literature, doppelgangers could be used to parallel the exploration of self, and the psychopathological nature of man popular at the time, according to Javier Macías, and Rafael Núñez in "The Other Self: Psychopathology and Literature," Journal of Medical Humanities.

One of the 19th century’s most striking works featuring doppelgangers is “How They Met Themselves,” a 1851-64 series of pen-and-ink, and watercolor paintings, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The haunting Gothic work shows a couple in medieval garb encountering their doubles in an ominous forest at night. The woman appears to swoon and the man (who resembles Orlando Bloom) draws his sword in defense against the darker shades of themselves. Rossetti had multiple versions of his “Bogie Drawing,” beginning when the artist was 23, and his work is noteworthy for being one of the few to depict doppelgangers.

The painting is also a portrait of the artist and his love, and wife, the poet and model Elizabeth Siddal. The sad irony is just as the woman in the work is swooning, and perhaps falling to her death, Siddal died of a laudanum overdose (following a struggle with depression) two years after the 1860 version was painted on their honeymoon.

Though doppelgangers seemed to have their biggest moment in the 19th century, the 20th century was not without iconic entries that kept us seeing double through today.

The 1937 “theological thriller” Descent into Hell by Charles Williams features a heroine seeking to avoid her pursuing doppelganger, while, separately, another character fetishizes a woman so much he falls in love with a succubus double of her.

Without the assistance of supernatural forces Alfred Hitchcock used the concept of a lookalike to great effect in Vertigo, the 1958 psychological thriller where Kim Novak plays a woman who is her own doppelganger, and drives Jimmy Stewart’s character to the brink of. The narrative device was likewise used in the 1951 noir The Man with My Face.

Another psychological doppelganger movie, with a less well-known twist than Vertigo, is The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970). Based on the 1940 story The Strange Case of Mr. Pelham, the underrated film stars Roger Moore – in the role he was most proud of -- as a man who dies on an operating table, only to awake and discover he has a double running (and ruining?) his life. The story was also adapted into a 1955 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In a respectable 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, “Mirror Image" -- which Peele said inspired Us in part -- a woman’s sanity unravels as she determines an evil doppelganger from a parallel universe is seeking to replace her – and it’s all happening from within the confines of a bus depot. Whereas the film Black Swan depict a ballet dancer going mad due to a doppelganger, the threat is an internal reflection of her own psychosexual drama. In the Zone, the threat is external. Written by Rod Serling, the episode idea came to him at an airport; he saw a man from behind wearing the same clothes as him, carrying the same briefcase. He apparently wondered what might happen if the man turned around, and was his own double.

The Twilight Zone conceit of parallel universes carries more of a science fiction element to it – and indeed could almost serve as a prequel of sorts to the entire series Fringe. In fact, sci-fi has often been a rich territory for doppelganger stories, while eschewing the paranormal. The monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is the disfigured opposite to his creator, and the genre often returns to the monstrous double (Superman’s Bizarro, introduced in 1958).

Villainous doubles have taken the spotlight in some of the best episodes of Star Trek (1967’s “Mirror, Mirror”), and The Prisoner (1967’s “The Schizoid Man”). Science fiction is also littered with robot imposters (Faker He-Man, Lore, Robot Bill and Ted) and supervillain opposites (Mechagodzilla, Cyborg Superman, Reverse Flash, Venom, NegaDuck). The use of clones, or duplicates, is used to great effect in Battlestar Galactica (2004), Orphan Black, Moon, The Prestige, The Island, Never Let Me Go, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

While doppelgangers crossed genre, there emerged a comedy subgenre about political leaders replaced with lookalike civilians. The most famous was the 1940 Charlie Chaplin movie The Great Dictator, but includes DaveMoon Over Parador, and Netflix’s recent offering, The Princess Switch. Soap operas can’t seem to get enough of separated-at-birth twins, and the 1960s were packed with evil doubles on sitcoms (I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, The Monkees, The Flintstones, My Favorite Martian), and Westerns (The Maverick, The Rifleman, and Bonanza).

Doubles were used in emotionally complex ruminations of life, beauty, and identity (La double vie de Véronique, and, arguably, in Clive Barker’s “Human Remains” from Books of Blood – which is currently being adapted for television). But pop culture predominantly prefers the disturbing doubles over the romantic, or comedic.

These are among the supernatural monsters in the mirror-image film The Broken, and the frightening death portent/ghost tale Lake Mungo. The pale-eyed, maniacally-laughing Shadow Selves and “Dwellers of the Threshold” from Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge certainly warrant inclusion (as do the doubles in the esoteric cinematic trips Possession and Enemy)

Now, Jordan Peele’s Us looks to confront audiences with a new take on the doppelganger. What, if any, folklore, supernatural theory, or paranormal entertainment he draws from is yet to be seen.

Whatever the origins of Jordan Peele’s Tethered, Us will be another chapter in a long tradition of seeing double, while giving us a good reason to fear them.