Theory in a Digital Age: A Project of English 483 Students, Coastal Carolina University

Freud's Uncanny Double: A Theoretical Study of the Portrayal of Doubles in Film


The “double” is a theme that has quite often been addressed over centuries of time; one of the most iconic being in Sigmund Freud’s essay titled The Uncanny. Freud opens his essay by giving a definition of what “uncanny” is: “belonging to all that is terrible – to all that arouses dread and creeping horror…” (Freud 1). Freud’s definition of the uncanny leads me to an even bigger theoretical question about the idea of the “double” which I will address shortly, but first let us take a closer look at Freud’s idea of the uncanny. In his essay, Freud refers to the German words Heimlich and unheimlich. He uses the two words to first create a barrier between their meanings, but as he continues on the two merge to create a meaning behind what the “uncanny” really is. He describes the barrier between the two as Heimlich meaning familiar, and unheimlich meaning something which is concealed or kept out of sight (Freud 3). This barrier is what then brings the two together to form the “uncanny” – when something unfamiliar gets added to which is familiar.

It is these themes of uncanniness that then allowed for Freud to suggest the idea of the “double”. The “double” which in Freud’s terms appears as a degree of development. The degree of development which Freud refers to in these terms is that of his theory “narcissism of the child” (or self-love). He describes this as being when a child creates multiple projections of himself/herself; which later is overcome and the child develops his/her ego. The “double” comes into play when a person encounters the “narcissism of the child” later on in their adult life causing them to return to that primitive state, therefore causing “uncanny”. This may also be related to Freud’s formation/idea of the super-ego. The super-ego being the repressed projections of the multiple selves or “the double”. This is where my even bigger theoretical question comes into play. The “double” is a theme that is quite often addressed in film/cinema whether that be reflections in mirrors, shadows, spirits, or the infamous doppelganger. This allows for me to pose the even bigger question of: how doubling in film/cinema offer insight into the increasingly narrow threshold between self and perception of the other? By addressing this question, I will then be able to uncover the answer behind my overall question of: why is the idea of the double portrayed as being so frightening in film/cinema and even everyday life?

The biggest portrayal of the “double” in film/cinema would have to be with the idea of the doppelganger. The German word meaning: “a ghostly counterpart of a living person” (Websters Dictionary), is the iconic way in which the “double” is portrayed in film/cinema. I always wondered why in so many films or tv shows that contained a doppelganger, why they were portrayed as being evil or out to get the “real” character/person, and the German mythological tale explains why these doppelgangers may be portrayed in such a way. The doppelganger was generally referred to by Germans as bad omens or signs of death. Some say that the doppelganger was an attempt of the spirit to provide advice to the person they shadowed, while others say that they tried planting evil thoughts in their double’s mind in hopes of confusing them. (Ancient Origins) When at looking at how film/cinema portrays these doppelgangers or doubles I would say that writers use more of the myth about how the spirit tries planting evil thoughts into the person’s mind.

In a theoretical point of view, I would say that this is where the narcissism of self or ones’ ego comes into play. When faced with something familiar like yourself there should be no fear, but there is, why? I believe this would have to be because of narcissism of the self. By seeing the double a person is criticizing their self, and becoming aware of their conscience. When the person becomes aware of their conscience they become aware of what the double represents – the unacceptable part of their ego. In other words, the suppressed feelings they had about themselves as infants (the negative traits) they got rid of, return. So the doppelganger/ double usage in film/cinema gives insight to the narrow threshold between self and perception of the other. In terms of self-perception, the “double” is a representation of the opposite of what is perceived by the individual person. It represents the aspects of humanity that we (humans) deny in order to preserve our self-image or the core aspects of what make each person unique. The doppelganger or double is a visual representation of the darker parts (suppressed personalities) of the individual psyche humans deny so that they’re seen by other people in society in a better way, as opposed to who they truly are at their core. Therefore, in film the doppelganger would be represented as a persons’ worst fears visualized into something they’re scared of becoming.

This visualization of the “double” being something that a person fears they will become is portrayed in several films/cinemas. It is a quote from Freud’s The Uncanny which describes how a person first perceives the “double”, causing the uncanny feeling of the “double” to occur; “But, after having thus considered the manifest motivation of the figure of a “double,” we have to admit that none of it helps us to understand the extraordinarily strong feeling of something uncanny that pervades the conception; and our knowledge of pathological mental processes enables us to add that nothing in the content arrived at could account for that impulse towards self- protection which has caused the ego to project such a content outward as something foreign to itself. (Freud 10) I believe it is this quote by Freud that answers the “why” part of my overall theoretical question. Reflecting back on Freud’s explanation behind heimlich vs. unheimlich, a person must first be presented with something that is familiar, then bring in the unfamiliar and you are given an uncanny feeling. The self is familiar but when placed in a situation where the self is perceived in an unfamiliar way, then one’s true self can only have an impulse to protect the self. It is the idea that the individual could possibly become that evil entity.

One of the biggest supporting films of this theory would have to be The Black Swan directed by Darren Aronofsky. The film casts the lovely Natalie Portman as Nina, a narcissistic ballerina who allows for the dance to take over every waking moment of her life. When Nina’s director decides to replace his prima ballerina in his production of “Swan Lake,” Nina is his first choice to play the White Swan. However, Nina won’t stop at anything to take on the role of the Black Swan as well. With newcomer Lily, who personifies the Black Swan perfectly, Nina and Lily begin a twisted friendship/ rivalry in hopes of getting the part as Black Swan. As Nina competes for the position she gets a glimpse of her dark alter ego.

Just like in Freud’s quote from above, director Darren Aronofsky does a phenomenal job with creating a scene in his film that is very similar to that of Freud’s explanation as to how a person may react if he/she encounters their “double”. In the clip, Nina finishes up her performance as the white swan and hurries back to her dressing room to prepare herself to dance the part of the black swan. When arriving back at her dressing room, flustered by her performance as the white swan, Nina a shocked to see Lily sitting in her vanity getting dressed to play the part of the black swan. As Lily begins to taunt Nina about her not being ready to play the part of the black swan, Lily transforms into a black swan doppelganger of Nina. Nina then begins to fight her doppelganger, eventually stabbing and killing who Nina thinks is her evil doppelganger, but ends up actually being Lily. It is here in this seen where you truly see the idea of the double come to life. This is where we see that threshold between self and perception of the other come to life. The character of Nina shows the audience how a person may personify the pure and heroic character, only to then be represented by her doppelganger as the opposite; the representation of Nina’s worse parts, her evil parts.

Opening?/Background to the Double.

How exactly did the use of the “double” start in film/cinema? The start of this theme stemmed from the era of Gothic Literature. By the nineteenth century this style of writing which “characterized elements of fear, horror, death, gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion (; was made notable by authors such as Hans Christian Anderson, Oscar Wilds, Edgar Allan Poe & Feodor Dostoevsky. It was the works of these authors that eventually created the new era of “film noir” shortly after.

           Film noir translated as French for “black cinema”, quickly brought the same kind of darkness and fear to the air that Gothic Literature had. Emerging in the early 1940s, Film noir gave the public a first view of what we call today, “the thriller”. Like Gothic Literature, film noir paved the way for the use of interior settings which included supernatural elements. It is these supernatural elements that brought desire, weariness, confusion, and nightmare to film; presenting the audience with an alternate world from the real (Cobblestones and Doppelgangers 18). In addition to creating a whole new look on setting, the Gothic Literature created new atmospheric conditions for the world of film. Emotions being one of the key conditions that these writers worked from was also a way for them to convey expressionism on the movie screen. The expressionism of the films emotion was created in the way that the scenes of the film were shot by camera. The emotions could be brought to life by the way the camera glided across the face of a character showing a brief expression of uneasiness or fear. One of the other common ways these Gothic works were expressed was through weather; where most of the time the climax of the story being told would take place. Another key theme taken from Gothic Literature and placed in the noir film was the theme of “insanity”. It was the psychological themes that were prominent to this era of film because it is what brought to life the overwhelming paranoia and anxiety that viewers would feel while watching these films.

           It was film noir that first brought the idea of psychoanalysis to film/cinema. Brandon Lanthem, the author of a journal titled “Cobblestone and Doppelgangers: How Gothic Literature Contributed to the Dawn of Film Noir” gave the best explanation behind the use of psychoanalysis in the noir: “psychoanalysis is the pursuit to explain an individual’s actions by uncovering deeper, subconscious desires and fears…” (20). The use of psychoanalysis is what created Alfred Hitchcock’s notable cinematic thriller Psycho (1960), and the forefront to the use of the “double” in film. This kind of use of the “double” can be seen in films such as Psycho and a few others which I will later analyze. The use of the “double” can best be described by Freud in his essay The Uncanny:

“They involve the idea of the ‘double’ (the Doppelgänger), in all its nuances and manifestations - that is to say, the appearance of persons who have to be regarded as identical because they look alike. This relationship is intensified by the spontaneous transmission of mental processes from one of these persons to the other - what we would call telepathy - so that the one becomes co-owner of the other’s knowledge, emotions and experience. Moreover, a person may identify himself with another and so become unsure of his true self; or he may substitute the other’s self for his own. This self may be duplicated, divided and interchanged.” (141-142)

As you can see there was a lot of material from Gothic Literature that influenced film noir, and continues to have an influence on film today.

           The theme of the “double” has become popular over the past centuries because of the work that nineteenth century authors published. However, while the theme of the “double” has continued to stay popular, the interpretations and meaning(s) behind it have not stayed as popular. Here again lies the question of “what is it about the theme of the “double” that causes the uncanny/fear in a person; especially in film/cinema. In a section of Pilar Andrade’s text Cinema’s Doubles, Their Meaning, and Literary Intertexts, Andrade makes a discerning remark about the “double” and how it is perceived.

“But the double can also be contemplated from a different perspective, because it breaks, as the Romantics/Gothics knew well, our usual perception of reality. With the presence or appearance of another self or “other,” some important doubts emerge questioning first the identity of this double (who are you?), but also and as a counterpart, the very self-identity of the original (who am I?) and of his/her perception of reality (is what I am seeing real? Is it imagination, hallucination?). Thus, the double questions one of the basic rules of logic: that of non-contradiction. It makes evident that (being A the original and B the copy) the proposition “A is always equal to A and different from B” is incorrect. An exact copy of a human being works with another proposition: “A is always equal to A and equal to A and equal to B...”(2)

Andrade’s statement from above is a very well thought break down of how the “double” is perceived in reality. His statement also points out how in film the use of the “double” plays on what is real and what is just imagination; it is this point of view that he says develops that thriller genre of the “double” in film. In terms of perceiving the “double” in the actual context of film(s), it is used in relation with the protagonist character. For the most part, the “double” is represented as a fragmented division of the character’s psyche. Most importantly, just as the myths about doppelgangers say: the double appears because the character is being plagued by their fragmented psyche.

           Popular culture of the twentieth century has rebirthed the theme of the psychological thriller. In terms of rebirth, majority of films play with the motif of the doppelganger in a more modern way. Modern film uses the motif of the double in four broad groups: physical doubles, reflection doubles, transformation doubles, and narratology doubles. Some popular modern films that you can see these categories being used in are: Fight Club (1999), Batman Begins (2005), Coraline (2009), Dexter (2006-2013), The Black Swan (2010), and Looper (2012); but the list goes on. For the purpose of this project I will analyze two films that which I feel support not only my theoretical theory about the use of doubles in film/cinema, but also support these four groups of double. The films I have chosen to analyze are The Black Swan, and the TV series Dexter. While Dexter is not an actual film it is a TV series that strongly portrays the double in a unique modern way, while also still showing some of that uncanny use of double that has been used over the past centuries. With the Black Swan, you see that full-fledged fearful double. The biggest reason I chose these two films though is because they show the motif of the double in a way that causes the character to realize their doppelganger is an actual part of them, which then causes fear within.

Closing/ Analyzing of Film

The four broad groups of doubles were presented by Levi Strauss in his blog titled “Culture Decanted” in a section which he named “The Semiotics of the Doppelganger: The Double in Popular Culture. The four groups are which Strauss describes as the popular culture’s four main uses of the double in film. As I previously mentioned I will be looking at the film The Black Swan and the TV series Dexter as examples of these four groups. In order to analyze the films correspondingly to the four groups, I decided to split the two films into the categories I felt they resonated with the most. For the categories of Physical Doubles, Narratology Doubles, and Reflection Doubles; I decided to use the Black Swan (along with Dexter for Reflection Doubles as well). For the category of Transformation Doubles I will also use Dexter as the main example.

    Physical Doubles as defined by Strauss are “doubles that physically look similar to the original.” (The Semiotics of the Doppelganger) This would be the most commonly used group of doubles used in film/cinema. It also is the one of the main groups shown in the 2010 film, The Black Swan. In the 2010 film, writer Andres Heinz and director Darren Aronofsky put a psychological and dark twist on the original play. The play was first written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (a Russian composer from the 1800’s). In his play, Tchaikovsky tells the story of the young, virginal princess, Odette. However, the sweet princess is trapped in the body of a beautiful swan by the curse of an evil witch. In order for Odette to break the curse she must first find true love, which she finds with Prince Siegfried after her evil, lustful twin sister Odile tricks and seduces Siegfried. Devastated by these findings, Odette ends up killing herself to free herself from the curse and her evil sister Odile.

    In the film The Black Swan, the storyline of the original play is used, however director Darren Aronofsky brings the story to life by creating an internal and psychological struggle within the main character Nina. The film begins with Nina, a younger ballerina who dreams of dancing the part of the White Swan someday. When Nina arrives that day at her dance studio she comes to find out that Beth, the lead dancer (played by Winona Ryder), has been fired due to her old age as a ballerina. Nina’s director Thomas then announces to the studio that their first performance will be Swan Lake. As the dancers warm up and begin their practice, Thomas goes around the hall tapping dancers on their shoulders and informs the studio that those who are tapped should continue with their normal practices, and that those who were not tapped should meet him in the principal studio at the end of practice. It is later that evening that Thomas holds auditions to find Beth’s replacement in the principal hall; where Nina dances the part of the White Swan as her audition. Being impressed with her audition as the White Swan, Thomas then asks Nina to dance the part of the Black Swan, but as she begins to dance the part, Nina is interrupted by the late entrance of the new dancer Lily. Trying to regain her composure from being interrupted Nina finishes her dance as the Black Swan, but does not impress Thomas; telling her that she failed to capture the sensuality of the Black Swan.

    The next day Nina visits Thomas and he informs Nina that he gave the role to one of the other dancers. When Nina says ‘okay’ and goes to walk out of Thomas’s office, he then slams the door and asks her why she so easily gives up. He then kisses her, and being taken by surprise, Nina then bites his lip and runs out of his office. Later that day Thomas posts the casting list outside his office and everyone, including Nina are shocked to see that Nina got the part as both the White and Black Swan. After earning her roll, Nina begins practicing everyday for several days, and as stress takes over her body she begins to lose her focus and can not perform to part. This constant worrying is what causes Nina to first encounter her double. While walking down the street she begins to see an evil/ dark version of herself mixed within the crowds of people she walks by. After seeing what she thought was an evil double of herself, Nina continues to struggle with the capturing the essence of the Black Swan. When Lily sees this, she informs Thomas to not be so hard on Nina. When Nina is confronted by Thomas about the comment that Lily had made to him, Nina then goes and finds Lily and tells her to stay out of her business. Later that evening Lily goes to Nina’ house to apologize and convinces Nina to go out with her; and after a drug and alcohol filled night Nina and Lily go back to Nina’s apartment where they begin to sexually please one another. Here is where we once again see Nina’s reality slip from her hands. While being pleasured by Lily, Nina looks up to see Lily transform into herself and then back into Lily; which in return scares Nina. In the morning Nina wakes up alone and looks at the clock to see that she is late for practice. When she arrives at practice, Lily is dressed in her costume and dancing her part. When Lily approaches Nina, she informs Nina that she’s was only filling in for her because Thomas instructed her to. Nina then asks Lily about the night before and why Lily had left so early in the morning, and Lily then informs her that the last time she had seen Nina was in the club because Lily had gone home with a guy. Nina then tells her what had happened in her bedroom and Lily tells Nina she is flattered that Nina had a wet dream about her. Becoming frustrated, uncomfortable, and confused, wondering if what had happened in her room actually happened, Nina runs away.

    Here is where I will begin to break down what has happened in the film thus far in terms of the “physical doubles” group presented in this film. In a quote from Pilar Andrade’s article “Cinema’s Doubles, Their Meaning, and Literary Intertexts”, he quotes Tzvetan Todorov saying: the fantastic happens when we are not sure if something is real or just imagination. This quote gives reason to the two delusions Nina has had thus far in the film, showing a development of that thriller aspect of a film using physical doubles. It is within these scenes that reality is slipping from Nina’s hands and she is beginning to fear this idea of the double that is being presented in the film. (Andrade 5) Nina is questioning whether or not what she is experiencing is real or whether it is just a figment of her imagination.

    As the film continues, director Darren Aronofsky introduces another group of the double: reflection doubles. Strauss describes this group as doubles that are reflections rather than duplicates. Continuing with the storyline, after questioning her sanity, Nina goes to get refitted for her costume. This is where the reflection double is first seen in the film. While being fitted, Nina sees herself scratching at her back, when in reality she is standing still as the seamstress takes her measurements. It is then that Lily comes over and tells Nina that Thomas has made Lily Nina’s alternate. This sends Nina into a downward spiral and she runs confront Thomas about his decision. When she reaches Thomas Lily explains to Thomas how she believes that Lily is trying to steal her role. Thomas goes on to laugh and explain to Nina that several girls are out to get her role, and that she is just being a paranoid dancer; he continues by telling Nina that the only person trying to sabotage Nina would be “Nina”. That night Nina goes into the studio to get once last practice in before her opening night, and while in the studio alone the lights are shot off. When she calls out asking for someone to turn the lights back on, she turns to see her reflection in the mirror once again moving. She then runs when she sees a black cloaked figure and hears some laughter. Following the laughter and the cloaked figure she is lead to Thomas’s office where she finds Lily (transforming into Nina) having sex with Thomas on his desk. This upsets Nina, leading her to flee from the studio. It is here with the “reflection double” that we see how Nina discovers the reality of her double. This is what shows that the double in the film forms as an embodiment of the actual person. The double is an embodiment of what Nina wishes she could be like (ultimately Lily or the Black Swan). Nina wishes to be everything that a Black Swan should be: sexy, intriguing, confident, and sexual – everything that Lily is. It is Nina’s fear of her own weaknesses that cause her fear when she sees her double or reflection. This can allow for the Freudian theory to take place; as mentioned earlier on.

    It is at the end of the film that you see the use of the double come into a full circle. This would also be where Aronofsky’s use of narratology double becomes very clear. The narratology double (as Strauss defines it): is where narratives use doubles to build characters or insights. The entire Black Swan film is based off this narrated story of Nina and insane, yet almost sane delusions of herself. The entire premise of the film is to tell the story of Swan Lake, Aronofsky just presents it in a more unique way. He uses Nina’s character to portray the Swan Lake play. Providing the audience with a real-life version of Odette and her doppelganger self, Odile. It is at the end of the film when Nina demands to play her part when she shows up late and sees Lily getting ready to take the stage that you see that Nina’s double has taken over full control of her. She has in other words taken on the identity of Odile or Nina’s superego. As mentioned earlier the biggest scene in the movie which embodies this thrilling theme of the double, along with Freud’s idea of the double would be at the end when all three of the groups of double come together in the fight scene between Nina and Lily (Nina and Nina). It isn’t til after her magnificent performance as the Black Swan (her full transformation), that Nina returns to her dressing room to get ready for the last act of the play that she then realizes she in fact stabbed herself and not her evil double; proving Freud’s idea of how the true self will eventually try to protect their self and attempt to kill their evil double. Thus, showing how the double in film is feared.

    The last group of doubles can be seen all throughout the TV series Dexter. Strauss defines the transformation double as: where the person may have double selves. Whereas in The Black Swan we saw Nina had an actual double or a mirror double, it is quite the opposite in Dexter. The TV series premiered in 2006 and ran til 2013; narrating the story behind Dexter Morgan, a Miami blood splatter expert who not only solved murders, but committed them too. Throughout the series, you see Dexter struggle with his addiction to kill. However, Dexter is no ordinary serial killer, he is the serial killer of other guilty killers that slipped through the hands of justice law. It is the idea of the narratology double that creates the story behind Dexter’s character. Dexter being someone who works for the police force must be extra careful not to get caught. If there wasn’t already enough pressure on him not to get caught, there was even more pressure on him not to be caught by his cop sister Deb and their other work friends within their unit in Miami. The narrative that was created for Dexter is what creates his double – and alternate personality or ego. There is Dexter the blood splatter analyst and then there is Dexter the serial killer. He lives one life, but at the same time leads two separate personalities. The two personalities which he holds are both aware of one another. This is what gives the show that unique use of the double. Quite often throughout the series you will see how the reflection double is used when Dexter tries to contemplate whether he should kill someone. His serial killer self may appear and tell him to kill in a mirror, but then his true self tells him when or when not to do it, which puts an even more uncanny twist to the double because he engages with that fear that is present with the double. While Dexter does not portray your average theme of the double used in film/cinema it still gives that same eerie feeling that the other films give. There is something off about Dexter and you know what it is, but at the same time you like him. That is the unique difference between these two films that show just how uncanny the double can actually get.

    In conclusion, the double is a constant element used in film/cinema to break the barrier between self-perception of the double and one’s true identity. It is the idea that film makers use Freud’s idea of the uncanny: heimlich vs unheimlich to bring forward that thrill seen within the film. By presenting the double as a threat/ uncanny appearance the protagonist character is forced to identify with the double, which eventually reveals the double to be a part of the character’s superego. In many ways the use of the double as a major element in film/cinema is a way for the mythologies and 19th century literature to live on in culture today.





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