The Terrible Twos: Twins in Horror Movies

Twins have long fascinated humankind since the beginning of time. At the center of the cosmology of Zurvanite branch of Zoroastrianism, for example, twins Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu were eternal representatives of good and evil. Among Native American creation myths,  the Oneida told of a right-handed twin that was good and considered the creator of all things, and a left-handed twin born bad (literally, as he came out of his mother’s armpit!). Indeed, twins of many cultures have often been portrayed as good and evil. No wonder then that myths of good and bad twins have been passed down through the centuries to the point where genre films (and television) have exploited the well-known trope. Such depictions are especially effective in horror movies — for it is there that the bad twins are at their worst and good ones at their most innocent. But it is also in horror films that the trope can be best subverted.


Kubrick most likely intended the Grady sisters to be “doubles” reflecting other doubles throughout 1980’s THE SHINING.

“Real” twins in horror film are relative rare. Once you remove those not absorbed in utero (the monsters), the doppelgangers (supernatural mirrors), the clones (true duplicates) — or just the downright creepy twins with little backstory (Lisa and Louise Burns’ Grady Sisters) of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980)  [which are not twins in the novel!]) — you are left with only a handful of films that truly treat twins as fully-fleshed out characters whose distinct personalities serve to make the familial bond a complex and often troublesome one. One that is often violent.

Take, for example, three films from very different eras that show the familial bond as being very different when drawn along gender lines. Both male and female twins can be bloodthirsty, but with horror films, it can manifest in very different ways.

There are outright killers and committers of fratricide as in THE BLACK ROOM (1935) where Baron Gregor (Boris Karloff) — wuth an inheritance at stake — dispatches his sibling, Anton (also Karloff) and tries to take over his brother’s life out of jealousy and greed. Were it not for a dog who well knows his master, the Baron might have succeeded. A true scoundrel, he is dispatched by the same blade he himself used to kill his brother. As with most tales of evil twins, good triumphs in the end, if only to reveal the deception and restore the good twin’s reputation.

Twins of Evil (1971)
Twins of Evil (British one-sheet poster). 1971.

But sometimes, a good reputation is a puritanical shackle — at least when the double standard of how “good” women should behave  is at issue — as it is in Hammer‘s TWINS OF EVIL (1971). Here, real-life twins (and Playboy playmates) Mary and Madeleine Collinson star as sisters whose heavy-handed witch-hunting uncle (Peter Cushing) drives one of them, the more adventurous Freida (Madeleine), into the arms of the local aristocrat, Count Karnstein, a vampire. Up to no good with black mass and ritual sacrifice, the Count (who oddly resembles Jimmy Fallon) turns Freida into one of the undead — and she seems to rather enjoy it. Innocent Maria (Mary) is talked into covering up for Freida’s nocturnal excursions by pretending to be her (a trope in and of itsef), but it is not long before the real Freida is captured and jailed. Meanwhile, the male protagonist, Anton, falls for Mary, but when the Count frees Freida and she passes herself off as Maria, all manner of evil machinations ensue. A highly sexualized Freida tries to seduce Anton (to no avail, as he cannot see her reflection in a mirror!), Maria, mistaken for Freida, is almost burned at the stake, and the plot then speeds toward a conclusion where Anton seems to know a lot about vampires, and evil is thwarted: Freida is beheaded, the Count is impaled, and Mary and Anton live happily ever after. As is the case with women in many a Hammer film (and indeed, just many many horror movies), (sexual) transgressions are punished, and purity, rewarded.

SISTERS (1972) one sheet poster.

A very different take on a killer twin would come one year later with Brian de Palma’s SISTERS (1972). Here, Margot Kidder plays identical twins Danielle and Dominique.  The former is a flirtatious model. The latter, a sadistic killer. But it’s not that simple; this isn’t clearly-defined good vs. evil. Turns out they were once conjoined. And Brian de Palma uses a split screen to great effect in telling this story of a physical, and, ultimately, psychological split. For it is eventually revealed that while they were conjoined, a shy Dominique was a burden to her more outgoing sister, Danielle. The latter drugged her sister in order to have uniterupted sex with her lover, Emil. But when Danielle becomes pregnant, Dominique freaks out, and stabs Danielle in the stomach. Danielle loses the baby, the two must undergo an emergency surgical separation because of the lood loss, and Dominique dies. All of this is told by Emil in flashback, who then reveals that Danielle’s personality had split due to the trauma, and that she is now both sisters. Whenever Danielle has a sexual encounter, the murderous “Dominique” personality takes over.  It’s a psychological split following a physcial one. Lines intersect, but they are still drawn.

But what happens when the lines are made gray? When the relationship between twins is more symbotic? Then you have something like David Cronenberg’s 1988 masterful DEAD RINGERS.

Dead Ringers
Dead Ringers (British one-sheet poster). 1988.

DEAD RINGERS is the story of identical twins Elliot and Beverly Mantle (played by Jeremy Irons). They are gynecologists who operate a highly successful clinical practice that specializes in treating fertility problems. Elliot is the more confident and charismatic of the two. He regularly beds women who come to clinic. And as he tires of these women, he passes them on to his shy brother Beverly. The women are unaware of the switch.

Things get more complicated when famous actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) gets involved with Eliot, who then convinces Beverly to sleep with her as well, as him. Claire learns of the deception, but decides (strangely) to continue a relationship with Beverly. Butwhen  she has to leave town for work, Beverly spirals into severe depression. He begins to abuse drugs, and has delusions of mutant women with deformed genitalia. Convinced that if he commissions a unique (and frightening) set of gynecological instruments, he is certain that he can “cure” these women. But before he can use one of the horrifying devices, he collapses from drug use and exhaustion. Both brothers are suspended from practice.

From there, the film gets even stranger with Beverly cleaning up his act, but then Eliot falling down a depressive hole, locking himself away in the clinic, living a life of squalor and inebriation. Eliot has become the weaker brother, and in the depths of despair, he asks Beverly to “separate the Siamese” twins. Beverly disembowels Eliot using the same type of instrument he intended to use on “mutant women,” and, devastated, dies in his dead brother’s arms.

It is a story of both predation and symbiosis. Of harm and healing. Of pronoia and paranoia. Of twins so entwined that one cannot survive without the other. And the horror of how strong a destructive connection there can be between twins, to the point of inevitable death for both. The trope of the evil twin thus subverted, the movie ends tragically.

Goodnight Mommy (2014)
Goodnight Mommy (2014). Promotional poster.

Neither good vs. evil nor sympathy for the symbiotic is at play in GOODNIGHT MOMMY (2014). Here, the familial bond between real-life twins Elias and Lukas makes for a united team suspicious of their mother and determined to get at the truth of her bandaged condition following cosmetic facial surgery. Uncharacteristically bad-tempered and mean, the twins’ mother seems not to be the same person she was before the surgery. Believing she is an impostor, the twins turn their suspicion and fear into outright sadism: they tie her to the bed and torture her to get at their truth. Is this really their mother?

Turns out, it is. But all is not what it seems when it is revealed by the mother that Lukas died in an accident, and Elias is imagining that his twin brother has been with him the whole time. When Elias challenges her to prove it, all hell breaks lose, mother and son burn in a fire, and the film ends with the reunited ghostly trio standing in a cornfield.

In the end, GOODNIGHT MOMMY is not about a good vs. evil twin, or even a bond between twins that subverts the trope; it is, instead, about whether a parent can trust twins. Are they simply a breed apart?

Perhaps that is what is most unnerving about twins in horror movies.  It is not that twins are Zoroastrianist opposites, or “two bodies, one soul” as the poster for DEAD RINGERS states. It is instead that they simply are. They exist. Born of a single egg and a single sperm that then splits into two embryos, they are just different from the rest of us (unless you are reading this and you’re a twin; in which case, sorry to suggest anything wrong with you). But it’s at that the moment of the split into two that things can go delightfully right (think 1961’s THE PARENT TRAP), or terribly wrong.

In horror films, we all know in which direction things go.



Shadows, Reflections, Mirrors and Vampires

Like having fangs, transforming into bats, or turning to dust in the rays of the sun, not showing up in mirrors is a trait of the vampire that most people take as gospel. Whether it’s Bela Lugosi slapping a the small, mirrored-lid cigarette box out of Van Helsing’s hands in Universal’s DRACULA (1931), or the Count casting no reflection in an enormous ballroom mirror — in both DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (1995) and VAN HELSING (2004) — pop culture has cemented the belief / trope that vampires just don’t show up in mirrors.

First edition of Dracula, 1897
Dracula, by Bram Stoker. First Edition cloth cover, 1897. From British Literary Board (public domain photo).

The publication of DRACULA in 1897 is perhaps the best and first known instance of a vampire not appearing in a mirror. It occurs early on, in Chapter 2, on the 8th of May, when Jonathan Harker doesn’t see Dracula’s reflection in his shaving mirror. No vampire of folklore ever seemed to have this problem. Various creatures over many cultures and centuries appeared from and disappeared to the shadows, but none had particular issue with a looking glass. Until Dracula.


Lord Byron, the infamous poet on whom his personal physician John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven — arguably, the first true literary vampire — was based curiously had no mirrors in his residence on the isle of Lesbos (see “Extract Of A Letter, Containing An Account Of Lord Byron’s Residence In The Island Of Mitylene,” published along with THE VAMPYRE in 1819). But this was Byron, and one residence otherwise sparsely furnished. And despite what his physician may have thought, Byron was no vampire (OK, maybe a psychic one).

There’s no mention of mirrors or reflections in VARNEY THE VAMPIRE (pubished as “penny dreadfulls” 1845-1847). Neither does Le Fanu Carmilla seem to have a problem with them (1872). They are stealthy, shadowy figures, but reflections aren’t a problem.

There’s an interesting us of shadows in Alexander Dumas’ “Vampire of the Carpathian Mountains” (also known as “The Pale Lady”) — a short story from 1848 that is easily overlooked by fans (and critics) of Gothic tales. This last section of his collected THE THOUSAND AND ONE GHOSTS (1849), does include a vampire, but one that oddly shows ONLY its shadow.

Nosferatu casts shadow
Nosferatu’s Count Orlok cast a shadow. And eagle-eyed watchers of the 1922 film have spotted him reflected in a mirror during his death scene.

Upon Hedwig, the narrator’s encounter with the vampire of Dumas’ tale, she writes: “Je regardai dans la direction de sa main, et je vis en effet l’ombre d’un cheval et d’un cavalier. Mais je cherchai inutilement les corps auxquels les ombres appartenaient,” which translates as “I looked in the direction of his hand, and I did indeed see the shadow of a horse and rider. But I searched in vain for the bodies to which the shadows belonged.”

A shadow is cast. But no figure is seen. And still, no mirror.

None before Stoker.

Not in Uriah Derick D’Arcy’s BLACK VAMPYRE: A LEGEND OF ST. DOMINGO (1819). Nor in Ernst Raupach’s WAKE NOT THE DEAD (1823). Not the case with the wurdulak of Alexander Pushin’s MARKO YACUBOVICH (1835). Nor in THE FAMILY OF THE VOURDALAK from Tolstoy (1839). Throw in the aforementioned Varney and Carmilla, and you find nary an undead figure with a problem with mirrors.


One wonders, then, where Stoker got the idea from? And like much of the supernatural in DRACULA, some find that the answer lies in folklore and superstition. The Japanese Kitsune, for example, shun mirrors as they fear being exposed by their reflections. But it’s almost certain that Kitsune were not something known to Stoker. They show up nowhere in his notes for the novel or other writings.

Victorian Covered Mirror
In the late 19th century, mirrors were often covered at funerals (and a window left open) so the soul of the deceased would not be trapped.

There was a belief among people of both Christian and Jewish faith — as well as spiritualists of the time (of which Stoker was ostensibly one, having been a member of the Society for Psychical Research) —that mirrors captured souls and/or acted as portals to other worlds. Why else cover them in homes or at funerals where the deceased are present. Fear of the spirits of the recently dead getting trapped in a mirror was at the root of this prctice, and, if true, would certainly put a damper on getting to the promised after-life. But the undead? What would they care? They are already dead. And their spirits don’t get sucked in by mirrors so much as their corporeal bodies simply do not show.

Others have posited a theory that silver backed (and silver-gilt) mirrors of the day may be the reason vampires are repelled by the “foul bauble of man’s vanity” (as Dracula puts it). But nowhere else in Stoker’s novel are vampires afraid of silver. There’s a silver-plated brass candle-holder Van Helsing takes with him to Lucy’s grave. But it’s just the better to see her with. There’s a silver whistle, but it’s for Van Helsing to scare aware rats. And yes, while there’s a silver crucifix among the weapons the heroes take into battle at the end of the novel, it’s the crucifix, and not the silver, that seems to work on vampires. The silver itself is never explicitly mentioned as having any power. In folklore, though, silver is associated with the moon and as having purifying qualities, so perhaps it can kill a supernatural creature? The Brother Grimm did have a silver bullet kill a witch in one of their tales (“The Two Brothers” [1812]). And it was reputed that the eighteenth century Beast of Gévaudan was felled by a silver bullet. But, as it turns out, this was an addition made by an author writing in 1946 (Henri Pourrat’s Histoire fidèle de la bête en Gévauda). That’s four years after Universal’s THE WOLF MAN, where screenwriter Curt Siodmak invented the notion that silver kills werewolves.

Why then does Stoker have Dracula not show up in a mirror?

Plain and simple: having Dracula not appear in Harker’s shaving mirror is a great plot device.

There are many ways Stoker could have introduced Dracula as a vampire lusting after blood. And many ways that Harker could have been startled by the vampire’s presence in his room in Dracula’s castle. But the mirror provides the author with a way to dramatically shock Harker, and the reader, with Dracula’s ability to move stealthily, and strike, should he choose — without setting off (at least two) normal human sensory means of detection.


Here is the whole passage:

I started, for it amazed me that I had not seen him, since the reflection of the glass covered the whole room behind me. In starting I had cut myself slightly, but did not notice it at the moment. Having answered the Count’s salutation, I turned to the glass again to see how I had been mistaken. This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in the mirror! The whole room behind me was displayed; but there was no sign of a man in it, except myself. This was startling, and, coming on the top of so many strange things, was beginning to increase that vague feeling of uneasiness which I always have when the Count is near; but at the instant I saw that the cut had bled a little, and the blood was trickling over my chin. I laid down the razor, turning as I did so half round to look for some sticking plaster. When the Count saw my face, his eyes blazed with a sort of demoniac fury, and he suddenly made a grab at my throat. I drew away, and his hand touched the string of beads which held the crucifix. It made an instant change in him, for the fury passed so quickly that I could hardly believe that it was ever there.

“Take care,” he said, “take care how you cut yourself. It is more dangerous than you think in this country.” Then seizing the shaving glass, he went on: “And this is the wretched thing that has done the mischief. It is a foul bauble of man’s vanity. Away with it!” and opening the heavy window with one wrench of his terrible hand, he flung out the glass, which was shattered into a thousand pieces on the stones of the courtyard far below. Then he withdrew without a word. It is very annoying, for I do not see how I am to shave, unless in my watch-case or the bottom of the shaving-pot, which is fortunately of metal.

And that’s the world’s introduction to a vampire not showing in a mirror. If anyone could show a literary or folkloric precedent, it would have been put forth in the 125+ years since the novel’s publication as critics and scholars have painstakenly poured over every aspect of the work and the vampire of folklore that inspired it for at least fifty years (there was a time when studying vampires in the halls of academia was scoffed at).


In his seminal vampire novel I AM LEGEND (1954), Richard Matheson counts not appearing in mirror among aspects of vampires that even those infected with the “vampire plague,” themselves believe because of peopular culture. But they do. Cast reflections, that is. As do Anne Rice’s vampires, Nosferatu, even the vampires of the Twilight books and movies.

Why? Because writers and filmmakers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have fun playing with the trope. It makes vampires more flesh and blood, so to speak, to show up like the rest of us do in mirrors. All the better, they can admire how they haven’t aged if they can see their reflection, and who among us would at least hope that immortality comes with forever looking good to one’s self. Personally, I hate mirrors.

In the end, it’s clear that some aspects of vampire lore were picked up by Stoker to play to an audience familiar with tropes and lore. Others simply served his story, and oddly, retroactively, became associated with the undead as a given. Something ancient. Something born of old Translyvanian beliefs. But even then, it might surprise some to know that that the inventive Irishman behind DRACULA never set foot in Transylvania, and originally thought of setting his novel in Styria (in southeast Austria).

But that’s a blog entry for another time.

By Christopher Michael Davis