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.