Hollywood has always used twins (especially identical twins) for various symbolic purposes, especially in thrillers and horror cinema; Netflix’s Echoes miniseries is the latest in that tradition.
Netflix’s thriller miniseries echoes begins on a promising note: we meet Gina McCleary (Michelle Monaghan), a successful writer living in Los Angeles. Years ago, Gina left her hometown of Virginia, leaving behind her family, including her identical twin Leni (also Monaghan) who still lives there with her husband Jack (Matt Bomer). In the first episode, Leni disappears, prompting Gina to return to their hometown in search of answers, with a little help from local sheriff Louise Floss (Karen Robinson).
At the end of the episode, however, comes the series hook: the woman we just saw as Gina is actually Leni, and it’s Gina who’s missing. It turns out that the twins have been “sharing” their lives for a long time and Gina has gotten fed up with it. She left a letter for Leni (currently posing as Gina) asking her to choose one of two lives, Virginia or LA, to return to.
After good first episodes, echoes falls by the wayside, unfortunately, despite a commanding performance from Michelle Monaghan. The scenario runs out of steam, the clues become more and more predictable as the season progresses. The show could also have benefited from a tighter edit.
When it works, however, Echoes makes great use of an age-old device in Hollywood, especially in thrillers and horror films – the twin. Of Stanley Kubrick’s use of the creepy twins in The Shining (1980) at David Cronenberg Dead Ringtones (1988)by Christopher Nolan The Prestige (2006) and more recent efforts like James Wan’s Malignant (2021), the twins have been used for various symbolic purposes. They can represent a protagonist with a strong element of duality about them, or they can replace light and darkness within every human soul. This latter context is, of course, why they are found so often in stories with a supernatural element.
In echoes, of course, the twins represent two very important elements of the story: the secrets and the idea of “sharing a life”. Neither twin can decide on Virginia or Los Angeles. Leni, in particular, wants discrete bits of both lives, as no one knows more about the twins’ arrangement. Until, of course, Gina quits and disappears, setting off the events of the first episode. Psychologically speaking, living two disparate half-lives costs him dearly; in this context, they learn that life is truly more than the sum of its parts.
William Wilson de Poe, the influence of Diane Arbus
One of the earliest examples of a doppelganger—not a literal twin, the spirit—used in “strange fiction” is Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson,” first published in 1839. In this story, the eponymous protagonist is a man of noble parentage who first meets his doppelganger at boarding school, a boy who claims to have the same name. As William Wilson grows up and commits acts of debauchery and betrayal, his namesake/look-alike shows up at crucial moments and undoes his best-laid plans. In the end, William Wilson fatally stabs the doppelganger near a giant mirror and watches in horror as the corpse is revealed to be his spitting image, down to the finest detail. The final passage of the story manages to scare this writer to this day.
“It was my antagonist – it was Wilson, who then stood before me in the throes of his dissolution. His mask and cloak lay, where he had thrown them, on the floor. Not a thread in all his attire — not a line in all the marked and singular lineaments of her face which was not, even in the most absolute identity, mine!
It was Wilson; but he no longer spoke in a low voice, and I could have believed that I was speaking myself while he said:
“You have won, and I give in. However, from now on, you are also dead, dead to the World, to Heaven and to Hope! In me you existed – and, in my death, see by this image, which is yours, how much you murdered yourself.
The story has been adapted for the screen several times around the world, including three separate German films. Even more famously, British director Peter de Rome adapted “William Wilson” into the horror film The Destroying Angel (1976)where the climactic stabbing scene is fairly faithfully depicted.
Famous Stanley Kubrick used identical twins in his movie The Shining (1980), a pair of identically dressed little girls staring straight at the camera, seemingly, as they say, childish but disturbing dialogue. The twins fit the film’s psychological horror air perfectly, but their visual appearance was modeled after an entirely different piece of art. It was one of the most famous works by American photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971), Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, which depicted a pair of identically dressed twin girls.
According to Arbus, this photograph was meant to capture “the difference in the identical”. The twin on the left has a neutral, even slightly morose expression on her face while the twin on the right smiles amiably. Once you notice that, however, you’re drawn to the other tiny differences in the way they stand, the way they wear their hair, etc. On some level, this photography supersedes the workings of all art – it simulates real life in a way that is both authentic and at the same time pure invention, thus complicating our own sense of what is “real”.
Twins in the age of modern cinema
The echoes reminded me, in a few too brief moments, of David Cronenberg’s classic Dead Ringtones (1988), starring Jeremy Irons as a couple of neurotic gynecologists who share everything, including lovers. The master of body horror, the twin protagonists of Cronenberg are obsessed with body symmetry – a road that of course ends in body dysmorphia. One of the twins, Beverly, is obsessed with mutant women with abnormal genitalia, and commissions a metalwork artist to make creepy surgical tools he intends to use on these women. Cronenberg’s main achievement here is to show the mind-body connection the twins seem to have (or have to a greater degree than everyone else) and its sinister implications. That, and of course, the specter of neurotic men fiddling, playing God with women’s bodies (a question that American viewers, I imagine, watch with renewed horror these days). In the book Twins in Contemporary Literature and Culture (2005), Juliana de Nooy writes about how the twins’ occupation as gynecologists, as well as the way they were shot, make the film an elaborate allegory about sharing of a uterus.
Linda Badley notes that the film crew dubbed their work ‘Fetal Attraction.’ domestic environment and their professional activity, she maintains that the film is a “view from the womb.” Drugged, the twins regress to an increasingly infantile condition.
De Nooy also analyzes a series of 20th century thrillers and horror films where the “evil twin sister” is a trope, noting that in most of these films the evil twin’s main motivation is to “steal” the her sister’s husband. The 90s, in particular, saw an explosion of this subgenre, with dozens of releases in this vein: the films Mirror Image, Double Edge, Double Vision, etc.
“Because the twin sisters have become a staple of 20th century cinema. There are two prime moments in this phenomenon: the 1940s women’s film and, after a few remakes of earlier 1980s films, the 1990s thrillers. Most of these stories involve a contest between a good and a bad twin – or more simply the ‘good girl’ and the ‘bad girl’ – and the problems of telling them apart. A peculiarity of female twin films is the frequency with which the bad girl steals her sister’s husband. Indeed, this is often its primary objective.
More recently, James Wan’s horror film clever is the most imaginative take on the evil twins theme. In this film, the twin is literally a tumor, an evil force that activates when the other twin is too stressed or afraid for her life. Gabriel (the aforementioned evil twin) shares a body with our protagonist and when he emerges from inside her, he walks with his legs back, a chilling mirror image of everything she represents (literally and figuratively). ).
The twins therefore continue to be fertile ground for creators of “strange fiction”. In the hands of skilled actors and directors, the story of the evil twins can be a simple yet formidable (and versatile) weapon, bringing long-dormant fears and insecurities to the surface.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and journalist currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.
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