The Semiotics of the Doppelgänger: the Double in Popular Culture

The Semiotics of the Doppelgänger: the Double in Popular Culture


One of the themes from the last blog I wrote on ‘evil’, was the nature of how this is depicted in popular culture from a semiotic perspective. This started out with a Kantian perspective, that evil is something that all of us have the capacity to do – we have free choice. This potential dualities of our natures is one of modern storytelling’s great themes. However, as Milica Živković warns, ‘the motif of the double seems to resist narrow catagorization and definition’. In fact this topic almost feels like wrestling with a serpent, since its expressions appear so protean in popular culture.

However, I find the use of one expression of this duality interesting; that ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ has become a common allegory for good-and-evil in popular culture. However, many times I’ve seen it used, the authors don’t appear to fully understand this story. Often, there are many other types of ‘doubles’ that might fit better. To create a picture: It’s used to describe investment market, as a personified ASX– and who said that you shouldn’t personify gambling or investments; to discussing the relative merits of the media ; a protein as Jekyll and Hyde that effects cancer growth; an entire new generation of youth; to the stigma of schizophrenia where might be misleading , to volleyball coaches, to a disgraced football player  who is a ‘carnivore’; to paedophiles as Jekyll and Hyde that no one identified.

I can understand the cultural shorthand of using a popular story to communicate a duality of character. However, there are more suitable types of duality or implications for not understanding the meaning precisely. It’s informative to look at how we use the double in popular culture, how it creates meaning, and in particular, how ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is different from some of the other ways we represent the duality of our natures in the modern world.


Starting at the beginning: the mythic twin

As with most of the more pervasive symbolism in Western Culture, the origins of the double or doppelgänger (I’ll just use double going forward) are mythic. Many belief systems and religions share an origin story of two beings who are often twin-brothers. In Zoroastrian mythology, the twins Ahriman and Ahura Mazda who are good and evil are locked in an endless cosmic battle. In Norse mythology, two of the earliest beings create the world, this is through Odin Killing the giant Ymir, then using this giant’s body to create the cosmos, he tosses Ymir’s dead head upwards to create the sky.   In Castor and Pollux’s story, they form a constellation in the sky; when Castor dies Pollux shares his immortality so they can stay together. Less cosmically, the ‘twin’ creation story is also present in how peoples and cities are created. Cain killing Abel out of anger or jealousy, as a result he was cast out and becomes a ‘city builder’ . We find a similar story in the founding of Rome, where Romulus killed his brother Remus.   There are numerous examples from mythology of what creates an understanding of good and evil or the ‘evil twin’ as a double. Although this idea of the mythic double is broader than just an evil twin, there are: mythic doubles, rival brothers, lovers, soul mates, scapegoat and sacrifice, that all speak to an archetype of universal duality.


Mythical Twins


Perhaps a less-mythical explanation for these early twin stories might have been to explain succession problems if a king were blessed with many healthy children. For example, A Grimm Brother’s tale of King Aistulf goes:

The following legend is told about King Aistulf, who ruled the Langobards in the middle of the eighth century: It is said that his mother brought five children to the world in one hour’s time. The king only wanted to let one child live, and he said, “The child that takes hold of my spear shall live. The other four shall be set out!” One child reached out for the spear. The king named him Aistulf and allowed him to live.

Twins would have been a much trickier succession problem, especially if both were to survive. This is also the central theme to ‘The man in the iron mask’ or ‘The prince and pauper’ by Mark Twain. However, both of these stories still speaks to the idea that one of the twins is evil in some way, echoing many of the older mythical narratives.

The Double in modern culture


Some of the modern era’s great writers have written novels with the double as the central motif: Mary Shelley, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Poe, Byron, Stevenson, Wilde, Kafka, Lovecraft, Borges, Calvino and Eco. Misao Miyoshi suggests that the double was an important transference from Gothic to Romantic literature:

 This characteristic theme of the romances suggests a central concern of modern writers to document the dualism by examining particularly the disjunct passion and reason which have remained, pretty much throughout the modern period, alien to each other like the two sealed and separate chambers of the Gothic personality…The romance declined at the turn of the century, but the dualism that was its principal motif was taken up by all the major Romantic poets

It was Tzvetan Todorov who observed in everyday life that there are some events that appear to happen due to chance, without explanation we invent supernatural beings as the incarnation of an ‘imaginary causality for such events’.  Which is similar to the Voltaire aphorism ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’. Since we seek causality, even for our own behaviour, the way that we have tried to explain our darker-thoughts has been through a wide range of motif’s.

A common trait of this type of ‘double’ story is that it offers a different perception on reality. This view is discussed by Pilar Andrade

But the double can also be contemplated from a different perspective, because it breaks,


as the Romantics 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 three basic rules of logic: that of the 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 B.”


As Romantics discovered, a conscience splitting shakes the well-built system of rationalism, introducing new mental patterns, and with them, a new world to decode: the world of modern fantasy. Modern fantasy burst into nineteenth century fiction and continued in the twentieth century and is still prevalent in our age”.


What is a Doppelgänger?


It was Jean Paul (Richter) in 1976, who employed the first use of the word Doppelgänger in his novel Siebenkäs. The word means ‘double-goer’ doppelganger to refer to people that see themselves.

‘With Descartes’s division of the world into cogito (mind) and res extensa (everything outside the mind, including one’s own body), the doppelgänger began to take on haunting, uncanny qualities in literature, as the body became a gesticulating machine mocking the ego. The equivalence between the two halves of the doppelgänger was therefore no longer based solely on physical attributes, but also included the relationship between the body and the mind.’

The relationship of mind and body has been a key fascination in modernity. This is also what a ‘self’ means and the role of culture on our behaviour. As Milica Živković discusses:


In a progressively secularized culture dialogues of self and the double are increasingly acknowledged as being colloquies within the self: the double has become an aspect of personal and interpersonal life, a manifestation of unconscious desire…It points to the basis upon which cultural order rests tracing the unseen and the unsaid of culture: that which has been silenced by the symbolic, rational discourse.


Many dual and disintegrated bodies in modern literature violate the most cherished of all human unities: the unity of ‘character”, drawing attention to its relative nature and its ideological assumptions, mocking the blind faith in psychological coherence and in the value of sublimation as a “civilizing” activity.


Like its mythical predecessor, the double in modern literature desires transformation and difference. By attempting to transform the relations between the imaginary and the symbolic, the double hollows out the real, revealing its absence, its great other, its unspoken and its unseen


Cognitive Metaphors that evoke the Double


In our modern psychologically-aware lives, a stable and integrated mind is a necessary requisite of modern culture and society. Anyone that belongs to Twitter or Facebook can see lengthy lists on what you can do to be happier or to identify neurosis you didn’t know you have yet.

To not be ‘sane’ is either a quirky affectation or something very undesirable. In a previous post, I talked about the metaphor for understanding the brain as being a vessel. When we are not ourselves, we talk about the vessel being broken. When we are not mentally stable we start to ‘fall apart’; we use language like ‘being broken up’, ‘going to pieces’. We need to ‘take yourself in hand’, ‘pull yourself together’, or ‘get a grip on yourself’.

black swan


Carl Keppler takes this further, though not his words, he talks about our minds being outside the vessel  . Suggesting that someone that does not act normally is ‘not himself’ or ‘out of his mind’ or ‘beside himself’.


Alice in wonderland


Keppler also goes on to suggest, as an explanation for aberrant behaviour, that we also talk of being possessed by someone else. This can also be a more objective fear. Some people are not concerned that they are doubles, but that others might be doubles. In its more severe form this is known as Capgras Syndrome: characterized by a delusional belief that a person has been replaced by an imposter. Related to this is the belief that other people are changing their appearance: Fregoli Syndrome is the delusional belief that one or more familiar persons, usually persecutors following the patient, repeatedly change their appearance.

Clearly there is something deeper here that is resonating within us from a psychological perspective of double:

‘Duality inspired both terror and awe whether that duality be manifested in a twin birth, or in a man and his shadow, or in one’s reflection in water or in a mirror, or in the creation of an artefact resembling the exterior self’

Psychological implications of the Double


From a psychological perspective, I’m going to be concise within an extremely well discussed area. There is such an abundance of Freudian and Jungian discussion on the topic that I’ll leave it to more curious readers to find out more. There are some aspects that I do need to cover.

There is a tendency for Doppelgangers to be used as a motif of evil

‘Doppelganger characters tend to be associated with evil and the demonic; thus one can infer that the Doppelganger presents a notion of the subject/subjectivity that is defective, disjunct, split, threatening, spectral. With the rise of psychoanalysis, such epithets are taken to indicate a tendency toward a sense of failure or loss of the sense. Thereafter, the Doppelganger has been commonly viewed as an aberration, the stencil of a symptomatology of the self.’

Abrams on the Doublehas connected some of the Gothic themes in narratives to those from the Bible. Referencing the children of Adam, like the prodigal son, waiting to be absolved of their sins. This is a journey of ‘alienation’ and followed by ‘reintegration’. This is similar to the Doppelganger or ‘double walker’ in English that wander in atonement for their modern Faustian sins in stories, e.g. Frankenstein searching for his monster (to be discussed in more detail below). This has been linked by Aya Yatsugi to the Lacanian ‘mirror stage’ in mental development, where children see their images in mirrors and recognise what they are.

Although, the dynamics of wanting to catch this ‘other’ are usually fraught from a psychological perspective on doubles

Often the conscious mind tries to deny its unconscious through the mechanism of “projection”, attributing its own unconscious content (a murderous impulse, for example) to a real person in the world outside; at times it even creates an external hallucination in the image of this content.”


The Jungian perspective on the double is different, as Živković on doubles details:

Unlike Freud, Jung sees the Self as complexio oppositorum, where good and evil are simply complementary opposites, each a necessary condition for the existence of the other. In his doctrine of the shadow he defines the double as neither good nor bad, but as “a replica of one’s own unknown face.” It acquires a demonic aspect only because one side of the personality is repressed and subordinated to a faultless and absolute good.


This was explored in the scene of Star Wars where Luke goes down into the marsh (subconscious) while training with Yoda and battles Darth Vadar, finding his own double, his own shadow.


starwars double


Živković goes Jungian perspective on the Doppelganger


Jung defines the double as a manifestation of desire, which seeks that which is experienced as absence and loss and points to its main function: to compensate for a lack resulting from cultural constraints. Never ceasing to express the desire for unity with the lost centre of personality, never losing its transcendental quality, the double in modern literature expresses itself as a violent transgression of human limitations and of social taboos which prohibit the realization of desire.


As a manifestation of a forbidden desire, of everything that is lost, hidden, or denied it points to the basis upon which cultural order rests, for it focuses on the possibility of disorder, that which lies outside the law, that which is outside the dominant value system. It is in this way that the double traces the unsaid and unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, made “absent”. It threatens to dissolve dominant structures, it points to or suggests the basis upon which the cultural order rests – the unified individual. The “other” has been categorized as a negative black area – as evil, demonic, barbaric – until it is recognized as the unseen of culture.


What is the cultural ‘unseen’ that we find expressed in popular culture?


Typology of Doubles in Popular Culture


Understanding the psychology behind the use of the double is informative because not all of the doubles that we find in popular culture speak through the psychology of the Doppelganger. In seeking to contextualise the use of the ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ motif, there are some 16 dominant forms of doubles that can be identified. I’ve put these into the table below, but I’ll define these in more detail with examples below.

There are four broad groups (there are some overlaps with some of the more creative stories):


  1. Physical Doubles – Doubles that physically look similar to the original
  2. Reflection Doubles – Doubles that are reflections rather than being physical duplicates
  3. Transformation Doubles – where the one person might have double selves
  4. Narratology Doubles – where narratives use doubles to build characters or insights


To review these in numerical order


Typology of Doppelganger



Typology: Physical Doubles


Typology of Doubles


Of these, the ‘Evil Twin’ is the most developed storyline. The Evil Twin, in three of the examples below, is clashed with Type 9: Evil versions from another universe. As much as we tend to perceive a doppelganger as being an evil shard of ourselves; likewise alternative universes must be negative reflections on good characters we know.


evil twin


This has also been used in advertising to mixed reviews, the infamous Ford SportKa ads


Although, it should be noted there are some attempts at reversing this with ‘good twin’ story lines. Dave and Moon over Parador are both movies that show look-a-likes being better than the politicians they are doubles for.


Good Doubles


The use of clones is an interesting one since they are often used to speak to our own sense of ‘horror’ if we found we were not an original. We find that Hollywood has spoken to all of these aspects of being cloned.


Typology of Doubles


Multiplicity, is one man’s attempt to clone himself so he can experience more and ‘be in more places at once’. AeonFlux is a futuristic society where cloning and genetic manipulation are societal norms. Moon involves a clone that doesn’t know of his own place in the universe.


Clones as Doubles


In recent years the theme of identity has been explored in the context of multiplicity, challenging the ‘nature or nuture’ arguments.


dollhouse and Ophan Black


Orphan Black shows us the one person who has grown up in many different ways because of the environments in which she grew up in; nurture is very influential. The inverse of this was Josh Whedon’s Dollhouse, where the central character was one character that had multiple identities imprinted on to her: her nature changed each episode.

Who is the real person is a common theme of the Doppelganger in films. Also, pushing the question of ‘Am I the real me’? In a memorable Twilight Zone episode, a young Bruce Willis plays a man that finds a Doppelganger increasingly taking over his life.




Typology: Reflection Doubles


Typology of Doubles


As discussed above, reflections are a source of identity and also horror for us. Hollywood has long played to this sense of fear. To borrow from Nietzsche, ‘if you gaze long enough into a mirror, the mirror will gaze back into you’.


Evil Mirrors


From a semiotic perspective, we find the reflected Joker-card from a standard deck of cardsbeing a consistent visual-device to express the reflections or duality of nature in general across this entire typology.


playing cards as doubles

Typology of Doubles: Transformation & Narratology


Typology of the Double


Mental Transformations don’t have to be only one person appearing like they have two personalities. There have been more dramatic characters that share the one skull. Gollum in Lord of the Rings often appears to have dueling personalities that squabble over what to do with Frodo. In Batman, Two-Face literally has a physical marker of his two identities – even though the transformation is more mental than physical.


two face


The two Narratology doubles are the more complex of these four. Counterpoint Doubles are usually written in a way that we understand both characters better through the relationship and connectedness between them e.g. Dr Frankenstein chases his monster as his Faustian sin. Counterpoints can also be discussed as an objective-double – as in Vertigo where the woman is observed from the wheelchair as an observed double, but still a double to John “Scottie” Ferguson’s immobility.

Prefiguring is a narrative technique where one event evokes or seems prescient of another. The sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham is seen as symbolic for the sacrifice of Jesus as the Lamb. Historically, Caesar would evoke Alexander as an example of his own progress. In a visual sense, this poster for Episode I does a chilling task of prefiguring a different ‘double’ for Anakin Skywalker.


star wars episode 1


A film that exploits many of the dualities that are presented here is ‘The Prestige’ by Christopher and Jonothan Nolan, based on Christopher Priest’s novel of the same name (skip to the next section if you haven’t seen this film yet).

This has a series of ‘doubles’ at work:

  • The two lead magicians: one blue-collar, the other white-collar reflect each other inversely.
  • Hugh Jackman’s character uses a pseudo-double to create an illusion
  • Hugh Jackman’s character learns to ‘clone’ himself
  • Christian Bale’s character has a hidden twin, they both share the one life but have inversed personalities.


The Prestige

Physical Transformations


This leaves the discussion of the physical transformation, which started this analysis: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. From a structural level, there is something occurring here that is closer to the Jungian analysis of Doppelgangers that interests me. If these dualities are a fascination of modern writing, it’s not just an issue of good and evil. A hypothesis is that this particular story resonates so well because it challenges another aspect of modernity – what it is to be civilized.

The cultural signifiers of being civilized during the Gothic and Romance eras were to be more gentile or white collar. In some ways, being strong suggested you were stupid. While this might appear a simplistic observation, in Tolstoy’s time Russian intellectuals grew their fingernails long to indicate socially that they did not do manual labour. George Orwell, sums up this stereotype in Animal Farm:

“Boxer is the strongest animal on the farm, “an enormous beast, nearly eighteen hands high, and as strong as any two ordinary horses put together […] he was not of first-rate intelligence, but he was universally respected for his steadiness of character and tremendous powers of work”

This focus on civilization provides us with a matrix detailed below; where the conventions are being stupid and strong and someone weaker is more intelligent.


Jekyll and Hyde Matrix


Before analysing some ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ stories across this matrix, there is another important characteristic to recognise. That is that all of these stories have some type of catalyst that causes the transformation. In Dr Jekyll’s case it is his special formula. Although, we should note that Dr Jekyll was already drinking a lot of wine – the underlying story might have been as simple as him being an alcoholic. It is definitely a symbol of being civilised, where “all intelligent reputable men, all judges of good wine” is a marker of this elite social group. In contrast, when the police raid Mr Hyde’s room ‘”a closet […] filled with wine” which suggests a lack of sophistication and appreciation; this volume of alcohol hints at a hidden problem in his closet.

However, the presence of a catalyst is what separates the ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ stories from other types of doubles. While these characters have something inside to be unleashed, there is also an aspect that the catalyst takes control from them. Then there is a battle to be the dominant identity.

This is not to suggest that all characters in stories that take a transformative-catalyst turn into some reflection of their shadow.


Asterix and Obelix


Asterix and Obelix by René Goscinny, show all the aspects of a Counterpoint Double with a catalyst that doesn’t unlock some evil persona. Even getting his magic potion from Getafix, we see Asterix gain the strength of his friend Obelix (always strong from falling in the cauldron as a baby). Together they are the same character, Asterix is usually weaker and smarter, Obelix more stupid and strong. It is the potion that makes them equals and one.

If the matrix is functional then we should be able to find the reverse effect in stories, Jekyll and Hyde makes you strong, wilder and less-intellectual or wise. Then making yourself weak should give you wisdom or intelligence. This is what we find in many religions where being ascetic or undergoing trials that take you close to death provides divine insights.



The Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Motif


We can look at the matrix introduced above with this in mind:


transformations matrix of double


We find the Emperor from 300: Rise of an Empire transformed by his bath in the Holy waters and emerge stronger, evil and deranged. Bilbo and Gollum are Counterpoint doubles but in many ways they are intended to be Jekyll and Hyde, simultaneously, as they struggle under the influence of the ring.   We see Breaking Bad’s Walter White, who is dying of cancer, slowly change into Heisenberg: ‘Walter is the good man who decides to become a bad one’. Literally moving from white to black, again it is drugs that are at the centre of his transformation.


One of the Marvel Universes’ longest and most popular characters is the Incredible Hulk:


History of the Hulk Comic


Here we have the classic transformation of the weak/intelligent man turn? into the mindless monster. Here we find the same story as with Jekyll and Hyde, instead of a formula of his own devising, it is Gamma radiation that creates the transformation. Bruce Banner is usually depicted as a man trapped in the beast’s body. The trigger for the transformation is ‘anger’, as the Hulk says, ‘the angrier I get, the stronger I get’.


Hulk Transformation from Bruce Banner


In another of Marvels social experiments to challenge social stigmas, they lifted the veil on parental abuse. If there is a dark place within the mild mannered scientist, is was his upbringing – the source of his rage.


Source of Hulks Rage



A more traditional version of the Jekyll and Hyde story is in one of Batman’s many doubles: ManBat. Dr. Kirk Langstrom, a scientist that experimented on himself transforms himself into a Giant Bat, trying to replicate their sonar powers. He loses control of the transformation into a Manbat on more occasions, and is not restored to humanity until Batman captures him. Perhaps, suggesting he is a counterpoint-double to the more brutal side of Batman himself, who constantly has to show restraint.


Concluding Observations


Referring back to the introduction of this discussion, the public use of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ to describe a wide range of different behaviours (finish your thought). There is another alternative, in that people can just have an alter-ego.

An alter-ego, when used for the same person, refers to a role or persona that is taken on by an actor or an individual. Clark Kent’s alter-ego was Superman; Batman’s alter-ego has Bruce Wayne. These are essentially masks or parts of a person that they present to hide or divide parts of their lives. We talk about wearing different hats in different parts of our lives.


alter ego of superheroes


The question is that when we use ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ as a descriptor for criminals and other people’s questionable behaviour, are we not, from the implication it is out of their control, pre-excusing their behaviour? Sometimes people have hidden immoral or darksides; this is not a repressed or uncontrolled part of themselves – it is usually something tightly controlled and indulged.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a pressured response to being civilized; these characters let out their more primitive and wild natures. They became more bestial and less of a man. A consideration is that these days, Hollywood is reflecting back the inverted story: the wolf that pretends to be the weak/intelligent civilized man.


serial killers

 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

Mathew 7:15