Follow something to its extreme, and sometimes you find out the continuum is a circle. Horror is all about extremes, and one of the places these ends meet is the seemingly contradictory fact that humans are terrified of things unknown, unnatural, and different…and just as terrified of things that are uncannily the same.
Mostly, when we think of horror, we think of the weird: aliens, monsters, worlds we can hardly imagine. Some authors lean on the “so terrifying I can’t describe it” trope pretty hard…as illustrated in this delightful series of tweets by Bitter Karella:
[Image description: tweets that read: Lovecraft: Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I call this the Tale of the Eldritch Horror : So this horror is so eldritch Poe: what does it look like Lovecraft: [sweats] uh i uh can’t tell you Lovecraft: it would make you go crazy Koontz: whoa Lovecraft: So this eldritch abomination is so eldritch that you can’t even look at it Lovecraft: it’s indescribable, just horror beyond imagining Lovecraft: your brain can’t even comprehend it Lovecraft: but also it looks like a squid]
(go check out the whole thread; it’s gold)
But it turns out we’re just as afraid of things that are too same, and plenty of horror films prove it.
Vivarium, a Shudder exclusive, tells us the story of a house-hunting couple who end up trapped in an endless, empty suburb where every house is identical and all roads lead back to their beginnings. The characters’ descent into madness is completely understandable from an audience perspective—everything about their situation is unbearably wrong.
We’re also afraid of our own doppelgangers, a fact Jordan Peele took advantage of in Us. David Bruckner looks to be experimenting with this same idea in his upcoming film The Night House. It seems counter-intuitive—why would be we afraid of ourselves? But we are—and I don’t think my reaction to meeting myself on the street would be one of happiness and excitement. I think it would scare the hell out of me.
Closely related is the fear of the ones we know and love—or ourselves—being replaced with identical copies, as in The Stepford Wives. One of the spookiest arcs in The Magnus Archives podcast involves a creature called “The Not-Them,” which replaces someone, altering memories, photos, and everything else to make it seem as if it’s always been there. Usually, it allows one person to perceive the difference, though they’re often unable to convince anyone else that their loved one has been replaced.
SciFi preys on this mistrust of sameness too. The Cybermen are some of the Doctor’s most enduring foes on Doctor Who, and their single-minded goal is to “ASSIMILATE” all creatures. On Star Trek, The Borg is a similar entity, and most robot uprising movies feature rows of identical, mechanical faces.
And some of the deepest evil we’ve seen in the real world (for horror always acts as a mirror) spawns from a desire to root out difference.
So there’s something scary about things that are too similar. But why? Probably the root cause here is that we’ve evolved to be a little scared of anything we perceive as unnatural—and nature doesn’t make clones.
There’s also the fact that difference signifies life, and sameness ultimately signifies death. In our living universe, stars exist at billions of degrees, while it’s below zero on Pluto. However, if we experience Heat Death (one of the possible end-of-the-universe scenarios), every atom will be the same temperature.
The same goes for ourselves—whatever you believe you “self” to be: spirit, soul, electricity between neurons, it is only a “self” because it is not an “other.” That is, it is unique.
Maybe we live in a Goldilocks zone, where we want things to be familiar enough not to jar us too much, but not uncannily similar. How we strike that balance is less clear, but a good horror artist knows how to set it askew. Which way it slants—well, that depends on the story being told.
Personally, I’d take an eldritch abomination before my own doppelganger any day of the week. Weigh in down below in the comments—what’s scarier?