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Dr Pam Hirsch

Lecturer in English Literature and Film Theory, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge


Jordan Baseman’s film, ‘Nature’s Great Experiment’ is a film in three parts, utilising case studies, archive footage, audio field recordings and interviews. Jordan has had access to the longitudinal research undertaken by the Twins Early Development Studies (TEDS). As a lecturer on film at Cambridge University, Jordan’s film provoked me to think about the issue of twins, and why we are fascinated by them. Part of the fascination with twins is simply their rarity: less than 4 in a hundred births. In some cultures twins have been seen as inherently evil: consider, for example, the novel by the great Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1959), where he describes the practice of the Yoruba people in pre-colonial Nigeria. Twins were abandoned to die at the edge of the forest, and the mother of twins had to undergo ritual cleansing.
   But for filmmakers, it is the idea of twins that fascinates and more specifically, perhaps, the question of what it is that constitutes our individuality. Identical twins possess two bodies with physically the same characteristics, which nevertheless are the bodies of two distinct individuals. There has always seemed something uncanny about identical twins: a mirror image, a double or doppelganger (to use Otto Rank’s term) seems always threatening. In literature, film and occasionally in real life, a twin becomes fateful when masquerading as his brother (or sister).

In feature films, although occasionally identical twins have been used for comedic effect, the most frequent use of twins is to portray good and evil, as though each twin, although identical in looks, held the opposing qualities. The Dark Mirror, a 1946 noir thriller directed by Robert Siodmark, engages the viewer in a mystifying splitting and multiplication of identity. The film features Olivia de Havilland playing two identical twins, Terry and Ruth Collins, who are charged with the murder of a man but refuse to reveal who actually committed the crime. A young psychologist analyses both sisters in order to uncover different personality traits and thus identify the perpetrator. The first covert clue we get is that Terry is left-handed (and note that the word sinister originally meant left-handed but by the middle-ages had come to mean evil or bad), but says that she has learnt to use her right-hand too. In short, she can simulate goodness, but it is not natural to her. After applying Rorschach tests and free association tests to each of the twins, the psychologist discerns that Teri has no more conscience than a two-year old. He relates this to some childhood trauma, most likely the moment that when the twins were orphaned at four years old, the couple who adopted them wanted to take Ruth and not Terry.  Men usually sense the sweetness in Ruth and prefer her to Terry; this Terry cannot bear. She suffers agonies of jealousy, which come to a head when the psychologist falls in love with Ruth. She becomes deadly.

During the film, the psychologist refers to the ‘alibi’, an excuse that any neurotic person (not only psychopaths) will have to forgive themselves or explain away some aspect of their behaviour. This is a term invented – in this context – by the Viennese psychologist Alfred Adler. He is the first theorist both of sibling rivalry, and of the importance of birth order. Twins may experience extremes of sibling rivalry; and they also seem very keen to know exactly who was born first (even though to their family and friends they simply have a shared birthday. I have a friend called Louise, who has been in lifelong competition with her twin, Claire who was born eight minutes before her. Louise says Claire is prettier than her and cleverer than her. The ‘prettier’ is not evident to the eye of the observer. Both women are in equivalently high-powered jobs in the health profession (albeit Claire chose obstetrics and Louise then chose psychiatry, perhaps to avoid being in direct competition for the same jobs).

Another film featuring identical twins is Dead Ringer directed by Paul Henred in 1964. It features Bette Davis as both twins; one is rich having stolen and married the other’s boyfriend. Edie, the twin who lost out is struggling to keep up the rent on a cocktail bar in Los Angeles. Having not seen her sister for twenty years she attends the funeral of the Colonel, the man she had lost.  Edie is emphatically the good sister (she is a soft touch to all the dropouts in the neighbourhood), but she becomes murderous when she learns that Maggie had tricked the Colonel into marriage by pretending she was pregnant. When Edie has killed her sister and then pretends to be her, however, she finds herself in a ghastly situation where it becomes clear that Maggie has murdered her husband in order to be with a young lover. Edie is condemned to death for the murder of the Colonel, not the murder of her sister. Edie accepts this as though she has crossed the line from the good twin to the bad twin once she has killed her sister, but more significantly, perhaps that she has indeed become her own twin.

An even more acute version of twins, and the threat to individuality is the case of conjoined twins (always thereafter called Siamese twins, named after Eng and Chang). Born around 1820 in Thailand, they married in 1843 two American sisters, after which they slept in one huge bed and begat 22 children between them. They had different life habits: Chang was teetotal, but Eng liked to drink (which meant that Chang got drunk too, even though he had not chosen to). In 1874 Chang died, and Eng died two hours later. Lately, surgeons have become adept at dividing conjoined twins, so the situation has at last changed for these poor souls who before this often ended up in freak shows. Conjoined twins test the limits and double meanings of humanity. Twins are never perfectly identical, and one is usually dominant. Even though each of the two may be raised by the same mother (so that there is an assumption that nature and nurture are identical, in fact, parental projection of positive qualities onto one twin and negative qualities onto the other starts very early.  According to the Director of Twin Services in Berkeley, “Some parents call us when their children are as young as four days old and say that they already know which one is the ‘bad’ one.  This, too, was evident in Jordan Baseman’s film in the section called Tape One and Tape Two, where a mother described her completely different responses to each of her twins to a researcher.  

Brian de Palma’s horror film, Sisters (1973), features Siamese twins separated at adulthood, after one of them Danielle falls in love with a psychologist looking after them. It is a thriller so it is not revealed until the end of the film, but the other twin Dominique dies, or indeed is murdered so that Danielle can survive. The twins were brought up in institution and, there, Dominique was generally considered to be the normal, sweet and responsive twin, and Dominique (note the closeness of the name to demon) the disturbed one. One senior psychologist however, opines that Danielle can only be how she is because of the other sister. This is the key to the murder mystery. Although Danielle is the surviving twin, she has a murderously jealous alter-ego (in effect Dominique). 

Jordan Baseman’s film certainly does not enter this noir territory so beloved of Hollywood film directors. It is a sensitive and ethical enquiry, sometimes very beautifully shot and needing close watching and thinking. Tiny details are suggestive.  I noted one shot of a swastika etched onto some boarding, which subliminally reminds the spectator of the evil experiments performed by Nazi doctors on twins. Evil, after all, is not to be found in the twin, but in the reactions and projections of those around them.