Back in 1967, Star Trek set the standard for evil twins in the episode “Mirror, Mirror,” birthing an instant genre cliche fully formed like Athena’s trepanation gestation. An alternate universe right next door, populated by characters that act like our heroes and but for the telltale evil goatee, look exactly the same, too.
Part of the reason this worked so well, and resonated just right at the time, was simply the politics of the era. There was a good empire and a bad one. We both stood astride halves of the world, both defended ideologies the other found repugnant. The world made sense to us as a mirror of black and white, because over the decades our armies, statesmen, and citizens glaring across at each other through the dark curtain. It was like looking in a shadowed mirror. We each had counterparts, our armies had counterparts, our leaders, our space programs, our institutions. Anything either side put a value on, the other had a version of. What made the war Cold was the fact that it wasn’t a chess game, but the prelude to one. It was forty years waiting for one side to slide a pawn forward, just staring out over at a bunch of pieces that looked like ours, but twisted and different.
The world’s less simple now, less symmetric. The story doesn’t hold quite the same tug. But it still sits there, a well oft returned to, because it appeals to something very basic in our psychology. It highlights the way we think of our place in the universe.
There was a set of psychological experiments back in the seventies that taught us a lot about how humans divide people into “us” and “them.” We’d always assumed that there was rationale at the end of the day, that this group hated that group because they competed for the same resources, or one group had killed the other’s goat ten generations ago. The reasons might have been overblown, but we always assumed that there was reason at the basis of it. It turns out that’s wrong. Take any group of people and randomly divide them into two groups by flipping coins, and have them work on opposite sides of the room. Take a coffee break, come back in an hour, and subtly survey both groups so they don’t know what you’re getting at, and you’ll find that systematically each group says the other is worse at everything, by every measure: less talented, less attractive, less honest. Everything.
Take your random groups and give one group red hats and the other blue ones. Then bring in a new person wearing a red hat and have them give a presentation or some such. Survey the groups again and the red group will systematically rate that speaker higher than the blue group. Our brains are cesspools of unconscious arbitrariness, forming tribes the way water forms puddles.
The idea of an evil universe and evil counterparts always breaks down in logical terms because everyone assumes that they’re the good guy. That their counterpart is evil. And really it’s just that once we’re wearing red hats, those bastards with blue hats are by definition the antagonist in our weird little ape brains. But something niggles at our subconscious all the same, this recognition that maybe we’re not the good guys, or that at the very least even if we are it’s just an accident of which universe we happened to find ourselves in.
We think that we are good, but so do our evil twins. Creatures with our faces doing things that we loathe, it’s proof of our fears that we’re not really so good anyway. That all it takes is a different context, a different life, a different universe, and then we’ll be the opposite of everything that we ever were. That we’re only a thin line from being the goateed man who guts children just to see them squirm.
We delude ourselves into thinking that we’re special. Take a poll and how many Americans insist that if they’d been in Berlin in 1939 they’d have stood up to the butchers? That if they’d been born in communist Russia they’d have been a freedom fighter, that they wouldn’t have been swinging machetes in Rwanda, or loading their neighbors into buses at gunpoint in Bosnia. But we’re not so special, there’s nothing so sainted about our particular street corner of history. Ask Kitty Genovese how good we are, how different and moral we are.
Evil twins throw that back in our faces, letting us know that we’ve met the enemy, and he is us.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the Senior Associate Editor for Film School Rejects.