The Vampire Happening (1971)

Doppelgängers: should they instill fear, or arousal? It’s a question I’ve asked myself once or twice, and I am pretty convinced that there must be others out there like me. Although it may seem strange that these two apparently opposing emotions would intersect, the relationship between the pair has been noted throughout horror criticism.

Doppelgängers occupy a strange and duplicitous corner of the horror landscape, and one that can prove to be devastatingly illuminating when thoroughly examined – particularly when one uses the uncanny double to better understand the relationship between desire and denial that brings the doppelgänger to the forefront of the conversation.

Most often, when you think of a double, you may think of a nightmare duplicate scenario like the one that unfolds in The Dark Half, in which a writer’s doppelgänger attempts to track him down and kill him. But fortunately, there’s a movie from the 70s that features a doppelgänger portrait that perfectly illustrates these points: The Vampire Happening.

The Vampire Happening (1971)

Act I – The Seductive Double

In The Vampire Happening (1971), directed by Freddie Francis and starring Pia Degermark, an actress named Betty Williams inherits a castle in Transylvania. But soon, hijinks emerge from the fact that she bears an uncanny resemblance to her undead grandmother (not to mention the fact that she cannot bear to encounter anyone who isn’t immediately overcome with lust for her).

The movie immediately sets about doubling everything in sight. One of the first examples is the signature that appears on-screen before the title card: it isn’t the name of the actor, it’s the name of the character.

Things get more complicated when the skittish manservant, Joseph, who greets Betty at the entrance to her inherited castle, reveals that the reason he was so shocked by her arrival is that she’s the spitting image of her grandmother, Clarimonde Catani. Joseph conveys this piece of essential exposition by showing Betty a portrait of Clarimonde.

The Vampire Happening (1971)

This titular topless portrait, which will play a central role throughout the movie, depicts Clarimonde affront the family castle, draped in red satin and with her breasts on full display (in all their “70s boob” glory). Time and again, this portrait serves as the link between Betty and Clarimonde, with Betty frequently gazing upon the painting as though it speaks to her in a voice no one else can hear.

Soon after showing off the topless portrait (and after a nudity-laden demonstration of some of the torture equipment with which the family castle comes pre-furbished), Joseph reveals that the corpse of Betty’s grandmother, Clarimonde Catani, resides in a coffin that’s kept in the basement.

Problems soon arise from the fact that Clarimonde is indeed a vampire, and one who is essentially the exact double of her granddaughter save for hair color -- a distinction which is soon complicated by the fact that both generations of metaphorical man-eaters have a thing for wearing wigs.

It isn’t just their appearances that are similar: Clarimonde and Betty are both exceptionally horny. In fact, everyone in this movie is exceptionally horny, including (or perhaps especially) the Catholic clergy who reside in the church grounds adjacent to Betty’s Castle (no surprise to anyone who has endured the close company of a clergyman).

The Vampire Happening (1971)

In some doppelganger tales, one character’s actions will prove to be at odds with their identical duplicates, and their untoward behavior can end up causing problems for their “other half”: a basic Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation. But curiously, both Clarimonde and Betty have essentially the same relationship to these clergy members: we see the two women seduce the hapless Brother Martin, essentially in shifts (although it’s only Clarimonde who is invested in drinking his blood).

The vampire sub genre has plenty of examples of “corrupted femininity.” But unlike Dracula, in which Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker were presented as foils for one another, with the former being an example of untoward sexuality and the latter being a demonstration of chaste womanhood. The primary tension for the third act of Stoker’s seminal novel emerges from the fact that Mina has been taken by the Count, and runs the risk of having her femininity sullied in the same manner as Lucy’s was.

The Vampire Happening (1971)

However, such a crisis does not exist in the narrative of The Vampire Happening: Betty isn’t at odds with her doppelganger grandmother; if anything, she seems to look up to the maneater grandmother of hers, Clarimonde… Sometimes literally, as is the case in the scene in which she’s making love to the man Betty turns to after Martin has been turned, a schoolteacher named Jens Larsen.

During a scene in which they’re having sex, Larsen cannot seem to tear his eyes away from the topless portrait of Clarimonde predominantly displayed over the fireplace. But after a few thrusts, Betty flips Larsen so that he’s on top, stealing the view of Clarimonde’s topless portrait for herself (and seemingly being quite satisfied with herself for doing so).

Act II – The Deadly Double

But while The Vampire Happening may present a version of the doppelgänger that could be viewed as personally aspirational, the more common examples of duplicates within the horror genre are significantly less seductive and decidedly more dangerous.

One example is the aforementioned The Dark Half, the 1993 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. Directed by George A. Romero, the story follows Thad Beaumont, an author who renounces his pen name, “George Stark”… so naturally, Stark – who writes a very different kind of book than Beaumont does and may rise to the level of a distinct personality – becomes a physical entity that tries to destroy him.

The story follows a sort of “duplicate from within” narrative: although Beaumont attempts to “bury” Stark (even going so far as to hold an actual funeral for the alternate identity), the repressed writer of schlocky genre fiction returns, creating very real problems for his literary “other half.”

The Dark Half (1993)

The 1989 novel on which the movie is based seems to have drawn upon King’s real life experiences: in fact, the book opens with an Author’s Note that reads: “I’m indebted to the late Richard Bachman for his help and inspiration. This novel could not have been written without him. – S.K.”

Bachman was, of course, King’s pseudonym, under which he published five novels before being publicly revealed by Steve Brown, a bookstore clerk who confirmed his authorship suspicions by digging through the Library of Congress publisher records.

King’s work probably isn’t as pretentious as Beaumont’s writing, but there were more than a few similarities between the pseudonymous Bachman and Stark: for one thing, they both write “harder genre fiction” than their “other halves,” with the Bachman novels adopting a more unflinching perspective than King’s work. And both pseudonyms pay respect to one-half of the incredibly prolific hard crime writer Donald E. Westlake’s pseudonym, “Richard Stark.”

Rebecca (1940)

While The Dark Half may present something of a dark duplicate from within, embodying an identity that one tried to repress but which instead returned with a corporeal vengeance, another common doppelganger storyline in horror sees a person being forced into a duplicate role from without. One example of this type of doppelganger can be found in the 1940 adaptation of Rebecca, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca embodies the nightmare inversion of the doppelgänger premise. Without her full knowledge or consent, a woman is forced into filling the role of her husband’s late first wife… right down to the name “Rebecca.”

While The Vampire Happening sees Betty’s identity seemingly collapsing into Clairmonde’s of her own accord (and vice-versa), and The Dark Half sees a King-written author collapsing into a fictionalized version of himself, Rebecca demonstrates an example of one individual being forced to conform to the framework of an outside identity by a third party.

Rebecca (1940)

Although being manipulated into playing the role of a dead woman isn’t the traditional doppelgänger narrative, the manner in which “Rebecca” is forced to fulfill the role of her husband’s late wife crosses the line into the uncanny, especially in the scene in which the new wife is manipulated into throwing a costume ball, just as the late wife and her husband often had. In planning the party, “Rebecca” takes the advice of Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, and decides to dress up in a dress worn by one of her husband’s ancestors in a family portrait… But to her surprise, when she arrives at the party, her husband is taken aback: his late wife had worn exactly the same dress at the final ball they held together.

Why would du Maurier write a novel that saw its protagonist be forcibly inserted into a role that wasn’t hers? Perhaps du Maurier’s personal life can offer a clue: in the novelist’s memoirs, she wrote that her father had wished for a son, and she stated that she wished that she had been born a boy.

Act III – Queering Doubles

So just how do the “seductive” and “deadly” doubles intersect? The answer may lie with the uncanny.

What does the uncanny have to do with duplicates? Quite a lot! To better understand their relationship, there’s no better tool than the literary criticism surrounding Sigmund Freud’s conceptualization of the unheimlich, a theory on the appeal of distortion and disguise that is itself rooted in Freud’s analysis of literary texts.

The Vampire Happening (1971)

The German word for the concept of “the uncanny,” the unheimlich (or “un-homelike”) can share a meaning with its apparent opposite, the Heimlich (or “homey”). This is because Heimlich can be synonymous with something that is “concealed,” or “secret” – like the hidden sibling locked away in the attic for the benefit of the rest of the family… or, say, the ancestral vampire locked away in the familial castle.

In any instance, the duplicate is a method of “othering” certain aspects of the self, creating an “uncanny” doppelgänger, a person who seems like home but maybe perhaps isn’t. Freud himself wrote that “the word ‘Heimlich’ is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight.”

But why is the idea of a “double” (or doppelgänger) so intimately connected to the concept of the unheimlich? Freud naturally has an explanation for this, too: it’s because “the quality of uncanniness can only come from the fact of the ‘double’ being a creation dating back to a very early mental age, long since surmounted.”

In this instance, The Dark Half affords an ideal example illustrating Freud’s supposition: while Stark isn’t a childhood concoction, he’s clearly presented as something Beaumont has “grown past,” a vestigial identity that – with Beaumont read to focus on only his more literary fiction – has become disposable… and give some of the distasteful aspects of the Stark identity, Beaumont isn’t sorry to see it go.

The Dark Half (1993)

If the “double” is a creation of one’s self, then why is it so unsettling? According to Freud, it’s because the creation of these “doubles” is part of a developmental process, in which the self creates a possible “duplicate,” then judges this “other” and determines whether or not one wishes to identify it as synonymous with one’s self. If rejected, the duplicate is consigned to the “non-self,” and subsequently expunged (as Beaumont attempts to do with the Stark identity during the funeral in The Dark Half).

Because of supposed finality of this eradication, the unexpected return of the “rejected self,” in the form of a doppelgänger, can be deeply unsettling. To see what amounts to a rejected identity of one’s self return is an uncanny experience, but one that carries both “familiar” and “unfamiliar” sensations along with it – see also: the arrival of the protagonist wearing the late Rebecca’s dress in Rebecca.

It is this intersection that creates the uncanny sensation: if the doppelgänger were wholly “unfamiliar,” it could be dismissed out of hand as an “Other,” but the familiarity it possesses thwarts this “safe” consignment.

Rebecca (1940)

In line with this understanding of the unheimlich is the fact that in the instances of both the “deadly” and the “seductive” doubling discussed above, the doppelgänger represents an embodiment of the parts of the self (or of one’s personal history) that one wishes to identify as “Other.”

However, while the “deadly” double MUST be purged, given that the negative or toxic personality elements or behavior are unsustainable, the “seductive” double may represent elements of the self that have been rejected due to societal expectations.

In other words, there is no necessity to purge the “seductive” double; unlike the “deadly” double, which embodies self-destructive behavior, one can simply admit that the “seductive” double is in actuality an accurate reflection, and embrace it. And while this may not comport with societal expectations, by embracing the “seductive” reflection, that which was once the providence of the unheimlich can instead be brought into the Heimlich, becoming “not strange; familiar… [and] intimate.”

The Vampire Happening (1971)

Epilogue: They Only Bite at Night

At the beginning of The Vampire Happening, Betty tells Joseph that she isn’t planning on moving into the Transylvanian castle – she’s just taking a look at it before she sells it. However, as the movie progresses, she grows more enchanted with the idea of remaining in Transylvania on a more permanent basis.

Mistakenly believing that Betty has become a member of the undead, Joseph resolves to send her back to Southern California in a crate. However, they confuse Betty for her doppelgänger, Clarimonde, and send the vampire granny to Hollywood in her stead. This leads to the “stable situation” at the conclusion of the movie, with Betty presumably living happily ever after in Transylvania alongside Larsen, and Clarimonde presumably using her man-eating skills to take Hollywood by storm. While Clarimonde may not have asked for the ticket to SoCal, it never feels like she’s being forced into a role she doesn’t want, Rebecca-style: in fact, she seems to wholeheartedly welcome her unexpected arrival in Hollywood, effectively making The Vampire Happening a traditional doppelgänger story, with the undead look alike replacing the living person.

However, it’s essential to note that this stable situation represents what amounts to an inversion of the duo’s respective circumstances at the beginning of the film, with Clarimonde taking Betty’s place in Hollywood and Betty taking Clarimonde’s place in Transylvania.

The Vampire Happening (1971)

Just like the Heimlich and the unheimlich, it ultimately becomes clear where the distinction lies between the two doppelgängers: there isn’t much of one! At the conclusion of the movie, both Clarimonde and Betty have taken the place of their respective doppelgänger.

Not all doppelgänger stories end with the two halves balancing one another out: in The Dark Half, Stark is carried away to the underworld by sparrows, a final “rejection” of the negative qualities embodied by Beaumont. With the deadly double, it’s purge or be purged.

But in the case of the seductive double, there’s another option available: to become what you might have once cast as “Other” and embrace the possibility of being the person you always were anyway.

AVERY KAPLAN is the Features Editor at Comics Beat and the author of several books (plus a whole bunch of comic book articles). She lives in Southern California with her partner and a pile of cats, and her favorite place to visit is the cemetery.