Posted on January 27, 2019

Cam – Horror and the Double

Dawn Keetley

Cam is a quite extraordinary film, taking the horror genre into relatively uncharted territory. Directed by Daniel Goldhaber and written by Isa Mazzei, Cam centers on Alice, played brilliantly by Madeline Brewer, an “erotic webcam performer” (stage name of Lola), who is determined to move up the ranks at FreeGirls.Live. In one disconcerting moment, however, her world gets upended. She turns on her laptop to discover none other than herself performing live. What follows is straight out of a nightmare as Alice tries to get the service techs at FreeGirls.Live to fix the problem and then gives up and tries to fix it herself—all the while seeing on screen an exact double of herself. Alice’s double, moreover, seems determined to prove that she can succeed vastly better at being “Lola” than Alice herself.

Check out the trailer for Cam, which is streaming on Netflix:

Cam is fascinating on so many levels. The sudden manifestation of Alice’s double is never explained, a wise choice by writer Mazzei and director Goldhaber. Indeed, in large part because it’s never explained, Alice’s double is able to take on several different meanings. Most obviously, she just re-doubles, as it were, the double Alice had already created for herself (Lola). The double could also  represent the way in which one’s online presence, whether you’re a sex worker or not, can take on a life of its own—becoming almost impossible to delete, for instance. And Alice’s double could also stand in for all of our emerging varieties of “digital doppelgangers”—those online personas that we create (or that are created for us) for a variety of reasons: there are those (real) people who happen to share our name; the persona crafted by corporations from all the data available about us—literally called “digital twins”; and, of course, there are those “digital doppelgangers” who have simply stolen our (online) identity. Alice’s double, then, (in many ways already a double of a double) clearly taps into the anxieties we have surrounding the proliferating identities we create online—and the fear they may one day become autonomous, take on a life of their own.


Alice (Madeline Brewer) and her online double

But the double has a pretty rich history, one that precedes the Internet. In his long essay from 1919, “The Uncanny,” Freud wrote about the significance of the double, drawing on the work of Otto Rank (The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study [1914]). Freud argued that a person’s double emerged originally from a fundamentally narcissistic self-preservation instinct: “The double was originally an insurance against the extinction of the self” (142). He went on, however, to argue that, when the phase of “primitive narcissism” was surmounted, then the meaning of the ‘double’ changes: “Having once been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death” (142). The double switches, then, from being an assurance of immortality to a figure that seems to usher in death—a dread-inducing figure.

Certainly, terror is the principal emotion in many stories that feature a double, and so they have long been part of the horror tradition. There are several varieties of stories about doubles, and below are the most important texts that form the specific pre-history for Cam. These stories are different from stories of literal twins (e.g., Brian De Palma’s Sisters [1972] or Stephen King’s The Dark Half [1989]). They are also distinct from those ‘double’ narratives that involve transformation—in which characters transform into some usually more sinister version of themselves (e.g., the Jekyll and Hyde narrative). And they are also distinct from stories that involve characters whose doubles emerge from evident mental breakdown (e.g., Black Swan [2010], Shutter Island [2010]). In those narratives that form the pre-history for Cam, a character encounters a person in the real world who looks, sounds, and acts exactly like them—their  perfect doppelgänger. Significantly, in all cases the sudden manifestation of the double is never explained, so these narratives (unlike twin and transformation stories) remain deeply enigmatic.


Edgar Allan Poe, “William Wilson” (1839)

As far as I can tell, this is the first story that features a character who discovers someone is running around who looks and sounds just like he does. In this case, William Wilson’s double even has the same name and birthday. William Wilson ends up calling his double his “rival” and, indeed, that’s often how doubles function in these narratives –or, that’s how they’re seen by their “originals” who, understandably feel threatened by the presence of someone just like them. As William Wilson says, his double seems “actuated solely by a whimsical desire to thwart, astonish, or mortify myself.” By the end of the story, the identities of original and double become increasingly confused, also a staple of this kind of story—and something I was certainly left wondering at the end of Cam. You can read Poe’s story here.


Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Double (1846)

Those who may not have heard of Poe’s “William Wilson” may think of Dostoyevsky’s short novel as the first narrative about a character being pursued and persecuted by his double—which is exactly what happens to protagonist Golyadkin. Dostoyevsky’s novel is slightly different from Poe’s story in that Golyadkin’s double is his polar opposite—better and more successful than him in every way. This part of Dostoyevsky’s plot definitely informs Cam, as Alice’s double is able to rocket up the ranks of Free Girls Online when she herself was stuck hovering in mediocre territory.


“Mirror Image,The Twilight Zone, season 1, episode 21; aired February 26, 1960 on CBS. Written by Rod Serling and directed by John Brahm.

Mirror Image

Vera Miles as Millicent Barnes sees her double in the mirror

Before Cam, this is the only double narrative that I know of that features a woman. Millicent Barnes (Vera Miles) is waiting for a bus on a rainy night to take her to her new job. She soon discovers that she has a double in the bus terminal—and there’s a shocking scene in which she finally sees her in the bathroom mirror. Millicent tries to explain what’s happening to a helpful man also waiting for a bus, but he thinks she’s crazy and sends for the police. The episode ends with him seeing his exact double. “Mirror Image” is one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, not least because it features the wonderful Vera Miles (also in Psycho the same year) but also because the episode, unlike most Twilight Zone episodes, refuses the culminating explanation. We never really find out why these doubles suddenly appeared.

Related: Jordan Peele says in an interview with Rolling Stone that “Mirror Image,” which he watched as a child, inspired his upcoming horror film, Us.

You can stream “Mirror Image” on Amazon or Netflix:


Anthony Armstrong, The Strange Case of Mr. Pelham, published as a novel in 1957 but based on a short story, “The Case of Mr. Pelham,” published in Esquire on November 1, 1940.

Armstrong’s story, then novel, is the basis for the mostly faithful TV episode and film that follow—and it’s definitely worth a read in its own right. Mr. Pelham is an ordinary businessman working in London, his life guided by order, routine, and a hefty dose of timidity. He slowly becomes aware that he has a double, appearing at his usual haunts—his club, his office, and then his home—whenever he’s not there. As in Dostoevsky’s novel (and in Cam), Pelham’s double is vastly more outgoing and ambitious than he is. In fact, it’s telling, perhaps, that almost all of these doubles—including Alice’s double in Cam—are developed in plots of capitalist competition, and that the doubles are all more successful than their originals.

Part of what’s interesting about Armstrong’s novel, which inevitably doesn’t make it into the TV and film adaptations, is Pelham’s efforts to try to understand who or what his double is and where he came from.

Strange Case of Mr. Pelham

The original issue of Esquire in which Armstrong published his story and the first edition of the novel

As in many of these narratives (especially “William Wilson” and Cam), there is a climactic confrontation between Mr. Pelham and his double. The win in this case, unusually, goes to the double, with chilling consequences.


“The Case of Mr. Pelham,” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 1, episode 10; aired December 4, 1955 on CBS; directed by Alfred Hitchcock, based on Anthony Armstrong’s story.

Although only 25 minutes long, this TV adaptation captures the principal lines of Armstrong’s short story. It does offer a perhaps more certain “explanation” (if you can call it that) of the appearance of the double: “I don’t think he’s trying to persecute me,” Albert Pelham (Tom Ewell) explains. “I think he’s trying to crowd into my life, to move closer to me so that one day he is where I was standing, in my shoes, my clothes, my life. And I’m gone, vanished.”

You can stream “The Case of Mr. Pelham” on Amazon:


The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), directed by Basil Dearden

While this film, starring Roger Moore as Harold Pelham, is largely faithful to Armstrong’s novel, it does begin with an event not in the novel that adds something of an explanation of the inexplicable emergence of the double. Early in the film, Pelham gets into a serious car accident and suffers clinical death on the operating table. When he is resuscitated, two heart beats appear on the monitor –and then, after Pelham recovers, he finds that a much more enterprising version of himself has taken over his life.

Man Who Haunted Himself

Roger Moore as the man who haunted himself

There is a key moment in the “Mr. Pelham” plot that perhaps explains something of what’s going on in these double narratives. At one point, in an effort to distinguish himself from his double, Mr. Pelham buys a tie that is dramatically different from any of the more subdued ties he normally sports. In the Alfred Hitchcock Presents version, the shopkeeper insists that the tie is “an exclusive model, no two alike.” He thus invokes the anxiety that, in the era of mass production, it is actually harder to distinguish yourself—your house, your clothes—from others. Perhaps, in the era of mass production and, later, in the digital era, we are actually increasingly likely to be hounded by doubles; we may more and more struggle to distinguish ourselves from others. This is precisely the anxiety that Cam dramatizes—and it has a significant pre-history in fiction, TV, and film.

Related: Dawn Keetley on The Man Who Haunted Himself.

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