Magic that fucks around with identity is, frankly, terrifying. Whether it’s something as simple as a Polyjuice Potion, which allows you to take on another person’s appearance, or something as dramatic as traveling to an alternate universe where your life is markedly different, identity magic is, at its core, an affront to autonomy. In essence, someone is using your face to effect changes in your life without your consent.
The easiest example of the evil identity thief that I could think of is, of course, from Supernatural. The series offers two different examples of magical creatures who can steal your appearance: shapeshifters and Leviathans. Both of these creatures are shown appearing as Sam and Dean while getting up to nasty business; indeed, it’s thanks to a shapeshifter that Dean was being hunted by the FBI throughout Season 3. The show also deals in body-switching and AU scenarios in various episodes, allowing the characters to run the gamut of uncomfortable situations you can experience when you’re displaced from the body and environment you’re supposed to be in. Welcome to Night Vale, not to be outdone, gave us a plethora of identity magic issues all in one episode.
The writers of Welcome to Night Vale doubled down on doppelgangers in their two-part episode “The Sandstorm”. First, we have the doubles created by the sandstorm’s magical sand, as presaged on Old Woman Josie’s Instagram:
Old Woman Josie has not called, but intern Dana said that Old Woman Josie updated her Facebook page with an Instagram of some rune stones. Dana has been furiously translating these symbols, and her best guess is that they say “They come in twos. You come in twos. You and you. Kill your double!”
—Episode 19A, “The Sandstorm”
As the sandstorm rolls into Night Vale, exact doubles of each person (save Cecil, oddly enough) appear, and horrified, the citizens of Night Vale attack them. What’s most terrifying about this is that it’s impossible to tell who wins and loses these fights to the death; indeed, thirty episodes later we still don’t know if Intern Dana or Intern Dana’s double was the one who won the fight. Hiram and the Faceless Old Woman even bring it up as proof that Dana’s not qualified to be Mayor:
Faceless Old Woman: She can’t be mayor! She is a murderer! She killed her own double!
Hiram McDaniels’ Gold Head: Well, now, now, now, I don’t know if “murder” should necessarily disqualify someone from being…
Hiram McDaniels’ Blue Head: Irrelevant. There is a 50% chance that the victim was Dana Original and not Dana Double.
Hiram McDaniels’ Gold Head: Oh yeah, thanks, Blue. Forget that other thing I was saying about murder. She has no proof that she is not a double of herself.
Were the doubles just that, doubles? Or do they have some sort of sleeper programming that will eventually rear its head and cause the not-so-quiet desert town even more problems? The lack of certainty is deeply unsettling, and it’s even more unsettling that those doubles who did win just picked up the lives of their originals without any lasting consequences. The autonomy of the originals has been irrevocably compromised and there’s no way to make it better.
On top of these, we also have the dichotomy between Night Vale and Desert Bluffs, in that each Night Vale citizen has an equal and opposite Desert Bluffs equivalent (Old Woman Josie and Grandma Josephine, Mayors Pamela Winchell and Pablo Mitchell, Larry Leroy out of the edge of town and Lawrence Levine out on the edge of town development, etc.). Cecil, instead of meeting a sandstorm double during the storm, encounters his radio host counterpart Kevin. The two men are described as looking almost exactly alike, except that he has a terrifying smile and jet-black eyes. Kevin is basically Cecil’s evil AU version, and when briefly placed in their counterparts’ lives during the storm, they’re both immediately uncomfortable.
These doubles are less viscerally scary—as they are all distinctly separate people with different personalities and some differences of appearance from their Night Vale versions, there’s not a risk that, say, Kevin could kill Cecil and take on his life without anyone being able to tell the difference. However, they do serve a different purpose in the narrative: to provide a dramatic “normal but terrifying” contrast to Night Vale’s “weird but welcoming” vibe. Desert Bluffs appears to be a brighter, more cheerful, less suspicious place than Night Vale—they even try to work with their sandstorm doubles to achieve twice the productivity rather than killing them—but we soon learn that that’s a front. Both cities have their black helicopters and their strange governments, but where Night Vale is friendly but dysfunctional, Desert Bluffs is an Orwellian nightmare full of people who have been indoctrinated to believe that Strexcorp trumps everything.
One of the best things about scenarios featuring identity magic is that they’re great for character building. They help to define a character by saying, “look, this is what they’re not”, which in turn reaffirms what they are like. Of course, not all creepy doppelgangers have a deeper purpose; sometimes a scary clone is just a scary clone. But when used effectively, both sorts of doubles can provide the audience with interesting questions about what it means to be ‘you’. Are you replaceable? How would different circumstances change you? Who are you, really? And if reading deeper meanings about identity into my fantasy stories is wrong, well, I don’t want to be right.