Conjoined Twins in Pop Culture


Earlier this week, actress Sarah Paulson teased a photo of her character for the upcoming carnival-set installment of American Horror Story, subtitled Freak Show. She’ll star as conjoined twin sisters Bette and Dot in the series. Set in Jupiter, Florida at one of the last remaining freak shows of the 1950s, the struggling outsiders are forced to contend with the “evil forces” who do not understand them. It’s fantastic news for fans of the outrageous series (but somewhat bitter for those who wish Daniel Knauf’s Carnivàle was still on the air). Twins of all types have fascinated audiences for centuries, from the mythological figures of history to the vaudeville acts of the 1920s. But there’s something about conjoined twins that remains mysterious and potent for pop culture narratives. Their bodies are meshed, but their stories are unique. Here are eight instances of conjoined twins in pop culture that mesmerized and entertained.

Ping and Jing in Big Fish

In Tim Burton’s touching ode to family and fables, conjoined twins Ping and Jing are just two of the eccentric characters that populate the wild imagination of a dying man (Albert Finney) who attempts to connect with his distant son. Spanning time periods, but largely set in the 1940s, Burton made Big Fish true to the era, using practical effects (for the most part). Real-life identical twins Ada and Arlene Tai played Ping and Jing, wearing a custom dress to achieve the conjoined effect, starring as nightclub performers for soldiers in Korea.

Flora and Fauna Amor in The Addams Family

In a group of misfits, weirdos, and freaks (including a mute, disembodied hand), conjoined twins don’t seem so unusual. The 1991 film version of The Addams Family introduced conjoined twins Flora and Fauna Amor. The debonair Gomez Addams once wooed the women — a tactical flirtation intended to spite his brother Fester, causing a rift between the brothers that lasted 25 years.

The Octopus in The City of Lost Children

Sinister sisters known as the Octopus (Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet) in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children operate a school of kid thieves who commit robberies for a mad scientist. They are villainesses to the core, even smoking cigarettes in a most eerie manner: one takes a drag, the other exhales the smoke.

Photo credit: Brandon Zimmerman

Elly and Iphy in Geek Love

Joined at the waist, piano-playing siblings Iphigenia (Iphy) and Electra (Elly) in Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love are a big draw for the Binewski family sideshow act. The beautiful, talented twins inspire jealousy in cruel, deformed brother Arty, but the biggest rivalry exists within their own relationship. Elly despises her physical attachment to Iphy and manipulates her happier, naive sister. Despite this, Elly still craves her sister’s affection and attention. Their relationship becomes a twisted version of the Greek mythological characters they share names with, leading the siblings to a tragic end.

Elliot and Beverly Mantle in Dead Ringers

Twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle share careers, women, and a crippling drug addiction in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. As their lives spiral out of control, Beverly experiences a terrifying dream that the twins are actually conjoined — the same as real-life conjoined siblings Chang and Eng, who the brothers deeply identify with. The nightmare symbolizes their anxieties and desires surrounding separation and freedom from one another, and precipitates their mental and emotional breakdown.

Duane and Belial Bradley in Basket Case

Cult exploitation-horror film icon Frank Henenlotter put a grotesque spin on the pathos of conjoined twins in his 1982 film Basket Case. Separated against their will, Duane Bradley carries his deformed twin Belial around in a basket. The brothers seek revenge against those who tore them apart. Set on the seedy streets of New York City, Henenlotter’s gore-filled portrait of sexual panic and brotherly love is gleefully deranged.

Daisy and Violet Hilton

England-born vaudeville and sideshow darlings Daisy and Violet Hilton started their eccentric careers at the age of three. The Hiltons worked alongside Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Bob Hope, Harry Houdini, and Charlie Chaplin. Most memorably, they appeared as themselves in Tod Browning’s controversial 1932 film Freaks. But their seemingly glamorous lives were fraught with tragedy and exploitation. Finding themselves at the hands of predatory opportunists and unscrupulous guardians, the sisters fought to gain control of their destinies throughout their lifetime. Filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis created a compassionate portrait of the twins with Bound By Flesh , detailing their struggles.

Rose and Ruby in The Girls

Lori Lansens’ American Library Association award winner The Girls tells the story of conjoined twins Rose and Ruby Darlen who are attached at the head. Rose carries the frail, smaller Ruby on her hip. The Girls alternates narrators, giving us a glimpse of each sister’s distinct personality. Lansens lyrically weaves together the joys and sorrows of their shared existence as the women fall in love, explore their dreams, and face the end of their short-lived lives following the diagnosis of a brain aneurysm.