Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Identity Exchange

Mundane identity swaps are commonplace in melodrama and Ruritanian adventures – Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper (1881) and Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) are examples – but as a fantasy motif IE should be magically literal: an exchange of Souls or bodies. Such upheaval is so disturbingly fascinating that it is generally distanced as humorous fantasy or milked as Horror; neutral treatments are rare.

F Anstey's Vice Versâ (1882) is the classic humorous version based on the strong Topsy-Turvy contrast of a body swap between strict father and schoolboy son. In Sir Walter Besant's The Doubts of Dives (1889) a rich and a poor man swap bodies, to the confusion of their girlfriends. Ernest Bramah's "The Story of Lin Ho and the Treasure of Fang-Tso" (1928) swaps a meek weakling and a ferocious Chinese bandit. Thorne Smith injects his usual mild salacity by making the victims husband and wife in Turnabout (1933). P G Wodehouse's Laughing Gas (1936) plays the trick on an overmuscled Briton and an angel-faced but black-hearted Hollywood child star. In keeping with their light tone, these stories end with the status quo restored; it has been a mild ordeal or Night Journey where at least one participant Learns Better.

Not so in H P Lovecraft's "The Thing on the Doorstep" (1937), where the soul of a black Magician who has possessed a young woman by IE repeatedly borrows her husband's body until this tormented man kills "her" – whereupon a final, forced exchange traps the husband's mind in the female corpse. Such attempted Immortality through successive swaps is a common theme. The erstwhile Egyptian priest "Dog-Face Joe" in Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates (1983) must make frequent transfers owing to the unnatural hirsuteness soon afflicting any body he wears; to cover his tracks he takes poison before the IE spell. The Sea Hag in Golem in the Gears (1986) by Piers Anthony has a similar problem: her stolen bodies soon "uglify", and replacements are sought. Another body-hopping villain, Suraklin, in Barbara Hambly's Antryg Windrose sequence, ultimately reduces himself to a computer program, and commits suicide on realizing that life as a machine is not the same as life in a human body, even somebody else's.

In Children's Fantasy, Diana Wynne Jones's The Ogre Downstairs (1974) briefly shows that an IE could be equally painful and revealing for two schoolboys of only slightly different ages.

The Cinema has used IE as a theme on numerous occasions since Turnabout (1940), based on the Thorne Smith novel. Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941) featured a form of Possession that was in effect IE. The first movie version of Anstey's novel was Vice Versa (1947); it was remade in radically revised form as Vice Versa (1988). Freaky Friday (1976) is another recasting of Vice Versâ, except that the couple involved are mother and daughter rather than father and son. Some of the Frankenstein Movies – notably Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) – involve IE. In All of Me (1984) two identities – one a Spirit – share a single body, one or the other becoming dominant at different times. An example of IE across the decades is presented by Maxie (1985). A persistent variation of the IE theme in the movies is of a person becoming either their older or their younger self physically, while retaining their current mind, so that romantic complexities can ensue: in Young Again (1986 tvm) and Eighteen Again! (1988) middle-aged men become physically youthful; in Big (1988) the opposite occurs; in Monkey Business (1952) both processes, in effect, occur. Dream a Little Dream (1989) interestingly mixes IE confusions with an Otherworld/dream Reality. Switch (1991) sees the mind of an MCP reincarnated into the body of an attractive woman; the crude comedy centres on what are essentially Gender-Disguise issues. The most intelligent exploration of the theme has undoubtedly been Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966), where the personalities of a nurse and her patient come to overlap such that the two women can no longer properly distinguish between themselves.

There are many minor variants on the IE theme, such as the "identity shunt" in Piers Anthony's Castle Roogna (1979), where the hero occupies the body of a barbarian whose mind is displaced into a flea – a form of sequential Possession. The Double Life of Véronique (1991) presents a sort of converse of the IE story. [DRL/JG]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.