The Strange, Shadowy World of Real Doppelgängers
It has become sort of a colloquial expression to say someone is a “doppelgänger” if they look just like you. Yet the origins of this term and indeed the whole phenomenon behind it are cloaked in a veil of myth, mystery, and high strangeness beyond what you might expect. This is a world in which spirits or demons from beyond take the form of people, in which individuals bilocate to other places to exist in two places at once, are followed about by shadow copies of themselves, or project themselves into other locations through means we may never understand, and in which spectral clones of ourselves or even evil twins run amok. As we will see, sometimes when someone says you are the spitting image of another it could possibly have rather bizarre connotations and implications.
The word “Doppelgänger” originally derives from the German phrase “double goer,” and rather that denoting one who simply bears a striking resemblance to another, the origin of the word is steeped in the world of the strange and supernatural. The myths and legends orbiting the doppelgänger phenomenon are varied. In some traditions they were considered to be shadow selves; ghostly twins that follow their owners around and which all of us possess, although they rarely make themselves known. These shadow beings were often said to be harbingers of bad luck, hardship, illness, disaster, and death, and it was never thought to be a good thing if one were to see their own doppelgänger. In other traditions, the doppelgänger is a supernatural entity such as a spirit or demon, which takes the form of a person for inscrutable purposes, and other tales describe them as a physical manifestation of a person’s spirit, a sort of extension of them given form in the physical world.
Doppelgängers are said to be indistinguishable from their double, and usually are imparted with all of the same knowledge and memories. They are said to appear either directly, fully interacting with the world as their double would, often in an entirely different location, or to simply make themselves known fleetingly in the periphery of the vision. In some eery cases they are known to have the unsettling habit of blinking into existence behind a person as they look into a mirror, hiding on the edges of our known reality. It is not uncommon to hear tales of an doppelgänger interacting and talking with the friends and family of a person in a different place as if they were that person, totally unbeknownst to anyone involved, especially the one being copied. Although it is said that these shadowy imposters have mostly nefarious intents and agendas, haunting their owners and being very much the “evil twin,” they are said to also on occasion help their double, doing tasks, taking care of business, doing chores, and more or less acting as a sort of surrogate body for their host.
Although this may all sound like pure myth and spooky folklore, there are many well-known and documented real cases throughout history of people encountering their own mysterious doppelgängers, and these reports are often imbued with a surreal bizarreness. Many of the people who have reported being confronted or even stalked by their doppelgänger are far from raving lunatics, and these kinds of reports have come from numerous notable historical figures. None other than Queen Elizabeth I of England, who ruled from 1558-1603, allegedly once saw her doppelgänger lying in her bed as if dead. The experience apparently deeply troubled the usually level-headed, rational ruler, and making things even more ominous is that she supposedly died not long after reporting the incident, just as the sinister legend predicts.
A similar story involving royalty and their doppelgänger is that of the great and famous 18th century Russian empress Catherine the Great. According to the tale, Catherine was in her private quarters when some startled servants saw her and wondered how she could be there when they had just spotted her entering the throne room just moments before. Curious as to what they were talking about, Catherine then allegedly went to the throne room and was met by the site of her exact double sitting upon the throne as if she had every business in the world being there. Supposedly the empress ordered her men to fire upon the strange intruder, after which the imposter purportedly dematerialized into thin air. Chillingly, just as had happened with Queen Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great died not long after encountering her doppelgänger. Is there any relation? No one knows.
The rich and royal are far from the only ones to have been allegedly haunted by their wraithlike doppelgängers. The 16th century poet John Donne claimed that he saw the doppelgänger of his wife as he was visiting Paris. The somewhat spectral woman was holding a newborn baby, which was eery as Donne’s wife had been expecting a child at the time. Allegedly, Donne’s wife would tragically give birth to a stillborn baby at around the exact time that Donne had seen the ghostly apparition.
The well-known German writer, poet, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also had a rather bizarre encounter one day in the late 18th century as he was traveling down a dark, lonely road on his way to Drusenheim after visiting a lady friend. At one point another traveler approached going the other way, and as the stranger came closer Goethe claimed that it had turned out to be a man looking exactly the same as him, only wearing a dark gray suit trimmed with gold. The mysterious double continued on his way as if he hadn’t even noticed Goethe, and the whole thing was not a little creepy, although he would later claim that it had also been strangely soothing. Weirdly, Goethe would be traveling down the same road 8 years later in the opposite direction and as the memory of the strange incident overtook him he suddenly realized that he was wearing the exact same distinctive gold-trimmed suit his doppelgänger had been wearing at the time. Interestingly, Goethe also supposedly had the experience of seeing the doppelgänger of a friend of his named Friedrich, who he saw walking along the street in the rain only to find him back at home wearing the same clothes but totally dry and claiming he had not been out walking about at all.
Another well-known tale of a doppelgänger also has its ties to the literary world in the form of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was a poet, and more famously the husband of famed author Mary Shelley, the author of the classic Frankenstein. The man seemed to be absolutely plagued by his doppelgänger, confiding to his wife on June 23 of 1822 about his many strange encounters with his enigmatic double. Perhaps the spookiest such encounter was when he told her that he had been out on the terrace and seen his ghostly twin calmly standing there. The doppelgänger then had apparently turned to him and asked, “How long do you mean to be content?” Corroborating the seemingly far-out tale was a sighting of Percy Shelly’s doppelgänger by Mary Shelley’s friend Jane Williams, who claimed that she had seen Percy walk down a street she knew led to a dead end and then strangely pass once again from the same direction, but that he had then not come back out. Creepily, Percy himself would later claim to have been nowhere near that street at the time. Percy also claimed that he often saw his double looming over him when he was ill, its face blooming from shadows and darkness to randomly startle him, and that these encounters had become more intense in recent days. Ominously, Percy Shelly would die in July of 1822 in a storm as he was sailing from Leghorn to La Spezia, Italy, on July 22, 1822, almost exactly a month after telling his wife of his doppelgänger.
Another writer menaced by a supernatural double was the great French writer Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), who towards the end of his life claimed that he had frequently been visited by his doppelgänger, who would often talk and interact with him. One day, things took a sinister turn when de Maupassant was sitting at work writing a story called The Horla, when his doppelgänger had apparently entered the room, calmly taken a seat next to him, and begun dictating what the author was writing until the unnerved man called to his servant in a panic and the double vanished. Bizarrely, this particular story he had been working on is about a man being haunted by an evil entity that plans to turn him insane and take over his body. Almost prophetically, Maupassant is said to have gradually lost his grip on sanity in the years after finishing the story. As his mental state further deteriorated, Maupassant was allegedly visited by his doppelgänger again, with the entity sitting in his room and burying its face in its hands as if in abject despondency. Maupassant would later be admitted to an insane asylum, where he would eventually die around a year after this weird last encounter, perhaps with thoughts of the doppelgänger still dancing through his head. Maupassant would write about his doppelgänger experience in his short story Lui.
Moving beyond the world of royalty and writers, there is a fair number of others who have had these bizarre doppelgänger experiences as well, and perhaps one of the most famous is the great American president Abraham Lincoln himself. On the very day of his election in 1860, just after he had been told that he was now president of the United States, Lincoln had apparently been sitting on a sofa at home when he looked into a full length mirror and saw himself standing there within it, only oddly with two faces, one paler than the other, cast over with an almost deathly pallor. Startled and a bit unsettled, Lincoln then had then stood up to approach the mirror and the apparition had promptly vanished. The disconcerted president sat back down on the sofa only for his own, two-faced visage to materialize within the mirror once again.
The incident would disturb Lincoln, who went on to tell his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, about it. A few days later, the doppelgänger in the mirror would appear again, and Lincoln’s wife became increasingly convinced that it was a portent of bad things to come, and that it meant he would be elected to a second term but would not live through it. The incident was written of in a book by Noah Brooks, who claimed to have heard it first-hand from Lincoln himself, and who wrote about it in his Washington in Lincoln’s Time (1895). In keeping with the sinister portents of doppelgängers, president Abraham Lincoln would die one month into his second term, just as his wife had feared.
Another man of political power who witnessed a doppelgänger was British Parliament member Sir Gilbert Parker, who in 1906 was attending a debate and spied fellow parliament member Sir Frederick Carne Rasch sitting amongst them. At the time, Rasch was supposedly at home very sick with the flu, and so his presence at the meeting was surprising to everyone present. The startled Parker approached Rasch and asked if he was feeling better, but the man seemed to simply completely ignore him. Thinking it all rather odd, Parker went back to his own seat, but when he looked back to where Rasch had been sitting moments before, the man was gone. Other parliament members also remembered Rasch being there at the debate, but no one knew where he had gone off to, and no one in the lobby had seen Rasch pass by. When he was contacted at home, Rasch claimed that he had been very sick in bed the whole time and had not been present at the debate. Although his family feared that it was an ominous harbinger of death, Rasch would survive the appearance of his doppelgänger and would even humorously joke that he was sorry that he hadn’t died, but that he would try and do better next time.
Equally as strange was an incident experienced by a Dr. Wynn Westcott, of the British Museum of London. On April 12 1888, Westcott and a Reverend W.T. Lemon had an appointment at the reading room of the museum, and Lemon arrived to find Westcott talking with a Mrs. Salmon, who excused herself to greet the reverend. When they both looked back over to where Westcott was, he was gone without a trace. They looked everywhere but he was nowhere to be seen, and when they asked around the receptionist informed tham that Dr. Westcott had indeed arrived but had never left. Many others who were present also remembered seeing Westcott, but did not know where he had gotten off to. When Lemon and Mrs. Salmon went to visit Westcott at his home, they were startled to learn that he had been seriously sick in bed all day and had not left the house.
One of the weirdest cases of an alleged doppelgänger is that of a certain French woman named Emilie Sagee, who in 1845 was a teacher at an exclusive girls’ school in Latvia. Although she was considered to be a reliable and capable teacher, she had oddly gone through 19 different teaching positions in 16 years, and this may have been largely in part to the doppelgänger that was said to follow her around. In her new school, rumors quickly spread that the popular teacher had a strange habit of being in two places at once, often in the same room and in front of many witnesses. One such situation happened one day during Sagee’s French class, when she was writing something on the board and her ghostly twin appeared beside her to mimic all of her motions. The doppelgänger was described as looking completely identical, right down to every piece of clothing and seeming to be quite corporeal. It was not only during class when the strange entity would suddenly manifest itself to copy her movements, and it was seen at times as Sagee ate or as she walked along. In every instance, Sagee herself was unable to see the apparition, although students claimed that they could clearly see it as though it was a living, breathing person. Sagee claimed that during these odd episodes she felt tired and somewhat drained of energy.
There were also many claims at this time that Sagee would often be seen roaming the school halls, even though she was later found to have been in her office the whole time or even at home fast asleep. In one case, the doppelgänger appeared before a group of students of a sewing class to sit silently in the teacher’s chair even though the real Sagee was allegedly outside visibly working in the garden. Students who had warily approached the entity said that they could pass through it, although it was noted to have had a certain density to it like “thick fabric,” or “like the stuff cobwebs are made of,” after which it vanished in full view of around 50 startled students. In total, hundreds of students would come forward claiming to have witnessed Sagee’s doppelgänger in action, and she was eventually dismissed amongst growing fear and complaints, despite the fact that she had been considered a model teacher.
Reports of doppelgängers go far beyond what I have covered here and I have only scratched the surface with some of the most famous cases involving well-known people. There is even a case of Rod Sterling, of Twilight Zone fame, seeing a man at an airport who looked exactly like him and who had been carrying exactly the same kind of luggage, who would go on to inspire the episode Mirror Image, concerning, of course, doppelgängers. How can we explain such strange phenomena, and who are these mysterious wraiths that seem to copy people’s every detail? There have been many ideas on what could be going on here, ranging from the rational to the bizarre. The most mundane idea is that these are merely hallucinations, some sort of mental glitch, or the effects of profound mental issues such as schizophrenia, but this would not explain those cases of doppelgängers that were clearly witnessed by other people.
Another is just as myth suggests; that these are spirits or wraiths of some kind that mimic and stalk their quarry. There is also the theory that these strange doppelgängers could in fact be “living ghosts,” or projections of a person’s spirit through a process we may never understand. More outlandish ideas point to these apparitions being in fact past or future versions of a person that have somehow travelled through dimensions or a time slip of some sort to make themselves visible. There is also the theory of the phenomenon of what is called “bilocation,” wherein a person is somehow able to appear in more than one place at once.
Do any of these explanations have any merit? Are we dealing with ghosts, phantoms, bilocation, inter-dimensional oddness, or mental projections materializing into the real, or is this just flights of fancy and crossed brain circuits? Is there anything to this beyond simple myth and legend? It certainly gives one pause when one is told that they look just like someone else. Perhaps there is more going on than just a strong resemblance.