Doppelgänger: Is Your Evil Double Out To Get You?

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By: Alex Postrado

Does Seeing Your Double Mean Death?

Have you ever met someone who looks exactly like you?

No, I’m not talking about your twin or your sibling 一 or anyone biologically related to you, for that matter. I’m talking about a complete stranger. Someone you never knew existed until your paths crossed.

Doppelgänger.

That’s the term people often use to refer to someone’s lookalike.

But behind that word, actually lies a pretty disturbing origin. A narrative that birthed some of the scariest plotlines in both literature and film.

And to make sense of that, we’ll have to go back to where it all started.

The Origin and Lore of the Doppelganger

In 1796, German writer Johann Paul Richter 一 also known by his pseudonym, Jean Paul 一 coined the term Doppeltgänger.

Spelled with an initial capital letter and an extra “t”, the original use of this word in Paul’s novel, Siebenkäs, had quite a different meaning from how we came to know the word today. 

But it eventually developed over time, both in definition and spelling 一 and there entered the word doppelgänger.

Doppel means double. And Gänger means walker, or goer.

In German folklore, doppelgänger means a “wraith or apparition that casts no shadows” and is “a double of a living person”.

A replica, basically.

Also called a spirit double.

Interestingly enough, the belief in spirit doubles and similar entities stretches thousands of years back 一 as seen in ancient myths, stories, art, and literary works.

For one, Finnish mythology has an entity called etiäinen. Like a doppelgänger, it is basically a spirit copy of a particular person, arriving and doing things the real person would do in advance, thus giving déjà vu some kind of explanation.

The Norse 一 similar to Finnish myth 一 also has a spirit twin of their own. It is called a vardøger, and is defined as “a premonitory sound or sight of a person before he arrives”.

You see, phantom doubles have always been a widespread concept around a lot of cultures.

However, it was the doppelgänger that caught the most attention.

But why?

What Makes the Doppelganger Stand Out?

Unlike replicas from other cultures which aren’t necessarily diabolical in nature, traditional German folklore generally considers doppelgängers as foreboding spirits and harbingers of bad luck.

In the sense that, if you physically spot one 一 either your own or someone else’s, it is a sign that tragedy, illness, danger, or death of the person who is copied is imminent.

A bad omen, as they call it.

Others claim that doppelgängers also have the ability to appear in dreams. And seeing your ghostly twin in your sleep probably wouldn’t be a good thing either.

Death in the mirror?
Could your reflection mean death?

It is said that doppelgängers can try to communicate. But you must avoid interacting with them at all costs 一 be it in your dreams or in the real world.

Why?

Because the lore has it, that this paranormal replica tends to offer advice to the person they shadow. And what’s more, is that they may also try to influence their prey into thinking about 一 or even worse, doing 一 sinister things.

All of these hallmarks made the doppelgänger a literary and pop culture favorite.

A horror staple for years to come.

The Doppelganger in Art, Literature, and the Big Screen

It is true.

The doppelgänger’s inherent scare is one of the best things it has to offer to the creative world.

But what most people might actually miss is the fact that these alter egos also make for the perfect artistic device to delve into the duality of human nature.

“To personify the darker traits of a character.” And this ultimately brings out the best in your standard evil twin trope.

One of the most striking and obvious examples of this could be found in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In the story, Dr. Henry Jekyll is a well-respected and brilliant scientist. On the flip side, Mr. Edward Hyde is Jekyll’s evil and “hardly human” alter ego, who he brings out after meddling with the darker side of science in an attempt to know his second nature.

This plotline gave Stevenson a great opportunity to explore human duality 一 more specifically, the idea there is good and there is evil hidden within everyone.

Talk about doppelgängers being the best narrative tool to put across this concept!

And with this, doppelgängers became a prominent symbol in both past and modern mass culture 一 as evident in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s artwork, How They Met Themselves; Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, William Wilson; and the fairly recent Jordan Peele film titled Us.

But, with our perennial fascination with doppelgängers, is there any chance that these spirit doubles indeed exist in the physical world?

Do Doppelgangers Exist?

There is an alleged doppelgänger sighting so famous that even non-fans of the supernatural would likely know.

In 1860, on the night Abraham Lincoln was elected as President, it was said that his doppelgänger appeared before him, in the form of a pale and ghostly reflection in the mirror.

It alarmed the then-new President. But, even more so, his wife, who thought that the double was 一 in fact 一 a bad omen concerning his safety, as well as his presidency.

Turns out, Mary Todd Lincoln had every reason to get panicky because the premonition seemingly proved to be true after Lincoln was assassinated before the end of his second term.

Doppelgänger encounters like this were said to have happened numerous times throughout history.

Russian Empress Catherine the Great, English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Queen Elizabeth the First all had supposedly run into their doppelgängers at one point in time.

But as interesting 一 and spine-chilling 一 as it would be if doppelgängers really did exist, science has a far less menacing explanation for the “twin phenomenon”.

According to experts, hallucinations 一 particularly, heautoscopy 一 could be the culprit for doppelgänger sightings. Heautoscopy can cause a person to see his own body at a distance and this is a common symptom in both schizophrenia and epilepsy.

So, simply put 一 ghostly, paranormal twins don’t exist in the eyes of science.

Finding the Real Doppelgangers

While supernatural doubles most likely don’t exist, there’s still a chance you could meet your real-life doppelgänger.

But don’t get too pumped up yet!

Research, based on facial anthropometric measurements, says that the chance of meeting an exact twin is only one in a trillion!

I’m not sure we all have the time to spare for that.

Besides, trying to find your doppelgänger probably wouldn’t be the best idea anyway 一 that is if we’re playing it by the German lore.

Where doppelgängers are paragons of horror.

Premonitions of tragedy.

Omens of death.

And while doppelgängers are known to cast no shadows, these ghostly alter egos sure did leave a lasting mark on the stories we tell at night.

References:

Doppelgangers and Curious Myths and Stories of Spirit Doubles
Etiäinen - Finnish Mythology
Vardøger - Norse Mythology
Tracing the Development of the Doppelgänger
Doppelgänger: A psychological analysis of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
5 Historical Figures Who Saw Their Doppelgänger And Then Died
The disturbing consequences of seeing your doppelganger
You are surprisingly likely to have a living doppelganger
One In A Trillion Odds Of Having A Real-life Doppelganger
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