What Are Doppelgangers? Your Mysterious, Ghostly Twins

Have you ever run into yourself?

Ever had a friend claim they saw you somewhere you know you hadn’t been? Ever spotted yourself in a photograph…standing next to yourself?

You’d be surprised at the number of strange cases in which people have encountered their own, mysterious doubles. But what are they? Where do they come from, and what is their purpose?

What Are Doppelgangers?

Doppelgangers are doubles of living people. Sometimes, they appear as apparitions, lacking shadows or reflections. Other times, they seem perfectly real, bizarre clones of unsuspecting individuals. In folklore and paranormal circles, their appearance may be seen as an unfortunate omen of terrible things to come. Of death.

The idea of doppelgangers has existed throughout history.

You could, vaguely, trace it back to the idea of souls. The Ancient Egyptians may have referred to them as ka — a person’s “vital spark” or essence.

Great Pyramid of Giza

If the ka were to leave the body, the person would die. In fact, the existence of ka was likely one of the reasons for the Egyptians’ extensive burial preparations — they wanted to make sure that the ka was given appropriate accommodations after the death of their body.

In 1787, the English antiquarian Francis Grose referenced the Irish folklore of Fetch, the apparition of a living person. These, too, were seen as bad omens, usually appearing to friends or family members before the person’s death. There is one exception, though — a Fetch seen in the morning would portend a long life.

The actual word, doppelgänger, comes from the German word for “double-goer” — doppel meaning double, gänger meaning walker or goer. It was first coined in 1796 by Jean Paul in his novel Siebenkäs, in which a character speaks to his own “alter ego.”

Doppelgangers can also refer to simple “lookalikes,” normal people who just appear similar to others. But we’ll get to that in a moment. In more modern times, more than a few reports of alleged doppelgangers have appeared, some to rather prominent individuals.

Whatever they truly are, when a person sees their doppelganger they are often left confused and more than little disturbed.

Ghostly omens

Abraham Lincoln Doppelganger
Abraham Lincoln, 1863

Some doppelgangers, like the one Abraham Lincoln is said to have witnessed in a mirror after he was elected president, arrive as ghostly apparitions, clearly not of this world.

Lincoln, or so the story goes, had been resting on a sofa the evening he won his first election as President of the United States.

When he looked into a mirror on the other side of the room, he was startled to see two faces – his own, and a second, deathly face right next to it. When he got up to investigate, the face vanished. This grotesque vision would appear again over the next few days, but eventually cease.

Noah Brooks shared the strange tale, reportedly in Lincoln’s own words, in his book Washington in Lincoln’s Time, published circa 1895. According to him, Lincoln described the doppelganger as such:

“…looking in that glass I saw myself reflected nearly at full length; but my face, I noticed had two separate and distinct images, the tip of the nose of one being about three inches from the tip of the other. I was a little bothered, perhaps startled, and got up and looked in the glass, but the illusion vanished.”

His wife, Mary, felt this doppelganger was a terrible omen, the pale double face signifying that Lincoln would die during his second term.

Percy Shelley Doppelganger
Percy Shelley, 1819

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley also had an encounter with a doppelganger. According to his wife, Mary Shelley, he had witnessed it shortly before his death in 1822, and it even spoke to him. In a letter to Maria Gisborne, Mary Shelley wrote:

“… talking it over the next morning he told me that he had had many visions lately — he had seen the figure of himself which met him as he walked on the terrace and said to him — “How long do you mean to be content” — No very terrific words & certainly not prophetic of what has occurred. But Shelley had often seen these figures when ill…”

Stranger still, a doppelganger was also witnessed by their friend, Jane Williams, who said she had been standing at a window and saw, clear as day, Percy Shelley walk by, followed by himself. This all happened in June.

Percy Shelley would drown the following month during a storm in the Gulf of Spezia on July 8, 1822.

Could these two famous cases of doppelgangers, that of Abraham Lincoln and Percy Shelley, have been otherworldly warnings of tragedy to come?

Ordinary People

Believe it or not, real-life “doppelgangers” do exist. They’re called Twin Strangers, and while the chances of ever bumping into yours out on the street are low, you may just have one. Out there. Somewhere.

Researchers who have investigated the phenomenon believe there’s actually a pretty good chance that most people do have a lookalike. The odds of seeing one have only increased thanks to the Internet. Luckily, unlike the ghostly omens we’ve just gone over, these real-life twin strangers don’t seem to be portents of doom.

They can be confusing, though. In one extraordinary case of a twin stranger, a person found someone who lived in their same town, with the same name, same birthday, same doctor, and even the same medical prescription and dose. They even had a “mutual professional friend,” though they’d never bumped into one another. That is, of course, an extreme case involving much more than simple appearance.

If you’re curious, there’s actually a website you can visit to find your own twin stranger, if one exists. It works through facial recognition – you upload a photo of your face, then choose archetypal features. Face shape, eyebrows, that sort of thing.

Apparently it works, in a weird way.

Double Trouble

Image: Nine Köpfer/Unsplash

There are other cases of doppelganger encounters out there if you search for them. A year ago, Reddit user Mojo_of_Jojos posted about her experience with a doppelganger, which seemed to pop up multiple times throughout the years.

The strangest time was when she was younger, and her brother saw her “sitting next to the bed, reading a book.” This was odd, because he could also see the “real” her sleeping in bed. Her brother described the strange duplicate as “a shinier version” of herself.

Another case involved a haunted house and the appearance of multiple doppelgangers, seeming doubles of the family that lived there. The poster, lauriemama, saw her husband’s doppelganger, while their son saw hers:

“The one like me talked to him and asked him if he wanted to take a walk with her. He was shocked but pleased and said sure. Then “I” walked into the other room. When he went to check where I was I was in bed asleep.”

It’s difficult to explain such paranormal phenomena. What do you believe?


Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.