Sometimes you walk down the street and see someone and for a moment you think it is a familiar face, perhaps a loved one or a friend. More unsettling can be when that person is someone who is very far away and you know cannot be across the road from you. Sometimes this can simply be a case of seeing the familiar in the unfamiliar. But other times, you may be seeing a doppelganger.
The word doppelganger comes to us from German and literally means ‘double walker’ referring to a shadow self thought to accompany everyone. It was believed that only you could see your doppelganger and that it would often be a harbinger of death when you did. Sometimes a friend or family member might see the doppelganger and cause confusion.
Another similar term is bilocation – when someone appears to be in two different locations at the same time. The double is often called a wraith and can be sufficiently real that anyone who interacts with it is unaware that they are not dealing with the real person.
One famous example of a well-documented doppelganger comes from the writings of an American named Robert Dale Owen. He was told the story by Julie von Guldenstubbe, the second daughter of Baron von Guldenstubbe. In 1845, Julie attended an exclusive girls’ school called Pensionat von Neuwelcke, near Wolmar in what is today Latvia. She was thirteen at the time and one of her teachers was a French woman named Emilie Sagee. Ms Sagee was a popular and successful teacher but also became the subject of speculation and rumours because it became apparent she had a double that would appear and disappear in front of numerous witnesses.
One example was given during a class when Ms Sagee was writing on the blackboard. Beside her was an exact double, copying her every move without holding any chalk. There were thirteen children in the classroom who saw the incident. Another incident happened at dinner one event when her doppelganger appeared behind her, copying her every move as she ate, simply without any utensils.
Nor was mimicry its only ability. There were times when the doppelganger appearing to do its own thing such as the day in 1846 when 42 students were gathered for the sewing and embroidery lessons. They could see Ms Sagee gathering flowers in the gardens while another teacher was supervising their lessons. When the teacher stepped out to speak to the head, Sagee’s doppelganger appeared in the chair – while at the same time the real person could still be seen in the garden. The real woman appeared somewhat tired in her movements while the doppelganger sat motionless. Two students approached the phantom and one tried to touch it but felt an odd resistance to her movements. Another walked between the chair and table, effectively walking through the apparition, which slowly vanished.
Ms Sagee herself never saw the doppelganger but whenever its presence was reported, she felt tired and drained. She even appeared paler on these occasions as if the phantom was somehow draining her to create its own appearance.
Another writer was plagued by his own doppelganger towards the end of his life. Guy de Maupassant was a novelist and wrote a short story called Lui about his experienced. These included one time when the doppelganger walked into the room, took the seat opposite him and started to dictate what he was writing.
16th century English poet John Donne saw his wife’s doppelganger while they were in Paris. She appeared to him holding a newborn baby and the real person was pregnant at the time. Unfortunately, at the same moment, his wife had given birth to a stillborn baby.
Another doppelganger appears to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The phantom appeared when he was in Italy and pointed silently at the Mediterranean. Not long afterwards, just before his 30th birthday in 1822, he died in a sailing accident in the very same sea.
Even royalty can’t escape the phenomena and Queen Elizabeth I was said to have seen her doppelganger laid out on her bed not long before she died.
Another possible explanation for some doppelganger experiences are that they are some sort of time shift or glimpse into another reality. One such example was written about by 18th century poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was riding along the road to Drusenheim when he met his doppelganger, wearing a grey suit trimmed with gold. Eight years later, von Goethe was riding along the same road but in the opposite direction when he realised he was wearing the same grey suit trimmed with gold that his doppelganger had worn. This made him wonder if that first time he had somehow spied his future self.
So when you glimpse that familiar face across the street from you, it may well be that the person is really the one you know, in a manner of speaking. But hopefully, their appearance in this unexpected place won’t be a foretelling of tragedy in their near future.