The Doppelganger Effect: Second Selves and Ghostly Doubles

June 2, 2011 § 28 Comments

By Tai Carmen

Though pop culture references to “doppelgangers” (a German word translating to “double-walker”) are often used to describe people who resemble one another, the word has a rich and often eerie history, which has more to do with ghost stories than celebrity look a-likes.

Famous witnesses of the doppelganger effect include president Abraham Lincoln, the great poets Percy Shelley and John Donne, Goethe of Faustus fame, Queen Elizabeth I , and Catherine the Great of Russia.

Lincoln saw a second face, exactly like his own but with a ghostly pallor, in the mirror on the night of his election. The face disappeared when he stood up, reappeared when he lay down. Though old mirrors have been known to cause double images, what would make the second face significantly paler? Writes Lincoln of the unnerving experience:

” [The memory] would once in a while come up, and give me a little pang as if something uncomfortable had happened. When I went home again that night I told my wife about it, and a few days afterward I made the experiment again, when (with a laugh), sure enough! the thing came back again; but I never succeeded in bringing the ghost back after that, though I once tried very industriously to show it to my wife, who was somewhat worried about it. She thought it was a “sign” that I was to be elected to a second term of office, and that the paleness of one of the faces was an omen that I should not see life through the last term.”

Incredibly, this turned out to be exactly the case. Lincoln was re-elected for a second term — assassinated in the theatre, where he had gone to celebrate his second win.

The vision of a doppelganger has long been considered a harbinger of death. Queen Elizabeth saw her own double laid out upon her bed shortly before she died. John Donne witnessed his wife’s ghostly doppelganger holding a dead child in her arms the same evening she gave birth to a stillborn child, though the couple were thousands of miles apart, and he did not learn of the event until many days later.

Percy Shelley, still widely considered the greatest poet of the English language, reported viewing his doppelganger while in Italy. The apparition pointed silently to the Mediterranean Sea, in which, not long after, Shelley drowned in a sailing accident.

The custom of covering mirrors with cloth after a death in the family has its roots in the superstition that the spiritual double of anyone passing by the mirror might be projected into the glass and carried off into the underworld.

The idea of a subtle, energetic body (or “spirit body”) within the fleshy corporeal form, distinct from the soul, is an ancient concept touched upon by philosophers from Plato to Aristotle, deeply imbedded in Ancient Eastern and Egyptian spirituality.

The idea finds its roots in the concept of the astral plane, a modern term to describe an ancient idea: that increasingly subtle energetic/celestial realms exist outside of our reality. The astral body then is the vehicle in which the soul can travel these otherdimensional planes. Ancient yogis and modern occultists have attempted to travel the astral plane while still living, a thing known in contemporary language as astral projection. Many report having achieved the feat.

Adepts at such a practice could allegedly project their avatar across many miles and appear in two places at once, a concept known as bilocation.

Though the Eastern yogis are most known for tales of teleportation, it’s also present in the Christian tradition.

In 1774,  St. Alphonsus Liguori is said to have gone into a trance while preparing for Mass. When he came out of his meditation he reported that he had visited the bedside of the dying Pope Clement XIV. His presence was confirmed by those attending the Pope, despite his being four days travel away, and not appearing to have left his original location.

In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda describes how, as an adolescent, upon asking his guru, Swami Pranabananda, to locate a family friend, the swami went immediately into trance. Not understanding, the young yogi sat politely while his guru sat engaged in deep meditation.

Thirty minutes later, the swami emerged from his trance state and announced that the family friend would be arriving shortly. Astonished when the friend did indeed shortly arrive, young Yogananda asked his guru how this could have happened. The swami explained that he had simply “gone” to where the friend was bathing in the Ganges river and told him Yogananda wished to speak with him. As far as the friend knew, he had simply run into the swami at the Ganges.

Such phenomena was not considered miraculous in ancient India, but seen as a natural part of the development of yogic disciplines.

In her article, “The Art of Teleportation and Bilocation,” Mary Desaulniers elaborates on the scientific basis for such phenomena:

The discovery of the “biophoton,” a coherent, laser-like light stored and emitted by all living cells suggests that large scale, quantum states of coherent photons can produce resonant, collective, wave effects like telepathy and teleportation […] 

[According to MIT physicist, Claude Swanson, author of The Synchronized Universe] the human body can be seen as a “quantum system, with a set of quantum states all vibrating in step.”  [T]he human body can function as a coherent oscillating system in which each electron becomes synchronized with others behaving “in phase” and reinforcing one another.

When the human body generates a store of coherent energy which takes up a spatial pattern, it increases the probability of such a structure or pattern appearing in real life. It is this power of coherence or synchronization that makes possible exceptional human functioning events like teleportation and bilocation.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating documented accounts of bilocation occurred in what is now New Mexico in 1622. Father Alonso de Benavides had been assigned to the Isolita Mission to carry out a conversion of the local Jumano Indians. To the priest’s surprise, the tribesmen were already familiar with Roman Catholic rituals, had alters and crosses, and knew the Catholic liturgy — all in their native tongue!

Mystified, Father Benavides wrote both Pope Urban V11 and King Phillip of Spain to find out who had been there before him. The reply was that nobody had been sent. Unsatisfied with this answer, Father Benavides began asking the Jumano investigative questions regarding their knowledge of the Catholic rites. The Indians told him they had been instructed by a beautiful “lady in blue” who came among them for many years, teaching them this new religion in their own language.

Knowing that the nuns of the Poor Clare order wore blue, Father Benavides found a painting of one of the nuns and brought it to show the Jumano. Was it she? he asked. Yes, they said: the dress was right but the woman was different. She was young and beautiful (where the woman in the painting was portly, plain and mature.)

When he returned to Spain, Father Benavides was determined to solve the mystery and went to speak with the Poor Clare nuns (who were a cloistered order, never leaving the nunnery after taking their vows.) He found his answer at last in Sister Mary of Jesus in Agreda, Spain, of the Poor Clare order.

Sister Mary, as it turned out, had been falling into a cataleptic trance during her prayers for years, after which she recalled “dreams” of traveling to a strange, wild land where she taught the gospel. Amazingly, she was able to offer detailed descriptions of the appearance, customs and dress of the Jumano, which was impossible for her to have known about, as they were a newly discovered tribe.

When asked how she had communicated with them, she replied that she had merely spoken in Spanish, and “God had let them understand one other.”

Whether one believes it was the work of God or the power of Sister Mary’s conviction, the story — and like phenomena — remains simply fascinating. Such is the mystery of human consciousness.

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§ 28 Responses to The Doppelganger Effect: Second Selves and Ghostly Doubles

    • taicarmen says:

      Thank you!!! I thought your post on Doppelgangers was fabulous too!! In tribute, I made Catherine the Great a link to it 🙂 Loved your added touch of humor. 😉

  • Julia says:

    Lincoln DID make it to his second term, he was reelected, and before the inauguration was invited to the theater to celebrate.

    • taicarmen says:

      Oh my, really? Thank you! I’ll make the correction. I wikipedia-ed him and the phrasing seemed to indicate a mid-election assassination. Even more amazing!!! Thanks for the kind note. TC

  • Karol Beatty says:

    Great piece (like everything you write)! Such interesting tidbits I never knew! You always teach me something – and certainly make me think! (and scramble for a dictionary!!) But you’re so fun to read. Fascinating topics/comparisons – and always great pictures! Thank you! 🙂
    (I miss your weekly poets, are you not doing that site anymore?)

    • taicarmen says:

      Thank you so much!!! I’m so glad you find the posts stimulating… ! 🙂

      In terms of dictionary scrambling, I try to make any obscure words links to their definition — linked words are in bold — because I am big into learning new words as well and spreading the words I love, so check if I haven’t already made the word a shortcut link to an online definition. 😉

      Kudos on expanding your vocabulary!!!! Words are keys, so often unappreciated in this day and age.

      Regarding the Pine Grove Literary Review, I do still intend to continue with it, but it’s been rather hard finding new authors to feature…

      I have already used all my friends once, so…ha! I am kind of having a block with it at the moment, but I do intend to continue it. Hopefully I’ll figure something out!

      Thanks for the encouragement. 🙂


  • Stamatis Tripos says:

    Very interesting informations.Good work

  • usha says:

    yes, this kind of theory existing in ancient indian epics also.

    • taicarmen says:

      The ancient Indian epics are fascinating!!! I only know what I’ve read in the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads. Are there others you recommend? Perhaps a future post. It seems they had a lot figured out back then, in that time and place, which eludes us to the point of seeming impossible, now. Thanks for your comment! Seekers unite! TC

  • Fargaia says:

    A few years ago, I met this woman that did some sort of energetic cleanse of my body. As she put me in a trance, she could feel my thoughts, my past and she somehow managed to see into my future. She said i would meet a certain person that would have a great affect on my life, and a few months later I did.
    Unfortunately, i stopped seeing her because of lack of time, but i still sometimes try to get in that state by myself.
    One day i read this article that said that people can enter trance states that allow them to travel outside of their bodies or even through another dimension. So I tried to enter in a trance state and walk out of my body. I believe i accomplished that, and walked a few minutes around the house, as my body stood on the floor of my room. It was a really scary experience, because I was not experienced and could hardly get back to my body. When I got back in ti, I realized that my heart beat rate was very low and I breather hardly the time i was out. If you ever try to do something like that, please be very careful, and be sure you get help from someone that is experienced. I never tried that again, because I got scared.

  • This was awesome, I am digging your blog. Can’t wait for the next entries!

  • Love it. So well organized and well paced! I always get overwhelmed when I consider writing blogs on facts. So I stick to feelings and dreams. I commend your work. I’m curious, have you has experiences like this? I have not. Although, as a child I had an imaginary twin.

    • taicarmen says:

      Thank you!!! 🙂

      I have not had such an experience myself, though I am fascinated by the idea of the twin, and struck by how many famous individuals have had this experience. I’ve been researching the doppelganger effect further since writing this post and I have learned more about it…more about who and what The Double is…excited to share in a future post.

      It’s funny, because I feel overwhelmed by the idea of writing a blog that is strictly opinion. What if I look back in a few months time and feel differently? I do interweave my pet themes in here a lot…so there is that aspect…but I prefer to ask the questions rather than answer them — though I do sprinkle in some personal opinions, usually in the form of a Socratic question — and then bring up some time tested answers to see where they fit in with one another.

      It’s also stuff I study anyway, so I might as well sum it all up in a piece at the end of a bout of research. It helps me to sort it all out if I put it into words 🙂

  • Julie Vitells says:

    Tai! So awesome! Thanks for the brain nourishment.

  • Nonservium says:

    Nice post. Actually I’m more interested in a different but perhaps similar phenomena. But I don’t know what the name of it is. Basically, it amounts to seeing someone who looks like X then, a short while later, and no matter how improbable, seeing X. Does anyone know what that would be called? I think many people have experienced this and would like to know more about it. Any help would be appreciated. I’ll bookmark your site! Thanks.

    • Tai Carmen says:

      Thanks! Nice to hear!!

      I believe you are describing the phenomenon of synchronicity, defined by good old wiki as:

      “The experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance and that are observed to occur together in a meaningful manner. The concept of synchronicity was first described in this terminology by Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychologist, in the 1920s.

      “The concept does not question, or compete with, the notion of causality. Instead it maintains that, just as events may be grouped by cause, they may also be grouped by meaning. A grouping of events by meaning need not have an explanation in terms of cause and effect. In addition to Jung, Arthur Koestler wrote extensively on synchronicity in ‘The Roots of Coincidence.'”

      I’d definitely check out some writings by Jungians or Jung himself, synchronicity is a big part of his work.

      I believe it is some evidence of our energetic connectivity, a sign perhaps that we are sharing sympathetic vibrations of thought or focus with that person on that day…or possibly the physical manifestation of an unconscious desire…definitely has fascinating implications — a good topic for a future post!

      Thanks for stopping by! Feel free to sign up for email notification of new posts in the top right hand corner of the main page. 🙂

      Journey well.


  • […] Look at the following of examples of the Doppelgänger Motif: The Doppelganger Effect: Second Selves and Ghostly Doubles | PARALLAX JOURNAL […]

  • dreamsawake says:

    Wonderful information on a fascinating topic. I loved the story of the Spanish nun and I will have to research here some more. I recently wrote a blog about my some of my personal dream experiences with a doppleganger. If interested you can visit,

    • Tai Carmen says:

      Thank you, Dreamsawake! I appreciate the positive feedback. A fascinating subject indeed! I will check out your blog!
      On on,


  • farida issa says:

    Its shocking n how do you guys know that its an indication of death? I mean it cannot be 100%accurate,right?

    • Tai Carmen says:

      The implication of death is just one interpretation. It has applied to a few but I’ve certainly heard doppelganger stories that did not involve a death. 😉

      On on,


    • Tai Carmen says:

      Check out, for instance, the blog of fellow reader & commenter

      This person had a very beautiful experience of her double in dreams. I think there is a lot more to this idea than simply being a harbinger of death. I suppose that was the connection the Romantics made, who were most famous for writing about the doppelganger effect, but they were sort of macabre anyway, and mortality was one of their pet themes.

      I think on a spiritual level the idea of seeing yourself outside of yourself—two selves—is much more about re-uniting with your soul, uniting fragmented aspects of self. I should really do a follow-up post on this soon, exploring these implications.

      On on,


  • 64doors says:

    Interesting article. 🙂

    My favourite bilocation story is one Ram Dass speaks about in a video of his on Youtube. I will paraphrase here.

    A man’s wife is very impressed with a particular guru swami in India and urges her disbelieving husband to go and visit him. He arrives and sits with the man, who is barely dressed, wearing a large turban and who will not look at him or say not a word. After fifteen uncomfortable minutes he stands and exclaims that he has run out of patience, but the maharaji asks him to please stay a bit longer. He asks the husband to write a letter to his wife, which he does, in which he explains that he’s not impressed with the maharaji at all. He hands it to the man, who puts it beneath his bare behind on the chair and asks him with a smile to wait five minutes more.

    At the end of the five minutes the husband gets up exasperatedly to leave. Maharaji stops him and hands him the letter, smiling. He opens the letter to find it is from his wife, who says she’s terribly sorry that he didn’t have a good experience, she loves him and that she would write more but the man in the large turban is asking her to hurry. 🙂

  • […] της ζωής ανεγείρει τους αρχαϊκούς φόβους. Το σύνδρομο Doppelgänger προκαλεί την ανθρώπινη επιθυμία κάθε ατόμου να είναι […]

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