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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