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The Doppelganger

The word doppelgänger originated from German folklore. The translation of doppelgänger is “double-goer” or “double-walker”. Today the term is used to describe non-relatives that share a likeness or resemblance, but the folklore behind the word suggests a more sinister history. Stories of paranormal encounters with living apparitions or body doubles span cultures throughout history. Is seeing a doppelgänger actually a mystical experience or is it an alteration of perception caused by neurological abnormalities?


Folklore

German folk stories describe a doppelgänger as a human apparition of a living person. Seeing or meeting one’s doppelgänger is considered a bad omen or worse a harbinger of imminent death. Irish folklore refers to the doppelgänger as a “fetch”. The fetch was an apparition of a living person seen just before death. The Irish believed that the fetch was sent to fetch the souls of the dying. Some European stories link doppelgängers to changeling folklore. A changeling is a human, typically a baby or child stolen by the fae and replaced with a fairy.

Egyptian folklore mentions a “Ka” or “spirit double”. Etiainen (Eh-tee-eye-nin) is the “first comer” in Finnish mythology. Finally, a Vardoger is the “spirit predecessor” in Norse mythology.


Fact or Fiction?

There is some debate about when the first accounts of doppelgangers appeared and whether the accounts were considered to be fiction or a paranormal experience. One of the earliest recorded accounts of an experience involving a doppelganger was by poet, John Donne in the 1600’s. John allegedly saw his wife’s doppelganger on the same night that she gave birth to their stillborn daughter.


Famous Author, Mary Shelley’s husband Percy Shelley drowned after he claimed to have seen his doppelganger. Percy Shelley’s 1820 lyrical drama, “Prometheus Unbound” mentions the paranormal encounter in Act 1. Percy saw his doppelganger shortly after Mary suffered a miscarriage. Strange coincidence that both Percy and John suffered the loss of a child around the time that they also experienced seeing a doppelganger.


Were these visions real or a manifestation of trauma and grief?



Pop Culture

Fictional accounts of doppelgangers first started appearing on the page as early as the 1790’s. Many fictional tales of doppelgangers center around the theme of an evil twin or a look alike that runs around committing evil acts. This idea really started to take off in the 1800’s.


Literature

In 1815, Ernest Theodore Amadeus Hoffman published, “The Devil’s Elixir”. The main character in the story murders the brother and stepmother of his beloved princess, only to find that his look alike has been imprisoned for the murders. The main character frees the doppelganger and…SPOILER ALERT: The doppelganger kills his gal.


Edgar Allen Poe wrote the story of “William Wilson” in 1839. The theme revolved around an evil imposter wrecking psychological havoc on the main character.


Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novel, “The Double '' centers around a doppelganger who takes over the life of the protagonist. A 2013 film adaptation of “The Double” was released starring Jesse Eisenberg. The trailer looks amazing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XG8qATRtNuU This is now on my movies to watch list.


1800’s gothic writers obviously loved the doppelganger theme. There are a number of stories and novels from the 1900’s and 2000’s that center around this theme as well.


In 2018, Stephen King put a new spin on the doppelganger in “the Outsider”. The killer in the book was able to use the DNA of victims to become a physical match. Creepy.


Film

The doppelganger first appeared on film in the early 1900’s in the 1912 German film adaptation of the play, “The Miracle”

Since the early 1900’s there have been way too many films and TV shows with doppelgangers or doppelganger themes to name. Here is a short list of three of the best (with an honorable mention #4) and three of the worst doppelganger themed films along with their Rotten Tomatoes rankings.


Best:

  1. Us (2019) - 93% Written and directed by Jordan Peele. The film Us is about a family that is terrorized by masked attackers. The masks come off only to reveal that the attackers are identical to each member of the family. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/us_2019

  2. Vertigo (1958) - 94% Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. “Hitchcock's romantic story of obsession, manipulation and fear. A detective is forced to retire after his fear of heights causes the death of a fellow officer and the girl he was hired to follow. He sees a double of the girl, causing him to transform her image onto the dead girl's body. This leads into a cycle of madness and lies.” https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/vertigo

  3. Black Swan (2010) - 85% Directed by Darren Aronofsky. “Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina whose passion for the dance rules every facet of her life. When the company's artistic director decides to replace his prima ballerina for their opening production of "Swan Lake," Nina is his first choice. She has competition with newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) however. While Nina is perfect for the role of the White Swan, Lily personifies the Black Swan. As rivalry between the two dancers transforms into a twisted friendship, Nina's dark side begins to emerge.” https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/black_swan_2010

  4. The Double (2013) - 83% Directed by Richard Ayoade. As mentioned before, this film adaptation of the classic novel, “The Double” got rave reviews at Sundance film festival and gets honorable mention in spot number 4 on this list. “An awkward office drone (Jesse Eisenberg) becomes increasingly unhinged after a charismatic and confident look-alike takes a job at his workplace and seduces the woman (Mia Wasikowska) he desires.” https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_double_2013


Worst:

  1. Doppelganger (1993) - 24% “A Los Angeles writer (George Newbern) discovers his new roommate and lover (Drew Barrymore) is on the run from her evil ghostly double.” https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/doppelganger_1993

  2. Doppelganger (2003) - 50% “A research scientist (Kôji Yakusho) encounters an exact double who takes over his career and uses violence to achieve his goals.” https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1139157-doppelganger

  3. The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) - 55% “A London businessman's (Roger Moore) bad alter ego escapes, takes a mistress (Olga Georges-Picot) and takes over his life and wife (Hildegard Neil).” https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/man_who_haunted_himself


TV

The doppelganger theme is common in TV as well. While there are too many TV episodes to mention I did want to highlight a few. Most of the TV episodes mentioned center around the theme of a living, evil twin that goes around causing mayhem.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 3, Episode 16, Doppelgangland. - Willow summons her evil doppelganger from a parallel universe.


Simpsons Treehouse of Horror VII Season 8, Episode 1. -Bart has an evil twin…or is the twin evil?


Family Guy Season 9, Episode 12, The Hand That Rocks the Wheelchair. -Stewie creates multiple clones of himself, his second clone Evil Stewie goes around on a violent and possibly murderous rampage.


Social Media

Today, a doppelganger is a term used for a non-relative look alike. In 2010, Celebrity Doppelganger Week became a trend on Facebook. Users changed their profile photos to a celebrity look alike for the week. Doppelganger trends are still heavily popular today, especially on Tik Tok. As recently as January of 2022 the Celebrity Twin Filter went viral on Tik Tok. The Celebrity Twin filter matches your face to your celebrity look alike. From the look of it results appear to be mixed.


The Multiverse

Sci-fi and pop culture love stories involving time travel and tales of parallel universes, however some of this fiction stems from scientific theory. Physicist and cosmologist, Max Tegmark has classified the universe into four levels beyond what we are able to observe

.

Level 1 – An Extension of Our Universe: Same physical laws & physical constants.


Level 2- Universes with Different Physical Constants: Non-stretching bubbles of time & space.


Level 3- Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: According to Tegmark, “The only difference between Level I and Level III is where your doppelgängers reside. In Level I they live elsewhere in good old three-dimensional space. In Level III they live on another quantum branch in infinite-dimensional Hilbert space."


Level 4- Ultimate Ensemble: This level is based on Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis. All universes are equally real, the math says so!

*If you happen to be Max Tegmark and you are reading this, I apologize for the super basic (hopefully mostly correct) explanation of your theory. Your work is super interesting, but math and physics are not my strong suits. If you ever want to come on the blog or podcast to elaborate or clarify, be my guest. *


The point here is that cosmologists and physicists have acknowledged the possible existence of doppelgängers in other universes. Who knows? There could be some facts in your science fiction.


Neuroscience

In a 2015 article for "BBC Future" titled, The Disturbing Consequences of Seeing Your Doppelganger author Anil Ananthaswamy discusses a famous neuroscience patient case study. The patient was a seizure patient that had temporarily gone off of his meds. The patient in the case study experienced an autoscopic hallucination in which he saw and felt himself both standing by the couch shaking his body on the couch to wake himself up, and from the couch he saw and felt himself shaking his body to wake himself. The patient was so disoriented and unable to get back to his "real" body that he ended up jumping out of the window in a suicide attempt to merge his two selves back together. The patient survived the jump and was examined by Dr. Peter Brugger. As it turns out the patient was suffering from a tumor in his temporal lobe. After the tumor was removed the autoscopic hallucinations and seizures stopped.


The term autoscopic comes from the Greek root words "autos" for "self" and "skopeo" meaning "looking at". Autoscopic phenomena is an experience or hallucination in which one feels that they are looking at themselves, seeing their double or doppelganger.


Dr. J.S. Grotstein was a well known psychiatrist. He was Vice President of the International Psychoanalytical Association and he sat on the editorial board of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Dr. J.S. Grotstein defined Autoscopy in the 1983 publication Autoscopy: The Experience of Oneself as a Double. Autoscopy is when one experiences a hallucinatory vision of their double. Autoscopy can occur in psychotic and borderline states as well as during central nervous system malfunction. There was also believed to be a link between autoscopy and “split-brain” phenomenon. Split-brain phenomenon occurs when the corpus callosum is severed causing a disconnect between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The surgical severing of the corpus callosum, corpus callosotomy is a last resort treatment for drug resistant epilepsy.

In 1994, Dr. Peter Brugger and colleagues published a research article on “heautoscopy” in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. Heautoscopy is a term used in neuroscience and psychiatry to describe a hallucination of seeing one’s double or doppelganger, similar to autoscopy but typically more intense. The publication titled, Heautoscopy, Epilepsy, and Suicide is a famous case study of the patient mentioned earlier in the article by Anil Ananthaswamy. The patient had such a vivid out-of-body, doppelganger experience during his epileptic episode that he attempted (and thankfully failed at) suicide.


Fast forward to the early 2000’s. In 2005, Dr. Olaf Blanke published Out-of-body experience, heautoscopy, and autoscopic hallucination of neurological origin implications for neurocognitive mechanisms of corporeal awareness and self-consciousness in Brain Research Reviews. This is a fascinating study. Fascinating is probably an understatement. Before I jump into the findings of this study I just want to take a moment to mention that Dr. Olaf Blanke is a neuroscience badass. He is founding director of the Center for Neuroprosthetics, holds the Bertarelli Foundation Chair in Cognitive Neuroprosthetics at the EPFL . He directs the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and he is a professor of Neurology at the University Hospital of Geneva.


Back to Dr. Blanke’s 2005 study. The study classifies autoscopic phenomena into three categories: autoscopic hallucination, heautoscopy, and out-of-body experience. I’m including the figure from the study because the drawings in the figure sum it up much better than I can with words.


“Fig. 1. Phenomenology of autoscopic phenomena. In this figure, the phenomenology of AH (left), HAS (middle), and OBE (right) is represented schematically. The experienced position and posture of the physical body for each autoscopic phenomenon is indicated by black lines and the experienced position and posture of the disembodied body (OBE) or autoscopic body (AH, HAS) in dashed lines. The finding that AH and HAS were mainly reported from a sitting/standing position and OBE in a supine position is integrated into the figure. The experienced visuo-spatial perspective during the autoscopic phenomenon is indicated by the arrow pointing away from the location in space from which the patient has the impression to see from (AH: from the physical body; OBE: from a disembodied body or location; HAS: alternating or simultaneous fashion between physical and autoscopic body; modified from Blanke [7]).”


Essentially, during autoscopy people see their duplicate without leaving their body, no disembodiment occurs. During heautoscopy you see a double of yourself however it is difficult to discern which image of yourself that you are perceiving is the “real” you (like in the case study where the patient saw himself as both shaking his body on the couch, and being inside his body that was being shaken on the couch), unclear whether disembodiment occurs. There is difficulty localizing self during heautoscopy. Finally, out-of-body experience involves the feeling of being outside of your body while looking at your physical body, frequently from an elevated perspective, disembodiment occurs.


The sample size for the 2005 study was made up of 41 patients: 11 out-of-body experience patients, 10 heautoscopy patients, and 20 autoscopy patients. I am including the results figure for recorded patient hallucinations in each of the three categories. Hallucinations were divided into 5 sensory categorizations: visual (what you see), vestibular (the sense if floating, flying, spinning, or falling), auditory (what you hear), tactile (sense of touch), and body schema (perception of spatial location or position of the body).


“Fig. 2. Hallucinations associated with autoscopic phenomena. The frequency of hallucinations associated with AH (left), HAS (middle), and OBE (right) is given. Visual, vestibular, auditory, tactile hallucinations, and body schema disturbances are indicated. Note the predominance of visual hallucinations in AH, vestibular hallucinations in HAS, and vestibular and auditory hallucinations in OBE. In addition, body schema disturbances occurred frequently in HAS and OBE (see text).”


Interestingly, tactile (sense of touch) hallucinations rank lowest among all three categories.


Most of the patients in the study had some form of epilepsy, seizure disorder or other neurologic etiology. The anatomy of autoscopy was studied by mapping the location of brain lesions in patients that experienced the three categories of autoscopic phenomena. In all three categories temporal involvement was significant, followed by parietal with occipital involvement in autoscopy, but less occipital involvement in both heautoscopy and out-of-body experience. There was a variation between right and left brain hemisphere involvement.


“To summarize our anatomical findings, AH seem to primarily involve the right temporo-occipital and right parieto-occipital junction, whereas HAS involve the left TPJ and OBEs the right TPJ”(Blanke).

In conclusion, this study categorized three different types of autoscopic phenomena and the sensory experiences as well as anatomical landmarks for regions of the brain that are associated with each type of autoscopic phenomena. Another huge discovery from this study was corroboration based on previous studies of the role that the temporal parietal junction plays in self processing.



Sources Shout Out!

Ananthaswamy, A. (n.d.). The disturbing consequences of seeing your doppelganger. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20150821-the-dangerous-consequences-of-seeing-your-doppelganger


Autoscopy: The experience of oneself as a double - pubmed. (n.d.). PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6671645/


Doppelgänger - wikipedia. (n.d.). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doppelg%C3%A4nger


Doppelganger | description & facts. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/art/doppelganger


Heautoscopy, epilepsy, and suicide. (n.d.). PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1073027/


Multiverse - wikipedia. (n.d.). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiverse



Out-of-body experience, heautoscopy, and autoscopic hallucination of neurological origin implications for neurocognitive mechanisms of corporeal awareness and self-consciousness - pubmed. (n.d.). PubMed. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16019077/


Rotten tomatoes: Movies | tv shows | movie trailers | reviews. (n.d.). Rotten Tomatoes. https://www.rottentomatoes.com


Staff, P. (2014, March 13). 20 films about doubles and doppelgangers. IndieWire. https://www.indiewire.com/feature/20-films-about-doubles-and-doppelgangers-88174/


This viral tiktok effect matches you with your celebrity look-alike. (n.d.). Elite Daily. https://www.elitedaily.com/news/tiktok-celebrity-twin-filter-how-to-get



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