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A doppelgänger or fetch is the ghostly double of a living person, a sinister form of bilocation.

In the vernacular, “Doppelgänger” has come to refer (as in German) to any double or look-alike of a person. The word is also used to describe the sensation of having glimpsed oneself in peripheral vision, in a position where there is no chance that it could have been a reflection. They are generally regarded as harbingers of bad luck. In some traditions, a doppelgänger seen by a person’s friends or relatives portends illness or danger, while seeing one’s own doppelgänger is an omen of death. In Norse mythology, a vardøger is a ghostly double who precedes a living person and is seen performing their actions in advance.


The word “doppelgänger” is a German loanword. It derives from Doppel (double) and Gänger (goer),[1] although the German part word -gänger only occurs in compound nouns. As is true for all other common nouns in German, the word is written with an initial capital letter; English usage varies.

In English, the word is conventionally uncapitalized (doppelgänger). It is also common to drop the diacritic umlaut, writing “doppelganger.” The correct alternative German spelling is “Doppelgaenger.”

Famous Reports

John Donne

Izaak Walton claimed that John Donne, the English metaphysical poet, saw his wife’s doppelgänger in 1612 in Paris, on the same night as the stillbirth of their daughter.

Two days after their arrival there, Mr. Donne was left alone, in that room in which Sir Robert, and he, and some other friends had dined together. To this place Sir Robert return’d within half an hour; and, as he left, so he found Mr. Donne alone; but, in such Extasie, and so alter’d as to his looks, as amaz’d Sir Robert to behold him: insomuch that he earnestly desired Mr. Donne to declare befaln him in the short time of his absence? to which, Mr. Donne was not able to make a present answer: but, after a long and perplext pause, did at last say, I have seen a dreadful Vision since I saw you: I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms: this, I have seen since I saw you. To which, Sir Robert reply’d; Sure Sir, you have slept since I saw you; and, this is the result of some melancholy dream, which I desire you to forget, for you are now awake. To which Mr. Donnes reply was: I cannot be surer that I now live, then that I have not slept since I saw you: and am, as sure, that at her second appearing, she stopt, and look’d me in the face, and vanisht.[2]

This account first appears in the edition of Life of Dr John Donne published in 1675, and is attributed to “a Person of Honour… told with such circumstances, and such asseveration, that… I verily believe he that told it me, did himself believe it to be true.” At the time Donne was indeed extremely worried about his pregnant wife, and was going through severe illness himself. However, R. C. Bald points out that Walton’s account “is riddled with inaccuracies. He says that Donne crossed from London to Paris with the Drurys in twelve days, and that the vision occurred two days later; the servant sent to London to make inquiries found Mrs Donne still confined to her bed in Drury House. Actually, of course, Donne did not arrive in Paris until more than three months after he left England, and his wife was not in London but in the Isle of Wight. The still-born child was buried on 24 January…. Yet as late as 14 April Donne in Paris was still ignorant of his wife’s ordeal.”[3] In January, Donne was still at Amiens. His letters do not support the story as given.[4]

Abraham Lincoln

Carl Sandburg’s biography contains the following:

A dream or illusion had haunted Lincoln at times through the winter. On the evening of his election he had thrown himself on one of the haircloth sofas at home, just after the first telegrams of November 6 had told him he was elected President, and looking into a bureau mirror across the room he saw himself full length, but with two faces. It bothered him; he got up; the illusion vanished; but when he lay down again there in the glass again were two faces, one paler than the other. He got up again, mixed in the election excitement, forgot about it; but it came back, and haunted him. He told his wife about it; she worried too. A few days later he tried it once more and the illusion of the two faces again registered to his eyes. But that was the last; the ghost since then wouldn’t come back, he told his wife, who said it was a sign he would be elected to a second term, and the death pallor of one face meant he wouldn’t live through his second term.[5]

This is adapted from Washington in Lincoln’s Time (1895) by Noah Brooks, who claimed that he had heard it from Lincoln himself on 9 November 1864, at the time of his re-election, and that he had printed an account “directly after.” He also claimed that the story was confirmed by Mary Todd Lincoln, and partially confirmed by Private Secretary John Hay (who thought it dated from Lincoln’s nomination, not his election). Brooks’s version is as follows (in Lincoln’s own words):

It was just after my election in 1860, when the news had been coming in thick and fast all day and there had been a great “hurrah, boys,” so that I was well tired out, and went home to rest, throwing myself down on a lounge in my chamber. Opposite where I lay was a bureau with a swinging glass upon it (and here he got up and placed furniture to illustrate the position), and 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. On lying down again, I saw it a second time, plainer, if possible, than before; and then I noticed that one of the faces was a little paler — say five shades — than the other. I got up, and the thing melted away, and I went off, and in the excitement of the hour forgot all about it — nearly, but not quite, for the thing 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.[6]

Lincoln was known to be superstitious,[7] and old mirrors will occasionally produce double images; whether this Janus illusion can be counted as a doppelgänger is perhaps debatable, though probably no more than other such claims of doppelgängers. An alternate consideration, however, suggests that Lincoln suffered vertical strabismus in his left eye[8], a disorder which could induce visions of a vertically-displaced image.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Near the end of Book XI of his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (“Truth and Fiction”), Goethe wrote, almost in passing:

Amid all this pressure and confusion I could not forego seeing Frederica once more. Those were painful days, the memory of which has not remained with me. When I reached her my hand from my horse, the tears stood in her eyes; and I felt very uneasy. I now rode along the foot-path toward Drusenheim, and here one of the most singular forebodings took possession of me. I saw, not with the eyes of the body, but with those of the mind, my own figure coming toward me, on horseback, and on the same road, attired in a dress which I had never worn, — it was pike-gray [hecht-grau], with somewhat of gold. As soon as I shook myself out of this dream, the figure had entirely disappeared. It is strange, however, that, eight years afterward, I found myself on the very road, to pay one more visit to Frederica, in the dress of which I had dreamed, and which I wore, not from choice, but by accident. However it may be with matters of this kind generally, this strange illusion in some measure calmed me at the moment of parting. The pain of quitting for ever noble Alsace, with all I had gained in it, was softened; and, having at last escaped the excitement of a farewell, I, on a peaceful and quiet journey, pretty well regained my self-possession.[9]

This is a rare example of a doppelgänger which is both benign and reassuring.

Emilie Sagée

Robert Dale Owen was responsible for writing down the singular case of Emilie Sagée. He was told this anecdote by Julie von Güldenstubbe, a Latvian aristocrat. Von Güldenstubbe reported that in the year 1845–46, at the age of 13, she witnessed, along with audiences of between 13 and 42 children, her 32-year-old French teacher Sagée bilocate, in broad daylight, inside her school, Pensionat von Neuwelcke. The actions of Sagée’s doppelgänger included:

  • Mimicking writing and eating, but with nothing in its hands.
  • Moving independently of Sagée, and remaining motionless while she moved.
  • Appearing to be in full health at a time when Sagée was badly ill.

Apparently, the doppelgänger also exerted resistance to the touch, but was non-physical (one girl passed through the doppelgänger’s body).[10]

Scientific, Psychological, and Philosophical Investigations

Left Temporoparietal Junction

In September 2006 it was reported in Nature[11] that Shahar Arzy and colleagues of the University Hospital, Geneva, Switzerland, had unexpectedly reproduced an effect strongly reminiscent of the doppelgänger phenomenon via the electromagnetic stimulation of a patient’s brain. They applied focal electrical stimulation to a patient’s left temporoparietal junction while she lay flat on a bed. The patient immediately felt the presence of another person in her “extrapersonal space.” Other than epilepsy, for which the patient was being treated, she was psychologically fit.

The other person was described as young, of indeterminate sex, silent, motionless, and with a body posture identical to her own. The other person was located exactly behind her, almost touching and therefore within the bed that the patient was lying on.

A second electrical stimulation was applied with slightly more intensity, while the patient was sitting up with her arms folded. This time the patient felt the presence of a “man” who had his arms wrapped around her. She described the sensation as highly unpleasant and electrical stimulation was stopped.

Finally, when the patient was seated, electrical stimulation was applied while the patient was asked to perform language test with a set of flash cards. On this occasion the patient reported the presence of a sitting person, displaced behind her and to the right. She said that the presence was attempting to interfere with the test: “He wants to take the card; he doesn’t want me to read.” Again, the effect was disturbing and electrical stimulation was ceased.

Similar effects were found for different positions and postures when electrical stimulation exceeded 10 mA, at the left temporoparietal junction.

Arzy and his colleagues suggest that the left temporoparietal junction of the brain evokes the sensation of self image—body location, position, posture etc. When the left temporoparietal junction is disturbed, the sensation of self-attribution is broken and may be replaced by the sensation of a foreign presence or copy of oneself displaced nearby. This copy mirrors the real person’s body posture, location and position. Arzy and his colleagues suggest that the phenomenon they created is seen in certain mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, particularly when accompanied by paranoia, delusions of persecution and of alien control. Nevertheless, the effects reported are highly reminiscent of the doppelgänger phenomenon.[12] Accordingly, some reports of doppelgängers may well be due to failure of the left temporoparietal junction.

See monothematic delusion for a detailed description of various psychological problems including the syndrome of subjective doubles, which may be related to the doppelgänger. [13] See also out-of-body experience.


  1. New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition, 2005.
  2. Walton, Izaak. Life of Dr. John Donne. Fourth edition, 1675.
  3. Bald, R.C. John Donne: a Life. Oxford University Press, 1970.
  4. Bennett, R.E. “Donne’s Letters from the Continent in 1611-12.” Philological Quarterly xix (1940), 66-78.
  5. Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York, 1926. Volume 2, Chapter 165, pp.423-4
  6. Brooks, Noah. Washington in Lincoln’s Time. Century, New York, 1895. Reprinted as Washington, D.C., in Lincoln’s Time. Edited by Herbert Mitgang. Quadrangle Books, Chicago, 1971. University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1989. First ed., pages 220-221. Mitgang’s ed., pages 198-200.
  7. Luthin, Reinhard H. The Real Abraham Lincoln. Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1960. Page 116.
  8. Goldstein, JH (1997), “Lincoln’s vertical strabismus.”, J Pediatr Ophthalmol Strabismus 34(2): 118–20, PMID 9083959
  9. The Autobiography of Wolfgang von Goethe. Translated by John Oxenford. Horizon Press, 1969.
  10. Doppelganger!
  11. Access : Brain electrodes conjure up ghostly visions : Nature News
  12. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience: A Cognitive Approach by Graham F. Reed, Prometheus Books, Rev Sub edition September 1988
  13. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience: A Cognitive Approach by Graham F. Reed,Prometheus Books, Rev Sub edition September 1988
  14. For example, the television series Twin Peaks.
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