Doppelgänger: Myth, Literary Device, or the Real Deal?
Unless you are an identical twin, would it unnerve you to bump into your dead ringer … your doppelgänger?
Would your lookalike be your exact double, your evil twin, or just a mischievous spirit?
When a carbon copy character emerges in literature, the author is playing with our sense of reality. In a novel, when another duplicate self appears, doubts automatically surface. The main character questions the double’s identity (who are you?) and the main character questions him or herself, (who am I?). In other words, the use of a doppelgänger as a literary device helps writers portray complex characters.
Seeing through the main character’s eyes, it sets readers wondering if their protagonist’s experience is real, an imagination, or hallucination? That duality inspires terror and dread.
In general, the doppelgänger creates a creepy or eerie tone within a story, possibly because we see ourselves from outside our own bodies. In other literary situations, an incompetent look-alike can be used to humorous effect.
“Doppelgänger” is German meaning “double-goer” or “double walker.”
It was introduced by German author Jean Paul, in his 1796 novel Siebenkas. In fact, he invented two words: doppeltgänger, (with a “t”) his name for an uncanny lookalike; and doppelgänger, to describe a meal in which two courses were served simultaneously. But it wasn’t until 1824 that the latter word stuck to mean “apparition of a living person.”
Myths about spirit doubles have been around for thousands of years. In Ancient Egypt, the “ka” was considered one aspect of the soul and depicted as a spirit identical to the body. This myth also lived in Europe, Africa, in Norse mythology, and in English and Irish literature during the 18th and 19th centuries. These oral and written traditions assumed that if you saw your ethereal double, it was a harbinger of bad luck, or … signaled death.
Perhaps it was these myths and oral traditions that inspired numerous authors over time to explore our dual natures.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s (1821-1881) novella, The Double (1846), a mild and antisocial government clerk meets his bold and assertive reflection. The doppelgänger encroaches on the clerk’s affairs and drives him mad by the end of the story.
Edgar Allan Poe’s (1809-1849) short story “William Wilson” published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine (1839) is about an English schoolboy who meets another child with the same name and appearance. This spitting image follows William throughout his life and impedes his ambitions.
The doppelgänger, however, is different from the alter ego — the alternate self, which is embodied by a single person, i.e., Superman/Clark Kent or Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. The device is also different from the imposter who dresses or acts as another character, such as Tom Ripley who pretends to be his Princeton classmate in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995).
Some critics consider the doppelgänger plot ruse to be a cliché, but popular stories still abound in novels, soap operas, TV, film, and video games.
An extensive list of well-known modern mystery and thriller writers has also employed the doppelgänger or evil twin plot tactic, i.e., Stephen King (The Outsider, 2018); Joyce Carol Oates (Jack of Spades, 2015); Tana French (The Likeness, 2008), and Tess Gerritsen (Body Double, 2004) to name a few. The gambit also is popular in romance, science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and horror genres.
Are doppelgängers the real deal?
There are several cases in which historical figures have reported seeing their duplicate selves including President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) who told his wife, Mary Todd, that he saw his reflection doubled in the mirror with one face beside the other. She said the mirror image looked deathly and foreshadowed bad news. Nevertheless, she thought Lincoln would be re-elected but wouldn’t “last through it.” Lincoln won re-election but was assassinated forty-two days into his second term.
Neuroscientists claim that intense emotions can cause you to perceive an illusory body which shifts your awareness away from your body to the perception of a separate bodily self. In neuroscience jargon, this is called heautoscopy, where scientists study data from brain scans of patients who experience their “double selves” moving and interacting along with a sharing of emotions and thoughts.
Some physicists have speculated that the “Big Bang” — a theory that our universe was created by a massive explosion—also created a parallel universe. They argue that since space is infinite, matter can arrange itself in a finite number of ways, like cards in a deck. Sooner or later our matter is going to repeat, but not necessarily our mental configuration, which could cause an evil doppelgänger version. For example, in its simplest terms, if you love chocolate, your evil twin from a parallel universe would hate chocolate.
According to folk wisdom, everyone has at least one doppelgänger, or maybe as many as seven other “duplicate selves” walking around the world. Creepy, but not very likely.
There are seven billion people on the planet. There is bound to be someone out there who shares your same features. Right? Scientists, however, claim there’s about a one in 135 chance that a pair of complete doppelgängers exist somewhere in the world. But the likelihood of someone walking around looking identical to you, specifically, with your facial features, is only one in 1 trillion.
Psychologist and paranormal investigator Jayne Harris, who authored What Dwells Within: A Study of Spirit Attachment (2015), says, “Whatever the real truth, belief in the spirit double has instilled both fear and wonder in people for thousands of years and will no doubt continue to do so. After all, the wonder of life is surely its mysteries.”