“Lookalike context” (Doppelgängers)


A motorist once saw my nephew enter a residence, then was perplexed four blocks later to again encounter my nephew, who was driving past him in the opposite direction. This was possible because the motorist has spied a pair of identical twins.

Had the motorist shared this story is some online forums, however, a solution more sinister than a split embryo would have been blamed. Doppelgänger is a German loanword that in today’s usage normally means lookalike, but more traditionally referred to an apparition that portends doom for the person it resembles.  

Per the legend, if a friend, stranger, or family member sees another person’s doppelgänger, it is an omen that harm will befall the authentic individual, while seeing one’s own doppelgänger means death. Doppelgängers might attempt to provide advice to the person they shadow, but this advice is meant to confuse, mislead, or cause ruin.

In English, doppelgängers are sometimes referred to by a much less excellent term, the umlaut-free “fetch.” By whatever name, there are legends that Abraham Lincoln and Percy Shelly saw their own. These stories are only told because these men met an early demise. There’s not much narrative in, “Dwight Eisenhower saw his, but the doppelgänger was thwarted and Ike lived to a ripe old age.”

Another tale centers on a 19th Century French schoolmarm, Emilie Sagée. Students swore they saw her doppelgänger many times, after which Sagée would always be exhausted. There is no way to confirm or refute these claims, though they most likely are a case of students messing with their teacher. 

Similar stories were passed down by Scots, Norse, and ancient Egyptians. The Scottish story was most prominent on the Orkney Islands, where inhabitants feared evil fairies would give birth to sickly infants, then replace them with identical-in-appearance human babies. Similar themes were the focus of the American films Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Changeling.

Doppelgängers also appear in works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, and Charles Dickens. They are often described as casting no shadow and having no reflection, though it’s possible the root of doppelgänger mythology may be another myth, Narcissus.   

To the best of my knowledge, no one believes that Narnia, Chewbacca, or Bilbo Baggins are real. People obsessed with these notions might be geeks or aficionados, but they are not delusional. By contrast, persons fond of Bigfoot, angels, and ghosts are convinced they are real even though their existence has not been verified.

Doppelgängers straddle this line. While they appear in works of fiction, they are also at the center of tales told by persons who pass the stories off as true. Most persons enchanted by the idea of doppelgängers consider them imaginary and in the same category as campfire stories, Poe works, and Lon Chaney Jr. movies. But there are a few believers, just like Ken Ham believes in dragons and unicorns and some Earth-based spiritualists believe in sprites and leprechauns. These positions are unorthodox even in the credulous creationist and cryptozoological camps, but people who hold them feel their case is bolstered since the creatures existed in tales from different cultures and over many centuries, but this is an ad populum. Neither the number of adherents nor the fervency of their beliefs has any bearing on whether something is true. 

There have been some documented cases of persons genuinely thinking their loved one has been replaced by an impostor. These are the results of brain injury, brain malfunction, or hallucination. This is more likely if the injury or malfunction impacted spatial reasoning. Similar occurrences that took place before science understood this might be how some doppelgänger legends were born.

If that’s boring and stodgy, another speculation holds that doppelgängers are visitors from another dimension or another corner of the multiverse. This always seems to be a one way road. We Earthlings are never able to access these portals, vortexes, or wormholes. I can live with that, we’ve got Renée Zellweger and guacamole on this side.

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