The Doppelgänger

The Doppelgänger has had a long history in mythology both contemporary and ancient.  The Norse vardøger was seen as a symbol of foreboding and death for the viewer.  Often, these apparitions are held with the same fear and reverence as other ghosts.  Doppelgänger in literal German is derived from the words “Double” and “Goer.”  To see the face of your own doppelgänger, it is said, is to see your own death.  But it wasn’t simply anyone who saw the dreaded doppelgänger, as many famous people saw them as well, including presidents.

Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, had her own brush with the paranormal when her husband Percy approached her after seeing his own image.  Percy had previously had visions of encountering his double who approached him and asked, “How long do you mean to be content?”  This encounter happened in June, and on the 8th of July Percy drowned.  Also associated with his doppelgänger was a dream of a flooded house where Percy was drowning.  Mary Shelly wrote this account of her husband while grieving over his loss.

Not all doppelgängers, however are actually seen by the apparition’s counterpart.  On one occasion, John Donne saw the ghostly apparition of his still living wife pass through his room twice holding a dead child in her arms.  This event was on the same night as her wife’s miscarriage as he was staying the night in Sir Robert.  Though Sir Robert told him he had merely been dreaming, Dr. Donne told him that the event had been quite real and while he was still waiting to go to bed.  He then went on to say, according to the account of Izaak Walton, that the second time the apparition passed through his room she looked over at him and vanished.

And it was a doppelgänger which was one of Lincoln’s own predictors of his reelection and eventual death in office (according to Mary Todd Lincoln).  As Lincoln laid down on the couch the day of his first election as president, in an old mirror on the other side of the room he caught the image of his own face, then next to it his face a double, paler in complexion than the first and sickly looking.  He moved, and the face moved.  As he got up to inspect the mirror it vanished.  He then sat back down on the couch to see the object reappear.  In the excitement of the presidency, Lincoln found himself forgetting about the object until later when he attempted to reproduce the conditions of the experiment again.  In doing so, he found that once again the image appeared to his eyes, although he did try to show the image to his wife, she never was able to actually see it, though she did tell him it was a harbinger of his second term in office and then eventual death.  So how is it possible that a ghost could manifest if the phantom is based on a person who is already alive?  Why is this less common than apparitions of the deceased?