by ZJ Czupor

Doppelgänger: Myth, Literary Device, or the Real Deal?


Unless you’re 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?
Authors often employ doppelgängers as a literary device to explore our human duality or the darker traits of our character.

When a doppelgänger emerges as a literary character, the author is playing with our sense of reality. 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?).

Seeing through the main character’s eyes, we wonder if what we’re experiencing 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 you see yourself from outside your own body. Other times, an incompetent doppelgänger can be used to humorous effect.

According to folk wisdom, everyone has at least one doppelgänger, or maybe as many as seven around the world.

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 if you saw your ethereal double it was a harbinger of bad luck, or signaled death.

Doppelgänger is a German word and means “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, 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, the latter, doppelgänger, stuck to mean “apparition of a living person.”

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 The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1995).

Although, alter egos and imposters, like doppelgängers, can have similar effects in a plot, by confusing the main character’s friends and family.

As a plot device, the doppelgänger in today’s literature is considered a cliché, but stories still thrive in novels, soap operas, TV, film, and video games.

An extensive list of well-known modern mystery writers have entertained the doppelgänger or evil twin plot device, i.e. Stephen King, Tana French, and Tess Gerritsen to name a few. The device also is popular in romance, science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and horror genres.

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double 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 short story “William Wilson” is about an English schoolboy who meets another child with the same name and appearance. This doppelgänger follows William throughout his life and impedes his ambitions.

There are several cases where historical figures have reported seeing their doppelgänger: Catherine the Great, poet John Donne, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln saw his reflection doubled in the mirror with one face beside the other. He told his wife, Mary Todd who thought the mirror image looked deathly and foreshadowed bad news. However, she also thought Lincoln would be re-elected for a second term but wouldn’t “last through it.” Lincoln was assassinated shortly after winning his second term. Reported in Washington in Lincoln’s Time by Noah Brooks (1958).

Neuroscientists claim that intense emotions can cause you to perceive an illusory body which shifts your awareness from your body to the perception of a separate bodily self.

Physicists, on the other hand, speculate 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, or one that hates chocolate.

There are seven billion people on the planet. There’s bound to be someone out there who shares your same features. Scientists 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. Creepy, but not very likely.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.


Author’s Note:

Check out these novels where you’ll find examples of doppelgängers, evil twins, impersonation, misidentification, extrasensory perception, family secrets, and more.

  • Mary Higgins Clark, Double Vision (1991)—the unexplained murder of her twin sister
  • Ken Follett, The Third Twin (1996)—genetic engineering and identical twins raised apart
  • Tana French, The Likeness (2008)—lonely child creates an alternate identity
  • Tess Gerritsen, Body Double (2004)—a murdered woman looks exactly like Dr. MauraIsles, Boston’s medical examiner
  • Ursula le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)—A fantasy novel. Young boy wizard releases a shadow creature that attacks him
  • Stephen King, The Outsider (2018)—innocent man accused of murder and rape
  • Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know (2007)—woman claims to be someone who went missing thirty years ago
  • Lisa Scottoline, Mistaken Identity (1999)—lawyer finds her newest client, accused of murdering her lover, looks exactly like her

And three examples from real life:

  • Doppelgänger: The Legend of Lee Harvey Oswald by George Schwimmer (2016), in which the author claims Lee Harvey Oswald was Kennedy’s assassin on the 6th floor of Dallas’ Texas Schoolbook Depository building, while another, a doppelgänger patsy, stood downstairs on the front steps and is the one who was caught by police and later murdered by Jack Ruby.
  • Kansas inmate freed after doppelgänger found 17 years later (NBC News, June 12, 2017). Richard Jones, a resident of Kansas City, MO spent 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. In 1999, he was charged with aggravated robbery across the state line in Kansas City, KS. His doppelgänger, Ricky Amos, looked nearly identical. Both were six-feet-tall, 200 pounds, and about the same age. Lawyers said the original conviction rested on shoddy detective work, racial bias, and faulty eyewitness testimony.
  • Instagram has a site called “Twinstrangers,” the modern term for doppelgänger, where you can upload your photo and its facial recognition software will match you with another user who looks similar to you. And if you find your twinstranger you can celebrate on National LookAlike Day every April 20.