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Where do doppelgangers come from?

The concept of a doppelganger, or a double of a living person, has fascinated humankind for centuries. Stories of people encountering their own doppelgangers have persisted across cultures and eras, leaving many to wonder about the origins of these mysterious doubles. While no definitive explanations have been proven, some compelling theories have emerged that aim to shed light on where doppelgangers might come from.

What are doppelgangers?

A doppelganger is generally defined as a ghostly double or counterpart of a living person. The word “doppelganger” literally translates from German as “double goer,” implying that the entity is a double or copy of an existing person. According to folklore and accounts of alleged real-life encounters, doppelgangers typically appear as an exact physical duplicate of someone, matching their appearance, voice, and behavior. However, doppelgangers are not an independently existing creature. Rather, they are said to be an apparition that manifests from time to time, in various locations.

Encounters with one’s doppelganger are widely described as ominous, sometimes even as an omen of death. Their appearance is regarded as bad luck or as a sign that misfortune is on the horizon. While many purported sightings of doppelgangers occur when the original person is going about their daily life, oblivious to their double’s existence, some accounts describe both the original and the doppelganger being mutually aware of each other.

Historical accounts of doppelgangers

Stories of doppelgangers have spanned centuries and have been recorded in folklore around the world. Some prominent examples include:

  • Plutarch’s writings in Ancient Greece told the story of Emilus Paulus who encountered his own doppelganger before his defeat at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BCE. This incident was regarded as an ill omen.
  • In Norse mythology, vardøger are ghostly beings that precede a person, performing their actions in advance. This was seen as foretelling the arrival of the actual person.
  • Catherine the Great claimed to have seen her doppelganger sitting on her throne at the palace several days before her death in 1796.
  • Poet Percy Shelley encountered his doppelganger before his death by drowning in 1822. His wife Mary Shelley later recalled the incident, saying her husband had been agitated and expressed seeing his own replica that showed signs of decay and aging.
  • Abraham Lincoln reportedly saw his face doubled in the mirror right before his election and again before his assassination.

More modern claims of celebrity doppelganger sightings include people seeing a twin of Queen Elizabeth roaming the halls of Buckingham Palace, a duplicate of actress Gwyneth Paltrow spotted in a restaurant, and an apparent double of actress Zooey Deschanel waving from inside a car.

Theories on the origins of doppelgangers

So where do these mysterious doubles come from? A range of ideas have emerged attempting to explain their origins:

Supernatural phenomena

Many of the earliest interpretations of doppelgangers framed them as supernatural – ghosts, demons, spirits, or some otherworldly manifestation. In traditions like Norse mythology, doubles were thought to be supernatural creatures in their own right that predicted a person’s arrival. In more modern times, doppelgangers are often interpreted as ghosts or apparitions that emanate from the spirit world.

Mental projections

Some paranormal investigators have suggested that doppelgangers are not actual supernatural beings, but rather thought-forms or mental projections that people unwittingly create through the power of the human mind. Through this theory, a person’s anxieties and stresses manifest unconsciously as a projection of themselves that then appears to other people.

Quantum entanglement

Recent ideas have proposed quantum mechanics as an explanation. The quantum entanglement hypothesis suggests doppelgangers are a result of entanglement between parallel universes. Essentially, people momentarily glimpse alternate versions of themselves in parallel realities that have overlapped or intersected with ours.

Glitches in reality

Similarly, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics holds that doppelgangers are caused by temporary glitches in reality, allowing people to glimpse themselves in a parallel world. A neurological explanation also proposes that some temporary disconnect between the hemispheres of the brain could cause someone to have the sensation of encountering their double.

Mental illness

In some cases, doppelganger experiences have been attributed to mental illness, such as schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder. However, the subjectivity of the phenomenon and wide range of accounts makes mental illness an unlikely blanket explanation.

Physical doubles

Rarer claims exist of people encountering their actual physical double – a real-life identical person unknowningly living a parallel existence. Examples include the case of Finnish woman Emilia Tanner who reportedly crossed paths with her double, German teacher Herr von Born, who taught lessons to his own doppelganger, and the Porcher twins who married women that looked exactly alike without realizing it. However, the existence of perfect doubles is highly disputed.

Scientific research on doppelgangers

Scientific research into doppelgangers has been limited. However, some studies have uncovered intriguing results:

  • A 1977 study found nearly 20% of respondents had seen their own double, often before traumatic events or deaths.
  • A 2009 study published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research linked doppelganger experiences to dissociative disorders and seniors.
  • Some researchers have studied links between doppelganger sightings and neurological conditions that affect vision or the temporal lobe of the brain.

Overall, there is no consensus from the scientific community about the origins of doppelgangers given the lack of evidence. Some researchers argue they are merely an ancient folk myth that persist due to superstition and the human tendency for pattern recognition.

Explanations in fiction

Doppelgangers are popular in fiction, which has provided some additional explanations:

  • Cloning – Science fiction has imagined doppelgangers as human clones created intentionally or unintentionally as a result of an experiment, as seen in stories like Star Wars and Orphan Black.
  • Alternate dimensions – Fiction often portrays doppelgangers existing in parallel or alternative dimensions, able to cross over into each other’s worlds, as shown in The Flash, Fringe, and Sliders.
  • Shapeshifting – Some fantasy depicts doppelgangers as the result of shapeshifters physically transforming into a duplicate of someone, as seen in stories like Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

While fictional explanations are imaginative, they ultimately rely more on creative premise than evidence.


Doppelgangers remain one of the most tantalizing mysteries out there when it comes to strange phenomena. The question of where they come from has puzzled humankind for centuries, resulting in a range of theories from the imaginative to the scientific in an attempt to explain their existence. While no definitive answer has been reached, doppelgangers continue to fascinate those who ponder the possibilities of doubles that lurk among us, warning of death, or perhaps simply reflecting ourselves back to provoke an existential crisis. Their origins may never be proven or disproven satisfactorily, ensuring doppelgangers endure as disturbing yet compelling psychic phenomenon.