This article was originally published on Broadly.
In 1845, a 32 year-old teacher called Emilie Sagée started working at a French-language private girls' school, Pensionat von Neuwelcke, in Latvia. Although she was a talented and well-liked teacher, she soon became the focus of rumor and speculation. The problem was there was not only one Ms Sagée teaching at the school. There were two.
Sagée's double first appeared in her classroom. As she wrote on the blackboard, a second Ms Sagée appeared in front of the class, mimicking the teacher's movements. One evening, as Sagée ate in the dining hall, it appeared again, mirroring her actions once more. From that day on, the sightings became more frequent—and more frightening.
One hot summer's day in 1846, the entire student body of 42 girls was sat in the hall having a sewing lesson. As they worked, Sagée picked flowers in the school's garden. When the sewing teacher left the room to speak to a colleague, Sagée's double suddenly appeared at the front of the room, staring straight at the frightened children.
Sagée never saw the phantom; she only knew of its presence. Witnesses said the color would drain from her face and, overcome with fatigue, her movements would become listless whenever the apparition was near. Sagée was eventually fired from her job, as her double terrified everybody at the school too much.
Doppelgängers—literally meaning 'double goer' in German—have long been the focus of folklore. People originally believed that encountering an apparition of yourself was an omen of imminent death. Historical figures reported seeing their double just before they passed. Before her death, Queen Elizabeth I was rumored to have seen a corpse-like figure of herself lying on her own bed. Percy Shelley was visited by his doppelgänger before he died in a sailing accident—a few days prior to embarking on the fateful journey, the romantic poet followed the phantom as it walked from his Italian beach house to the sea shore, watching as it silently pointed out to the waves before vanishing. Sagée's own case was recounted by a former student to Robert Dale Owen, an American social reformer and spiritualist who recorded the event in his book, Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World.
But doppelgängers aren't necessarily portents of doom. As in the Sagée case, they can appear without foreshadowing impending death. People have reported seeing their duplicate in the street, and your double can be seen by a friend or family member too—a phenomenon known as 'bilocation.'
Mystics historically viewed doppelgängers as a type of demon, able to shapeshift; an evil twin, in other words. This is now an outdated view, however, according to paranormal investigator Lee Roberts. In the past, people viewed doppelgängers this way because they were unable to rationalize the phenomenon, he says.
"Paranormal investigation takes on a more scientific view these days," he told Broadly. "We're more focused on looking at the idea of different dimensions and time phases that operate at the same time." In simpler terms, Roberts claims there is more than one version of you existing at the same time, but living in alternate realities. He believes the doppelgänger phenomenon is caused by people suddenly gaining the ability to tap into another time phase to view alternate versions of themselves or other people.
I was in my car at a stop light, and suddenly the street waved in front of me in an s-shaped curving wave.
He tells me a story about a man who was walking along a street and saw himself walk by in the opposite direction. Eight years later, the same man walked past himself going the other way. "That theory is the only way I can explain something like that—there's definitely something paranormal in it," Roberts adds.
Some people believe you can will yourself to move through this vortex, a process known as 'astral projection'. On the subreddit /r/glitch_in_the_matrix, where people share true stories of weird and unexplained experiences, I found one Californian woman who said that she had managed to do this after leaving work one day. "I was in my car at a stop light, and suddenly the street waved in front of me in an s-shaped curving wave," Sarah* says. "I chalked it up to an optical illusion, but then I got home."
She arrived to discover her daughter shaking. It turned out the child saw Sarah walk through the door and go into the bathroom a few minutes before, but hadn't come out. "I think I moved through dimensions," she says. "Either that, or the other me didn't want to come out and face me."
Of course, it's highly possible that you can't travel through parallel universes and all of this is one big delusion, or a trick of the mind. That's why paranormal investigators are not the only people interested in the notion of doubles. Professor Christopher French is one of the world's leading anomalistic psychologists, heading up the unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. Anomalistic psychology is the study of human behavior connected to the paranormal, with the underlying assumption that such incidents can be explained by the human brain.
Professor French explains that mental illnesses including schizophrenia, as well as other conditions such as brain tumors, can cause sufferers to hallucinate versions of themselves or other people—an experience known in psychology as 'heautoscopy.' "It's also common in people with epilepsy, especially right before they're about to have a seizure," he says.
He cites an example from 1994, where a 21-year-old Swiss man saw his double lying in his bed after a night drinking. He was being treated for seizures, but had stopped taking his anti-convulsant meds. Despite his shouts and attempts to wake it, his doppelgänger refused to move. Then the two switched places—the man lying in bed was suddenly unable to move, watching his double shouting at him. The cycle repeated itself several times. The experience drove the man to jump from a fourth-floor window in a desperate attempt to "find a match between body and self." While undergoing treatment for his injuries in hospital, the man was found to have a tumor on his left temporal lobe; temporal epilepsy is the most frequent form of the condition. Once the tumor was removed, the seizures and hallucinations stopped.
I heard him open the door to our apartment and felt him get back into bed with me—I even sensed his weight sinking into the mattress.
Yet sightings aren't confined to people with health problems. Professor French says an early study revealed heautoscopy is more common than you'd expect, especially among people who do not have a mental illness. "Many people just don't report it, due to worrying about others thinking they're 'crazy'," he says.
While there is an even split between genders in terms of doppelgänger sightings, Lee Roberts tells me he has found they're usually reported by people aged 20 to 40 who are "healthy in body and mind." Professor French says this makes sense—between being broke, dealing with difficult relationships, and trying to work our way up the career ladder, it's one of the most stressful periods in people's lives.
"People in this age group are also more likely to do things that cause them to miss out on sleep—going out clubbing, taking recreational drugs or drinking a lot of alcohol," he adds. Missed sleep can lead to hallucinations, as well as a condition called sleep paralysis, where rapid eye movement sleep—the state of sleep in which people have the most dreams—intrudes into wakefulness.
People see or feel the presence of demons, witches, and even doppelgängers of themselves or people they know. I've experienced this myself once before while half-asleep. After my partner left for work, I heard him open the door to our apartment and felt him get back into bed with me—I even sensed his weight sinking into the mattress. Of course, he was in the office while I was freaking the fuck out. "If you can rationalize it, you can feel better about these experiences," says Professor French.
But if the doppelgänger phenomenon can be explained away by hallucinations and tricks of the mind, how then was it possible for 42 students to see Sagee's double? Professor French points me towards research he co-authored in 2014, during which a fake psychic used sleight of hand to bend a key in front of 180 study subjects who believed it was happening through telekinesis. After the trick was completed, the 'conjurer' told half the participants, "Look, it's still bending." Although the shape of the key hadn't changed when he made the claim, 40 percent of the subjects confirmed that the key had carried on curving. That number rose to 60 percent when subjects were put in pairs, with their partner acting as a stooge to insist that they had seen the key bend too.
Remember hallucinations are not rare, and if it's a one-off occurrence it's likely to be a normal thing you can write off.
Professor French explains that this is a clear example of memory conformity, when a person's report of a memory influences another person's report of the same incident. As stories spread through the school, an overconfident witness could have unknowingly created false memories for everybody else. "Either that, or the whole thing was a prank engineered by the girls," French adds.
Still, this doesn't make the idea of coming face to face with a ghostly version of yourself any less scary. So what should you do if it happens to you? Professor French says the key is not to panic. "Remember hallucinations are not rare, and if it's a one-off occurrence it's likely to be a normal thing you can write off," he says. "Of course, if it's happening on a regular basis you should get checked out by a doctor."
Lee Roberts, on he other hand, says it's worth trying to make contact with the spirit. "Nobody who has come to me with their experience has ever tried, probably because they're so frightened. If I saw my double I'd definitely say something to see if it responds to me," he laughs. "Maybe then you'd get to the bottom of this mystery once and for all."
*Name has been changed