I. What is a Doppelganger?
Doppelganger (DOPP-el-gang-er) comes from a German word meaning “double-walker.” It’s a twin or double of some character, usually in the form of an evil twin.
There are countless evil twins in soap operas and other TV melodramas. They sometimes impersonate a main character or cause confusion among the love interests. Although this plot device has become a bit of a cliché, it is an excellent example of the doppelganger concept.
II. Examples of Doppelganger
There is an old mirror in this room. Your frightened reflection moves on its own. You realize it is you from another time. Your reflection writes on the mirror: THIS WILL HELP.
In Irish folklore, it was believed that one’s doppelganger (or “fetch” in Irish) was an evil omen. If you saw your fetch walking on the horizon, it meant something bad was about to happen to you.
III. The Importance of Doppelgangers
Psychologically, doppelgangers seem to be extremely compelling to human beings – that’s why they appear so often in mythology, literature, and film. No one knows entirely why this is the case, but it might have something to do with autoscopy or “self-seeing.” This is a symptom of some mental illnesses, where a patient will see herself going about her day, as if from a distance. It’s an unnerving form of hallucination, but not terribly uncommon. The whole category of “out-of-body experiences” falls into this category as well.
In general, a doppelganger creates a creepy or eerie tone within a story, possibly because you see yourself from outside your own body. But sometimes writers will turn that creepiness on its head – a silly or incompetent doppelganger can be a great way to generate laughs.
IV. Examples of Doppelganger in Literature
In some Arthurian legends, there’s a character called Gwenhwyfach (your guess is as good as mine on the pronunciation), who is also known as the “False Guinevere.” She is Queen Guinevere’s twin sister, and a bitter enemy of the Knights of the Round Table. In one story, she even manages to cause a catastrophic battle as a way off trying to get back at her sister.
Edgar Allen Poe’s story William Wilson is about a young boy who meets his (almost) exact double and becomes increasingly corrupted by his influence. In the end, young William stands in front of a mirror looking at a reflection that is almost like him – but covered in blood and clearly dead. The story never fully explains the nature of this creepy doppelganger.
V. Examples of Doppelganger in Pop Culture
In the Legend of Zelda video games, Link often has to fight against Dark Link – a difficult task for the player since Dark Link has all the same moves and powers that Link has! Dark Link usually appears first as Link’s reflection, but then emerges from the water/mirror to attack the player.
The Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The 6th Day is entirely about the main character chasing down a clone of himself. The clone is masquerading as the hero at home and at work. SPOILER ALERT: In the end, it turns out that Schwarzenegger’s character was the clone all along.
In one episode of The Simpsons, Bart discovers that he has an evil twin brother, who has been living in the attic and subsisting on fish heads for his whole life.
VI. Related Terms
The idea of “alter egos” is sometimes confused with doppelgangers. A doppelganger is some sort of twin, though, whereas an alter ego is an alternative self, embodied by a single person (i.e. Superman/Clark Kent, or Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde).
If the character is being controlled by someone else, this is not a doppelganger – a doppelganger must be a different character that is a mirror image of the main character in some way.
Similarly, if someone dresses up as another character, this is not a doppelganger either (though it can have similar effects in a plot, for example by confusing the main character’s friends and family).