Although the paranormal gets a lot of love from pop-culture, not all supernatural phenomena is treated equally. Vampires, werewolves, and witches (oh my!) regularly make the rounds, but if you ask me, the humble doppelgänger doesn’t get the love it deserves.
A doppelgänger is basically a double, although this is not strictly correct. Like every other imaginary beast of the night, there are a number of interpretations of its lore; depending on your culture/time period/fiction, you could end up with varying ideas of just what this mysterious creature is.
In folklore-y situations, it’s a ghost or a shadow that is visible only to the person it doubles and is a harbinger of bad luck. (This is similar to a “fetch,” which is the less popular, Irish equivalent.) In some cases a doppelgänger isn’t just an omen, either, because it plans to kill and/or impersonate you. Trying to talk to your doppelgänger is pointless, because in this mythology your fate is inescapable (and terrifying).
The “doppelgänger that is out to get you” occasionally makes its way into sci-fi and fiction, along with other plotlines where someone is not-quite-theirself. (Think: bodysnatchers, or characters switching bodies.) It’s a good device for drumming up conflict, because initially people are going to accept that person’s weird behavior, at least until it becomes obvious that some sort of shenanigan is occurring. Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose as character B sabotages character A’s life, probably kissing some poor unsuspecting side character.
However, by and far my biggest obsession regarding doppelgängers is not supernatural, or even fictitious, but the elusive real-life doppelgänger. Finding a person who looks like you is an uncomfortable (yet exciting) experience, for a number of reasons. I used to have a lookalike at my university…several people came up to me and told me that they had mistaken her for me, but I never seemed to be able to find her. I looked for her for literally months but the first time I saw her, someone had to point her out to me because she had just dyed her hair lavender, thereby ruining a fair amount of our resemblance. From that point on I saw her on campus probably two to three times a week, but always from far enough away that I couldn’t go talk to her without seeming incredibly weird.
Other real-life “doppelgängers” include stunt doubles and celebrity lookalikes. (Shout out to the girl I used to go to school with that looked exactly like Selena Gomez.) This is primarily what the internet seems to think doppelgängers are, since a brief search will lead you to approximately one trillion “50 Unbelievable Celebrity Doppelgängers” lists.
Overall, the thing that really gets me about look-alikes/doubles/doppelgängers/etc.etc. is the way they seem to threaten our notions of identity. Folklore doppelgängers are unbelievably spooky if you think about them, because if you fall victim to one it’s entirely possible that nobody will notice. (Kind of like halfling babies and human babies getting switched in fae/fairy mythology.) With other monsters, if they kill and eat you, they open themselves up to retaliation from your loved ones in the form of an angry mob. Meanwhile, a doppelgänger will kill you, take your place, and live your life, which brings up all sorts of insecurities about individuality and identity and how well the people close to you really know you. (Additionally, there’s paranoia that the people you love have been replaced by doppelgängers, which is a very spooky symptom of an actual psychological disorder called Capgras syndrome.) The idea that we are replaceable, not unique, or otherwise unimportant is terrifying, but also holds a certain interest regarding if being unique is really all that important, especially since attempts to be so are often unsuccessful. (Why work to create a “unique” identity if it’s impossible anyway?) In fact, these same insecurities hold true with real life doubles, even if they’re not going to murder you and pretend to be you.
Anyway, it’s food for thought for the next time you hear something go bump in the night.