For this episode I wanted to take on a personal boogeyman:
If you want to get under my skin, a good mimic story will do the job. Part of the problem comes down to WHY an entity may be mimicking something else, with neither broad approach being good. There’s mimicking to hide, which is more than worrying enough. There is then also predatory mimicry, that looks to lure prey in, and this one burns my brain! Any time I come across a paranormal account where someone hears a family member calling out to them, and then it turns out the actual person couldn’t have been where the voice called out from, freaks me out.
I got goosebumps just typing about it!
So, time for some exposure therapy for me, and some sharing the terror for everyone else, as we face one of my fears face on. The things that hide in plain sight, and what motive they may have for doing so…
SECTION BREAK – The Major Namesake
I’m using the term “mimic” as it offers a lot more scope, and this is certainly a worryingly large field to cover, but there’s a very common term for specifically a person being copied.
A cool term given to us by the Germans, up there with such hits as schadenfreude and poltergeist, doppelganger simply means “an apparition or double of a living person”. It’s a direct compound noun of “double” and “walker” or “goer”. As ubiquitous as the term is now it’s actually relatively recent, yet its usage has extended to become an umbrella term for a this type of common story among all cultures around the world. It appears as though the publication of ‘The Night-Side of Nature’ by Catherine Crowe in 1848 was where the term began to take off, and doppelganger has stuck since then.
As inherently unnerving as a doppelganger is, stories of encounters with them tend to be pretty simple. Simple, sadly, not meaning safe here - as the most common stories of doppelgangers tend to be that of a death omen. A family member will spot a doppelganger somewhere their relative should not be, there are for example a lot of wartime doppelganger stories where someone who was fighting overseas gets spotted around their home when they are miles away. Quite often the story goes that at the same time this kind of doppelganger is seen, is when the person being copied has died. This puts these apparitions as some sort of ghost as much as a death omen, potentially being a brief last visit, but doppelgangers certainly get weirder.
Seeing your own doppelganger is almost always a prelude to a bad time, although there are exceptions to this where it’s just weird instead. Percy Shelley, husband of Mary Shelley, was supposed to have dreams of meeting himself whenever he was ill. Not itself too strange, but for the final time he had one of these dreams right before he died someone else also saw the doppelganger in the same location as the one in the dream, walking on the garden terrace.
It’s definitely literature doppelgangers tend to get more menacing, which may be where their reputation for evil comes from. There’s something about the idea of a double that looks exactly like you that’s inherently unnerving, even compared to something as relatively simple (however unwelcome) as a brief death omen. There’s certainly a fear of being replaced here. Or else the loss of self, the subsuming of your individuality. An existential threat that hits us right in the ego. In horror stories this can be broadly metaphorical or a very simple reading that alien pods from outer space are replacing us (random sidenote, the 1978 version of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is my favourite). There’s almost always a malevolence to these stories in fiction, it’s invariably the “evil” doppelganger and not the “just as confused as you are” doppelganger.
SECTION BREAK – An Evolutionary Response
The weird feelings a mimic can stir are borderline phobic. It’s just… “Icky”. And there’s some science to this kneejerk impulse. Time for a quick trip to the Uncanny Valley, and some speculation on why we do not want to be there.
The Uncanny Valley is a phenomenon where if something looks almost like a person, but not quite, it becomes unnerving. Uncanny, as it were. The term comes from the appearance of a graph plotting the effect in the emotional response people have to almost human robots. Once something looks too similar to a human, but it isn’t quite close enough, there’s a negative response that bottoms out in between these two things. That part of the graph being the Uncanny Valley.
Computer generated animations tend to fall foul of this when they get close but not quite close enough to how a person looks. The 2004 movie The Polar Express is an infamous example of this, it’s notoriously lambasted for looking creepy as everything looks close to human but there’s just something dead eyed about the characters. That same year also saw the release of The Incredibles by Pixar studios, who used exaggerated characteristics to give a more cartoonlike appearance to their animated humans, with a style that holds up today without being accidentally terrifying. To highlight the difference, you can Google the “Reverse Toonification” of The Incredibles, where an artist has brought the designs closer to human and dives right off the deep end of the Uncanny Valley.
There are some interesting possibilities behind why people are freaked out by this effect.
The simplest is Abjection. The rejection of that which goes against the established order, we can with a glance identify a fake face thanks to a variety of minor indicators and it sets off internal alarm bells.
The Uncanny Valley Graph by roboticist Masahiro Mori posits one theory in its labelling, with both “corpse” and “zombie” marked out at the bottom of the emotional response lines. That to be close, but not quite right, somewhere in between the cute or abstract and total fidelity to the real thing, comes an instinctive fear of death. What is no longer quite human, is a dead human, and to be avoided. A sense of Mortality being what’s triggering the Uncanny Valley response.
Yet there’s another possibility here, something else that’s instinctive, although no longer relevant. Well, hopefully no longer relevant. As hominids evolved, there were a total of nine distinctive branches walking the Earth at one time or another. There’s only a single genetic line left now, and that is us. We ultimately managed to outcompete our evolutionary cousins. We outfought them, we were more adaptable to environmental hazards, or else outbred them with dominant genetic traits. It is indeed possible to have a small percentage of Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA in your heritage, especially if you are of Eurasian ancestry, showing we overlapped with these now gone others. Yet we may on an instinctive level react to this “other”, our instincts automatically flagging that what we are looking at is part of an outgroup, not another member of Homo Sapiens.
This, then, has further led to some fantastical speculation. That of a natural predator at one time, something that looked a lot like us which wasn’t quite right that hopefully is no longer sharing the world with us, and the ancestors who didn’t react with alarm didn’t get to have descendants…
Although that being said, given that Homo Sapiens are the last hominids standing, I have an awkward feeling that we were the natural predator of the other evolutionary branches.
SECTION BREAK – The Good Folk Are At It Again
I mentioned before that the doppelganger was only embraced as a general term relatively recently, less than 200 years being “recent” as far as folklore tracks. The Celtic folklore native to the British Isles has multiple examples of this.
Fairy creatures are generally tricksters and shape shifters, but there are two pretty big specific examples of doubles. What’s most well known is likely that of a changeling, a fairy child swapped with that of a human baby. I’ll leave this one for another time though.
The closest to the core concept of the doppelganger a Fetch, or a Fetch-life. A Fetch at its simplest overlaps pretty directly with doppelganger stories. They just appear in a confusing manner, and are quite often an omen of either misfortune or even death. There are some variations in stories wherein seeing a Fetch first thing in the morning is a fortuitous omen of a long life, which in its own way still is a death omen - but a comforting one reassuring you it’s a ways off yet.
A hallmark of the British Fetch is that it tends to be a little insubstantial. Either faded, shadow-like, or just giving the impression of lacking in weight. Anyone attempting to follow the Fetch will find they vanish as soon as they lose sight of it, such as turning a corner only to find it gone.
Encountering a Fetch at night is the worrying one. While the Fetch itself is not known to be malicious, it’s definitely bad news. The saying goes that should you see a Fetch at night, the person being copied will only last as long as the sod of turf in the fireplace. It’s a countdown to the inevitable.
There is however a bonus more disturbing type of Fetch. There are tales of people waking up at night to realise there is someone else in their bed when they should be alone. The story then tends to go they freeze up when they realise this, which seems a rational response more than an unnatural compulsion. Once the full realisation has hit this is not their partner or pet weighing down the bed next to them, and they become bold enough to check the intruder, they will be met by their own Fetch in the form of a corpse. They see themselves dead, a cadaver copy which was next to them under the covers, and from there it’s the usual death omen. They won’t last to see the morning. Allegedly Elizabeth I saw such a Fetch on the night of her death, servants responding to her panic on the night of her death passing on the story, although the death of royalty tends to get heavily mythologised so make of that what you will.
It feels cruel to be woken on your final night by your own dead body, but it also gives a chance to say your goodbyes. After the initial screaming and waking up everyone else you can because you just played little spoon to a cold apparition of your own remains. It’s reputation as something fae fits with the duality of the give-and-take such an event represents, being something of a random Banshee for anyone. It’s still skin crawlingly creepy though…
SECTION BREAK – A Bird Mimic and A Menace
In paranormal stories around the world it’s not always people who are getting mimicked. The same unnerving possibilities remain, that of something sinister hiding itself out in the open. There’s more than a few among Native American folklore.
The Raven Mocker is a feared witch of the Cherokee tradition, that have a very simple yet terrifying motivation: For every heart of the sick or elderly they consume, their own life shall be extended by however long the chosen victim should have lived. Able to shapeshift they can appear as an elderly person, as a raven to move about rapidly, in some stories they can change into a bigfoot or sasquatch type apeman when cornered and ready to fight, or my personal least favourite: They can become invisible to feed unnoticed.
Once a victim is selected, the Raven Mocker will live up to their name announcing their intent with imitated Raven calls. From there they will try to sneak indoors to torment their chosen victim, able to beat them without leaving a mark. Ultimately even able to consume their heart while not leaving any trace of the deed on the victim’s skin.
Medicine men and women strong enough in their craft can always spot a Raven Mocker, even when they’re invisible. Should they do this the Raven Mocker will die in seven days, so practitioners may be hired to watch over the sick to keep them safe while they recover. Especially if a Raven call has been heard.
As dangerous as they otherwise are, the Raven Mocker is a sneak attacker who must avoid detection by someone with strong enough medicine. Vigilance is what best defeats them, and taking care of your sick or elderly will starve them out. Their diverse selection of forms to mimic is what makes them stand out. Announcing themselves with birdcall, passing for an elder, or even completely vanishing from sight. They definitely fit the bill for alarming mimics, even if they’re less widely known than something such as the Navajo Skinwalker.
SECTION BREAK – A Story
I mentioned in the introduction a mimic makes up the type of ghost story that really gets to me, so I found one to share. A nice quick one, as this came about as a part of the two sentence horror story trend:
“A girl heard her mom yell her name from downstairs, so she got up and started to head down. As she got to the stairs, her mom pulled her into her room and said, “I heard that, too.””
The whole idea of a mimic luring you away, and why it might be doing it… Goosebumps again!
There’s also an award winning short film made from this called ‘I Heard It Too’, if you want to see this concept brought to life. Probably don’t watch it right before bed though. You’ve been warned…
So, that was mimics out of my system! For now, anyway, as there’s plenty more folklore that dabbles with the topic. Let me know if mimics make you feel as skittish as they do me, it’ll be interesting to get a sense of numbers on this one.
We have a Wheel of the Year point coming around soon, so the next episode will be for Beltane as we continue that 2022 series. I think I have a decent theme to tie into the celebration of the coming Summer, one segment of which may relate to more Native American mimics… We’ll get to the particular nasties I mean at some point either way. You’ll definitely know them when you hear about them!
LukeLore is a Ghost Story Guys production.
If you do want to contact me there’s the show’s dedicated email email@example.com, and the general show email firstname.lastname@example.org. Both myself and the main show are really easy to find on Facebook and Twitter if you want to make day to day contact, as well as a very active Instagram account a lot of the community gets involved with. The LukeLore Instagram is now picking up pace, and there should hopefully be more news soon with the Discord (I just want to make sure I get it right first time and I’ve been pretty busy).
If you want to support the show directly check out our Patreon at Patreon.com/ghoststoryguys. We do have LukeLore merchandise available at the Ghost Story Guys online store, feel very free to show off any you get online!
As ever though, the absolute best thing anyone can do to support the show is to give it a listen. Share this around if you think you may know someone who may be interested, leave a review if you get the chance to help signal boost me, and most of all I simply hope you enjoy what I’m doing here.
Goodbye for now.