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Third Man Syndrome: A Spiritual Presence or Survival Instinct?

“Third Man Syndrome” is said to come to those in need in an emergency situation to encourage and help them survive.


Individuals have credited it for saving their lives in emergency situations, but what is the “Third Man Syndrome”?

From 1914-17, Sir Earnest Shackleton and his team of two embarked on the final leg of their expedition to Antarctica. In his book two years later about the voyage, Shackleton admitted he felt, “often that we were four, not three.” Shackleton’s revelation caused an onslaught of other survivors coming forward. They shared similar experiences of danger where a spirit came to them. Thus, the “Third Man Syndrome” was born.

“Third Man Syndrome” is said to come to those in need in an emergency situation to encourage and help them survive. It consists of a presence or even a “voice” that doesn’t exist and was never really there. Some descriptions of “Third Man Syndrome” experiences have merely been a comforting presence in times of crisis. Others have claimed to have had a more intense experience.

It seems to be a way that those in crisis have been able to, often miraculously, survive. But do these first-hand accounts lend enough evidence to claim, as some have, that “Third Man Syndrome” is real? Furthermore, does it confirm a supernatural presence that we can’t all see?

More examples of “Third Man Syndrome”

One example of the latter comes from Joe Simpson. Simpson is a mountain climber, and in his 1988 book, Touching the Void, he described an experience that qualifies as the “Third Man Syndrome”. In the book, Simpson recounts a near-death experience in the Peruvian Andes while on an expedition with Simon Yates. Simpson, who fell off a cliff on the expedition, described “a voice” that directed Simpson back to base camp with a leg injury.

Some scientists have described the presence as an imaginary friend and is often a coping mechanism. Shutterstock/LeaDigszammal

With examples like Simpson, it is easy to relate the “Third Man Syndrome” to a guardian angel or imaginary friend. Scientists have considered the phenomenon themselves. Nancy J. White spoke about more scientific reasoning in an article for the Toronto Star back in 2009. In the article “Third Man Theory” of otherworldly encounters,” White considers the scientific approach that the “Third Man Syndrome” is merely a coping mechanism. Furthermore, modern psychologists have used what they call the “third man factor” in order to treat victims of trauma. Calling it the “cultivated inner character,” it is said to give imagined support to those who need it.

People are still talking about it

The concept was further popularised in the 2009 book The Third Man Factor by John G. Geiger. In the book, Geiger described various examples of “Third Man Syndrome.” More recently, in 2023, author Danny Robbins also released the book Into the Uncanny talking about “Third Man Syndrome”. In the book, Robbins suggested that it could be the explanation behind many ghost sightings.

Are you convinced?

So, is the “Third Man Syndrome” a realistic example of a ghostly presence and thus evidence of the supernatural? Or is it just a coping mechanism for those in distress? Perhaps only those who have experienced it can properly answer those questions.

Written By

My name is Martha Matthews (she/her) and I am a third-year English Literature student at University College London. At Trill Mag, I write for Trending News, Entertainment & Culture. Besides writing, I love taking photos, going to art galleries and watching new (and old) films.

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