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Third man factor

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Two mountain climbers.

The third man factor or third man syndrome refers to the reported situations where an unseen presence, such as a spirit, provides comfort or support during traumatic experiences.


Sir Ernest Shackleton, in his 1919 book South, described his belief that an incorporeal companion joined him and his men during the final leg of his 1914–1917 Antarctic expedition, which became stranded in pack ice for more than two years and endured immense hardships in the attempt to reach safety. Shackleton wrote, "during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three."[1] His admission resulted in other survivors of extreme hardship coming forward and sharing similar experiences.

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
— But who is that on the other side of you?

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land Wikisource has information on "The Waste Land"

Lines 359 through 365 of T. S. Eliot's 1922 modernist poem The Waste Land were inspired by Shackleton's experience, as stated by the author in the notes included with the work. It is the reference to "the third" in this poem that has given this phenomenon its name (when it could occur to even a single person in danger).

In recent years, well-known adventurers like climber Reinhold Messner and polar explorers Peter Hillary and Ann Bancroft have reported experiencing the phenomenon. One study of cases involving adventurers reported that the largest group involved climbers, with solo sailors and shipwreck survivors being the second most common group, followed by polar explorers.[2] A similar experience was documented by mountain climber Joe Simpson in his 1988 book Touching the Void, which recounts his near-death experience in the Peruvian Andes. Simpson describes "a voice" which encouraged him and directed him as he crawled back to base camp after suffering a horrible leg injury high on Siula Grande and falling off a cliff and into a crevasse. Some journalists have related this to the concept of a guardian angel or imaginary friend. Scientific explanations consider the phenomenon a coping mechanism or an example of bicameral mentality.[3] The concept was popularized by a 2009 book by John G. Geiger, The Third Man Factor, which documents scores of examples.

Modern psychologists have used the "third man factor" to treat victims of trauma. The "cultivated inner character" lends imagined support and comfort.[4]

Literary and film references[edit]

In Geraldine McCaughrean's 2005 young adult fiction novel The White Darkness, the teenage heroine, Sym, joins a doomed Antarctic expedition. Abandoned and lost, she is guided to safety by a "third man", her imaginary friend, Captain Lawrence Oates.

In Larry McMurtry's 1985 Western novel Lonesome Dove, Pea Eye, after surviving an Indian attack with Gus, makes a trek back to Call and has an experience of a "ghost" or "spirit" that guides him during his walk.

Thomas Pynchon's 2006 novel Against the Day makes reference to the experience.

In Max Brooks's 2006 novel World War Z, Colonel Christina Eliopolis crash lands in the midst of zombie-infested territory but is able to survive and be picked up with the assistance of a Sky Watcher codenamed "Mets Fan", who is later revealed to be a figment of her imagination. She maintains the belief that Mets is a real person.

In the 2006 film The Guardian, a drowning sailor, being rescued by Ashton Kutcher's character Jake, asks, "Where is he?" and then tells of a man who had stayed with him and held him up until help arrived.

In the 2013 film Gravity, biomedical engineer Ryan Stone watches astronaut Matt Kowalski float away into space to certain death. Later in the film, as an exhausted Stone is about to give up, we see Kowalski appear and enter her space capsule, supposedly having survived. He gives Stone the strength of will to continue, and shows her a means to return to Earth, before being revealed as a figment of her imagination.

In the 1984 film Cloak & Dagger, Davey Osborne, a child who uses his imagination to replace his absentee father, is pursued by criminals attempting to retrieve hidden data from one of Davey's video game cartridges. In moments of danger and high stress, a Special Forces agent named Jack Flack seemingly magically appears to guide Davey through the situations. Notably, the characters of Jack Flack and Davey's father are both portrayed by the same person, actor Dabney Coleman.

In the 2023 book Into the Uncanny, author Danny Robins puts forward the idea that the Third Man Factor could potentially account for some reported ghost sightings, especially those in which the witness is being put under intense stress or mental strain.

In Season 25, episode 8 of Law and Order: SVU, the episode is titled "Third Man Syndrome" and the phenomenon is addressed, explained and brought to the attention of Captain Benson by a detective in her squad when she mentions the victim seeing someone who wasn't there.

In the Bible, Daniel 3:23-26, the story of Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego recounts a situation where three men were thrown into a fiery furnace, but witnesses say there was a fourth figure with them that looked like an angel.

See also[edit]

General and cited references[edit]

  • Geiger, John (2009). The Third Man Factor. Toronto: Viking Canada. ISBN 978-0-14-301751-6.[1]
  • "The Current for January 27, 2009 - Part 3: Third Man Factor". CBC Radio: The Current. 27 January 2009.
  • Messner, Reinhold (13 September 2009). "Guardian Angels Or The 'Third Man Factor'?". NPR. Retrieved 26 January 2010.
  • Blanke, Olaf; Pozeg, Polona; Hara, Masayuki; Heydrich, Lukas; Serino, Andrea; Yamamoto, Akio; Higuchi, Toshiro; Salomon, Roy; Seeck, Margitta; Landis, Theodor; Arzy, Shahar; Herbelin, Bruno; Bleuler, Hannes; Rognini, Giulio (17 November 2014). "Neurological and Robot-Controlled Induction of an Apparition". Current Biology. 24 (22): 2681–2686. Bibcode:2014CBio...24.2681B. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.049. PMID 25447995. - describes how the third man factor, is produced in experiments as "feelings of presence" (FoP) - with normal persons.


  1. ^ Shackleton, Ernest Henry (1914). South: The Endurance Expedition. Frank Hurley, Fergus Fleming. Penguin Classics. p. 204. ISBN 0-14-243779-4.
  2. ^ Suedfeld, Peter and Geiger, John, (2008) "The sensed presence as a coping resource in extreme environments" In: Ellens, J. Harold (ed.), Miracles God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal (Vol. 3) Praeger. ISBN 0-275-99722-7
  3. ^ White, Nancy J. (30 January 2009). "Third man theory of otherworldly encounters". Toronto Star. Retrieved 5 February 2009.
  4. ^ "An adventurer's angel", Australian Geographic, 15 September 2012

External links[edit]