The Third Man Phenomenon

Welcome to Weird Wednesday! Today we’re going to investigate why people in life-or-death situations sometimes have trouble counting.

​​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

–TS. Eliot, The Waste Land, written about Ernest Shackleton’s 1916 third man experience.

The “third man,” named for the poem above, is the phenomenon where people in life-threatening or highly stressful situations sense another person (of whatever gender) with them. The solo hiker has a companion, or the group of four becomes five, of which most or all report seeing the extra person.

The third man is usually a benevolent presence, giving comfort and hope of survival. Most people don’t get a good look at their extra companion, who seems to be always just ahead or behind them, or in shadow. Still, the presence can seem so real that people attempt to share food with them. Other times the third man is just a voice which dispenses advice and encouragement.

Occasionally, it’s more than that. Examples in the book The Third Man Factor by John Geiger include a solo sailor who believed an unseen companion steered his ship through a storm, a woman in a collapsed building who reported a monk gave her an apple, a solo mountaineer who believed he was roped to someone else and thus descended a peak cautiously enough to save his own life, and another mountaineer who believed someone was helping him carry an injured companion. 

So who is the third man? Various experiencers believe their companion to be an angel, God, a dead relative or friend, a live relative or friend, their own younger self, a person who looks vaguely familiar, or a stranger. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote that someone in Shackleton’s mountaineering group was likely a medium unaware of their power to contact the spirit world.

Of course, it could all be hallucination. In fact, some experiencers report they always believed their extra companion was not real, but felt comforted all the same. The third man often appears when people are terrified, injured, or ill, and thus not in the most rational state of mind. The voice giving advice could simply be a calmer part of the sufferer’s own brain speaking, and the vision of an extra person conjured up by the terror of being alone or without help. No one can say for sure.

And now for some companionable writing prompts!


  • All the lonely people. The third man has been reported most often in mountaineering, shipwrecks, and polar exploration, but any highly stressful situation would work for a story, including disasters, crime, or simply getting lost. The sky’s the limit here: you could have an alien on a disabled ship experience the third man as the ship’s AI, or a sorcerer believing their animal familiar is with them. You could also combine the third man with crisis apparitions, where people in life-threatening situations appear to their loved ones many miles away. Perhaps the third man is two-way communication.
  • The Evil Leaper. History is written by the victors, and survival stories by the survivors. If there’s a benevolent voice which tells freezing mountaineers to get up and keep walking toward safety, might there also be a malevolent voice telling people to lie down and give up? We’d never know, because those who die don’t report back. Your plot could have various degrees of an evil third man here: a comforting voice telling people to let go and pass on, an evil voice giving bad advice, or a malicious presence causing all kinds of mischief. Who might experiencers see as the third man here? The devil or an attacker? Or still an angel or loved one?

  • The singular third man. One theory reported by Geiger is that there is actually only one third man who is responsible for all these experiences. To make this work, no two people in the world could meet this companion at the same time. So who is this person? An angel, or perhaps a cursed soul doing penance by aiding others? How about a ghost stuck on a mountain who tries to help other people avoid the mistake that killed them, whether it be an unseen crevasse or falling asleep in the death zone? Or you could have a superhero helping out, which could explain the cases where the third man has a real effect, like keeping a ship from capsizing in a storm.

  • A friend for life. Adults can’t seem to agree on whether children actually see their imaginary friends or if it’s all pretend. But imaginary friends are often mentioned in relation to the third man experience, and you could have a plot where a beloved imaginary friend comes back to aid their adult friend at a time of great peril, or to aid someone else in the same family. If the imaginary friend has also aged, you could even have a paranormal romance.

  • The little man who wasn’t there. If the third man is a scientifically explainable brain phenomenon, you could have a plot where people try to induce it on purpose. Maybe a company sells a headband with an electric pulse that brings out a companion for lonely people, or perhaps it’s part of training for soldiers, a way to keep themselves calm in stressful situations. A horror plot could have a person uncertain whether a third man experience is an expected hallucination…or if someone is actually there.

Thanks for spending your Weird Wednesday here! Remember, never travel alone.

    Want to chat about the blog? Did you use one of the prompts? Hit me up on social media.

    If you like mysterious tales of the sea, you can read my story The Lifeboat in Seaside Gothic, Issue 4. Cousins looking to scatter their grandfather’s ashes make an unsettling discovery in a sea cave.

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    Sources & further reading:

    Geiger, John. The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. Weinstein Books, 2009. On Amazon

    Third Man factor: What really happened to Ernest Shackleton? Reader’s Digest

    Guardian Angels Or The ‘Third Man Factor’? NPR

    The Third Man factor on Wikipedia