Imaginary Friend

The phenomenon of Third Man Syndrome

By D. Dion

Haley Zega was just six years old when she went missing for two and a half days in the Ozark National Forest in 2001. She went on a hike with her grandparents to a place in the remote wilderness called Whitaker Point. The trail, says Zega, is fairly treacherous, running along some bluffs about two hundred feet above the Buffalo National River.

She was tired and cranky that day, she recalls, so she sat down and pouted, refusing to hike, asking to be carried instead. Her grandparents slowly walked ahead, knowing that she would give in and follow—which she did—but she quickly got separated from the main trail, and because the foliage was so dense, she could no longer see or hear them. “In a matter of seconds, I was lost,” says Zega. “Just completely and totally lost.”

She became dehydrated, hungry, and exhausted, but says she was not scared—partially because at the age of six, she didn’t really understand the seriousness of her circumstances, and partially because, according to Zega, she was not alone. “From the moment I knew that I was lost until the moment I was found, I had an imaginary friend who was with me the entire time.”


Just as Zega realized she was lost, Alicia appeared. Alicia was four years old, she says, with long, black hair; she was wearing a bright-colored sweatshirt and carrying a flashlight. Zega followed Alicia down to the river, on a safe route she doesn’t think she could have found herself. Zega hoped that the helicopters searching above could spot her near the river or that she could follow the river to find help. The two spent the first night on a rock in the middle of its flow, wet and cold, and the second night in a cave nearby. Alicia told stories to Zega and they played games.

Zega says she understood, in some way, that Alicia wasn’t real, and that Alicia appeared as a four-year-old so that she wouldn’t scare her. Zega never had an imaginary friend before this happened, nor did she after her ordeal, but that is how she chooses to describe the phenomenon. Some people have suggested to her it was a ghost, a spirit guide, or a guardian angel. “I don’t really know to this day what it was. She was just kind of there. She was a presence the entire time that I was lost.”

Alicia disappeared when two men riding mules, miles away from where others were searching, found Zega and brought her back to safety. And while Zega’s experience was extraordinary, it was not unique. The phenomenon happens so often that it has a name: Third Man Syndrome.

We Are Not Alone

Probably the most renowned case of Third Man Syndrome (aka “Third Man Factor”) was the 1914–1917 Shackleton expedition of the Antarctic. After their ship the Endurance was trapped in the ice and the crew was stranded, Shackleton and two other men marched for thirty-six hours across unknown mountains and glaciers in a rescue effort, but the three men all believed there were four; that there was another entity walking with them. That story inspired some lines of T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, from which the syndrome is named:

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?

Third Man Syndrome is most commonly considered the domain of adventurers—climbers, sailors, explorers—but it is not an exclusive club. Life-or-death situations can precipitate the phenomenon in all manner of circumstances, even ordinary experiences.

My mother-in-law was camping on a river trip and fell down a cliff and broke her back after walking out of her tent at night, in the dark. She was stunned and breathless, nearly unconscious from the pain. Her father appeared to her, and admonished her: “Get up.”

But her father was dead—he had died in a car crash several years earlier. She was startled from her stupor by her own voice weakly calling for help, alerting her friends above.

There are many Reddit threads devoted to the subject of Third Man Syndrome. The most typical stories seem to be car crashes. Sometimes it’s just a “voice” warning a driver not to nod off at the wheel, or to hit the brakes to avoid a collision, but there are also a lot of stories about a presence, a “person,” helping a survivor of an accident. The survivor is pulled to safety or comforted by someone until help arrives, only to have them disappear and for the EMTs or rescue personnel to tell them that they were actually alone—that no one else was there. In 2004, race car driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. believed he was dragged out of a fiery wreck in a Corvette at the Sonoma Raceway by a corner worker; but the video shows him climbing out of the car on his own.

Imagine the surprise of the solo skipper of a boat off the English coast in the 1950s who ran into a bad storm and was knocked off his feet and badly injured. He could not get up, but suddenly two men mysteriously appeared and steered the boat for him, telling him he was going to be okay. He drifted off to sleep, and the next morning he woke to voices—the coast guard had come aboard. The men were gone, and the officers were puzzled at how he could have traveled to where he was then; he had been reported on the radio as missing and presumed dead.

Third Man Syndrome also happens frequently in times of conflict or war. There are countless accounts from the survivors of 9/11 who felt like someone or something was telling them not to go to work that day, or that a “guardian angel” guided them out of the Twin Towers as they collapsed. Soldiers in the trenches often report being visited by someone—a sergeant, a family member, or a spirit—that consoles them or advises them. A number of British soldiers in World War I claimed that they were aided by an army of angelic, glowing warriors during the Battle of Mons, who have come to be known as the “Angels of Mons.”

Indeed, these “Third Men” often look like spirits or otherworldly beings, and many of them are dressed in white, like the odd stranger wearing a suit and hovering above the ocean who rescued a man and his son caught in a riptide. There are also many stories of lost hikers being led back by apparitions of Native or Indigenous people. At least one man claims to have been helped by a figure similar to Alicia. He fell off a sea cliff in Alaska and shattered his leg and broke his back. He lay there alone for hours, calling for help, and then, he says, a “little girl” came down from the cliff and kept him company. She sang to him, told him stories, and even covered him with her coat to keep him warm. When someone eventually came around into the bay and found him, there was no little girl. She disappeared, just like Alicia.

The Bicameral Mind and Butterfly People

Scientists have a few theories to explain Third Man Syndrome. High elevations or confined spaces can cause oxygen deprivation, which can impair cognitive function and lead to altered states of consciousness. Sensory deprivation and isolation in extreme environments like remote wilderness or the ocean might cause the brain to generate its own sensory experiences, even a perceived companion, for psychological stability.

Visions can also be brought about by neurochemical changes and the release of endorphins as a response to duress or physical pain; neurochemicals can alter perception and mood and create feelings of dissociation. Temporal lobe epilepsy or seizures have also been linked with hallucinations. How these hallucinations appear—as an angel, or a man in a suit, or a family member—is a result of our social or cultural conditioning or beliefs, they say.

Another possible explanation, perhaps the most widely accepted, is the idea that it’s the bicameral mentality, a coping mechanism. The bicameral mind theory was posited by Dr. Julian Jaynes, a psychologist/researcher who studied at Harvard and Yale. Jaynes argued that our human ancestors had a different kind of cognitive functioning; that the human mind once operated in a state where one part of the brain seemed to be speaking, and the other part of the brain would listen or act on it, as if the speaker were not also the listener—a bit like schizophrenia, or a verbal hallucination. Ancient Greeks, according to Jaynes, believed that their actions or emotions were guided by something external, gods or prophets or muses, which formed the core of religion. Jaynes believed that the breakdown of this cognitive division gave rise to “human consciousness” some 3,000 years ago, making us capable of introspection.

Maybe the stress of a life-or-death situation can result in this kind of compartmentalization of the mind, a way of dividing the cognitive function to comfort or guide yourself. Local skier Paul Emrick survived an avalanche in Ophir last winter and had to self-rescue. There was no Third Man for Emrick, but he said he realized he was using “we” as he spoke to himself and navigated his way down. “There certainly was no outside presence guiding me. I see it more as a division of my own self. There was the victim—analyzing my condition, quietly suffering, and in need of reassurance. Then there was the level-headed, take-charge decision maker.” 

None of these theories, however, seem to rationalize the instances where the Third Man is a collective experience; when two or more people see or hear or sense the same thing—like the Shackleton explorers who all believed there was another man with them, or the soldiers at Mons and their angel warriors. There is a remarkable modern-day example of this, too, with multiple witnesses. On May 22, 2011, an F5 tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri, killing 161 people and destroying 900 homes. In the aftermath, many children who survived told the same story of the “Butterfly People.” Some adults, one a Red Cross worker, say they saw the same beings, too.

The accounts were eerily similar, and came from numerous sources from different backgrounds, people who didn’t know each other. They described the Butterfly People as having wings that were colorful and “pretty,” and the survivors said that they descended from the sky and covered them with their wings or comforted them; some said they saw the Butterfly People carry others away. According to the director at the trauma center, many of the children said they knew somehow that these beings were there to help keep them safe and calm. Reporters—who were skeptical at first—interviewed the survivors, and there are many stories, a book, and even a movie about the strange occurrence. Joplin has embraced the tales as a sort of symbol, with an historical marker on Maiden Lane in honor of the Butterfly People, as well as butterfly murals, sculptures, paintings, and t-shirts.

Psychiatrists would say that this was just a mass hallucination caused by stress and trauma, a shared type of Third Man Syndrome, but it’s hard to imagine so many people independently describing the same phenomenon the same way. Mass hallucination is the same default explanation people give for UFO sightings and other paranormal experiences.

Perhaps it’s better not knowing, or at least not being sure, what is really happening with Third Man Syndrome. The idea that a supernatural entity—whether it’s an imaginary friend, or a spirit guide, or a ghost—can comfort us or lead us to safety seems like something we can take solace in. People pray or ask the universe for help all the time, so even if the Third Man is just some sort of hallucination or bicameral response, maybe we should look at it as a gift, and be grateful there are still mysterious things in the world that we don’t completely understand.

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