13 Days Of Halloween: Third Man Factor – Ghostly Encounters That Help

1983: James Sevigny regains consciousness and has no idea why he is a bloody mess in the snow in the middle of nowhere. His back broken in two places, one arm broken, and the other arm useless from severed the nerves. His ribs are cracked, both knees have torn ligaments, and he is unaware that he is bleeding internally. His broken nose, broken teeth, and other open wounds complete the nightmare. His friend is lying nearby.

From his twisted and motionless form, Sevigny immediately knows his friend is dead. He now remembers they were climbing up Deltaform, a mountain in the Canadian Rockies near Lake Louise in Alberta, when an avalanche swept them 2,000-feet down the mountain. Sevigny crawls over to lay beside his dead friend thinking he will soon join him. “I figured that if I fell asleep, it would be the easiest way to go,” he later said. It would be easier to cross that line than struggle on. What happens next is so profound that Sevigny, a scientist who holds any organized religion in contempt, cannot talk about it for years afterward without crying.

It’s been twenty minutes and Sevigny feels someone was watching him. “It was something I couldn’t see but it was a physical presence.” The presence tells him, “You can’t give up, you have to try.” Sevigny struggles, and I mean STRUGGLES to his feet. The figure then oddly tells him to follow the blood dripping from his nose.

Hardly able to walk, and crawling at times, Sevigny follows the drips of blood in the snow. The presence is close. Sevigny repeatedly gives up. The presence repeatedly pesters him back into action. Sevigny thinks any will to live at this point is illogical but the presence is relentless.

“It told me what to do. The only decision I had made at that point in time was to lie down next to Rick and to fall asleep and to accept death. That’s the only decision I made. All decisions made subsequent to that were made by the presence. I was merely taking instructions…. I understood what it wanted me to do. It wanted me to live.”

It takes Sevigny all day to drag his crackling and bleeding train-wreck of a body the one-mile back to camp – a 30-minute walk when you’re unbroken. All day the presence is present. Now finally reaching camp, Sevigny cannot crawl into his sleeping bag or eat because of his injuries. At this moment, lying outside his tent, the presence that had comforted and encouraged him abruptly leaves. He figures this is the end after all, “I recall knowing I was about to die pathetically, in a fetal position in the snow.”

“I’m hallucinating”, he thinks, “the presence knows I’m dead, and it has just given up on me.” He is overwhelmed with loneliness. But then Sevigny hears other voices – skiers. If the unrelenting presence hadn’t driven him to keep moving, he would have missed the party of skiers. He is flown out by helicopter a few hours later. “The presence had left because it knew I was safe,” he explains.

Reluctant for many years to say anything about the strange experience, Sevigny still doesn’t know who or what that voice belonged to.

1927: Just twenty-four years after the Wright brothers’ first twelve-second powered flight, young Charles Lindbergh is pushing his small single-engine plane, Spirit of St. Louis, across the Atlantic ocean for more than 33 hours. Twenty-two hours into the trip, he is in a desperate struggle to stay awake. Vague forms join him in the plane. They offer reassurance and discuss navigation. They stay with him for hours until he spots the Irish coast and then leave when Paris is within reach. Lindbergh describes it,

“When I’m staring at the instruments during an unearthly age of time, both conscious and asleep, the fuselage behind me becomes filled with ghostly presences–vaguely outlined forms, transparent, moving, riding weightless with me in the plane. These phantoms speak with human voices… they are friendly, vapor-like shapes… I feel no surprise at their coming… without turning my head I see them as clearly as though in my normal field of vision.”


1986: Jane Mocellin is conducting a psychological study in Antarctica of human responses to living in polar and other extreme environments. Her research takes a weird turn when she hears that some of the men over at the Argentinean Base have been encountering a strange presence at the base. The resident medical officer confirms and Mocellin interviews the men.

The experiences always occur in the building that houses the power plant. The men staff the building 24/7 on rotating shifts. It is the most isolated building of the base. One soldier describes a “strong sensation of being observed by somebody,” in spite of being alone in the building.

A mechanic tells of being watched through a window by something outside. “I was alone, and this perception was so strong that I went outside of the building to check if somebody was there,” he tells her. Another time he sees something fleeting, a “human form and he was male.” Yet another man tells Mocellin, “I saw somebody watching me … When I stood up myself to go there the image moved and disappeared out of my visual field.” Nobody is afraid. They just know somebody else is there.

“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 …”

-T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Drawing its name from a T.S. Eliot poem, The Third Man Factor or Third Man Syndrome refers to an unseen presence providing comfort or support to someone, usually in a critical situation.

1895: Joshua Slocum is seeking to be the first person to circumnavigate the world alone. His forty-foot boat, Spray, is struck by a violent storm. The tempest rages and Slocum becomes seriously ill from food poisoning. Lying on the floor in the cabin near the wheel, he is visited by a “strange guest” who steers the boat for the next forty-eight-hours in the dangerous storm while he lay debilitated.

Slocum writes, “I became delirious. When I came to, as I thought, from my swoon, I realized that the sloop was plunging into a heavy sea, and looking out of the companionway, to my amazement I saw a tall man at the helm. His rigid hand, grasping the spokes of the wheel, held them as in a vise.”


He describes the tall man as having “an ancient cast of visage,” and thinks he has seafaring experience. Slocum’s initial alarm is calmed by the stranger who assures him, “I have come to do you no harm.” The stranger then adds that he has “come to aid you. Lie quiet… and I will guide your ship to-night.” Enormous waves break over the Spray and pound on the ship’s cabin where Slocum lay, but he is not worried.

Slocum recovers. The storm is over and he finds his boat “still heading as I had left her, and… going like a racehorse.” The Spray sailed ninety miles in the night through rough seas, and is still on course to Gibraltar.

In an article for the Boston Globe, he writes, “If ever there was a man at a ship’s wheel one stood at the wheel of the Spray through that livelong night. No thing could be clearer to me than that.” Describing his ethereal mate, Slocum had “the feeling that I had been in the presence of a friend and a seaman of vast experience.” He adds, “truly grateful to the strange sailor of the night.”

Torridon Hills

2009: “When you see something out of the corner of your eye, it’s there and gone in a flash. When you see a fairy, it’s just like seeing something out of the corner of your eye–but it doesn’t go away. I know because I saw one for a long minute on the Torridon Hills in Scotland. It was the size of a toddler, and passed so close I could feel the air swirl around my knees. The sky was clear and there wasn’t a hint of wind. Or Scotch.” –Dennis Lewon, executive editor, Backpacker Magazine 


It is not hysteria. Once you get people talking, you’ll find Third Man experiences are quite common and in fact have quite the opposite effect of a mental breakdown.

Graham Reed, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto has studied the phenomena and writes that sensing an unseen presence is “frequently experienced by normal, healthy people under certain conditions.” It can be quite normal and happens more than we think.

The difference is that hallucination brings confusion, fear, disorientation and denial which cripple an individual’s ability to engage. Third Man-type experiences are progressive – giving a sense of comfort, confidence, focus, and security – moving them forward in their situation.

The notion of a presence beyond our world coming and going at times is not new. Such experiences have had been around since our earliest narratives.

2100 BCE: The earliest surviving work of literature, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, tells of non-corporeal presences that sometimes companion alongside humans. At one point, the top god, Enlil, is angry with the sun-god Shamash for taking sides with the humans, Enkidu, and Gilgamesh.

Fragment from Tablet VII

“Then Enlil became angry at Shamash, saying:
‘it is you who are responsible because you traveled daily
with them as their friend!”‘ – from Tablet VII

164 BCE: “And Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counselors, ‘Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?’ They answered and said unto the king, ‘True, O king.’ He answered and said, ‘Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.'”

1843: In a Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens creates the two-dimensional character of Scrooge is transformed, even saved you could say, through the intrusion of unexpected specters.


2001: Ron DiFrancesco is on the 84th floor of the South Tower when the second jet strikes. He flees down the stairwell but is forced to lie down with the others to avoid raging fire and thick smoke. “Get up!” a voice orders.

DiFrancesco senses a presence over him, prompting him. Not a person. A Presence. His hand is grabbed and he is led down the stairs which are blocked by flames. DiFrancesco balks but The Presence pulls him into and through the fire. Together they race down the stairs out into the plaza.

Out in the plaza, he is surprised to find himself alone. DiFrancesco is the last person to leave the South Tower before it collapses.

1977: John Robins is drowning in the surf at Big Corona Beach in California. Monstrous waves are pounding the surfer and a riptide is pulling him out. The beach is empty. He shouldn’t be there either but the immortal hubris of a thirteen-year-old is no match for common sense. Helplessly tossed about in the roiling ocean, young John is quickly understanding mortality.

John breaks the surface again and again but instead of air breathes in water again, and again. He looks for help on shore only forty yards away. Nobody. He’s desperate. Still coughing out water, another wave drives him under again and then back up again. He tries for air again but only gets water again. The biggest wave yet is now bearing down on him.

“I was having flashes of my life, which seemed like an instant rerun of my entire life.”

A man is at his side – out of nowhere – a man who looks like he hasn’t been outside at any point in his adult life. He’s pale, overweight, middle-aged and balding but is holding out an air mattress you would use to float around a pool. “You look like you could use some help,” the man says, “take ahold of this.” John grabs the air mattress and is gliding into shore on the crest of the big wave that should have finished him. John crawls onto the beach and looks back to thank the man.

“There was no one visible in either direction along the shoreline, nor was there anyone further back on the beach. There was no air mat. I was alone.”

The Endurance crushed by ice

1916: Ernest Shackleton’s ship, The Endurance, is frozen in the ice around Antarctica and crushed after drifting for months eating seal fat. More months of desperately scrambling from one ice flow to another until they land on Elephant Island. Their situation is desperate.

Nobody is coming because nobody knows. Shackleton and a few men set sail in a salvaged lifeboat for the closest settlement, a whaling station on the island of South Georgia 680 miles away across, as he describes, “the most tempestuous area of water in the world.” If successful, he would bring back rescue for the rest of his men. If he fails, they all die.

Storm after storm batters the sodden men for a couple of weeks hiding the stars they need for navigation. Finding the island is threading a needle with their eyes shut. But miraculously they find the island – during a hurricane.

They land on the wrong side, but making land at all is another miracle. Weakened, frostbit, wet, and sick, the men now have to cross two mountain ranges separating them from the whaling station on the other side.

South Georgia taken one year after Shackleton’s traverse. The whaling station can been seen in the lower right.

They march around the clock “for sleep under such conditions merges into death” Shackleton later explains. It is at this moment, when they are absolutely on their last reserves of strength and will, at this breaking point between life and death for him and his men, that Shackleton is aware of an unseen presence – a “fourth man” as he would later describe it.

“When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snow-fields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that 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.”


They reach the whaling station. A few weeks later during rescue preparations for the rest of the crew, Frank Worsley one of the men who made the traverse with Shackleton says quite unexpectedly, “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.”

Shackleton has told no one of his own experience. The third of their party, Tom Crean, also admits to the same feeling without knowing what Shackleton and Worsley had said.

Each man had the same perception of an extra presence, at the same critical time independent of each other. In the end, not a man of Shackleton’s crew was lost.

A few years later in 1922, inspired by, but mistaken over the number of men in Shackleton’s crossing of South Georgia, TS Eliot wrote the lines that labeled the Third Man Phenomena,

“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 …”

-T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

39 BCE: Roman general Quintus Labienus is pillaging Asia Minor. He and his troops arrive at a shrine for Zeus at Panamera in southwest Turkey. Other temples have acquiesced up until now. The Panamera shrine is different. They bar the doors and windows to hole up.

The Romans attack the all but “defenseless” priests, but it goes badly. Their ladders collapse on the surrounding mounds. The seasoned Roman catapult teams launch missiles that fall short or veer off to one side of the shrine or the other.

Over the ensuing days, the attackers face fire, storms, thick fog, and hallucinations. Roman troops later report that they had been repelled by an army  of defenders led by one great warrior on horseback. But the priests have no army and in the confusion, the Roman troops begin fighting each other and end up fleeing.

All through the attack shouts of “great is Zeus Panamaros” could be heard from inside the shrine meaning the “’most high god” is here at Panamaros“.

Later, they minted coins depicting Zeus on horseback commemorating his defense of their temple. The priests of Panamera had an epithet – “Zeus karios”, meaning “the “most high god at the right time”.

c.1995: Vida Adamoli is walking to the train station in the idyllic English village of Taplow, Buckinghamshire. The village is quiet this beautiful autumn day. She is alone on the street when she is suddenly joined by a young man in medieval dress. Describing him as “more a hologram than an actual person,” she is oddly not startled or afraid. He walks so close to her that he seems to melt into her.

Another young man appears, not a hologram, from behind and leaps on her. She is terrified of this “real” man. The attacker tries repeatedly to stomp her. He is repeatedly thwarted in making any contact. “It was though it was prevented by an invisible barrier,” Vida explains. He grabs her purse and runs off.

The frequency, perhaps more accurately the normalcy of such experiences, is surprising and shouldn’t be understated or berated. In a CBS News poll, 77% Americans  believe in presences. Time Magazine reports 55% believe they’ve been helped by a presence.

The startling fact is that more of us have experienced it than not.

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