THIRD MAN FACTOR: GHOSTLY ENCOUNTERS IN THE WILDERNESS – Part 1
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.
2015: I’m running the trails on Peach Mountain when I see movement in the corner of my eye about ten yards off. Startled, I stop and peer into the woods. There is nothing there. No deer, no turkey, no squirrel, bird or dog. Figuring it’s a shadow from the setting sun or a floaty spot on my eye, I take off. There it is again and I stop again. Nothing again. This repeats and now I’m alert. Very alert. It moves when I move and disappears when I stop.
At first I’m alarmed, but as it continues I calm down thinking if something was going to “get me”, it would have gotten me by now. I wonder what it is and it feels like I’m being escorted. It’s a strange thought and wonder why I would even think that. Thirty yards or so from the trail head whatever it is goes away, but I find myself wishing it would stay with me a little longer. I don’t tell anybody about it.
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. As with everything mystical, how you understand it depends upon how you’ve been taught.
Religious folk jump right into angels proving it with chapter and verse. Non-religious explain it as a defensive brain function citing research as chapter and verse. Neurologists tell us it is neurons traveling over familiar pathways to produce comfort. Still others call it Aumakua, Brownie, Faerie, Whirlwind, Spirit Guide or any number of other characters drawn from a myriad of beliefs. The rest of us try to deny anything happened at all. But like James Sevigny experienced, such experiences tend to stick even if you don’t believe in it.
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. 
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.”
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
2002: It’s the climb through hell as I’ve described in When It All Goes To Sh*t Part 2. I’ve just climbed a 100-foot chimney with my son and others. I’m sick. I’m terrified. I want desperately to go down but we can’t go down now. Above us is a rock slab blocking our way to freedom. Trapped, but the guys have found a crack and spidered up the smooth wall through it and into the open sky beyond. They are now waiting for me. I’m paralyzed with fear. I can’t possibly do this. The whole trip has come down to this one awful moment. I’m paralyzed with fear. They know it but are cool and pretend they don’t know it.. Encouragement rains down more as a communal prayer than confession of any faith in me. I take a step and I’m suddenly up at the slab with the guys. What just happened?
Enveloped in what I can only describe as a thick, comfortable blanket, I feel safe. I’m not afraid and briefly wonder why I was afraid at all. I don’t remember a thing about actually climbing, but I remember that strong embrace. The feeling leaves and I think, “What am I doing up here at the slab?” because a moment ago I was thinking “How am I going to climb up to that slab?” Strong hands, human hands this time, grab me and the guys pull me up through the crack into a brilliant blue sky.
There are a lot of Third Man stories. Google it. These stories aren’t logical or reasonable. Because such stories cannot be explained in terms of the physical senses, we been taught to dismiss such stories as unreal. But yet, nobody on any side of the argument denies that something indeed is happening from beyond our 3-dimensional realm.
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. Climber and author Greg Child notes, “Those who have experienced the other presence make a distinction between it and hallucinations, which often disorient and misguide. The presence, on the other hand, seems much more real, assisting by either guiding or allaying fears with companionship.”
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.
“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
1000 BCE: The interaction between gods and mortals is so dominant in Greek thinking that they have a word for it – xenia. Their stories are rife with it. Xenia describes the critical belief that such interactions were common and should be embraced hospitably. To be accepting and hospital towards strangers (note: “strange”-ers) created a palpable cooperation for a benefit. To reject such common, albeit unusual, occurrences created a negative synergy with subsequent bad fortune.
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.
2013: Scientists confirm the existence of a theoretical particle that causes things to become material or non-material. Nicknamed “The God Particle”, the Higgs Boson particle explains scientifically the cross over from “non-existence” to “existence.”
There’s a crossover between non-material and material realms. Everybody agrees now. We’ve known it for ages experiencially. More recently, science has proven it empirically and are only beginning to delve into the depth of just what that means.
A non-material realm has always been there. The unseen world has always influenced, engaged in, the seen world. Something beyond us has embraced us in inexplicable ways. Even though we may believe, or even now know, Whatever It Is remains a Mystery.
It’s unpredictable and we don’t get It. We can’t posses It and that’s a problem in accepting It. In our constricted self-indulgent culture, we keep our head down focused on our material experience – a mass hypnotic trance unequivocally fixated on the next tangible “feel good” thing just out of reach – a zombie apocalypse grappling for image and comfort in a world where anything beyond the immediate 5-physical sensual experience is … immaterial.
But yet The Age of Reason, in its efforts to quell all things not logical, is unable to extinguish the idea that there is Something More, Something Bigger – we all yearn for it – a Concern of sorts embracing us in unpredictable ways. An illogical and non-corporeal Concern that, in spite of our best efforts, just won’t quit. It refuses to leave us alone.
BUT WE’RE ALL TALKING ABOUT THE SAME THING. We are all recognizing in these Third Man-type experiences that Something inexplicable is happening in strange ways that goes beyond human awareness, knowledge, and ability. Each, in our own way, pursue it.
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.
I hope you stick around for Part Two. What was it that Sir Ernest Shackleton experienced in saving his men? What was it I experienced in the coffee shop that morning? More stories. Carl Sagan gives some insight.
Thanks for reading and if you haven’t already done so, I hope you take a minute to sign up to get these posts via email. I won’t pester your inbox except with an occasional post such as this. You’d be doing me a big favor. You’re awesome.
- Geiger, John. The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. New York, Hatchet Book Group, Pg 7!↩
- Coffey, Maria, Explorers Of The Infinite. New York: Tarcher, 2008. Pg 185. Print!↩
- Jane S. P. Mocellin, “A Behavioural Study of Human Responses to the Arctic and Antarctic Environments,” Ph.D. thesis, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1988!↩
- Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone Around the World (1900)!↩
- Greg Child, “The Other Presence,” in Greg Child, Mixed Emotions (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1993)!↩
- Graham Reed, The Psychology of Anomalous Experience (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1972)!↩
- Daniel 3:24-5!↩