If there's one thing to know about me, it's that I love all things spooky and creepy. I write a lot of paranormal and true crime content for BuzzFeed, so at this point, there's not a lot on that front that I haven't at the very least heard of, you know? Recently though, I was listening to my favorite spooky podcast, And That's Why We Drink, (10/10 would recommend, BTW) where I learned about "Third Man Syndrome." Y'all...I got sooo into it.
Essentially, third man syndrome (also called third man factor) is a phenomenon that occurs in times of distress and crisis. It's the feeling that there's another person or entity there alongside you, even though you're all alone. People report feeling, hearing, or even seeing this "third man" who acts as a voice of comfort and support in an otherwise horrifying time...or literally saves their life.
The term "Third Man Syndrome" comes from the T.S. Elliot poem, The Waste Land. The poem was inspired by the real-life experience of Ernest Shackleton — an Irish explorer who went on a near-death expedition in Antarctica in 1916. After their ship got trapped in ice, he and two other members of his crew made a 36-hour long trek across the Arctic, over mountains and glaciers, to a whaling station. During that time, several members of his three-man team — Ernest included — kept feeling like there was a fourth man alongside them. T.S. Elliot wrote this stanza inspired by that phenomenon:
Thinking back, I've heard tons of stories in my lifetime that fit the bill here, but I never knew there was a term for it. Like with any paranormal phenomenon, there are tons of hypotheses for what exactly third man syndrome is, ranging from guardian angels and long-deceased ancestors to our brains psychologically protecting us in moments of extreme stress. Whatever the answer is, it seems to be a more common experience than you might think. Recently, I asked BuzzFeed readers if they'd ever experienced third man syndrome, and I received far more submissions than I'd ever expected. So, without further ado, here are 23 of the best, creepiest stories people shared:
1."When I was young, around 9 years old, I had to have pretty major surgeries for a birth defect. I was feeling sick, in pain, and frustrated about not being able to sleep or get out of bed. When I rang the bell for the night nurses to help me to the toilet, a smiling man dressed all in white would come straight away and help me. He was so happy and peaceful, with the biggest smile and a bright aura to him. He always came straight to me as soon as the bell rang. The next day (after the second night of his help), I asked another nurse if he would be on duty that night. The staff were very confused, even after my description of him. She told me there weren't any male staffers on duty those past two nights and that none of the porters or other staff wore all white or would have been answering bells on the ward."
2."I once fell about 10 feet from a ledge overlooking a lake. The ledge was above large rocks and, as I fell, I was sure I was about to be gravely hurt. Suddenly, I felt a large hand on my back that caught me and pushed me against the wall. Surprised, I turned around to thank my savior...and no one was there. I was dangling over the rocks, feeling the hand as it pushed me straight against the wall until both my feet where secured. I cannot explain what happened that day, but I know there was someone/something there that saved me."
3."Twice, in my twenties, I fell asleep while driving on a highway. Just in the nick of time, a voice from the back seat said my name in a very commanding tone, waking me up so I could hit the brakes. I’m still very much alive (76 years old), and I figure someone up there likes me."
4."I am disabled and I survived the attacks on the twin towers. I was buried under the debris for about 15 hours, but I was never alone. I kept hearing from a voice that said his name was Michael. When I was weakest, he would just keep me talking to him. When I was rescued, I found out that there was never a man named Michael anywhere in the area. I still wonder the voice was that saved me from becoming another death of that terrible day."
5."When my husband was in his 20s, he fell asleep while driving and crashed into a telephone pole. He was hurt and remembered a teenage kid knocking on his window and telling him he called the police and not to get out of the car because there were live wires everywhere. When my husband was finally rescued, there was no sign of the kid. The police said that no one had called them — they just came because the power was out. Not only that, but they said there was no way anyone could have gotten close to the car on account of the wires, and if my husband had tried to get out of the car, they probably would have probably killed him. My husband so vividly remembers the kid, he believes he was real, but his mom believes it was his guardian angel."
6."A few years ago, we were on a family vacation in Virginia Beach. The water was pretty choppy and the waves kept knocking me down before I could even get properly in, so — as I was pregnant — I decided to relax on the sand instead. My husband and my three siblings went out swimming and, without realizing it, my husband and one of my sisters got pulled out pretty far. They were far from everyone else swimming, and a lifeguard was blowing the whistle that they need to come back in. The water was so rough, they were having a hard time getting any closer to shore and genuinely thought they might drown."
"My sister is pretty petite, so my husband ended up carrying her piggy-back style back to shore. They were both pretty scared and tired. My husband told me that something or someone helped them make it back — it felt like someone gave him a push. The next day, there was a perfect handprint on his back, on the right side by his shoulder blade. It looked like a reverse sunburn, in the perfect shape of a hand. Someone was definitely looking out for then that day."—Emilie, Ohio, USA
7."I was dancing with my friend at a foam party, which is where they hang a machine from the ceiling that dumps TONS of bubbles onto the dance floor. The foam was super deep under the machine and the floor was super slippery because of the soapy bubbles. My friend slipped into the foam and I fell down to the floor, under the bubbles with her. When I tried to breathe, it was like I was drowning — the foam filled my lungs like water. I couldn’t open my eyes, my feet and hands kept slipping so I couldn’t stand up, and no one could hear us choking and screaming over the music. I was slipping all over on the floor holding onto my friend's shirt. Just as I thought we were going to drown in the bubbles, someone pulled us up. It was as though we'd been lifted or pushed, because there was no way anyone could have grabbed me by the arm. I was way too slippery — Heather and I couldn’t even hold hands, our skin was so slick. I was lucky just to hang onto her shirt."
"We came out of the bubbles, choking and gasping, covered in soap, clinging on to each other. When I wiped my eyes clear, there was no one there except the other people dancing around us. They were all oblivious to us, though — they didn’t even know we had fallen and no one had seen anyone pull us out nor did anyone ask us if we were OK! Needless to say, I never went to a foam party again."
8."I was driving north from Portland to Seattle for a last-minute appointment. I was very tired and the rainy weather wasn’t helping at all. I was using my phone as a GPS and it fell off the mounter dashboard holder and onto the footwell below. I was on a major freeway, and — in my tired state — started to scramble to find the phone. I know it’s dumb, but I didn’t know where I was going. At this point I could barely see the road as I was looking down for the device, and all of a sudden I felt my steering wheel jerk to the left and then to the right again. I popped back up to see what was going on. I narrowly missed hitting a road worker by maybe a foot by swerving out and back in the lane again. I had not moved the wheel…."
"Grandma used to say, 'Don’t drive faster than your angels can fly,' and I could feel her in that moment."
9."I was driving back to college my freshman year and got totally lost in a heavily wooded area. This was before GPS and cell phones, so I was just stuck on these roads alone. I couldn't find my way to the highway I was looking for and as the sun set, a huge storm broke out and it started pouring rain. The rain was so heavy I could barely see the road. Suddenly, a house with all the lights on appeared. It was the only house I had seen for miles, so (against my better judgment) I parked the car and went running for the door. The house had a fence but no gate to open so I hopped the fence and started banging on the door asking for help."
"A woman opened the door and invited me inside. The house was empty except for a big bean bag chair in the kitchen. She said they had just moved in and her husband had left to get something, so it was just us. I was soaking wet, so she offered me a change of clothes and poured me a cup of tea. She let me use her phone to call my parents, but they didn't answer, so I left her number on the machine so they could call her back and thank her. She said I was really close to the highway but understood I had already had a rough night, so she offered to drive and guide me to the highway so that I wouldn't get lost again. Turns out, if I had just kept driving another minute up the road, I would have hit the highway. My mom called the number I gave the next day, but we got a error saying the number did not exist. Despite having driven that road many times later in my college career, I never saw that house again."
—Johanna, Georgia, USA
10."Years ago, I was heading back by train from my parents's house to university. It was late, and I had my head resting on the window with my eyes closed. Suddenly, a voice started telling me to move. It got louder and more urgent, but when I opened my eyes, there was no one yelling at me on the train. The other few passengers were all minding their business. The voice in my head got louder and louder, more and more urgent. I felt silly moving, but I finally couldn't ignore the voice any longer, so I scooted a seat over and sat upright. Just then, a bullet came through the train window, right where my head had been. I'd have been done for had I stayed where I was."
11."My father in law told me that my husband, who was a premature baby, was very fragile. As they were coming home from the hospital, he was coming down a very icy, slippery set of stairs with my husband in his arms when all of a sudden, he tripped and he almost fell. Someone caught him literally mid air. He turned around and no one was there. He told me it wasn’t humanly possible for him to have done this alone, ashe was pretty much on the ground when he was held up by his arms. He is sure someone saved his baby that day for some reason."
12."I was a teenager in the '80s and was driving alone at night in a rainstorm. I hate driving at night, especially in rain. Anyway, I ended up hitting a pothole and my tire popped. I was kind of in the middle of nowhere, but I somehow made it to a parking lot. It was empty from what I could tell. This was obviously before cell phones or anything, so I was going to try and change my tire myself when I realized I didn't have a spare. I sat back in my seat, trying to think of what to do when I heard a tap on my passenger window. There was a man's voice saying, 'You need a hand, miss?' I felt my car being jacked up and heard the sound of someone messing with my tire. I remember clutching a tire iron in my hand as I got out of the car to try and get a better look at the guy and see what the hell was going on. As suddenly as he appeared, he was gone."
"I sat in my car again, still thinking. A few minutes later, the rain cleared up a bit and I made my way to the store who's parking lot I ended up in to try and use their phone to call my dad. My dad showed up with a spare tire only to tell me all my tires were totally fine. So now, I always wonder if any of it was real at all."
13."It was the summer of 1986 and I was about 5 when this happened. My father was a marine and the marines brought their families together for a day of hot dogs, baseball, and fun. The park we were at had a paved walking trail that was basically just a really big circle around the park. Little 5-year-old me had my hot dog and went for a walk on the trail. At the furthest(ish) point on the trail from where everyone else was, I began to choke. I took a bite of hot dog that was to big and was having difficulty chewing it, which led to me accidentally swallowing before it was ready to be swallowed. I knew I was done for. I stood there, looking at the ground, hot dog in left hand, and right hand where I felt the stuck dog right below my voice box. I was trying my hardest to push or vomit it out. I began to think, 'I'm gonna die.' That very second, I felt the urge to look up. To my left not three feet away was a tiny little old lady."
"She was the straight up stereotypical image of a sweet little old lady sitting on a bench, smiling at me. I quickly motioned to her that I was choking and needed help. In her soft sweet smiling old lady voice, she said, 'Oh I know, I know. You need to just relax, everything is going to be fine.' Seeing her happy calmness made her instruction to just relax seem like a good idea, so I did. The moment I began to relax was the moment I felt the hotdog moving back up my throat and back into my mouth, then onto the ground at my feet. I was in shock seeing a literal half of a hot dog on the ground and couldn't believe I took that big of a bite.
I'm not sure how long I was staring at that hot dog, but it couldn't have been more than a second or two. When I looked up again, there was no bench and there was no old lady. I just lost it crying, standing there until one of the other marines noticed me and came to check on me. When he asked what was wrong, I blubberingly mumbled out through tears what happened. He stood up quick as spit sizzles, looking around for the old lady, then walked me back to the rest of the families."
14."I was driving on a somewhat rural road on a very windy winter's day. The snow was being whipped across the road and a sudden gust of wind hit the back end of my car. This caused me to fishtail and I lost control. I shot across oncoming traffic, off an embankment, and rolled the car into a field. As I was airborne, I felt someone sitting next to me in the passenger's seat. After the car flipped 360º and slammed back down on the tires, I heard a voice in my head tell me I was unharmed and felt a gentle caress across my forehead. Once I had determined my neck wasn't broken and I could move, I saw that I was covered in windshield glass. It was everywhere...except for the passenger's seat. There was only glass bits around the edges of the seat, like someone had been sitting there."
"I didn't have a scratch or a bruise on me. The police officers and the tow truck driver couldn't believe I was uninjured, given the state of my car. Since then, I have tried extra hard to be a better human to repay who/whatever saved me that day."
15."I'm nearly 75 years of age, and haven't thought of this incident for years. I was raised in North Alabama, the youngest of three brothers. Our family would often vacation on the panhandle of the Florida Gulf Coast near Destin and Panama City. On one occasion (I was maybe 6 or 7 years old), we stopped for a picnic at a public park near a backwater estuary. I was wading and stepped off into water deeper than I realized. I turned toward the shore and tried to clamber back, but knew I was literally over my head in water. Suddenly, I felt hands under my armpits lifting me into the shallow water, until my feet touched the bottom. I immediately turned to see who was there, thinking it was one of my brothers, but there was no one else in the water. I didn't say anything to anyone at the time, not knowing what to say. To this day, I can't quite grasp what really happened."
16."When I was about 18, I was in a terrible car accident. While waiting for emergency services to arrive, there was an old man wearing shorts and a t-shirt, standing nearby. The car was a wreck and my legs where trapped. The old man directed me on how to get out of the car and told me to get my phone and call 911. After emergency services arrived, I was told that the car was so wrecked, they where waiting for the jaws of live to free me, and no one could figure out how I managed to get myself out. I was also declared deceased by the first emergency vehicle that stopped. I told them about the old man, but no one in the car with me or on the accident scene remembers him. I was the only one to see the old man. I am still grateful to whoever he was for helping me get out of that car."
17."It was 1 in the morning. I was only a day away from my due date with my first pregnancy. My husband and I were sleeping, anticipating the many sleepless nights that would soon become the new normal. I felt a sweet kiss on my cheek, and a comforting, warm feeling. As I woke up from the kiss, I rolled over to find my husband still snoring, and facing the opposite direction. The second I realized he couldn’t have kissed my cheek, I felt a pop and my water broke."
"I’ve always believed that it was my much-beloved grandmother who gave me the kiss, blessing me as I began the journey to bring my daughter into the world. We’re both named after her."
18."Years ago, I was stopped at a toll booth where I had to grab an exit ticket. To reach the ticket, I had to unbuckle my seat belt. There was a line of cars behind me, so I was going to just go through and put my seat belt on later. I heard a male voice say, 'Put your seat belt on.' My female friend in the car was asleep. I ignored the voice, then heard, 'Put your seat belt on NOW!' I did, then seconds later I was clipped by a tractor trailer and flew over the median, into the path of an oncoming car. The car was totaled, but my friend and I survived. I had bruises where the seat belt kept me in the car and saved my life. If it weren't for the seat belt, I would have gone through the windshield."
—Nikki, Pennsylvania, USA
19."My mother was going through cancer treatment and wasn't feeling great after her most recent one that afternoon. She went to bed early and I stayed up playing video games on the other side of the house. Around midnight, I felt a hand touch my shoulder and a really strong feeling that I should check up on mom hit me. I found her passed out on the floor and took her to the hospital where she received an emergency blood transfusion. She's now 10 years cancer free and thriving, but that night it was like someone else was there, watching out for her."
20."I was driving on a stretch of freeway that turns into highway with three stoplights before turning into freeway again. I was waiting at a red light when someone slammed into me at full speed from behind, not realizing the light hadn't changed to green yet. My car skidded 20 feet from the sheer force of the massive truck hitting my sad little 1996 Escort. The seat I was in broke. I was immediately crying in shock and confusion. A woman appeared at my window and patted me on the shoulder, telling me it was going to be okay."
"I got out and spoke to the other driver who was all apologies, explaining he had been watching an erratic driver behind him when the accident occurred. It all seemed normal...until I realized that my window was still rolled up, unbroken, and there was no way that anyone could have reached in and touched my shoulder. The woman that came to comfort me was nowhere to be found. I was uninjured other than a little whiplash, and other than losing my vehicle that day, I was more upset I had just filled up my gas tank."
21."I was in the Uyuni Desert in Bolivia, doing a four-day tour in the salty desert. My mom, my uncle, three of my friends, a guide, and I were in a Jeep, heading up to the geysers at a 5000+ meter altitude. My body didn't handle the altitude and lack of oxygen well, and I started vomiting and fainting so much, we had to stop the car. Being in this situation for too long can kill you due to the lack of oxygen in your brain and lungs, so we were stressed. Out of nowhere, a couple appeared on a tandem bike. They were French (like me) and were crossing the desert like that. Long story short, they just so happened to have the exact right pill to help me with my sickness. They gave me a pill, I got in the car, and when we turned back to wave at them...they were nowhere to be found. Everyone saw them, but they were completely gone in an instant. My mom believes they were sent by my guardian angel."
22."I was alone downstairs watching TV, and my son was asleep upstairs in his crib. I heard a male voice very close by say two words, 'Go now!' Startled, I jumped up and took the stairs two at a time to my son’s room, where I found he’d somehow moved his entire crib. He moved it enough that he could reach his silver metal airplane mobile, put the weighted ball into his mouth, and was silently choking on it. I flipped him over my arm and did the maneuver to expel it, and we both sat on the floor crying in relief. No sound came from the monitor we had. If not for that clear warning, he wouldn’t be 37 years old now!"
23.And finally, "In 2010, my husband and I were barreling down the highway at unsafe speeds in the pouring rain. We were really young and arguing over how much he spent on a TV. Suddenly we began hydroplaning — the car went sideways on the highway and then straightened back out. There was a semi coming out of a subdivision and we barely missed hitting it. We started heading straight for a small group of trees. I reached back and grabbed the front of our very young son's car seat, thinking somehow I was protecting him. I looked at my husband and he said, 'I love you,' and it was like everything suddenly slowed down for a moment. I remember hearing this voice that sounded urgent saying, 'You have to pick up your legs! You have to pick up your legs now!' I immediately pulled them into the front of my seat. I looked forward and time was no longer slowed down. I watched in horror as we headed straight for the trees and slammed into them."
"The next thing I remember is this wave of pain shooting up my spine. I threw my head back and screamed. I also quickly realized my foot was hurting, but was stuck. The floorboard had pushed upwards, meeting the dashboard, and the dashboard was pushed forward and had met my seat. My right foot had slipped out of the seat and was stuck between the dashboard and my seat. I eventually managed to dislodge it. It was broken in three places and my back was broken in five. I have been permanently disabled ever since. My husband also broke his right femur in half. Luckily, our young son was unharmed.
We believe we hit the trees at 80mph, at least. If I hadn't picked up my legs when I did, then they would have been completely crushed. I may live a life of constant pain and may be slowly losing my ability to walk from a disease I developed from the accident, but it is not a life that I take for granted. Everyone that has seen pictures of the car says how lucky we are to be alive. They really have no idea how right they are."
Thank you to everyone kind enough to share their stories! Have you ever had a "third man syndrome" experience like these? If so, I'd love if you'd tell us your story in the comments below or via this completely anonymous form.
Note: Submissions are edited for length and/or clarity.