The Third Man

Claire Inkson

There is something inspiring and captivating about the true tales of brave souls who have survived a crisis or adverse event against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Sometimes these stories are of intrepid explorers lost in the wilderness, sailors lost at sea or shipwrecked, or everyday people who find themselves in such dire situations that the chances of survival seem impossible –yet they prevail.

Countless books, movies, and documentaries are testament to both the seemingly endless number of these tales of survival, and our fascination with the sheer tenacity of the human spirit when pushed to the brink.

We wonder how we would cope in these situations, whether we would survive given the same circumstances.

Often, we are tougher than we realise, and the human survival instinct is stronger we give it credit for – things we are not aware of until we are truly tested.

Interwoven into these stories is a surprisingly common phenomenon that pops up, certainly not in every case, but in so many that it is impossible to discount it.

The phenomena is known as The Third Man Factor, and has been experienced by such famous explorers as Ernest Shackleton and Peter Hilary.

The Third Man factor credits its name to a poem by TS Eliot, called The Waste Land.

In it, Eliot writes:

“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?”

– TS Eliot, The Waste Land

The poem was inspired by the experience of Ernest Shackleton’s doomed Antarctic Expedition of 1916, during which his ship, aptly named The Endurance, was trapped and crushed by ice.

Shackleton and his two crew were forced to traverse the glaciers and mountains of South Georgia Island for 36 gruelling hours in freezing conditions, eventually finding sanctuary in a whaling station.

Shackleton later wrote in his memoir that all three men had felt the presence of another person alongside them, recounting in his memoir, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

This account of a benevolent other ‘presence’ during times of extreme distress is a reoccurring theme in survival reports.

In Charles Lindbergh’s 33 hour trans-Atlantic solo flight in 1927, he described feeling an otherworldly being in the plane with him so strongly that he even fell into conversation with the unexplainable presence.

In some cases, the third man is felt to have been the spirit of a loved one who has passed away.

Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt Jnr is adamant that his father’s apparition pulled him from his flaming car in 2004 when he crashed during a Le Mans series race in California, describing a force pulling him from under his arms out of the vehicle.

This even though the video of the crash clearly shows Earnhardt exiting the car entirely by his volition.

Peter Hilary, while separated from his companions on an Antarctic Expedition, felt the presence of his mother.

She had had died more than twenty years earlier, but he is adamant he felt her providing guidance and comfort as he negotiated the unforgiving blank landscape alone.

There are stories of young children, lost in the wilderness, surviving far longer than experts would have deemed possible, and often claiming to be comforted by a creature, such as three-year-old Casey Hathaway.

The boy was lost in the North Carolina woods for two days in extreme cold, but was found unharmed, and claimed a bear had kept him warm and safe.

Experts believed it was unlikely an actual bear would have behaved as a custodian of the boy, but that it was likely to have been a phantom of the child’s imagination.

It is possible, though, that this may be a child’s interpretation of the Third Man Factor.

Researchers have also considered the possibility that the common childhood trait of creating an ‘imaginary friend’ can also be a variation of the Third Man factor, triggered not by a singular life-threatening event, but as a response to trauma or loneliness.

While it is possible, in some of these cases, to simply explain the third man as the brain’s response to extreme cold or sleep deprivation, many of those who experienced the phenomenon did not suffer from those conditions.

In most cases the third man presence is pragmatic and helpful – not at all the scattered imaginings of a hallucinating mind.

While some may attribute the Third Man Factor to a spiritual presence, or that of a guardian angel, there are more concrete and scientific explanations that researchers are just beginning to understand.

The Third Man Factor could simply be the incredible response of our brain to adrenaline, in the same way that an otherwise non athletic person finds the superhuman strength to lift, for example, a vehicle from a person in a life or death situation.

It is possible it is the psyche utilising a second self to help us through a seemingly inescapable and unsurvivable scenario, and is yet another example of how incredible the human mind is, and how much we have to learn about its capabilities under pressure.

– By Claire Inkson


Claire Inkson is an award-winning freelance photographer and blogger who is passionate about telling the stories of our people and landscapes through both these mediums. Claire is also passionate about Rural New Zealand: the people, the stories, the history and is dedicated to the positive promotion of New Zealand agriculture. Find her online at

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