Happy Weird Wednesday! I’ve been looking forward to this post, because as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing creepier than mirrors.
The movies know this well, and today we’re going to do a little reflection on the topic (haha) by looking at some favorite superstitions and legends involving mirrors.
We’ll start with the basics. Vanity is a sin, so it’s said that a woman who looks at herself too often will eventually see the devil’s, um, rear end beside her own lovely face. It’s unlucky for babies younger than a year and brides in full wedding dress to see their reflections. It’s also dangerous to look into a mirror by candlelight or lightning, and of course, mirrors should be covered if someone is gravely ill or dies. Perhaps all this is because when we look into a mirror, we find that there is a part of ourselves that is separate, a piece trapped in glass. That’s especially dangerous for the dying, who may not be able to move on if part of them gets left behind in the mirror. No wonder it’s unlucky to break one! Mirrors seem to have an eerie power, and that leads us to:
Say that 3 times fast. Or even once. (It’s cah-TROP-toe-man-see, apparently.) Anyhow, it means divination (telling the future) with a mirror. You might see a vision of your impending death as Abraham Lincoln supposedly did. When he gazed into a mirror he saw himself twice, once face normal and one ghostly and pale, which caused his wife to predict that he would die during his second term as president. But the most common mirror divination ritual is used to see a future spouse. It involves eating an apple and combing your hair, and hoping to see a handsome face peer over your shoulder. Which I maintain would be creepy in itself, but of course, there are some things you really don’t want to see, such as:
Mary and her kin are a standard of horror movies, of course: the ghost in the mirror. If you went to slumber parties as a kid, you may well have tried this ritual yourself: you walk into the bathroom alone. The only light is a candle or flashlight. You stare at your reflection as you chant a summons, and then you see a terrible vision in the glass! What you chant and what you see varies by the telling, but usually it’s some version of “Mary” (Bloody Mary, Hell Mary, Mary Whales), and you see a witch or demon, sometimes covered in blood. And sometimes she’ll reach out and scratch you, or worse! There is some fascinating scholarship [possible paywall] on this ritual, which relates it to the onset of menstruation in girls, as that draws together the bathroom, the blood, and the age/gender of the typical participants. Of course, Mary’s not really there… or is she? Which brings us to:
A psychomanteum is a tiny room with dim lighting and a mirror. A subject sits in a chair and gazes into the mirror, and, well— stuff happens. No, really. Dr. Raymond Moody used a psychomanteum in grief therapy, and it gave some people relief via visions of their departed loved ones. Why does this work? Why do people caution against looking into a mirror by candlelight? Why do we see Bloody Mary or ghosts or beloved family members in mirrors? When you gaze at a fixed point, the brain stops paying attention to your peripheral vision. And then it starts filling in that space with what it’s focusing on: a human face. In a study under these conditions, people saw relatives, strangers, animals, and monstrous creatures, some scary and some benign. It depends on whether you’re primed to see beloved family members or evil witches. So yes, you really might see Bloody Mary if you look hard enough.
And now, let’s reflect on some writing prompts!
- Through the looking glass. Lewis Carroll is not the only one to imagine mirrors as portals to another world. It’s fun to play with the idea that things on the other side might be reversed: streets and neighborhoods, or maybe people’s personalities. What would happen if the past was also reversed? The winner of the war is the loser, someone who would have died lived a long life instead. A pair of people could be lovers on one side of the glass and enemies on the other.
- Mirror twins. About 25% of identical twins are mirrored, meaning they are reverse images of each other— their hair parts on the opposite side, and often one twin is right-handed and the other left-handed. Identical twins do always start out as one entity, but having them split into opposites rather than carbon copies could be a magical division (good and evil? lucky and unlucky? opposite personalities and abilities?) from a spell, prophecy, blessing, or curse.
- Bloody Mary. The grande dame herself. Probably everything that can be done with her has been done, but two cakes, right? Possibilities with Mary include the ritual playing out as predicted (Mary shows up, you wish she hadn’t), the effect being delayed (Mary shows up after the sleepover, in your own bathroom, you still wish she hadn’t), Mary being summoned to fix a “problem” for you, demon-style (Mary shows up for somebody else, you are very glad). Mary could come out of the mirror and hang out for a while (not good), or Mary might show up in any reflective surface, from sunglasses to a lake (very not good), or— since we’re talking mirrors here— the opposite could happen: either Mary shows up and you are glad because she’s awesome, or you get pulled into the mirror yourself.
- Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, and other Disney moments. Catoptromancy! Snow White’s evil stepmother did it, and so did Belle with her hand mirror. So we’re not limited to the future here. You can also see the past or spy on somebody else’s present. Or you could play around with the idea of the talking mirror— is it enchanted, or is there somebody trapped inside who must answer questions? Who are they, and what happens if they get out?
- The Psychomanteum. Let me first say that this technique did provide comfort for people, so I want to keep sight of that. But as far as fiction, horror prompts for the psychomanteum practically write themselves, even before I say that Dr. Moody based it on the Necromanteion of Acheron, which is a place the ancient Greeks went to speak with the dead. (This is called necromancy, which is blessedly easier to say.) So yes, let’s put a character all alone in a room with dim lighting and a mirror and see what happens. Maybe it’s a happy meeting. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s that old trope of demons disguising themselves as benign people, or perhaps as a double of yourself (after all, you’re the one in the mirror to start with). Or maybe the whole room is a portal— if you cross over into another psychomanteum, try to remember which side is your own!
I hope you’ve enjoyed spending your Weird Wednesday doing some mirror-gazing. Maybe let’s turn on the lights, though?
Want to chat about the blog? Did you use one of the prompts? Hit me up on social media.
If you like unsettling legends, feel free to check out Clamour and Mischief, which contains my story Branwen and the Three Ravens: The creepy adventures of a woman seeking to free her brothers from a curse.
Sources & further reading: