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Let’s Face It: A Reflection on the Multitude of Mirrors and Mayhem in Horror

By Gina Freitag

Horror movies rely on the frequent juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary, with the contrast creating a deep sense of unease. Certain seemingly harmless household objects can instantly inspire dread this way—the mirror is definitely one of the most common, especially given its inherent connection with superstition.

At its basic level, a mirror reflects whatever is in front of it (or not at all, in the case of vampire narratives), but rarely does it reflect in an objective way. If a character seeks solace in the bathroom, staring down their own face in the cabinet mirror, we know there is more at play than a simple contemplation of life, or a zit. The mirror forces that character to confront their inherent flaws or delusions (Orphan, 2009), suggests their distorted reality (Black Swan, 2010), or prophesizes something yet to pass (Donnie Darko, 2001); it reveals the damaged or deranged psyche.

On a more technical level, the mirror also cues the audience to anticipate the sudden appearance of a foreboding presence (Stir of Echoes, 1999; and just about every other horror movie you’ve ever seen). Speaking of obvious cues, an exploding or shattering mirror is also a pretty good indication something wicked this way comes (The Legacy, 1978; The Broken, 2008).

Mirrors are indeed very telling devices—they literally communicate threats fingered in the condensation after a shower, or convey warnings often written in lipstick (The Shining, 1980). Some will call out to characters (The Haunting, 1999), while others will mislead them (Cabin in the Woods, 2012), or entrap them (Phantasm, 1979; Into the Mirror, 2003). They also come in handy when a character needs a crude weapon in a pinch or, you know, if they feel like carving up their own face (The Evil Dead, 2013).

Seriously, these freaking things are everywhere (Poltergeist III, 1988)! If your own reflection isn’t acting against you (Evil Dead II, 1987; Paranormal Activity III, 2011), these mirrors are either hosting evil (Mirrors, 2008; Oculus, 2013), giving them passage between worlds (Candyman, 1992; Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, 2005), or luring evil right to you (The Conjuring, 2013). All you can really do is cover them, hide them, or banish them (Marrowbone, 2017). If all of that isn’t twisted enough, serial killers will also find creative ways to work them into their murder rituals (Peeping Tom, 1960; Manhunter, 1986; Red Dragon, 2002).

When it comes to the horror movie trope of mirrors, forget subtlety; just embrace the funhouse fear and lose yourself in their reflections, because you definitely can’t escape them!

More mirror mayhem will be discussed at Black Museum’s GARY SHERMAN MASTERCLASS on POLTERGESIT III is on March 28, 2018.

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