Through the Looking-Glass: The Mirror Scare

Ahhh…vanity.  Aren’t we all guilty of it?  Back in the day, people stared at their reflections in still pools of water.  Remember poor old Narcissus,  he fell in love with his own reflection and refused to leave the side of the pool, killing himself (probably from lack of food and water).  Later, polished obsidian was used as mirrors.  Even later, polished metals like copper were used.     It wasn’t until Roman times that mirrors made of metal-backed glass were first produced.  In Renaissance  Europe, mirrors were only for the rich as expensive luxury items.  Then, In 1835 a German chemist called Justus von Liebig invented the silvered-glass mirror where a thin layer of metallic silver is deposited onto glass by the chemical reduction of silver nitrate. The introduction of this process led to mirrors being manufactured on a much larger scale, and for the first time in history ordinary people could afford a mirror for their home. Nowadays mirrors are more frequently manufactured by depositing aluminium by vacuum directly onto the glass.

We like to look at ourselves.  Humans and a few other creatures on this planet are able to recognize their own reflection in mirrors.   We mostly use mirrors today for grooming.  And we love looking at ourselves so much, that we also use mirrors for ornamentation in our homes.

Mirrors and Myths

Mirrors have long been apart of legend and myths.  Ancient and not-so-ancient.  I already mentioned Narcissus, which is a Greek Myth.  Mirrors have been used by mystics  to scry or “see the future”.

Mirrors are said to reflect the soul, and to see something that is not there is a bad omen.  Duh!  If I saw something in a mirror, that wasn’t really there in reality, I would probably be having a bad day.  That being said, vampires, according to legend, have no reflection, as they have no souls. (Which is weird, because Angel had a soul, and he still didn’t have a reflection in BTVS).  In the Southern U.S. and other countries, mirrors are covered when someone in the home dies, lest the spirit become trapped.

In the fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the Wicked Queen gazes into a magic mirror and asks ‘Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’ and is decidedly not amused when a reflection that is not her own floats into view!  

In a funnier scenario, Shrek’s Lord Farquaad uses a magic mirror to find himself a princess to marry.

Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ is probably one of the more famous books to use mirrors as a central theme, but there are many novels, plays an films with ‘mirror’ in the title.

And haven’t most of us been at a slumber party with friends chanting Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary into our darkened bathroom mirrors.  Or Candyman, after the movie?

The Mirror Scare

Naturally, the mystique that has surrounded something as seemingly mundane as a mirror has dribbled into the horror genre.  How many times have we seen a character walking in their own familiar territory, right by a mirror, and suddenly we see the reflection of the bad guy, right behind them!….cue dramatic scary theme music.

The most common form of mirror scare is the use of a bathroom mirror on a medicine cabinet. As a character goes to get something from the cabinet: we see the character’s reflection in front of the mirror, then opening the cabinet, then as they close the mirror again, Bam: they’re right behind you!

Are they a cliche?  Yes, but an effective one.  With the myths and superstitions surrounding the mirror and our reflections, it’s always going to be an effective scare.

My personal favorite mirror scare is a scene from The Craft.  The character, Rochelle, looks into a mirror, but her reflection turns away because it doesn’t want to look at her.  At least that’s how I saw it.  Her actions harmed someone, and her reflection was ashamed.  Good movie, good scare.

Anyway, each movie tries a different approach:  the character does not see the bad guy behind them, but the audience does through the mirror. Or, the character sees the bad guy in the mirror, but no one is really there. Or, the character sees themselves in the mirror turns around, and finds someone (aka the bad guy) there who is not reflected.  It appears to me, that horror mostly uses mirrors as we see them in superstitions:  a way to see the truth, the future, or a window to another world.

The Mirror Scare Compilation:

Movies that use the Mirror Scare:

An American Werewolf in London


Prom Night

Sean of the Dead


The Craft-Sorry, couldn't find a mirror pic.

What Lies Beneath

Halloween H2O

The Orphan


Stir of Echoes

The Grudge

The Ring

The Unborn

The Omen

Wow!  I guess it really is overused!  Personally I don’t care if it’s a cliche.  I love a good mirror scare.

7 thoughts on “Through the Looking-Glass: The Mirror Scare

  1. Bloody Mary still scares me. I freak even if I splash a little water by accident on the mirror. I’ve also seen a lot of the car mirror too, where the driver looks in the rear view mirror and they see a ghost in the back seat. Gets me every time.

    • Yes, that’s a good one, the rear-view mirror scare…much more dangerous ’cause of the car-accident potential. That reminds me of, and it’s not necessarily a mirror scare, but a wonderful scene nonetheless:
      Jurassic Park-the scene where they are trying to get away from a t-rex in jeep and the driver looks into the sideview mirror, which says “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”, in which we see the dinosaurs wide open mouth in a full-on roar….love that movie!

  2. Wow, what an awesome post! I’ve never really thought that much about mirrors as a symbol–this post is quite informative. I think that you might like Lovecraft’s short story “The Outsider.” A mirror plays a prominent part in that tale.

    • Thanks, I really appreciate that! I’m glad you liked it. I just love horror not just because it’s good entertainment, but also the why of it all-underlying meaning. I have read a bunch of Lovecraft. I’ll look up that story and check it out.

  3. I really like this post. I never noticed but now I see, you are right, mirror scare is very frequent in scary movies. .I found some nice suggestions in your list. Thanks.

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