It’s an old trope that gets trotted out this time of year. Walk through any Halloween decor section at your favorite shop, and you’ll probably find a creepy plastic frame on a mirror that makes noises when you walk by, or flashes a ghostly image at the push of a button. There are even decals you can add to your own mirrors and windows to give the illusion of someone trapped on the other side.
But where does this superstition date to? Why do people find mirrors so eerie?
The answer is pretty simple, actually. In the most basic scientific terms, mirrors often reflect things not in our field of vision–for example, a slight movement behind you, or magnifying a light source, leading to the illusion of someone being in the room, or an unseen entity on the other side of the glass.
Many ancient cultures believed that mirrors reflected the soul, and could therefore be used to capture it. This idea of sympathetic magic–using something that looks like or is connected to a person to influence or harm them–can be seen in almost every culture. It’s the reason Ancient Egyptians didn’t carve or paint hyper realistic images of themselves, instead using a stylized, idealized image. From China to the hybrid beliefs of voodun in New Orleans and the Caribbean, capturing an image of someone was akin to capturing the person themselves. When photography was first developed, many believed their souls could be captured on the plate. Many Native groups refused to be photographed, but they weren’t the only ones. Even paintings have been rumored to posses soul-capturing abilities, though none quite so dramatic as the one in The Portrait of Dorian Grey. That doesn’t stop rumors of paintings with eyes that follow the viewer or change subtly when one leaves the room from persisting.
One Celtic belief that carried though into the Victorian era and even the early 20th century was that all mirrors and reflective surfaces must be covered or hidden when someone dies, or else their soul will become confused and trapped, unable to move on. Similar practices are used in other cultures to this day (such as Jewish and Creole households, and some eastern European traditions). Other belief systems hold that mirrors are doorways to other worlds–and doors go both ways.
One potential reason mirrors have been considered creepy is oxidation. First made of metals like copper or bronze, and later glass backed with thin sheets of silver, oxidation changes the color and reflectivity of the mirror, tricking our eyes into seeing shadows and shapes. During the Victorian period, this inspired several parlor games, like sitting in front of a mirror with a candle and waiting for the image of your future spouse to appear behind you, and the perennial sleepover favorite, Bloody Mary. Reflective surfaces like mirrors and bowls of water have been used in scrying ceremonies since the days of shamanism. Romani, Chinese, and Celtic traditions all include looking for signs in reflective surfaces, but they are by no means the only ones.
While solid metal mirrors of materials like bronze, tin, steel, or silver were pricey enough, they were sturdy. Introducing glass to the process made them far more expensive, and the process of blowing the glass bubble, flattening it without defects, and adhering the molten glass to a paper thin sheet of metal (usually lead but later tin or silver) was incredibly difficult. These mirrors were fragile and often full of defects like shadows or bubbles that could trick the eye. They were also extremely expensive, from which we get the superstition that breaking a mirror is seven years of bad luck–seven years of pay for the poor household servant who was clumsy enough to break their employer’s mirror.
Gettysburg and the Myrtles Plantation both have their own haunted mirrors, but there are more stories of regular people who found, bought or inherited mirrors only to discover a sheet of glass in a fancy frame wasn’t all they were getting.
So, what do you see when you look in the mirror?
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