If you’ve ever done any study of mirrors or used them in technical ways for stage performances, you know how much mystery mirrors have. In performance art alone, mirrors have brought some amazing stage effects that still get talked about today. Pepper’s Ghost, for instance, is an ingenuous mirror effect created in the 1860s that allowed for a ghostly transparent image to appear out in the open. It’s an effect widely used today (look to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion) and still perplexes as many people now as it did 150 years ago.
That may be the origins behind the movie idea of a ghostly image appearing in a mirror and ultimately sealing a mirror gazer’s fate. With “Oculus” now being the latest of these mirror-obsessed horror films, what have we already seen in film that compares? You can probably name one immediately. However, the horror potentials of a mirror have been done more times than you may remember, and mainly within the last 35 years.
Anybody who thinks of a mirror in a horror film is going to think of this film first, even if it was far from the first using mirrors in horrific ways. This one wrapped an entire plot around the urban legend that if you named a particular murderous person from the past five times, that person would appear in the mirror. Of course, characters usually only think with 1% of their brain in these plots and are compelled into doing stupid things.
In “Candyman”, this plot goes from one-note into something much more elaborate with the main character, Helen Lyle (played Virginia Madsen). It was all enough to spawn two sequels and new nightmares in those who spend half their life looking in mirrors.
“The Shining” (1980)
This might have been the first example of seeing something horrific in a mirror. You could technically place Orson Welles’s “Lady from Shanghai” in 1948 and its horrific funhouse of mirrors sequence as the first truly nerve-rattling mirror scene. It’s too bad it can’t count as a horror movie, despite the nightmarish reflections of ordinary human beings. Nevertheless, “The Shining” was the first film to use something other than a human or horrific being in a mirror to reflect a sense of dread. Seeing the mirror image of the word “murder” handwritten on a door still gives more shakes than the infamous hallway twins do.
It’s an example of how not showing something explicit in the mirror can make the mirror a much more mysterious realm. With “The Shining’s” subtle exploration of dual realities, mirror images become as fascinatingly creepy as Lewis Carroll’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”
Out of all the memorable scenes in Steven Spielberg’s “Poltergeist”, you’d think that the infamous swimming pool scene at the end would be analyzed to the hilt. But, no, it seems everyone always brings up that scene when one of the researchers residing in the house wakes up in the middle of the night to raid the family refrigerator. After some strange experiences, he runs to the bathroom where he notices his face starting to decompose in the mirror. Cue the hallucinatory moment when he begins pulling his face apart to the bone in the goriest scene Spielberg ever dared do next to pivotal moments in “Schindler’s List.”
Today, it may look obvious how much prosthetic makeup was used in the scene, even though it still packs a jolt. If you don’t think of that scene every time you shave in the mirror, then you’re much better off being forgetful.
Speaking of shaving in the mirror, the interesting remake of “Dracula” in 1992 gave a different example of showing and not showing all in one scene. The idea of a vampire not being able to reflect in a mirror is already chilling enough when a big-haired Drac is sneaking up on you from behind. This must have made even Keanu Reeves bristle with emotion at the concept while his character, Jonathan Harker, shaves in the mirror.
Seeing Dracula’s ominous hand in the foreground and nothing in the background mirror with Reeves was an excellent use of mirror tricks just before the age of CGI. It’s too bad more Dracula movies prior to this one didn’t play up the conceit of not reflecting in large mirrors, despite the complication in early special effects.
After “Oculus”, let’s hope that what we don’t see in a mirror makes a comeback in movies for the sake of keeping mirrors mysterious. Having a figure appear there may not be any scarier now than when we stand in front of a mirror looking at ourselves dressed in a Halloween costume.