Through the Looking Glass – why mirrors in horror movies are creepy…
I wasn’t expecting to get excited about Paranormal Activity 2, seeing it as a lazy cash in. That is, until I saw the trailer with its killer final shot, the mirror reflection not showing the real world accurately.
All at once I had high hopes of this being an exceptionally spooky movie, solely because of the mirror. Why? Because mirrors are scary, or at least have the potential to be. As an Alice in the Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass obsessive, I always wanted to be able to pass through the mirror into the world behind the glass. Of course in Carroll’s work the looking glass was benign, just showing you Wonderland, but the distortions that mirrors make are suggestive of things being different, evil… just plain “off”.
More formative experiences, Jack the Giant Killer and seeing Lady Constance and Princess Elaine reveal their true witch selves via the mirror, as if it sees deeper than skin deep.
I’m fascinated by horror stories that use mirrors to reflect “the other” or an alternate reality, or just being possessed. The portmanteau Amicus movie From Beyond the Grave‘s first story, The Gatecrasher, is of David Warner getting trapped inside an old mirror after being coaxed by a shadowy figure to do terrible things. Old mirrors are by definition spooky, distorted at the edges, discoloured, they don’t quite reflect as accurately as you’d like. You can understand where a lot of mirror legends come from just by looking at an old mirror. Could it steal your soul? Capture your death? The “Bloody Mary” urban myth plays into old fears.
Mirrors in horror movies are mostly just played for jump scares (see the Mirror Scares YouTube piece as an example, rather than crafting a whole mythos of spookiness around the mirror itself. Yet there are certain films that go farther than this and those are the ones that freak me out and get my adoration at the same time. In my teens, the melting face in Poltergeist gave me nightmares for weeks. Oh I know it looks hackneyed now, but Poltergeist was probably the first “modern” horror film I watched and boy did it stay with me.
Indeed while I’m not a fan of the “open the bathroom mirror, close the mirror, ARG!” moment, there are some other single moments that use mirrors well. The Shining, obviously, and both A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and the recent terrible remake both do well in their own way.
John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, took the idea of a demon trapped in the mirror and expanded on it 100-fold. He takes the idea of anti-matter and comes up with the concept of Satan being the Anti-God, living in the reflection of the mirror. Utterly nuts, of course, but in some strange way fitting in with the topsy-turvy land ideal of Lewis Carroll’s looking glass. In Prince of Darkness, the mirror concept is introduced very late into the movie. By this point we’ve already dealt with the concept of “liquid Satan” possessing people, so when a transformed Kelly tries to pull Old Nick out of a compact mirror we’re so far into the realm of six impossible things before breakfast. The mirrors themselves aren’t creepy, but the large monstrous hand we see reaching from the darkness behind the mirror is an enduring image.
J-Horror films such as Ringu and Ju-On manage creepy reflections spectacularly well, but then so much of those films are about perception anyway it’s hardly surprising. An interesting aside, when the TV show Supernatural did the Bloody Mary episode in Season 1, it had a very J-horror sensibility, and was extremely creepy. Sadako permeates the episode, so you have the “real” urban myth of Bloody Mary paired with the created myth from the Ringu trilogy. Things stepping out of the mirror, crossing into our reality is as impossible as Sadoko coming out from the television, and just as terrifying.
Sung Kim-Ho’s Into the Mirror is basically a neat little ghost story, using modern shopping mall mirrors to show the nastiness. Alexandre Aja’s remake, Mirrors, transposes a wonderfully hallucinatory gothic vibe in the burnt our department store, to bright daylight scares, that veer from the graphic to the downright creepy. Sadly, Aja’s film descends into Evil Dead silliness, destroying any credibility with a risible final reel. Aja changes many elements of the story, but keeps some of the set pieces, causing the film to fall between two stools.
However, one thing Aja does particularly well is recognise that any reflective surface can be a mirror, and while people are at haste to paint over mirrors and paintings and paper over the windows, they forget about water. I’d love to see a horror movie really capture the essence of how hard it is to avoid reflection.
Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox released the trailer last week for Mirrors 2, which looks to be a note for note remake of the Korean original.
Paranormal Activity 2 could do that exceptionally well if the house inhabitants are suffering the same kind of demonic attentions. It would be fantastic if this becomes the definitive “scary mirror” movie. Sadly, I think I’m expecting far too much.
This was originally posted over at The Day Hollywood Stood Still on the 23rd July, 2010