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The spooky science of haunted mirrors and superstitious mirror mythology

8 min read

Zak Bagans’s Haunted Museum, Las Vegas, is home to the spooky memorabilia including serial killer Ted Bundy’s glasses to fragments of criminal Charles Manson’s bones, scraped from the incinerator after his corpse was cremated.
But there’s also a quite regular mirror, about a half meter tall and shaped like a tombstone.
It is said the mirror once belonged to Dracula actor Bela Lugosi, and the story goes that he used it in occult attempts to contact his deceased wife, but instead invited someone else, ghostly and unwanted.
The mirror’s next owner was murdered and, in the years that followed, subsequent owners have reported seeing a dark entity reflected in it. Some even claim to have been attacked, waking from horrific dreams and even covered in real scratch marks.

Well, this mirror is hardly the first reflective surface to tell a creepy story.
Mirrors, despite are ubiquitous in our homes, workplaces and not only, have always retained something of the eeriness coming with their origins.
Myths and superstitions about them are common, for example they used to be covered upon a death in many homes for fear that the soul might enter them in confusion and become lost.
To a ghost, a mirror can seem to be a vortex through which it could enter the afterlife, but If the spirit of the deceased tries to enter through this portal, it will remain trapped inside the mirror until the mirror is broken.
In fact, in the case of haunted mirrors, these can reflect faces which are not actually standing in front it, they can fall off the wall and cracks can appear on them for no reason.
There are multiple variations on this superstition from all around the world. They even covered mirrors in the White House when Abraham Lincoln died!
For this reason, for protection, Buddhists place small mirrors at the entrance which have the role of capturing evil spirits wanting to enter the house.
After the process of transformation, the human loses his soul when he becomes a vampire and, because of that, it is said that vampires have no reflection.

An ancient belief claims that the soul has two reflections out of which the first is the shadow, on which a thrown spear can provoke the death of the individual while, about second reflection, some consider that the mirror reflects, in an exact manner, the soul of the beholder, and others claim that, inside the mirror, there is another world in which everything located in front of the mirror is reversed. Even moral characteristics are reversed, therefore a person who is evil in this world is good in the world of the mirror, and vice versa.
Mirrors were also used in witchcraft rituals as a way to see what someone was doing at a great distance or to influence the actions of a particular person. In order to get revenge on someone, a personal possession belonging to that person was taken and submerged in a bowl of water. The water, which can reflect images like a mirror, would show the image of the respective individual.

Either way there are legends about the powers of mirrors very very old, and Narcissus himself is about the earliest clear story connected to seeing a reflection.
The ancient Greek myth tells of a beautiful young man who became so enamored of his own face reflected in the water that he wasted away gazing at himself.
From the earliest times, mirrors were often used as ritual objects in long dead religions and dark mirrors were indispensable tools for a kind of divination using reflections used by Nostradamus, among others.
Even Merlin is said to have bewitched a mirror to reflect like an all-seeing eye all that was going throughout King Arthur’s kingdom.
Infernal legends say that in Pandemonium, the capital of Hell or Ocularis Infernum , is located the all-seeing eye which can show anything from Earth, Hell or Heavens, regardless of whether it is from the past, present or future.
Medusa is defeated by Perseus with the help of a well-polished shield in which her image is reflected turning her to stone, while other legends consider that the Devil had been the one who created mirrors in order to induce error and trap the spirits of the deceased in the dimension from the mirror so that they would be unable to enter the afterlife.
And the stories continued over the centuries.

The priests of ancient Egypt used to practice spiritual purification rituals with the help of mirrors, while the old civilizations used mirrors in order to obtain messages from the gods.
Ancient Romans believed that mirrors had the ability to trap the soul, but also that it took seven years for the soul to regenerate itself, which is where we get our popular superstition that breaking a mirror results in seven years’ bad luck.
However, it was in the medieval period that start stories of summonings using reflective surfaces, either mirrors or a bodies of water.
If you do it just right, you summon up the face of the person who is going to be your beloved, a superstition thet survived well past the Middle Ages.
In fact, Halloween greeting cards from the early 20th century depict young women peering into mirrors, alongside rhymes such as “On Hallowee’n, look in the glass/ Your future husband’s face will pass.”
But It wasn’t all merry: If the woman was destined to die before she married, she would apparently see a skull. Macabre enough, right?
More recently, we have even a shift in this custom, as mirror-gazers have become less interested in summoning the face of their beloved and more likely to try to bring forth something scary.
One of the most popular story is “Bloody Mary,” in which chanting the spirit’s name is said to make her appear in the mirror.
The classical variant of the game implies a person standing in front of a mirror in the dark and saying Bloody Mary three times. In the moment of turning on the light, Bloody Mary should supposedly be standing next to the respective person. The person can then ask questions about the future, and Bloody Mary is obliged to answer. It’s said that you should never look directly at Bloody Mary, but only through the mirror, in order to avoid harm or death.

Strange faces in the mirror are also a common horror film story but not only.
Probably the first strange mirror we all encountered was the magical mirror in the story of Snow White: ”Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”
In any case, there are tons of mirror superstitions and stories out there.
As it is believed that mirrors can also deceive, a superstition claims that people who look at themselves in the mirror too much can partially lose their soul, because the mirror has the ability of absorbing spiritual energy.
A belief in Chinese culture is that if you carry a corpse past a mirror, they would become a ghost. This doesn’t sound too bad, until you think about the fact that they’d never be at peace, haunting you forever.
German and Dutch cultures had a more macabre belief. If you saw your reflection after a loved one had passed, this was an omen that you were to be the next to pass.
In Mexico, mirrors are regarded as supernatural portals connected to the Moon and the Sun, while it is assumed that fire had the initial form of a mirror. For this reason, during divination meetings, round mirrors are used.

It is also said that mirrors do not lie.
Therefore, a very well-known superstition claims that when something which does not exist is reflected in front of the mirror, it is a bad sign!

Now that you’ve been thoroughly creeped out, it’s time for a sigh of relief.
Well, kind of.
There might be an explanation to seeing odd things in the mirror.
The Caputo Effect is a psychological effect that leads you to react to sensory deprivation with your imagination. This is just a fancy way of saying if you’re focusing on something spooky coming out of a mirror, your brain is going to make it seem like there is really something there.
The strange face in the mirror illusion is proven in an experiment by Giovanni Caputo that consist on making a person look in the mirror and, after some time, he would see something that isn’t his face.
It’s not harmfull, but the subjects experience strong emotions depending on what they see, so that is something to take into account if you want to try it yourself.
You just has to gaze at your reflected face within the mirror and usually, after less than a minute, the observer began to perceive a strange-face illusion.
Giovanni Caputo led a study in which 50 people tried the trick and reported their reactions.
At the end of a 10 min session of mirror gazing, the participant was asked to write what he or she saw in the mirror.
The descriptions differed greatly and included huge deformations of one’s own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants), a parent’s face with traits changed (18%) of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased, an unknown person (28%), an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait of an ancestor, an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%), or even a fantastical and monstrous beings (48%).
Caputo suggests that the effects might be caused by a combination of basic visual distortions affecting the face-specific interpretation system.
In fact, the visual system starts to adapt after we receive the same information over time, but we also have a system that interprets faces very easily.
This is why we can see faces in clouds, trees, or from just two dots and a line.

Images from web – Google Research

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