Could your mirror be facing the wrong way, inviting spirits into your bed? Could the mirrors in your home be portals just waiting to be released?
There are few things more shrouded in superstition, occult symbolism, and mythos than mirrors. They come in all shapes and sizes, usually made of glass or metals like bronze, silver, aluminum – or even stones like black Obsidian (like the one used by Aztec god of communication, Tezcatlipoca). They can be double-sided, curved, or dark. At the end of the day, they have one job: reflection.
Some designers build them with the goal of clear and accurate reflection, while others leave room for imagination (or divination as they’d probably insist).
What Are Mirrors Used For?
Divination is a form of telling the future or ‘scrying’ for information from a mundane object that the seeker couldn’t possibly know otherwise, like the story of Merlin and his mirror. “Scrying” comes from the old English word “descry” which means ‘to dimly make out’ or ‘to reveal’.
Aside from revealing prophecies, mirrors are also used for:
Let’s get into those.
A spiritualist reflection theory suggests that mirrors reflect the projected soul, rather than the mere physical body (along with photographs, water reflections, etc). With this in mind, it’s suggested that mirrors could be showing the souls of others within it/in front of it too. Many cultures believe that mirrors can trap the souls of both the living and the dead, holding them in that confined dimension’s purgatory forever.
Mediums have been known to use mirrors as a channeling resource to commune with the spirit world, including with angels, archangels, human spirits, demons, and archetypes like Bloody Mary or the Grim Reaper even. Staring into the mirror they eventually begin to see them reflected in the background or they may see their own face morph into the subject. Juxtapositions like doorways, crossroads, mirrored surfaces, and times (midnight/dark-new moon/Oct 31) have always represented lighter barriers between this world and the ‘other’.
Mirrors in ritual have a host of symbolic potential and representations. A common one is to reflect a negative spell back to the sender. The metaphor is fairly direct with that one. This use of deflective magick is part of the larger protective/defensive magick umbrella. Perseus, for example, used a mirror to reflect the deadly gaze of Medusa back at her, to defeat her, and so he could see her reflection without dying from her spell. Along with reflecting away bad energy, they can be used to harness and concentrate good energy like that of the sun or moon, pointing it where it’s needed.
Practitioners also draw protective symbols/sigils behind mirrors to create/close portals, protect themselves from entities within or around, or to send intention to someone. They may also use it for Theurgy/evocation, glamour spells, and sympathetic magick (making visualizing oneself much easier).
And of course, mirrors are used simply for practical and vanity purposes, reflecting in nearly exact accuracy (within good lighting) what they face, so that we can pick the spinach out of our teeth.
The Many Superstitions Associated with Mirrors
Mirrors have been disturbing people since day one, no surprise there. From entrapment, to misfortune, to invasion – the fear is real.
A common suspicion that crosses over many cultures is the covering up of mirrors. This is said to prevent them from swallowing up your soul into purgatory, as well as preventing malicious spirits from entering your space or body. It’s especially important to cover them when the soul is more likely to be ‘wandering’ and vulnerable, such as during sleep (also don’t have it facing the bed), comas, sickness, as a baby, or when dead. Also, cover them during thunderstorms for some reason?
Another popular superstition is that breaking a mirror will result in precisely 7 years of bad luck. This is supposedly because mirrors hold our futures, so breaking them breaks our path and soul. The verdict is out whether super glue fixes anything or not.
You may also associate mirrors with showing our inner-most desires and secrets, from the popular series of books and movies of which we do not speak. This lore is also part of the reason we consider something deceptive to be ‘smoke and mirrors’, because it obstructs the image of truth (like smoke would in a magic show).
The Germans and Dutch believed, similar to doppelgängers, that if you saw yourself in a mirror after someone close had passed away, you’d be next up. Morbid, but perfectly on brand for them; there’s probably even a nursery rhyme about it.
Much like facing mirrors away from the bed, it’s considered good spiritual etiquette to hang a mirror across from a doorway, or out a window, so that evil spirits stay out of that room/home.
There’s of course the tradition of looking into a mirror in the dark to summon spirits like Bloody Mary or the devil by calling them out repeatedly. You could comb your hair in front of it, according to Persian folklore, and begin to see ghosts. It’s also said that if you look too long into your reflection, you’ll be driven into madness. I guess if you stare too long into the void, the void stares back at you until you can’t stand it.
What Is Staring Back at You?
Mirrors have such a powerful impact on us because of their dualistic nature. They’re real, yet fake. They’re us, but backwards. They’re a barrier where two identical worlds meet; a horror movie waiting to happen (shoutout to Oculus).
They blatantly represent the mystical concept of “as above, so below, as within, so without”, which means that everything has an equal and opposite balance in the world. This opens up the theories that mirrors show us things like alternate dimensions (perhaps reversals or dark versions of our world and the good in us), our doubles/doppelgängers (which are usually a little off – shoutout to the movie Us), past incarnates, parallel universes, fragmented parts of ourselves, etc. No wonder they’re so creepy.
When we look at our own self, but reversed, our ego can get a little tripped up and our ‘uncanny valley’ sense can kick in. It comes back to that ‘so real, yet fake’ vibe. Most think our image is reversed left to right, but really its oppositional from back to front (we face ourselves north to south, rather than looking away in the same direction, but if we turn to the east, our face turns east too). Being able to see our own self facing us so clearly in the opposite direction is perhaps an innovation that was never supposed to interject natural law. This could explain our dysmorphia and distortions of that image.
Psychologist Marco Bertamini compares the perception of reflection as a virtual reality type experience, saying, “the object ‘inside’ the mirror is virtual, but as far as our eyes are concerned it exists as much as any other object”. Maybe our reflection is a bit too close for comfort.
So Why Do Mirrors Make Us Paranoid?
The fear of the reflection comes from the perception of some kind of inaccuracy with reality. These distortions understandably creep us out. But what are they and why do they happen?
And, well sure, they could truly be spirits or visions, but it’s more likely something called the Caputo Effect, along with potential other cognitive biases like confirmation bias, the flashed face distortion effect, and pareidolia.
The Caputo Effect
Not to be confused with Theresa Caputo, world renowned psychic medium, Giovanni Caputo was a researcher at the University of Urbino, who did a pivotal, and creepy, experiment with mirrors in 2010.
He had 50 participants stare at their own reflections in a dimly-lit environment for 10+ minutes. Many of them wound up having a “strange-face illusion” very quickly. They started seeing distortions and warping of their faces into scary beings, familiar people, and archetypal generic images. This mild form of dissociative identity effect is thought to be caused by the lighting, for one thing, but mainly from our face recognition function (responsible for pareidolia) malfunctioning and misinterpreting the shadows and highlights.
These basic visual distortions have been associated with Troxler Fading, a phenomenon where our consistent focus on a point can cause the appearance that the area, or surrounding areas, fade/disappear/change as our eyes adapt to the surface. This neural adaptation happens because the mechanism in charge of responding and actively perceiving pertinent information goes dormant as the situation remains unchanging and unstimulating. We then start to notice parts of an object seemingly disappearing against the background.
As we know, in the absence of information, our brain tends to make things up to fill in the blanks, both so it can make sense of a confusing situation and so it can stay stimulated. It’ll do this by making educated guesses based on our preconceived notions and expectations. Therefore, if we expect to see something creepy, we just might start to. When the reflecting surface changes, our perception does too, just like when our brain changes (like in the case of Prosopometamorphopsia, migraines, astigmatism, etc), our perception does too.
Another type of distortion effect is the flashed face effect, where sudden presentation of mouth/eye-aligned faces at the peripheral view can start to blend them together oddly, creating the illusion of changing and grotesque features. This could play a part in mirrors with multiple people in view. Geometric and physical optics to do with the mirror itself could also be at play. If the surface is curved or imperfectly flat, it could refract the light rays in a way that we perceive as distortion (think fun-house or makeup mirrors). Something on the mirror’s surface, like water for example, could also create a distortion illusion called refraction, moving features slightly.
Now, back to the experiment; these poor participants mostly saw terrifying monsters (48%), strangers (28%), or stereotypical archetypes like children, ancestors, old women etc (28%). 66% of the 50 people did have a major perspective distortion. These results essentially changed the way we understand the boundaries of our facial interpretation mechanisms and the role of expectations on what we see.
With all the lore surrounding mirrors, it’s impossible not to associate them with creepy imagery, which can therefore impact our experiences with them through confirmation bias and fear. In our subconscious, we know others have reported seeing things in them for thousands of years, so we think there’s a tiny chance we could, and so we do. The roles of pop culture and myth, not just on mirrors, but on tons of mundane phenomena and objects, are massive. Paranoia and belief can largely influence the lens in which we view the world and, apparently, ourselves.
In a world that’s always trying to play tricks on our eyes and minds, it’s no wonder we’re so curious and hungry for truth. We’re proud to present you with our most extensive and honest attempts at finding the root of spiritual phenomena and unbiased truths. No smoke and mirrors here!