It all started many thousands of years ago, when civilizations on the sides of the Nile, enchanted by their own reflection on the waters of the river, decided to create artefacts that would produce a similar effect. Ever since that moment, mirrors have been objects of great fascination and instruments of dread, originating all kinds of legends and superstitions.
Cats, let’s discuss cats. Thank you for your attention. Contrary to what happens with vampires, whose absence of soul deprives them of owning a reflection – it’s all about watching them, long coat over their back and pointy teeth, very pale, roaming around in search (the debauchery, poor devils) for their own image in mirrored surfaces -, cats can see themselves on mirrors. They do, yes, that part they can execute. It so happens that these millennial companions of ours, although able to stare at their reflection, aren’t able to process it as what it is, a mirror of their own image. In the eyes of a cat, the one they’re looking at is yet another cat, never themselves – because if they’re here, and there’s another one there, how would it be possible that they’re the same cat, two in one, as they’re both in distinct places? They presume (can you blame them?) that’s another animal entirely – what entails, thus, notable results from the observer’s perspective: dances, threats, attacks and defenses, mad glitches, the eventual emotional chaos of the poor creature. “Throwing pearls to the pigs”, thought the descents of Vlad III, the Impaler (“no soul, no reflection”, will, in turn, think the god coordinating mirrors and watching over the presence of souls in all beings and entities), frustrated by their inconsequent search. No one said the world was fair, my dear dark friends. Even less so the world of mirrors.
If you think about it, it’s not that irrational that feline logic. It might not even be logic and a matter of instinct alone, but the truth is, there is something magical and inexplicable concerning that phenomenon of having an object take our image, and throwing it back at us so we can look at it, contemplating ourselves: so in the end, that person there, staring back at you, is, in fact, you? What do you mean? That can’t be right. No wonder mirrors have held over men, ever since we discovered them, a mix of fascination and dread. At the same time, it also doesn’t come as a surprise that, even after some have learned to dominate them, people still have the same respect for mirrors as primitive men did, for example, for thunderstorms – we might even know how they come to be, but it’s hard to grasp why it is like that without linking them with some sort of mystery justification.
It’s a mistake to believe that the human relationship with mirrors is far different from the one cats maintain with objects who reflect their appearance. The fascination mirrors exert over us, for the most part, generated by surprise and overwhelming feeling they cause whenever we look at our own reflection, are steady in the common imagination, despite the numerous academic attempts to explain, no matter how many A’s + B’s, what happens when light is reflected on a surface, in a process that includes the phenomena of refraction and diffusion, angles of incidence and reflection. It is all rather interesting, of course, scientifically speaking, but it doesn’t really aid to think of mirrors as mischievous objects that register all they see in great detail and possess the souls of whoever stands in front of them. That’s precisely why they don’t deal well with vampires: since they have no soul, mirrors have nothing to take hold of, there’s nothing they can take from them. If seven thousand years ago, in Egypt, the Badarin people felt inspired by the reflection they saw in the waters of the Nile river to start producing mirrors in bronze – and if other civilizations were, throughout time, perfecting the art of reflecting and contemplating -, truth is we’ve arrived in 2021 wrapped around superstition whenever on the subject of mirrors. The bad news is that, despite the rational explanations for the reflection of our image, human beings are still too primitive to abandon the principle “que las hay, las hay”, and therefore continue to proceed cautiously when it comes to that magic object able to show us, us. This human being writing to you now, at least, fits the profile: ever since I started researching the topic, I have avoided looking in the mirror of my bedroom when the lights are off. These things are always a laughing occasion, but, just in case, I would rather reach the end of this article with my soul intact and where it belongs – because there’s this one superstition that associates mirrors in bedrooms, facing the bed, with a negative influence of present spirits. Well, I didn’t even know there were spirits present in my bedroom, to begin with, thus I prefer to pretend I don’t even see them and go on as if nothing had changed (to see the spirits, legend has it, all you need is to light a candle in front of the mirror and stare at the reflection).
The truth is, there’s a dark side in every mirror: one of our darkest fantasies, our most sinister and obscure imagination. The mirror has this enchanting dimension that takes us beyond reality and makes us transcend it – and that scares us. The Romans, who believed that life was divided into seven-year cycles, took the shattering of a mirror as a curse that would hold for the remaining of one of that cycle’s years. That superstition was so great it endures to this day in some cultures, that the shattering of a mirror would cast seven years of bad luck upon someone – fear not, there are ways to revert the spell; the pieces of the mirror should be buried in the ground on a full-moon night in order to break the curse. To burry mirrors is, in fact, an effective method to avoid the proliferation of curses and of making life harder to, bless us, damned souls. In Serbian-Croatian culture, there’s a myth that says a mirror should be buried with the deceased so that their soul can remain there, safe and sound. We’ve also come to realize that mirrors, the soul, and death tend to compose a certain dreadful trinity. For example, the Jews believed – to be fair we’re transitioning from 2020 to 2021, therefore there’s a strong possibility many still believe this – that, when someone’s on their deathbed, whichever mirrors are around them should be covered with sheets and rags, so that to avoid the dying person’s soul to be trapped inside one of those dangerous objects that spend their existence watching us. Covering mirrors was something people also did during the ages of Victorian England, apart from other very distinct latitudes, eras, and longitudes, from North America to Mumbai, in India, going through the island of Madagascar. Other cultures exist, though, where it’s not so much death nor the soul that mirrors pose a threat to, but more the necessarily wrong notion we have that is at stake. In these cultures, it is believed that the mirror shows one’s soul, yes, but doesn’t trap it: it simply rubs in our faces our own truth, in its purest form. In many cases, it would perhaps be less cruel to imprison the spirit once and for all instead of performing such humiliation – who is it that wants to know the exact truth about themselves? It’s one thing to look in the mirror for a pimple check, factor any new wrinkles or check our ears, but yet another one quite different is to look ourselves in the eye in order to figure out just how rotten our insides actually are.
The boundaries of imagination in front of the mirror seem nonexistent. Lewis Carroll took obviously too far with Alice in Wonderland, but the idea that a mirror serves as an entry portal into another dimension, another stage of existence, an alternative reality, or any other type of fantastic wormhole began a very long time ago, during antiquity. The Greeks, for instance, used mirrors as visual aids to the art of guessing. In the III century b.C., Thessalian priestesses channelled the magic of mirrors before they proceeded to note their valuable premonitions, which they wrote with their own blood (ok, it wasn’t the most civilized thing in the world, but still the Greek were very much ahead of everyone else at that point). In China, 300 years later, mirrors were credited for the rise to power of the emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first of the Quin dynasty and of a unified China. The emperor believed to be in possession of a mirror that allowed him to decipher the souls of those who looked in it. In China people also believed mirrors concentrated in them the energy of the moon. It is nothing short of curious how an object whose sole effect is only made possible with the existence of light is so often and in so many ways linked to the obscure, to the night, to darkness. Is it because in the dark we can’t see, or less clearly so, which leaves us less able to comprehend images? Food for thought. In case the reader accepts the logical explanation, please indulge in a little challenge as well: once the belief in a dark, mischief side of mirrors is taken out of the equation, resorting only to reason, light a candle and turn off all the lights in our house. This experiment works the best when under a thunderstorm, but any given night, as long as it’s dark, will do in order to dive into the mystery, filled with courage. Now, in the dark, holding the candle, stand in front of a mirror. While you contemplate your reflection, repeat three times “bloody Mary, bloody Mary, bloody Mary”. If all goes well, and according to the legend, the summoned image will appear next to you in the reflection. It will be worth it.
Now, myths aside
Eisoptrophobia. A big word applied to those with a fear of mirrors also referred to as spectrophobia or catoptrophobia. If the first two terms relate to a fear of “vision” (eisoptrophobia) and of “mirrors” (catoptrophobia), spectrophobia is linked to a fear of spectrums – and spectrum is the Latin word for ghost -, meaning, it’s a phobia deeply rooted in the fear of ghosts and apparitions. Going over what we’ve discussed before, it’s easily understandable why spectrophobia makes perfect sense, but let us focus on the first designation, referring precisely to the fear of seeing a reflection. Pamela Anderson suffers from eisoptrophobia, she’s afraid of mirrors. She might just be the most famous person to publicly assume this phobia. And she’s also a rather surprising case, being that she lives off of her looks. Because one could be misled to think this dysfunction is often associated with the fear of one’s own reflection, a dread born out of a reaction to social conventions and to what we could consider as a poor image, a negative portray. However, eisoptrophobia has nothing to do with that self-reflection – independently of how much we dislike our own image, this aversion would hardly turn into a mirror phobia. It could almost be considered as strange that Pamela Anderson’s problem was related to her figure. It so happens that eisoptrophobia is a phobia belonging within the sphere of anxiety disturbances and, as for the most part of these kinds of disorders, it is an acquired fear. Which means, it’s precisely those stories, legends, myths and curses that are the inception of this irrational fear, turned into a compulsive aversion to mirrors. It for sure isn’t, out of all anxiety-induced disturbances, the most problematic one, though, according to the descriptions of those suffering from eisoptrophobia, there is an almost permanent feeling of discomfort. The thing is, in this world of ours, filled with vanities and self-absorbance, mirrors are the most common thing out there for us to look ourselves in the eye. Vampires, even if they did exist, would never suffer from eisoptrophobia, as they don’t even have a reflection to start with. The most likely is that, on the contrary, they would drop dead from hypocatoptria, if such a thing even existed. Now cats, no one can be sure about them not suffering from mirror-induced phobias. Who knows if cats aren’t indeed afraid of mirrors because they know better than us what mirrors actually are? Let us keep in mind that mirrors were invented, many thousands of years ago, precisely in Egypt – I repeat: in Egypt, where cats were sacred.
Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's The Mirror issue, published january 2021.
Full credits and spread on the print issue.