Mirrors have been used to create illusion and fantasy in many ways, from magicians' acts to movie special effects and funfairs and carnivals. The first time I ever set foot inside a ‘House of Fun’ at an amusement park, I was initially struck with how little fun there was to be had and then, of course, the mirrors. Some made you small and fat, Tweedledee gaping forlornly at you, while others turned you into a human pencil. Some morphed you into hideous shapes; waves, barrels, pinch-headed, all using subtle bends and twists, human skill creating a strange duality.
But what fuels our fantastical fascination with mirrors as twisters of reality? Reflection being grounded in physics suggests a certain truth: what is placed in front of a reflective surface should be what peers back in perfect, reverse facsimile. At the basest level, a mirror is a tool of ego or vanity (ask Narcissus), a useful household apparatus with the purpose of telling us the truth about our own image and how we look to others. Whether we like what we see or not, there is no arguing with the honesty of reflection. A mirror is dependable. A mirror will only show us what we set in front of it. Playing with our preconceptions of a mirror’s integrity is a horrific idea, twisting something unquestionable into something unreliable and unpredictable. An idea used well by writers through the ages.
In countless horror stories we see mirrors used as a device to create foreboding and shock, showing things that aren’t there, and vice-versa. "This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in the mirror!" proclaims Jonathon Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, his first realisation that the Count is anything but human. Similarly in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 masterpiece The Shining, as Jack encounters a beautiful, naked woman in room 237 only to see her decaying reflection in the mirror. In fact there is a salient argument to suggest that in The Shining mirrors do not distort reality but rather preserve it, from Danny’s early conversation with ‘Tony’ – and the subsequent disturbing visions of the Outlook Hotel – to the iconic moment of Wendy seeing and deciphering Danny’s scrawled ‘redrum’ through a mirror.
Magical mirrors, though, have a different place in fantasy, horror and myth, be that as a window into another world, a glimpse of a secret desire or a reflection of future events. They appear as important tools in the literary worlds of Middle Earth, Hogwarts and Ancient Greece, and their visual impact on many horror and fantasy films is boundless. A superlative method of enlightening (and enlivening) characters, creating mystery or just moving narrative forward, they can perform a variety of roles, from the divinatory, the aspirational and the portal.
From House of Dracula, 1945
In Oscar Wilde’s vaingloriously beautiful The Picture Of Dorian Grey, Dorian uses a portrait of himself to reflect the real, aging him while he stays supernaturally youthful and vigorous. Ultimately, realising the monstrosity of his duplicity, "He loathed his own beauty, and flinging the mirror on the floor, crushed it into silver splinters beneath his heel", vanity once again playing the role of destroyer of reason and personality trait of the wicked. Aspirations turning against the aspirer.
For all their many employments, the magic mirror as a portal device has to be by far the most common. Transportation to a new domain is a way of placing the reader within the comfortable realities of our own world before introducing the shock of fantasy through the use of narrative duality, whether this transportation comes through mirrors, wardrobes, shifting brick walls or a ‘subtle knife’. The notion of another world existing behind the sheen of glass is a dominant one and, again, paints the mirror as untrustworthy, although in a much less dreadful manner. We see reflective worlds through mirrors in countless tales, games and films. Dungeons and Dragons has the Plane of Mirrors, a plane that exists behind reflective surfaces.
The use of mirrors to divine the future is prominent in many fantasy stories across all medias and, as with a lot of things in any imagined tale, has a solid grounding in history and culture. We can look at the art of Catoptromancy as an example of how they have been used in real world beliefs, using mirrors specifically for divination. The user positions themself in front of a mirror and often uses just the light of a candle to stare at their own reflection until a vision appears to them. It is believed by some (look up the Ganzfeld Experiment) that this sensory deprivation combined with the strobe-like nature of a flickering candle may be able to cause hallucinatory effects and that users may actually have seen things in the mirror that they believed were divinations of the future.
Catoptromancy also spawned the folklore legend of Bloody Mary, a once popular Victorian parlour game. Originally, the idea was that young women would be able to divine their future husband by walking backwards up stairs holding a looking glass and a candle. They would either see the face of their prospective spouse or a skull, meaning they would die before marrying. There are many different incarnations of the ritual, many including chanting Bloody Mary’s name whilst looking in the mirror, invoking the spirit herself who would appear in a variety of forms; clearly the basis for films such as Candyman and also episodes of Charmed, X-Files and Supernatural.
The Mirror of Galadriel in Tolkien’s 1950’s epic fantasy The Lord Of The Rings is my favourite example of a mirror used prophetically. While only a small scene, the mirror invigorates Frodo and Sam’s relationship while giving the reader glimpses of important scenes upcoming in the book. Frodo sees white ships on the sea (the Elves leaving Middle Earth), a white citadel (Minas Tirith) and a hooded figure in a white robe who, from the reader’s perspective, is presumed to be the as yet unseen Saruman the White but could also be interpreted as a vision of Gandalf’s return in The Two Towers. Most importantly, he sees the blazing eye of Sauron and realises for the first time that it is searching for him. This understanding of the danger that the Fellowship is in is the foundation of Frodo’s decision to split from the group and continue alone – a turning point in the narrative and one of the reasons for their overall success. Another big reason is Samwise. When he gazes into the mirror, Samwise sees the destruction of the Shire through technology and industry. He struggles with his longing for home but instead chooses to stay loyal to Frodo, cementing the relationship that would achieve the almost impossible in destroying the ring and setting up the defeat of Sauron. No Sam on Mount Doom, no annihilation of the ring. The visions only really serve to influence the decisions of two key characters but without them the journeys of every major character in the book would have been very different.
The Mirror of Galadriel from The Fellowship of The Ring 2001
Mirrors as an aspirational device litter the unswept floors of fantasy – Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised or Narcissus’ glorified puddle perhaps? – But there is one that overshadows all others. It belongs to the Evil Queen in the fairytale Snow White and, depending on the incarnation of the story, often serves a divinatory purpose as well. "Magic mirror in my hand, who is the fairest in the land?" later bastardised by Disney to “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all” must be the most well-known, iconic phrase about a mirror anywhere. The Queen uses her mirror as constant reassurance that there is nobody more beautiful than herself. This changes when the mirror recognises Snow White as being “a thousand times more beautiful than you.” Vanity breeds insecurity and the mirror serves as a powerful representation of both to the Queen. These characteristics warring together ultimately fuel her madness and cause her downfall.
Buy The Picture of Dorian Gray
In literature the idea is bountiful; Stephen R Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need books, George MacDonald’s classic Phantastes, Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and, to an extent, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Lady of Shallott, to name but a few. It encroaches into the world of Sci-Fi too, the classic Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” springing to mind (later continuing the same theme in Star Trek: Deepspace 9), and also the Stargate: SG1 episode, “There But For The Grace Of God”. Heck, even unfathomably wooden Neo first encounters the utter rubbish of the ‘real world’ in the Wachowski siblings' The Matrix through a mirror.
The Granddaddy of portal fiction, though, must be Lewis Carroll’s 1871 Alice Through The Looking Glass, where titular heroine Alice wonders what life would be like on the other side of the mirror. She steps through to find a world that not only inversely reflects hers perfectly – winter has become summer, writing is printed in reverse, going backwards takes you forwards – it also inversely reflects the main motif of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: the thematic use of playing cards has been replaced with that of chess. Lewis Carroll has created a character full of loneliness, and the escapism of the mirror world is a wonderfully imaginative premise. As a mirror can fashion narcissism, self worth and insecurities, I am also sure it has the ability to compound isolation and seclusion into something worse. Carroll – an awkward, stuttering, shy man – used both rabbit hole and mirror to explore childhood and to escape into games, wordplay and nonsense, creating for himself a world he felt more comfortable in, showcasing the power of portals.
Mirrors have generated shock, awe, fear, vanity, loneliness and despair. They have taken us to new worlds and new planets. We have seen the future and studied the past in them. Most importantly though, I know what my hair looks like before I go out because of them. However, if you do ever see something move in a mirror out of the corner of your eye, be slightly concerned. Chinese myth would tell us that the Mirror World is waking up, and they’re itching for war…
Buy Through The Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There
Have you got something to say about this story? Write a letter to the editors! Put 'Letter to the editors' in the subject line of your email and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we may feature your letter in the next issue.