The Monster in the Mirror


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bloodymary.jpg

"Bloody Mary...Bloody Mary...Bloody Mary."

If you've been a kid in the United States, you've heard the Bloody Mary legend and probably played the game yourself. If you've seen the episode of Supernatural, you're also aware of how this game can go horribly, gruesomely wrong and end with someone dead on the floor with big, bloody, hollow pits where their eyes used to be.

This doesn't happen in reality, of course, but countless people still get freaked out by mirrors in low light, convinced on some irrational level that some other entity, Bloody Mary or otherwise, will appear in the mirror with them. As it happens, there is a biological reason behind this, and it comes down to optical illusion. Psychologist Giovanni Caputo of the University of Urbino in Italy conducted a study for which he had fifty unsuspecting participants each spend ten minutes alone in a dimly-lit room, staring at their own face in a mirror. It took less than a minute for the subjects to begin seeing unsettling things, and the results were striking:

"The descriptions differed greatly across individuals and included: (a) huge deformations of one's own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants); (b) a parent's face with traits changed (18%), of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased; (c) an unknown person (28%); (d) an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait of an ancestor (28%); (e) an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%); (f ) fantastical and monstrous beings (48%)." (Caputo)

The explanation for such phenomena (discounting any notions of haunted mirrors) is thought to involve the Troxler effect, an optical illusion that results from gazing at a fixed point. In certain circumstances, focusing on this point for a long enough time, usually between twenty seconds and one minute, will cause objects around it to fade from view, often to be replaced with what the brain 'thinks' should be there. Some researchers theorize that the disturbingly altered (not just faded) appearance of some of the faces in Caputo's study may be due to an incomplete Troxler effect which only causes parts of the face to disappear, leading to the distorted look. This article outlines the ways in which an incomplete Troxler effect may produce this and other illusions of altered faces.

According to another article, frightening images in the mirror may be a caused by a combination of optical illusion and the fact that "the brain, in specific situations, literally gets bored and starts scaring you." In essence, staring at the same point for too long leads the brain to attempt to fill in the blank spaces left by the Troxler effect with something recognizable, but interesting--and by 'interesting', I mean 'creepy'. "The brain gets tired of processing the mundane," the article posits, "and, accidentally, cooks up a monster to entertain us."

Considering how susceptible humans are to irrational hindbrain fears, both the aforementioned theories seem likely explanations for why darkened mirrors can produce such unnerving effects. It is unsurprising, then, that mirrors are popular as a horror trope. When you look at them, they look back--and there's always the fear that the thing in the glass might not be just your reflection.

Have any of you experienced any strange visions in a mirror? If so, were they similar to any of the ones reported in Caputo's study?

2 Comments

Scary movies have COMPLETELY changed my life when I look into mirrors. I cannot tell you the amount of times I have ran out of the bathroom or my bedroom after I turned off the lights, or have to close my closet door because I can see the reflection from the mirror in there. The same goes for huge television's reflections! Scary movies and ghost stories like "Bloody Mary" have ruined my life... I'm definitely being dramatic here, BUT I AM SUCH A BABY AND IT FREAKS ME OUT! So many movies include a "ghost" or "dead person" pop up in the mirror/TV like The Ring and The Grudge. It is pretty strange that there are actually studies and so many common reactions on this. Very interesting! My sister just told me a story about how at her hair salon the owner convinced all of his hairstylists to "spin three times saying Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary," and they did just to be funny; but little did they know that he hired someone to go behind the double mirror dressed like the grudge girl and bang on the mirror. They ran out screaming frantically and one girl started crying... I couldn't even imagine what I would do! This website has so many cases where people blog and claim to have seen real ghosts in the mirrors and other locations: http://www.yourghoststories.com/real-ghost-story.php?story=18329 .

I have tried the "Bloody Mary' thing, but was afraid of what I might see so did not look in the mirror for long. However, I notice that when I stare at anything for too long parts of it does disappear. The majority of time these parts turn into black dots all over the place. I absolutely hate scary movies which is probably the reason why I get freaked out when walking passed a mirror in the dark. I always feel like I might see something or someone I do not want to see. Also, there are those illusions where you stare at something for so long that when you look away their face actually appears. Below is a link to an illusion similar to the one I described. Try it out!
http://puzzles.about.com/od/opticalillusions/ig/OpticalIllusions/Obama.htm

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