Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
You know that horror movie trope about mirrors? The one where the protagonist is near a mirror and they look or shift away from the mirror for just a moment, and when they look back, a ghost, killer, or some other entity appears, and then usually rapidly disappears when they turn around? I’ve always disliked looking into mirrors, and for a while, I convinced myself that it was caused by an overactive imagination combined with seeing this situation one too many times in a movie.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that it’s much more than that. I don’t dislike looking into mirrors, I’m afraid of it. Something has always just felt…off about it. I recognize the image in my reflection as me, but it has never felt familiar. I brought it up to a friend once, and she goggled at me for a moment, and then laughed, though I could hear a tinge of fear behind it.
“What do you mean, you don’t recognize your reflection? How is that even possible? It’s the same reflection that you’ve been staring at your whole life!”
And she was right, of course. But that was part of the problem. My reflection has never felt normal to me. Not in the way that it should. Not in the way that it does to other people. I’ve observed the reflections of friends and family members when they’re standing near mirrors. It doesn’t feel the same. It feels connected to them. A simple mirror image. Even when their eyes meet mine in the mirror, I don’t feel the oppressive feeling of “other” that I get when I meet my own eyes in my reflection.
With no explanation that seemed to fit my experiences, I chalked it up to it just being a weird quirk and decided to just get on with my life. When I moved into my first apartment by myself, I removed all of the mirrors, except for one that I kept in my guest room. It stayed covered with a sheet unless I absolutely needed to use it. You’d be surprised how well you can get by without mirrors when you’ve been doing it your whole life. I even got pretty good at applying makeup without seeing what I was doing.
Every once in awhile, I’d catch my reflection in a mirror in a public bathroom or if I looked wrong into my rearview mirror, and it would set my heart racing. I always felt menaced when it happened and it would take me a few moments to calm down again. But all in all, I was doing fairly well with my mirror avoidance strategies. However, that all changed one day at work.
I work in the artifact restoration department at my city’s history museum. It’s typically fascinating, delicate, and detailed work and I love it. I mostly work with pottery or statues and carvings, but I always knew that one day someone would bring me an antique mirror to restore and I would have no choice but to do it. I had been at the museum for five years and it still hadn’t happened. I had almost convinced myself that I was in the clear. Alas, that was not the case.
It was late on a Friday when it was first brought to me. The museum director had it wheeled in under a sheet but I immediately knew what it was. I could tell from the dread that practically exploded inside me. He beamed at me as he whipped the sheet off.
“Isn’t it magnificent?” he crowed. “Early 1700s. French.” He smiled at me, waiting for my exclamations over its beauty, I’m sure.
My breath felt like it was caught in my throat as I stared down my full reflection for the first time in what had been years. It looked back at me, also with a petrified expression, but it felt different. Like my reflection’s face was an act. A mimicking of my face, not an exact copy. I stood transfixed for a minute, trapped under my own gaze. Suddenly the director stepped into my line of view, blocking the mirror from my sight.
“Well? What do you think? Gorgeous, isn’t it? Doesn’t look like it needs too much work. A little spit shine, maybe,” he said with a grin, winking at me.
“Yes, gorgeous,” I mumbled.
He must have noticed how white I had gone, because he re-covered the mirror and put his hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t stress about it. I know you’ll do a great job! And don’t worry about starting today. You can get cracking on Monday.” With that, he turned and left the room, leaving me alone with the mirror.
I put my head in my hands and rubbed my temples with my thumbs.
“Ok, you can do this,” I whispered to myself. “You have the whole weekend to prepare.”
I looked up at the clock. 5:15. I grabbed my things and headed for the door. I’d deal with the mirror on Monday.
I had almost made it all the way out of the building when I realized I had left my keys on my work table.
“Shit,” I moaned. But there was nothing to be done for it. I needed the keys to lock up the building.
Before I opened the door back to my workspace, I took a deep breath.
“It’s just a stupid mirror,” I said to myself.
I stepped into the room. Everything looked normal. I stepped quickly past the mirror to my desk. I bent to open the drawer where I kept my keys, and when I turned around, the sheet that had been covering the mirror moments before was in a pile on the floor in front of it. My knees went weak and I had to grab onto my desk to keep them from buckling.
“It just fell, that’s all,” I whispered out loud. “When I walked by it quickly, it made a breeze that knocked it off.”
I felt deep down that that was not what had happened at all, but saying it out loud gave me enough courage to approach the mirror to replace the sheet.
Once I was in front of it, I knelt down to grab the sheet, never once taking my eyes off of my reflection. As I straightened back up, I turned to face the mirror head on.
With one hand, I reached out and lightly pressed my fingertips against my reflection’s. My fingers stopped at the cold, hard glass. It was cold enough that the warmth from my fingers fogged up a little area around each tip. My reflection had the tiniest of smiles playing around her lips. I didn’t feel myself smiling, but it was such a small one perhaps I didn’t notice myself doing it. I rearranged my face into grotesque poses just to make sure my reflection did it, too. She did, but it brought me little comfort. I took a step forward until my face was practically touching the mirror. I could see every pore, every freckle. It looked familiar but it felt alien. I breathed onto it, fogging the surface in front of my face. I slowly traced a heart into the fog. I saw my reflection do the same, but then I noticed something odd. I couldn’t see the heart I drew in the reflection. My heart began to thump wildly in my chest. I hastily used my sleeve to wipe away the remnants of my breath. The fog in the reflection, however, remained.
I sucked in a sharp breath of air and took a staggering step back. I pressed my palms into my eyelids until I saw stars. I slowly counted to ten and opened my eyes. All I could see was my reflection staring worriedly back at me. She looked pale and faint, exactly how I felt. But it still didn’t look or feel quite right.
I threw the sheet back over the mirror and ran out of the building. By the time I arrived home, I had calmed down significantly. Enough that I was suddenly able to remember that I had a date that night. I groaned out loud. I didn’t really want to go, but I actually did like this guy. We had already been on a few dates and had hit it off well. So I pulled myself together the best I could. By the time Nick arrived to pick me up, I had shaken off the vestiges of my earlier terror.
While at dinner, he asked me how my day had been. I hesitated, not wanting to tell him about what had happened, or about my irrational and odd reactions to mirrors. But I suddenly realized that I had a desperate desire to tell someone about what had happened, even if it made me sound crazy. I relayed the story to him, never once looking into his eyes. I didn’t want to see what I knew would be reflected there. Fear, anxiety, disgust. But when I finished and did look up, he was simply studying me. After a moment, he reached out and took my hand.
“You know what I read, once?” he asked. I shook my head silently.
“It was on one of those micro-blog, social media sites. It said, ‘What if the only reason we can’t walk through mirrors is because our reflection blocks us? What if they know that the other side is horrifying and painful and they are trying to keep us from ever crossing over?’” He shrugged. “Just a weird thing I read. But it sounds like yours isn’t trying to protect you, it’s trying to get out of there,” he said with a laugh. “Wouldn’t that be something? That would explain why you feel like you do!”
I sat in stunned silence. My throat was as dry as the desert. I had to forcefully swallow several times before I could speak again. “Yeah, that would be something.”
My mind was racing with what he had said as we left the restaurant. His little “theory” perfectly described how I felt, but I didn’t know what to do with that information. It was nonsense, after all.
I wanted only to go home at that point, but Nick grabbed my hand. “I actually have something in mind for us to do tonight. But it’s a surprise!”
I sighed internally, but smiled at him. “Sure. Lead the way.”
We caught a cab and got out in front of what looked like an old abandoned warehouse. I might have thought that’s what it was, too, if it wasn’t for the line of people out the door.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s an adventure space!” he said with a huge smile. “Kind of like a playhouse for grownups! I’ve seen it advertised all over the place. There’s supposed to be things to explore and climb on. Stuff like that!”
I couldn’t help but smile at his infectious excitement. “Ok. Let’s check it out,” I said with a giggle.
The first few rooms were indeed a lot of climbing and twisting and bending and crawling. We kept losing each other and then finding each other by the sound of our laughter. I was surprised at how much fun I was having.
He grabbed my hand as we moved towards the last room. “I think you’ll like this one the best!” he said, pulling me forward.
I was about to ask “why,”, but the word died on my lips as we walked through the doorway. It was a room full of mirrors. A much larger and more terrifying version of a funhouse made for children. He shoved me further into the room so that the door behind us slammed shut.
“To help you get over your fear,” he said with another shove.
Never before had I felt the level of fear that rose in my chest than at that moment. It was all-consuming. It wiped nearly every other thought from my mind. I was facing down hundreds of my own reflection, and they looked horrifying. I turned to Nick to beg him to help me out of there, but he had disappeared.
“Nick?” I croaked, my voice cracking with terror. “Nick!” I screamed. I heard him laughing as he shouted, “This way!”
I stumbled forward, hands outstretched, unable to tell which way was correct. Tears began pouring out of my eyes as I struggled to breathe under the weight of my panic. Every direction I looked was a reflection of myself, each one looking more ominous than the last.
I turned a corner and saw hundreds of reflections of the back of my head, all lined up in a row. I was paralyzed with fear.
I closed my eyes and took a few shuttering, deep breaths. “Nick?” I called out again. This time, I got no answer. I knew to get out I was going to have to open my eyes. There was no way I was making it out of there blind. I opened my eyes and was greeted with the same sight I had seen when I had closed them. I exhaled loudly, a tiny wave of relief hit me. I heard a noise to my right and turned my head that way. “Nick?” I asked again. When I looked forward again, all of my reflections were facing away from me…all except the one in front. She was facing me with a horrible grin plastered onto her face.
She beckoned for me. As if in a trance, I could only shake my head. When I didn’t move forward, her grin turned into a snarl and she began slamming her fists against the glass. I let out a bloodcurdling scream as I saw my vision go spotty. I stepped back in such a panic that I smashed into the mirror behind me. I felt a sharp pain in the back of my head as a shower of glass rained down around me.
I’m certain I passed out for a moment, both from pain and fear. When I came to, I could feel something warm and sticky dripping down my back. I reached up my hand and it came away bloody.
“Fuck,” I moaned. I could faintly hear Nick yelling for me. I dragged myself up into a sitting position, wincing as my hands and legs got further cut up from the glass.
Across the room, I could see Nick, and hundreds of Nick’s reflections, kneeling down in front of me. I closed and rubbed my eyes, shaking my head in the process. How could Nick be with my reflection when he wasn’t here with me?
“I must have hit my head harder than I thought,” I thought to myself.
I could hear him talking, but it sounded muted and far away. I heard the word “help” but not much more. He stood up and sprinted for the door.
I couldn’t tell if he was coming back or not, and as it seemed like I could get up and walk, I decided to try. I was still anxious to get out of this hall of horrors. I finally made it to the exit door. It had become extremely foggy and unseasonably cold while we were inside. The air had a terrible metallic tang to it that filled my nose and mouth. I shivered in the wind that whipped brutally around me. As I glanced around, I realized that I didn’t see anyone else nearby. No people, no cars, nothing. Grimacing, I whipped out my phone to call for an ambulance myself, but the battery was dead.
“Come on!” I yelled in frustration. I slowly started hobbling towards the road. I figured I could at least catch a cab. But there was no one on the road, either. I began to cry again. What a nightmare this night turned out to be. I staggered home, alone and freezing.
When I got back inside, I plugged my phone in. I needed to let someone know that I was hurt and where I ended up. When the phone powered on, a barrage of texts came in, mostly from Nick. But they were all jumbled up. A random mix of letters, numbers, and symbols. I couldn’t make heads or tails of any of it. I tried to send a text back, but it refused to send. I couldn’t even get a signal to make a call. Panic, bitter like bile, threatened to rise up again, but I fought it off. I would deal with the shoddy cell service later. For now I needed to take care of myself.
Once I started to clean myself up, I quickly realized that most of my cuts were shallow or superficial. I was able to get the glass out and get everything cleaned up on my own. Well, every piece except one. I could feel one near the top of my head that I just couldn’t get a good grip on. I closed my eyes and let out a deep breath. I was going to need to use the mirror.
I hobbled into the guest room and slowly pulled away the sheet. Before, there had been nothing more frightening than seeing my reflection in the mirror. But that night, I realized there was one thing more terrifying than seeing my reflection in the mirror. Not seeing it at all.
Credit: N. Christ