The Stranger in the Mirror

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stranger-in-the-mirror

When I saw my face falling off in the mirror, it was inevitable that I would turn it into a story. How can I not write something inspired by that? It was alarming!

It was shifting even as I watched it, like I was viewing it through clear slow-moving water. Features slipped and reasserted, but something about my face didn’t look right. I maintained eye contact with it, and was startled when it unexpectedly turned in an older man with a low brow and sharp cheekbones…and who looked very angry indeed.

I wasn’t high on drugs, possessed by a demon, or suffering from an overachieving imagination. The ‘strange-face’ phenomenon is an optical illusion. Italian psychologist Giovanni Caputo examined it in an experiment, publishing in the scholarly journal Perception in July 2010 (‘Strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion’; volume 39, pages 1007–1008).

In Caputo’s experiment, fifty participants gazed into their reflection in low light. (This allows detailed perception of features, but reduces colour perception.) What they saw varied—most seeing a deformation of their own face, while others reported seeing a relative, a stranger, or even a monster—but all fifty participants experienced dissociative identity effects of some kind after less than a minute, reporting feelings of separation from the figure in the mirror; that the person in the mirror wasn’t really them.

Neuroscientists Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik suggest this illusion happens by neural adaptation—our neurons slow or stop their responses to unchanging stimuli. Stare at anything for an extended period of time, and your perception will start to fade—until you blink, or the scene changes, or it’s reasserted by small involuntary eye movements (microsaccades).

The rationale took a good measure of thrill out of the whole experience, but the thought of my hallucination stayed with me. I had to make a story out of this idea! It was an easy topic for a horror!

And there was my problem.

I loathe horrors. Not because I find them scary, but because I find them tacky and stupid. Horror is cheap, flavourless pointlessness. An excuse to get drunk on adrenalin. Whereas a thriller takes a legitimate insecurity—something immaterial—magnifies it, and shines a monstrous indiscreet light on it. And the terrifyingly real is much scarier than the fanciful fake.

As such, I’ve never written a horror story, that I recall.

But sometimes the line blurs, when a thrill can cross into something horrific. What then? Maybe a Horror can sometimes just be the concept of a Thriller taken to an extreme. A metaphor made material. The genres run so closely anyway, when they fraternise it’s easy to not notice.

But this strange-face phenomenon seemed so appropriate for a horror story! I had to try it! My own experiment. Though, I was sure, making something for the foreign genre of Horror was bound to feel like I was playing the piano with ice cubes strapped to my fingertips.

And it did. The words slid all over the page; an incompetent discordant mess. Draft One was crap. So I re-wrote it, but changed narration to the present tense to heighten suspense, and listened to spooky music on Spotify while I wrote. Because music always influences my writing. (Which is why I then edited in silence.)

The good thing about a horrific first attempt at a new genre, is that with practice—if I’m so inclined to try again—there’s nowhere for skill to go but up.

[Read ‘The Stranger in the Mirror’ story posted here—at this site’s Creative Writing page.]

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(6) Comments

  • Deborah Makarios
    11 Nov 2016

    Have you read ‘The Man in the Passage’ by G.K. Chesterton? It’s one of the Father Brown stories.

    • Eve
      11 Nov 2016

      Never heard of that one, or of Father Brown. Is it a similar flavour?

      • Deborah Makarios
        12 Nov 2016

        The link is the strange-face element, or something like it (and I hope that isn’t too much of a spoiler). It’s a crime story, but by no means a horror/thriller one. Tonally very unlike yours, but worth tasting to see if you like them, I’d say.

  • Deborah Makarios
    14 Nov 2016

    How have you weathered the earthquake? Did you have to evacuate?

    • Eve
      14 Nov 2016

      Not us, but two of my sisters did, as they’re more coastal. They spent much of the night parked up a hill with a fire engine and much of the surrounding population, by the sounds of it. Meanwhile, only one of my children woke up, and Husband and I hunkered in doorways—I was torn between staying there, or running to my kids in case it got worse. (So we can get maimed or die together, I guess.) I’m paranoid about Hawkes Bay being due for another killer, a la 1931.

      • Deborah Makarios
        14 Nov 2016

        Don’t worry, I think Wellington’s ahead of Hawke’s Bay in the (over)due-for-a-killer queue.
        I fled the house as soon as the first quake stopped, went back in after about an hour, and then stayed awake til dawn, listening to the radio. (Air-raid siren over back fence at 3am did not help with recovering of calm.)
        People say doorways aren’t that safe, but being in the doorway meant I wasn’t under the bookshelf that landed on my side of the bed, so I am still firmly pro-doorway. I think it’s partly a matter of how long ago your house was built and if they still believed in strong lintels back then.

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