Shadows, Reflections, Mirrors and Vampires

Like having fangs, transforming into bats, or turning to dust in the rays of the sun, not showing up in mirrors is a trait of the vampire that most people take as gospel. Whether it’s Bela Lugosi slapping a the small, mirrored-lid cigarette box out of Van Helsing’s hands in Universal’s DRACULA (1931), or the Count casting no reflection in an enormous ballroom mirror — in both DRACULA: DEAD AND LOVING IT (1995) and VAN HELSING (2004) — pop culture has cemented the belief / trope that vampires just don’t show up in mirrors.

First edition of Dracula, 1897
Dracula, by Bram Stoker. First Edition cloth cover, 1897. From British Literary Board (public domain photo).

The publication of DRACULA in 1897 is perhaps the best and first known instance of a vampire not appearing in a mirror. It occurs early on, in Chapter 2, on the 8th of May, when Jonathan Harker doesn’t see Dracula’s reflection in his shaving mirror. No vampire of folklore ever seemed to have this problem. Various creatures over many cultures and centuries appeared from and disappeared to the shadows, but none had particular issue with a looking glass. Until Dracula.

NO LITERARY PRECEDENT

Lord Byron, the infamous poet on whom his personal physician John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven — arguably, the first true literary vampire — was based curiously had no mirrors in his residence on the isle of Lesbos (see “Extract Of A Letter, Containing An Account Of Lord Byron’s Residence In The Island Of Mitylene,” published along with THE VAMPYRE in 1819). But this was Byron, and one residence otherwise sparsely furnished. And despite what his physician may have thought, Byron was no vampire (OK, maybe a psychic one).

There’s no mention of mirrors or reflections in VARNEY THE VAMPIRE (pubished as “penny dreadfulls” 1845-1847). Neither does Le Fanu Carmilla seem to have a problem with them (1872). They are stealthy, shadowy figures, but reflections aren’t a problem.

There’s an interesting us of shadows in Alexander Dumas’ “Vampire of the Carpathian Mountains” (also known as “The Pale Lady”) — a short story from 1848 that is easily overlooked by fans (and critics) of Gothic tales. This last section of his collected THE THOUSAND AND ONE GHOSTS (1849), does include a vampire, but one that oddly shows ONLY its shadow.

Nosferatu casts shadow
Nosferatu’s Count Orlok cast a shadow. And eagle-eyed watchers of the 1922 film have spotted him reflected in a mirror during his death scene.

Upon Hedwig, the narrator’s encounter with the vampire of Dumas’ tale, she writes: “Je regardai dans la direction de sa main, et je vis en effet l’ombre d’un cheval et d’un cavalier. Mais je cherchai inutilement les corps auxquels les ombres appartenaient,” which translates as “I looked in the direction of his hand, and I did indeed see the shadow of a horse and rider. But I searched in vain for the bodies to which the shadows belonged.”

A shadow is cast. But no figure is seen. And still, no mirror.

None before Stoker.

Not in Uriah Derick D’Arcy’s BLACK VAMPYRE: A LEGEND OF ST. DOMINGO (1819). Nor in Ernst Raupach’s WAKE NOT THE DEAD (1823). Not the case with the wurdulak of Alexander Pushin’s MARKO YACUBOVICH (1835). Nor in THE FAMILY OF THE VOURDALAK from Tolstoy (1839). Throw in the aforementioned Varney and Carmilla, and you find nary an undead figure with a problem with mirrors.

MIRRORS, SILVER, AND SHADOWS

One wonders, then, where Stoker got the idea from? And like much of the supernatural in DRACULA, some find that the answer lies in folklore and superstition. The Japanese Kitsune, for example, shun mirrors as they fear being exposed by their reflections. But it’s almost certain that Kitsune were not something known to Stoker. They show up nowhere in his notes for the novel or other writings.

Victorian Covered Mirror
In the late 19th century, mirrors were often covered at funerals (and a window left open) so the soul of the deceased would not be trapped.

There was a beliefs among many Christian and some spiritualists of the time (of which Stoker was ostensibly one, having been a member of the Society for Psychical Research) that mirrors captured souls and/or acted as portals to other worlds. Why else cover them at funerals? Fear of the spirits of the recently dead getting trapped in a mirror would certainly put a damper on getting to the promised after-life. But the undead? What would they care? They are already dead. And their spirits don’t get sucked in by mirrors so much as their corporeal bodies simply do not show.

Others have posited a theory that silver backed (and silver-gilt) mirrors of the day may be the reason vampires are repelled by the “foul bauble of man’s vanity” (as Dracula puts it). But nowhere else in Stoker’s novel are vampires afraid of silver. There’s a silver-plated brass candle-holder Van Helsing takes with him to Lucy’s grave. But it’s just the better to see her with. There’s a silver whistle, but it’s for Van Helsing to scare aware rats. And yes, while there’s a silver crucifix among the weapons the heroes take into battle at the end of the novel, it’s the crucifix, and not the silver, that seems to work on vampires. The silver itself is never explicitly mentioned as having any power. In folklore, though, silver is associated with the moon and as having purifying qualities, so perhaps it can kill a supernatural creature? The Brother Grimm did have a silver bullet kill a witch in one of their tales (“The Two Brothers” [1812]). And it was reputed that the eighteenth century Beast of Gévaudan was felled by a silver bullet. But, as it turns out, this was an addition made by an author writing in 1946 (Henri Pourrat’s Histoire fidèle de la bête en Gévauda). That’s four years after Universal’s THE WOLF MAN, where screenwriter Curt Siodmak invented the notion that silver kills werewolves.

Why then does Stoker have Dracula not show up in a mirror?

Plain and simple: having Dracula not appear in Harker’s shaving mirror is a great plot device.

There are many ways Stoker could have introduced Dracula as a vampire lusting after blood. And many ways that Harker could have been startled by the vampire’s presence in his room in Dracula’s castle. But the mirror provides the author with a way to dramatically shock Harker, and the reader, with Dracula’s ability to move stealthily, and strike, should he choose — without setting off (at least two) normal human sensory means of detection.

FROM STOKER’S PEN

Here is the whole passage:

I started, for it amazed me that I had not seen him, since the reflection of the glass covered the whole room behind me. In starting I had cut myself slightly, but did not notice it at the moment. Having answered the Count’s salutation, I turned to the glass again to see how I had been mistaken. 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! The whole room behind me was displayed; but there was no sign of a man in it, except myself. This was startling, and, coming on the top of so many strange things, was beginning to increase that vague feeling of uneasiness which I always have when the Count is near; but at the instant I saw that the cut had bled a little, and the blood was trickling over my chin. I laid down the razor, turning as I did so half round to look for some sticking plaster. When the Count saw my face, his eyes blazed with a sort of demoniac fury, and he suddenly made a grab at my throat. I drew away, and his hand touched the string of beads which held the crucifix. It made an instant change in him, for the fury passed so quickly that I could hardly believe that it was ever there.

“Take care,” he said, “take care how you cut yourself. It is more dangerous than you think in this country.” Then seizing the shaving glass, he went on: “And this is the wretched thing that has done the mischief. It is a foul bauble of man’s vanity. Away with it!” and opening the heavy window with one wrench of his terrible hand, he flung out the glass, which was shattered into a thousand pieces on the stones of the courtyard far below. Then he withdrew without a word. It is very annoying, for I do not see how I am to shave, unless in my watch-case or the bottom of the shaving-pot, which is fortunately of metal.

And that’s the world’s introduction to a vampire not showing in a mirror. If anyone could show a literary or folkloric precedent, it would have been put forth in the 125+ years since the novel’s publication as critics and scholars have painstakenly poured over every aspect of the work and the vampire of folklore that inspired it for at least fifty years (there was a time when studying vampires in the halls of academia was scoffed at).

FUN WITH THE TROPE

In his seminal vampire novel I AM LEGEND (1954), Richard Matheson counts not appearing in mirror among aspects of vampires that even those infected with the “vampire plague,” themselves believe because of peopular culture. But they do. Cast reflections, that is. As do Anne Rice’s vampires, Nosferatu, even the vampires of the Twilight books and movies.

Why? Because writers and filmmakers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have fun playing with the trope. It makes vampire more flesh and blood, so to speak, to show up like the rest of us do in mirrors. All the better, they can admire how they haven’t aged if they can see their reflection, and who among us would at least hope that immortality comes with forever looking good to one’s self. Personally, I hate mirrors.

In the end, it’s clear that some aspects of vampire lore were picked up by Stoker to play to an audience familiar with tropes and lore. Others simply served his story, and oddly, retroactively, became associated with the undead as a given. Something ancient. Something born of old Translyvanian beliefs. But even then, it might surprise some to know that that the inventive Irishman behind DRACULA never set foot in Transylvania, and originally thought of setting his novel in Styria (in southeast Austria).

But that’s a blog entry for another time.

Dinner and a Murder: Death at Thanksgiving

THANKSGIVING (2023), official movie poster
THANKSGIVING (2023), official movie poster

Now that Eli Roth’s THANKSGIVING has been released to theaters, fans of blood, splatter, and gore can now celebrate that pretty much every holiday on the calendar has now been the subject of a horror movie*. While Christmas may hold the record for most holiday-themed horror films (with a whole sub-genre dedicated just to Santa Claus), eponymous holiday entries like MOTHER’S DAY (1980), APRIL FOOL’S DAY (1986), FATHER’S DAY (2011) and, of course, HALLOWEEN (1978), are just a few of the many (mostly slasher) movies that come to mind. But what about the real-world horrors that have happened on Thanksgiving? Does the gathering of family and friends set off something violent and horrible in some people?

One report from 2018 showed incidents of domestic abuse in Los Angeles were up on Turkey Day. Albuquerque recently saw a rise in domestic violence, too, as evidence in this 2022 article. Some point to stress during — and unrealistic expectations of — the holidays as possible reasons for an increase in violent behavior. Even seasonal affective disorder might play a role, or so says ABC News, citing SAD and all other aforementioned reasons why the holiday season is a tough time for families.

Some worse than others.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Take the case of Ayalis Clay Oliver, 76, of El Paso, Texas, and the anger he felt toward his son Keith Oliver, 49, over the younger man’s refusal to help out around the house on Thanksgiving Day 2009. A .357-caliber revolver settled their argument, with father shooting son to death.

Also in 2009? Di riguer “Florida Man” Paul Michael Merhige killed four of his relatives in a Thanksgiving Day shooting rampage after he finished his dinner, left, and returned with a handgun. It was a premeditated murder twenty years in the making. Why he chose Thanksgiving Day for the atrocity is a bit of a mystery, but it is suspected that the gathering of family (albeit different locations for some), afforded Merhige the opportunity to commit his mass atrocity.

Then there’s the unique case of Omaima Nelson, the Egyptian model who killed, castrated and ate her husband on Thanksgiving Day in 1991. In Orange County, California, the unassuming Omaima repeatedly plunged a pair of scissors into the chest and stomach of Bill Nelson, her husband. Then she pummeled him to death with an iron. Why? She claimed Bill had subjected her to horrible sexual acts — including forcing her to have sex with other men for Bill’s personal gain (including a new car!). When Bill died, Omaima butchered his body in the kitchen. She boiled his hands in oil to remove fingerprints, and stuck his head in the freezer so she could later more easily pull out his teeth. Fittingly, Omaima castrated her husband, as well. She cooked and ate pieces of him for dinner.

VULNERABILITIES

Writing in The Huffington Post’s “Psychologists Explain How To Deal With The Nightmare That Is Thanksgiving Dinner,” journalist Kristen Aiken argues that “Every Thanksgiving…your kitchen can become a microcosm of your deepest insecurities.” Though the rest of her article is essentially advice for dealing with holiday stress, it is curious to note that the paragraph which contains the quote above ends with the almost menacing “Thanksgiving has the uncanny ability to zero in on your vulnerabilities and hammer away at them with brute force.”

Does it come down to vulnerabilities? It is curious to note that the word vulnerability is derived from the Latin noun vulnus (“wound”). The Latin verb vulnerare? Means “to wound.” And in this light, the aforementioned quoted from The Huffington Post takes on an even more sinister tone. Vulnerabilities are wounds that leave us open to emotional AND physical damage.

For many the emotional damage comes down like a hammer at the dinner table. Insecurities about the meal, years of unresolved issues coming to the fore, annoyances of character and personality, or familial tensions over past fights, slights, or differences of opinion. Very few people let the stress of these vulnerabilities get to them beyond the need for a valium or a trip outside for a clandestine cigarette. Some, however, seem to snap. The result of a deep-seeded trauma, a long-standing grudge, a diabolical premeditation, or even a blink-of-an-eye reaction to something as mundane as doing the dishes, violence at Thanksgiving is real. The wounds are deadly.

And despite what movies like THANKSGIVING may have you think, it’s not the mask-wearing serial killer that you have to fear this time of year. It’s the person sitting next to you at the table.

Or the one in your own seat.

Technically, THANKSKILLING is the first movie with dedicated death on the Thanksgiving holiday, but it was released direct to video in 2009, and not to theaters (what was it with the year 2009????). And Eli Roth’s own mock trailer for Thanksgiving in GINDHOUSE (2007) — the inspiration for his 2023 release — certainly counts.

By Christopher Michael Davis