Gallery wall of antique mirrors
Credit: Photo: Sarah Crowley; Prop Styling: Liv Melchers

Yes, Mirrors are Unsettling and Creepy. Here’s How to Unlearn the Association (Or At Least Work Around It)

updated Oct 23, 2020
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If you’ve ever muttered “Bloody Mary” into a mirror at a slumber party, or fretted about suffering seven years of bad luck after breaking one, you know there’s something creepy about a looking glass. And as commonplace as mirrors are in everyday life, it’s hard to shake the feeling.

Experts say we largely have pop culture associations to thank for those superstitions and unsettling emotions. Even if you’re not a horror aficionado, you’ve probably encountered the mirror as a plot device in a movie or TV show, from the “Mirror, Mirror” scene in “Snow White” to the classic thriller trope of a villain lingering in a shadowy corner, waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting protagonist looking in the mirror. But you may be surprised to learn that the creepy factor around mirrors far predates your Netflix queue. 

Kendall Phillips, Ph.D, a professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University who researches pop culture and popular film, traces unsettling feelings about mirrors all the way back to ancient folklore and mythology, when it was common for people to perceive mirrors or other reflective surfaces as mystical and even cultish. For many decades, he says, Italians protected the secret of how they made mirrors, and ancient seers used mirrors to predict the future. There are also death associations with mirrors: Some cultures cover up mirrors after a death to ensure their loved one makes it to the afterlife.

Phillips thinks it’s the mirror’s nature that’s made it a mainstay in our beliefs. “The creepiness is probably tied to the way in which a mirror creates a duplicate world—when you look in a mirror, you’re always seeing something that’s not actually there,” he says. 

Credit: Photo: Sarah Crowley; Prop Styling: Liv Melchers

Filmmakers leveraged these associations as early as the early twentieth century. Phillips, who recently wrote a book about horror and cinema, says one of the first examples of the mirror-villain trope in pop culture appeared in a 1910 film called “The Haunted House.” “Mirrors are an interesting technique to see the scary thing before characters do,” Phillips says. “If you think about film or TV, it is kind of like a mirror in that we’re seeing images that look real but are not real—so the mirror on a screen is kind of a mirroring of our viewing experience.”

The mirror scare has stuck around, showing up as a plot device in everything from Disney movies and modern-day blockbusters to carnival fun houses and sleepovers. And for some people, that unsettling, creepy feeling around mirrors works its way into the modern home. 

How to Cope With Mild Mirror-Phobia

For people without full-blown, diagnosed phobias (spectrophobia, or catoptrophobia), staving off those uncomfortable emotions could start with unlearning unhelpful perspectives about mirrors. Grace Dowd, a therapist in Austin, TX, says the first step is to simply identify your uneasiness. Yes, say it out loud: “Mirrors creep me out.” 

Now that you’ve admitted your mirror fear, you can try to trace back to where your creepy association comes from. Did you have a scary Bloody Mary moment in fourth grade that stuck with you? Does a scene from a horror movie you watched in college feel stuck in your brain on replay? Do your best to pinpoint exactly what it is about mirrors that makes you feel squirmy, or what you’re subconsciously expecting to happen when you pass or look in a mirror.

Credit: Photo: Sarah Crowley; Prop Styling: Liv Melchers

The next step, Dowd says, is to talk yourself through it. Start with a tried-and-true cognitive behavioral therapy practice: Challenge the belief that mirrors are scary or dangerous. Use your past experience to shape your future perspective. Have you ever had seven years of bad luck after breaking a mirror? Has a killer ever snuck up behind you while you’re doing your makeup? The answer to these questions (probably, “no”) will help change how your brain perceives mirrors.

“It’s important to evaluate how likely your spooky scenario is to happen,” Dowd says. “Then, remind yourself that you’re safe when you look in a mirror so your brain can begin to realize mirrors don’t equal danger—like a mantra that reinforces the feeling of safety.”

Maybe, when you walk by a mirror and notice your heart rate speed up, you can tell yourself “Bloody Mary is just a game someone made up” or “That image I’m imagining is just from a movie.” Either way, aim to tell yourself a new story about what’s scaring you. After a while, you’ll start to believe a different narrative.

Self-talk is important, but experience—yes, in front of a mirror—is probably the most crucial ingredient. Natalie Dattilo, Ph.D, a psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, likens unlearning mirror fears to exposure therapy—which means it’s not only important to not avoid mirrors, but to actually put yourself in the way of mirrors from time to time. Don’t worry: You don’t have to stand in front of one for minutes on end or strategically place one in constant sight. But to train your brain how to think differently about them, you need to expose yourself to those uncomfortable mirror feelings.

“Gradually exposing people to situations they’re afraid of allows the brain to learn new information about the situation and themselves and their ability to cope with it,” Dattilo says. “Over time, you’ll realize the experience isn’t nearly as bad as you thought—it’s like giving yourself a chance to prove yourself wrong.”

Credit: Photo: Sarah Crowley; Prop Styling: Liv Melchers

How to Minimize Mirrors Within Your Apartment

While you re-introduce yourself to your least favorite home accessory—or if you’re not ready for a full-on exposure at the moment—you can minimize the creepy factor. Sarah Barnard, a California-based interior designer, says while mirrors are somewhat essential for maintaining personal health, they don’t have to be a prominent fixture in your home. “When clients report that mirrors spark anxiety, I encourage minimizing them and other highly reflective surfaces to support individual mental, emotional, and sensory wellbeing,” she says.

Barnard recommends having at least one full-length mirror, a mirror above your bathroom sink, and perhaps a mirror in the entryway for final glances when leaving home. When you’re installing mirrors, be strategic. You may not be able to avoid your bathroom mirror, but you can keep your full-length inside a closet door so it’s out of sight unless you’re using it. And try placing entryway mirrors in a narrow space that reflects little more than the wall behind you—the limited visual information can help to prevent the eye from projecting spooky visages onto shadowy corners.

If you live in a rental, you may not have as much autonomy—but a bit of creativity can stave off uneasy feelings. Barnard says heavy draperies or textile art can attractively keep built-in mirrors out of sight, with the added benefit of sound absorption for improved acoustics. 

You can also surround potentially creepy mirrors with mood-boosting plants or place a soothing piece of art in the mirror’s reflection—Barnard suggests a beloved painting or a personal family photo for the comforting nostalgia factor—to transform the experience of walking by or looking into a mirror. If the mirror has a shelf, deck it out with little succulents or cheery, fresh flowers in a small vase.

Either way: The goal is to shift your mindset about mirrors by changing your experience with them. As your brain starts to re-associate mirrors with positive traits like beauty and nostalgia, you probably won’t be so creeped out. The change might not happen overnight, but hey—at least you get to experiment with your aesthetic in your personal growth process.