Catoptrophobia. That's what I had. A genuine fear of mirrors. Trust me, it sucked. It wasn't that whenever I saw a mirror I ran screaming in the opposite direction, my phobia was a slightly more subtle than that. For example, if I was alone in my room and I turned away from the mirror on my wall, I could not look at it again, the thought of doing so was so terrifying that it was almost paralysing.
But, I didn't always have this fear, unlike my fear of spiders and injections. My fear of mirrors developed in my early teens, shortly before I turned fourteen, under slightly more unusual circumstances than the possible reasons that various websites and books will give you.
When I was fourteen, my parents had treated me to a redecorated room and I leapt at the chance to be rid of the colour combination that seven-year-old me had decided on.
The walls were repainted to a pale blue. The furniture was mostly the same; wooden bunk bed and wardrobe. My sofa bed had been replaced with a desk that matched the wood of the other furniture and there was a new mirror hanging on the wall. I didn't like the desk because I loved my sofa bed, there were so many memories of sleepovers and games like hide and seek linked to it and when I was little and too scared of the shadows on my bunk I would simply not climb it and sleep on the sofa bed instead, with the cat curled up next to me.
I liked the mirror though. My original mirror was going into my little brother's room but I didn't have any particular attachment to it. I'd rather he had taken the sofa bed so it wouldn't have had to have been thrown away.
The desk was new and from IKEA but the mirror had been bought at a very reasonable price in a charity shop. I remember walking into the shop, initially looking for a cheap TV. But then I saw the mirror, hanging on the far end of the big, well lit room, and all thoughts of a TV were forgotten. I bought the mirror without a moment's hesitation, it was beautiful and I knew instantly that I wanted it. It was an oval shape and pretty old, maybe from Victorian times, or possibly even earlier. The metal frame holding the polished glass was a dark gold, smelted into the shapes of beautifully woven vines and flowers. The mirror glass itself was bright and shining, without a single smudge or mark. I hung it up very happily that same day, and the moment I saw the reflection of my new, sky blue, fancy, grown up room, it somehow felt complete.
I was proud of my new room, it made me feel grown up, the last of my stuffed toys had gone to cousins and the cutesy pink colour scheme was replaced with a calm blue. I admit to being a pretty arrogant teen but come on, a new bedroom is something exciting especially if it doesn't happen often.
Pretty much immediately after my room was redone, the half term holidays began. This meant that for the majority of the following week I was out with friends and usually we would all spend the night at someone else's house to the extent that throughout that half term I spent a total of two nights in my own home and one of those was in the living room because we couldn't all fit into my bedroom. The second night that I spent at home, was the last one before school started again. I was exhausted from all the nights of staying awake at least until the Sun came up and so I had gone to bed much earlier than normal. But despite my sleep deprivation, actually going to sleep was beyond me. I tossed and turned before sneaking into my brother's room and borrowing his iPod and eventually falling asleep listening to the playlist I had put on there made up of my own music.
That was the night I had the first nightmare. Although I was scared of a pretty wide variety of things, especially as a child, nightmares were not common, occasionally I would lucid dream and my vivid imagination would turn that dream into something twisted and scary but genuine nightmares were rare.
I was in my room facing my mirror, I can't remember what exactly I was doing, maybe brushing my hair, putting on make up, something along those lines. Something where I had to look very closely at the mirror and stand close to it, blocking out the view of what was behind me.
I then dropped whatever I was holding, bent down to pick it up, straightened, looked back at the mirror and froze as I noticed the girl standing behind me.
She was young, maybe eight or nine years old, with shiny, dark hair that fell just past her shoulder blades in loose waves. She was wearing a white lace dress, embroidered with little flowers and her skin was so pale that it nearly matched the dress. Her features were delicate, small nose, thin pink lips that were twisted into a shy smile. I couldn't see her eyes though. They were covered by a black, stained blindfold. A trickle of red dripped from the dark material onto the girl's snow white skin, creeping down her cheek like a tear. She smiled.
I woke up in a cold sweat, breathing hard and fast, filled with a terrible sense of dread. The funny thing about dreams is that you sometimes know things that you had no way of knowing, like when you're in a big house and you know exactly where to go and which doors lead to which rooms, even though you've never seen the house before in your life.
Well in this dream I also knew something I had no way of knowing. A terrible certainty that if that blindfold ever came off, if I ever saw that little girl's eyes, I would be dead.
I got up and got dressed without glancing at the mirror once. I darted out of my room as quickly as I could, deciding against wearing make up that day. The idea of standing in front of a mirror and staring directly at it, just like in my nightmare, was not exactly appealing. I stayed quiet throughout most of the school day before deciding on going home at lunchtime, feigning sickness. I wouldn't be able to focus on any of the lessons anyway.
Mum came to pick me up, looking concerned at the dark shadows under my eyes and the fact that I fell asleep in the car. I slept for the entire afternoon eventually waking up when my dad and brother came home. I joined them for dinner, finished my homework and then curled up with my parents to watch a film after my brother had gone to bed. It was a horror film; The Conjuring. I couldn't take it and quickly lied, saying that my headache had come back before rushing to the safety of my room and bed. I was shaking. I had seen the film before and it hadn't really scared me, horror films and stories had never really bothered me despite my many childhood fears. I regularly read horror stories that people posted online, played horror games and would stay up late to watch films with my parents and friends.
It wasn't the witch who hung herself who scared me, or the Annabelle doll, or the maid who does that horrible jump-scare. It was the little boy in the mirror who made my blood run cold, who made me start to tremble and fear turning around because of what I might see.
I crawled into my bed and lay there, under the blankets, shaking. The mirror was opposite my bed.
I stayed awake for what seemed like hours, staring at the mirror, not daring to close my eyes and fearing every blink, until, finally, sleep claimed me.
I had the same dream as the night before. I dropped something, picked it up, little girl behind me, fear, blindfold, drop of red on white, smile and—wake up in a cold sweat. The only difference was that this time, her blindfold was loose, partially slipping off her face, to the extent that I could just catch a glimpse of long, dark eyelashes.
I gasped for breath and buried my face in my hands trying not to cry. I didn't want my family to see me like this, it would just provoke questions and sympathy that I didn't want to deal with right now. I didn't like it when my family tried to get involved with my problems, I don't know why, it just made me angry whenever they did it and they just seemed to get in the way when I tried to fix things. Don't get me wrong, I loved them very much but, this was definitely among the many things that I did not want to share with them.
I lay awake for the rest of the night, too terrified to go to sleep in case I saw the girl and her eyes would be open. I didn't want to die. I'd heard somewhere that if you die in your dreams you die in real life too, I had never believed this, but now, I didn't want to find out.
Mum kept me home the next day. I had a fever and couldn't stop shaking and apparently I looked awful. I didn't want to look in the mirror to check.
I spent the day sleeping, during the day I could sleep just fine which was extremely helpful considering the fact that I still had to go to school, nightmares or not. This whole thing couldn't have happened in the holidays where I actually had the possibility of becoming nocturnal could it? I woke up at 4 PM and stumbled downstairs to get something to eat.
Mum had gone out to get new school shoes for my brother who was currently at a friend's house and Dad was working late. I curled up on the sofa with our cat, Phoebe, on my lap, a pot of chocolate and hazelnut ice cream in my hand and turned on my laptop.
“Fear... of... mirrors,” I mumbled around a spoonful of ice cream as I typed.
I frowned at the results. Why do phobias always have to have awkward names? “Cat-Catopapho-no-Catoptrophobia, there we go,” I ignored the image results, honestly that's just cruel, and opened a site I had never heard of before since Wikipedia told me little besides possible causes and treatments. Apparently the fear of mirrors is ancient and can be traced back to man's fear of still waters. Before mirrors people saw their reflections in lakes and ponds as those were the only options. People genuinely believed that it was their “souls staring back at them”. Creepy. This created the idea that your soul could be separated from you before your death.
No way is that little girl my “soul”, that was a whole new level of horrifying that I didn't even want to consider. There are lots of myths, legends and folk laws around this idea of the soul being torn away from its body. Some African tribes avoided still water because they believed that their souls could be stolen by crocodiles and evil spirits who could eat, destroy or steal their reflections which were actually their souls. There are stories where if a person's reflection is disturbed then it meant they were doomed or would suffer an impending disaster. Babies weren't shown their reflections out of fear that it would kill them and the idea that a broken mirror brings seven years of bad luck still exists today.
Damn. Why did we create things that we're so scared of? If lakes and rivers were already scary, why create something that means you can see your reflection perfectly and constantly?
I switched off the computer and stroked Phoebe's tortoiseshell fur. She purred quietly and rubbed her head against my hand. I smiled as she curled up on my stomach and gradually we both fell asleep.
I'm standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom. She is behind me, standing on top of the washing basket so I can clearly see her in the mirror. Her blindfold is gone. But her eyes are closed. She has long dark eyelashes and her eyebrows are tilted upwards slightly, her small pink mouth twisted into a little smile. The picture of innocence. There's something weird about the way her eyelids fall, something odd that I can't put my finger on. Her eyelids twitch and her eyebrows twist into a small frown, the smile turning into a slight grimace. Her eyelids twitch again... and again... and then start to open.
I cried out as I felt a sharp pain in my chest, sitting up straight, gasping for air and certain that the little girl would be standing in front of me, eyes open, prepared to kill me. But it wasn't the girl in front of me, it was Phoebe, staring at me with unflinching green eyes, her fur all puffed up the way it was whenever a dog got too close. The skin on my chest was burning, I raised my hand to touch it and my fingers away bloody. There were two sets of deep cat scratches on my skin. Phoebe woke me up.
I held out my hand, clicking my tongue slightly and she hesitantly walked towards me, sniffed my hand and rubbed her head against it, purring again. I smiled and whispered, “Thank you."
For the next seven days I had the same dream, the girl would be standing behind me, her eyes would begin to open and Phoebe would wake me up. The little tortoiseshell cat slept on my stomach every night and rarely left my side when I while I was at home, she even tried to follow me to school once, we were halfway down the road when I realised she had snuck into the car and was hiding under my seat.
Both my parents found this highly amusing and suspected me of buying cat treats or sneaking food off the table for her (both of these things I had actually done on many occasions). We'd had Phoebe since I was two years old, I couldn't remember a time when she wasn't around and I absolutely loved her, the whole family did, but me especially, I basically grew up with her. Granted she was getting a bit old for a cat and she was grumpy and she dribbled a bit when she was dozing, especially if she's sitting on someone and she brought in dead worms because she couldn't catch birds or mice very well any more. But she was brave, usually tolerant of everything even my little brother, who had grasped the concept of “be gentle and quiet around animals or you'll scare them” pretty late... and she knew that I needed her.
The girl's face was getting more and more twisted in my dreams. Once I dreamt that her small mouth was twisted into a wide, manic grin, revealing sharp little teeth. Her tongue flicked over her teeth as her eyelids twitched and started to raise just as little razor claws sank into my skin, pulling me to reality.
She really, really scared me. I hate to admit it, but this small, eight year old girl scared the shit out of me. She would haunt my every thought, for my art project I drew the model looking into a mirror with something completely different reflected in the glass. For history I researched man's earliest fears and did a presentation on it (A* by the way) and my schoolbooks were filled with doodles of lace dresses and blindfolds. They must have looked so damn creepy when the teachers looked through my work now that I think about it.
In my dreams the only thing that really changed were the mirrors that I was looking into. There were a total of six mirrors in my house. One in my room, one in my parent's room, one in my brother's room, one in the bathroom, one in the hallway and one in the entrance hall. Don't ask me why we needed the last two, I think my parents just liked the way they looked, the way they “made the room feel bigger”. Most of the nightmares were located in my room but over that period of time, every mirror in my house was turned into something I should learn to fear. The symptoms of my phobia also became slightly more profound. My breathing would become shallow, my heart would pound at a rate that was far from normal, I would start shaking and sweating and once, when I saw a shadow flicker and move out of the corner of my eye in the bathroom mirror, it caused a full blown panic attack. Thankfully my parents weren't home. I still wasn't ready to share this with them, I don't think I ever will be. But Phoebe was there, by my side, she curled up against me her warm, soft, little body pressed tightly against mine, purring, comforting me as I sobbed and shook and gasped for breath.
The weekend came and went, I spent the days sleeping, saying that I was sick, and the nights I spent watching live-streams, playing video games, drawing, reading, doing homework, research on the most ridiculous and random of topics, writing stories, anything to distract me from the mirror.
Monday followed the same events as the previous week, I would go to sleep and Phoebe woke me up whenever she needed to, I would go to school, come home and immediately try to snatch some sleep while there was still daylight. I dreaded Winter, the days were already getting shorter, soon it would be dark before I even got home from school.
Tuesday though, Tuesday was a bad day. I stumbled into school, exhausted as usual, barely scraped through my classes, taking just enough notes that I would be able to catch up Friday and Saturday nights, my social life had long since disappeared, seriously who has the energy to deal with all that drama?
I got home and immediately noticed something was wrong, where was Phoebe? I asked Mum if she had seen her and she simply laughed and replied, “Are you sure you didn't leave her in school by accident?”
I laughed and agreed that was probably what happened, trying not to betray my internal panic, "Where the hell is she?!"
I didn't go to sleep as I normally did that afternoon, instead I searched the house and the surrounding streets. Where is my cat?!
My panic was rising and threatening to choke me, my imagination was conjuring up thought after thought of what could have happened to her, what would happen to me if she really was gone. "She's dead!" whispered a treacherous little voice in the back of my mind, "She's dead, you're never going to find her and you're going to be dead as well as soon as it gets dark!"
It actually was getting dark. I had spent the entire evening out looking for Phoebe. And I hadn't found her.
I walked home, numb initially but once I got in the door I burst into tears. Mum was at my side instantly, holding me close and whispering that it would be okay, that she was in a better place, that she had had a good life and all the usual stuff that kids are told when a beloved pet dies. But none of this was comforting to me. She had been there forever and I was lost without her, probably quite literally once I fell asleep.
My bedtime came and went, my parents were unusually understanding, especially considering that it was a school night, but they were sympathetic, they had loved Phoebe as well but knew how close the two of us had been. The phrase, “A dog is a man's best friend,” didn't apply to us. But as the evening wore on they finally insisted that I go to sleep, my cat vanishing wasn't a good enough excuse for me to miss school the next day, especially considering how many days I had already missed in the past week.
I walked to my room, subdued, I felt like a criminal walking to the gallows or execution block. My windows were open, I hadn't left them like that but my numbness meant that that didn't register for quite a while. I was about to pull the windows shut when something caught my eye. It was pretty alarming to see my wardrobe door wide open, with all the clothes strewn on the floor and a white lace dress embroidered with flowers and with a white, silk ribbon around the waist hanging inside. Oddly enough this dress looked like it would fit someone my size, but I didn't own any dresses, let alone a vintage looking, white lace one.
I had read enough horror stories that contained creepy things in wardrobes to just leave it be. Seeing as I couldn't exactly burn down my wardrobe I got the next best thing. Duct tape!
“I don't see why more people do this in horror films,” I muttered as I taped my wardrobe shut with so many layers of tape that you could barely see the wood any more. I stepped back, hands on hips, satisfied.
Then the grief hit me again, so hard that I doubled over, biting my lips to hide my sobs, my parents thought I was asleep and I wanted it to stay that way. Tears blurred my vision and I missed a step on the ladder to my bunk bed and cracked my chin on the wood. I hissed out a stream of curses and crawled into bed, ignoring the metallic taste of blood mingling with the mint from my toothpaste and the saltiness of my tears.
The moment I closed my eyes I was staring into a mirror. It was the mirror from my room but I wasn't in my room, or even in my house for that matter. I was standing in quite a small room, with dark wood panelling and old fashioned, Victorian-style furniture. There was a thick, soft, dark red carpet on the floor. It was then that I realised that my feet were bare, this was odd, normally in these dreams I was wearing whatever I had worn that day or a random outfit from my own wardrobe. But I wasn't this time, well technically I was, I was wearing the white lace dress. I felt small, cold hands touch the untied white ribbon around my waist, take hold of it and tie it into a bow, not too tight, not too loose, just right.
“It's okay, you'll manage,” a quiet voice whispered in my ear, “it's not so bad, I promise.”
I was no longer standing, I was sitting in an immensely comfortable armchair, in front of the mirror. Behind me was the little girl. Her blindfold was off and I finally saw her eyes for the first time. Or rather, her lack of eyes. Instead of eyeballs, I saw two gaping sockets, weeping blood, red on white.
She smiled and ran a brush through my long, dark blonde hair, which hung open and fell over my shoulders down my back.
“You have such soft hair, I bet it's really pretty!” she grinned, looking delighted as she plaited a single small strand that fell over my face.
“Why am I here?” I asked, my voice hoarse and irritatingly frightened.
The girl's smile faded and she took my sweating hand in her cold one. “I can't take it any more!” she whispered, her voice was nearly as hoarse as mine.
She pulled away and walked out of my line of vision, I couldn't move, though I was desperately trying to turn around to see where she had gone.
I heard the distinct, awful sound of metal on metal, like when someone with rings on their fingers runs their hand along a metal banister. I strained to move, to run away, but I couldn't.
The little girl walked back into my view with a silver implement in each hand, a combination of ice cream scoop and dinner spoon. The ends of both implements were glowing red with heat.
“I want to be able to see again,” she whispered, “I wanna see the colours, and the flowers and the sky,” her voice hitched, “I want to see my mama.” A trickle of liquid fell over her cheek, not red this time but clear, like a tiny diamond. I was so focused on this tiny, sparkling drop that I didn't realise how close she had gotten until I felt the searing pain of unbearable heat.
“Shhh, shhhhh,” a soft voice whispered into my ear, “it doesn't hurt that much now does it?”
I bit my lip and nodded, terrified I would lose more than my sight if I didn't.
As I felt a soft material cover my ruined eyes I heard a comforting voice in my ear, the entire time describing how beautiful the room was and how my hair was just as pretty as it felt. I felt cool hands brush away the wetness on my face. “It's gonna be OK,” said a soft, happy voice, “you'll get your sight back eventually, just like I got mine!” I heard laughter, “Look she came back for you,” she put something soft onto my lap.
I heard footsteps moving away, I think she was skipping.
Phoebe was purring in my lap. I kissed her head, imagining her sparkling green eyes and the unique colouring of her face, split down the middle, one half brown and the other half black.
“Don't worry Phoebe,” I whispered. “I'll get my sight back, it's gonna be okay,” I think I was saying this to reassure myself more than the cat, but it was comforting to some degree, like if I promised it to someone, it would have to happen, just to keep the promise.
I could see the mirror through the blindfold, the once dark metal now gleamed brilliant gold, acting like a beacon although I could see absolutely nothing else. Through the glass I heard the muffled sound of voices, and I could smell that distinct smell of old clothes that belong to charity shops. And in the gloom of the mirror's glass I saw a pair of gleaming, glowing eyes. Such a beautiful and vibrant colour. Mine.
I stroked Phoebe's soft fur and put her on the floor, I could easily locate her via her purring. I ran a hand over the skirt of my dress and through my hair, I had to look nice for when my eyes saw me. The gleaming black pupils landed on me and my breath hitched.
They were so beautiful!
I needed them!
They moved towards the mirror, skirting around furniture that I couldn't see before stopping and staring, not at me but at the mirror. The mirror that had caused me so much fear and pain, the mirror that deep down still terrified me. My eyes disappeared from view that the mirror gave me and were gone for quite some time. I peered round through my little window, desperate to catch another glimpse of them. They came back, admiring the mirror once again.
They bought it.