Afraid of the Dark – Things that go bump in the night

Afraid of the Dark explores some of the ways that our minds can trick us into seeing things that are and are not there in the dark.

The ‘strange face illusion’ is a particularly unsettling optical illusion that occurs once the lights are off. Giovanni Caputo, an Italian psychologist, discovered that when we look into mirrors under certain conditions, humans will begin to see their reflection distort and take on a new identity. The distortions range from seeing a family member’s face or a beautiful face to something much more monstrous. And with all of them, the viewer experiences a dissociated identity — the feeling that this is a new person staring back at them. And this new person could range from benign to seemingly malicious.

The conditions with which to reliably induce this illusion are remarkably similar to the incidental conditions that occur with the Bloody Mary ritual. The participant must stare into a large mirror around 40cm away from the face in a dimly lit room, with the light source placed behind them. In under a minute, they will begin to observe noticeable distortions in their reflection.

Compare this now with Bloody Mary. Most who tried uttering her name in their younger, more foolish days, probably did so in the bathroom. While mirrors are sometimes scarce in other parts of a house, they can always reliably be found in bathrooms. Being exhorted to perform this at 1 o’clock in the morning, chances are the only light sources would tend to be from another room or perhaps a corridor with the light seeping in through the door behind you. Bathroom mirrors are also typically close to where someone stands to look into one and 40cm would not be a bad guess at the proximity with which most people will inspect their reflection in a mirrored cabinet above the sink. And the repetition of Bloody Mary? That gives just enough time to allow the optical illusion to work its magic. And so what we have is probably a fairly good explanation of any real life encounters with Mary herself … and a pretty terrifying optical illusion.

Verity ClaytonComment