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Oculus and the Reflection of Self

Since we’re still plague-ridden, and I’m not about to go to a movie theater, I’ve been doing a little personal retrospective of horror films that I’ve enjoyed over the years and exploring why they stuck with me. The first one that came to mind was Oculus, written and directed by Mike Flanagan. 

Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t seen it. In fact, go watch it right now. It’s on Hulu. I’ll wait….

See it, yet? Good. Well, the first time we saw it, my friend and I weren’t impressed. We thought the characters were idiots. And essentially, we were right, but there’s more to it than that.

Siblings Kaylie and Tim experience a supernatural encounter with an antique mirror in their childhood, leading to the deaths of their parents, and causing them to swear to each other, “When we get big and strong, we’ll kill that thing, for mom and dad.” 

Ten years later, Karen Gillam’s character, Kaylie, is prepared to make good on that promise. She creates a complex system of precautions and failsafes in order to prove on camera, beyond a shadow of a doubt that the mirror her father hung in his study is haunted. It’s actually unclear if her ultimate goal is to destroy it, as she had originally promised to do, or simply prove that her father and mother were not responsible for the horrors she and her brother experienced in their childhood. 

On the other hand, Brenton Thwaites’s character, Tim, has been in a psychiatric facility ever since shooting his father and has just been released. He has learned to subsume his memories of the events of the past with psychotherapy theories and has completely forgotten the reality of what happened to them, believing the whole supernatural ordeal to be something his mind constructed to cope with a more mundane reality.

The scenes jump between past and present, disorientingly. A tactic which works remarkably well to establish the mind altering power of the force they’re up against. Even in the past, Kaylie is a take-charge person, striving to get control of her environment while everything falls apart. 

As the night spirals into chaos, we see the entity within the mirror play havoc with the characters’ weaknesses. Their father, Alan (Rory Cochrane) continually hears a whispered voice saying, “I have seen the devil and he is me.”

The true horror perhaps is in the idea that Kaylie has done an extraordinary amount of research on the mirror. She knows almost all there is to know about what the mirror has done and what it’s capable of. And yet, she still falls victim to it. Her need to categorically prove to everyone the existence of the supernatural entity within the mirror outweighs the notion that she could simply use the knowledge she’d gained about it to definitively destroy it.

Her enemy isn’t the entity inside the mirror after all. 

I have seen the devil and he is me. 

As we see throughout the course of the film, the mirror presents an exaggerated image of the person as they see themselves. It traps the characters in their own memories, or in fantasies where they finally get their heart’s desire. Unable to trust their own eyes, they must confront their fears and wants and traumas. And, most chillingly, in the 500 years of this mirror’s existence, no one has been able to escape the prison of their own mind once they have been captured within it. No one has made it out alive.

Kaylie, with all her research and preparation and failsafes, wasn’t able to escape it, nor was Tim, with his coping strategies and his scientifically-minded rationalizations. The closest anyone seems to have gotten is Alan, who seemed to come back to himself for just long enough to help his son end their nightmare. It was their action that gave the mirror its only imperfection – a small crack. 

I suppose the reason this film stuck with me is the inescapable horror of self-reflection and the symbolic nature of the mirror itself. In reality, no one sees you the way you see yourself in a mirror, and our least favorite traits often stand out in grotesque contrast. What if everyone saw you that way?

What would happen if that version we see in the mirror, reflecting the ugliest parts of ourselves, were made flesh, given life and allowed to walk around in real life? 

How would you escape the funhouse mirror world of your own mind? Is it possible to escape it at all?

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