Why Mirrors Are So Effective in Horror Fiction
Looking at the horror film Oculus to discuss the use of mirrors in your storytelling!
Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review — Oculus (2014)
The horror film genre has always been my favorite, and yet it’s so rare these days to find new, original, effectively scary films. Thankfully we seem to have finally outgrown that terrible period of torture porn that existed during the time of the Saw sequels, and maybe, just possibly, we have moved on from all the dreadful remakes of classic 70s and 80s horror (maybe because there’s simply nothing left to remake). Now we are seeing more and more micro budget films from producer Jason Blum, and while not all have worked, these original small-budget horror movies have been a positive influence on the current genre scene.
Every year I’m looking for good horror, both mainstream and indie, and it’s especially a thrill when one comes out that I know next to nothing about. Oculus, released in 2014, was one of those finds. I hadn’t even hard about it until a week before its release, but as soon as I saw the positive reviews and storyline of the movie, I knew it was a must-see. One of my first short stories I ever wrote in the third grade was about a haunted mirror, and I was curious to see how a modern horror film could be made with this eerie but potentially silly hook.
Thankfully, writer/director Mike Flanagan (who has gone on to make the terrifying Gerald’s Game and the monumentally creepy The Haunting of Hill House for Nextflix) understands that, especially in horror, less is more, and for most of Oculus he lets the tension build and build, only showing us small traces of the evil that is to come.
One element I loved about Oculus was the emphasis on two dual story lines, one in the past concerning a family of four who contend with an unexpected demon, and one in the present concerning those two children, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), now grown up, facing their fears with the mirror once and for all. At first the cuts back and forth to each storyline were jarring, but by a half-hour in the rhythm works extremely well.
The performances are on a very high level for a film like this, especially Gillan, and, best of all, the scares come fast and fierce, especially in the second half. The twist ending I didn’t see coming, either, and usually I’m able to guess where these kinds of narratives are headed.
Oculus isn’t on the same level as 2012’s supremely chilling Sinister, still the best of the Blum-produced movies. There are a few lulls in the movie, and Flanagan actually shows a little too much, I think, in the last half-hour. But overall, Oculus is a solid horror film that’s different from the usual fare. You might not look at your mirror the same way again.
Watching Like a Writer
This film makes me think about how mirrors can be used so effectively in horror fiction. It might be a touch scarier in a film or TV episode than it is on the page for the reader, but mirrors have always struck me as a particularly useful tool in my scarier stories. Like I said in this review, one of my earliest stories I ever wrote was about a haunted mirror (and if I remember correctly, the title was Mirrors Can Be Deadly and I wrote two sequels!). My first screenplay I ever wrote had a haunted mirror. So many short films I wrote and directed used mirrors in the visual storytelling. I’ve always been obsessed with mirrors, and finally, after all this time, I’m beginning to outline a middle-grade horror novel that will use mirrors as a part of the story. What makes them so creepy? How can they be used in a way we’ve never seen before?
Pitch me a scene from your latest WIP that a mirror could play a major role in. What does the mirror add to the scene, and to the development of one of your major characters?
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency.