I won’t have mirrors in my house any more. When you’ve read this story, you might not want them either.
There’s a phenomenon where, if you gaze at a mirror in a dark room, your own face can be quite alarming. To trigger it, all you have to do is dim the light and stare at your reflection. Your eyes swim and your features start to change. The revised image makes you shudder. It seems—wrong.
It’s called the strange face illusion, and it’s really quite uncanny. If you fight the urge to blink, it gets stronger. Soon, it’s not your face any more. A dark figure stands before you, lost in a cloud of shimmering fog. It’s like you’ve summoned something, and you’re seized by the notion that whatever you summoned is staring back.
If you’re daft enough to try it, and reach the point I just described, I hope you look away. I kept staring—and like I said—I won’t have mirrors in my house any more.
I was born and raised in Salford, near Kersal Moor and the Irwell Valley.
If that sounds romantic, let me disabuse you: it’s nowhere near as nice as it sounds. There was a time when the moors ran as far as the river, but that was long ago and most of them are gone. All that remains is a sad bit of heath, squashed between the graveyard and a golf course. It was near there that I grew up, in a place called Upper Kersal.
My uncle always said that Kersal had the most ghosts in England. He thought they met on the moor, like the Chartists had in 1838. In his tall tales, they rose from the dead for their nightly soirées, conspiring against us in the dark.
When the nearby flats were demolished, he told me it was because of all the ghosts there. Being local, I watched them coming down from the bottom of Castlemoor Avenue. I was nine years old, and it seemed to me like the world was ending. The ground trembled and the air was thick with dust. Whatever ghosts had haunted those concrete towers—and I’m sure there were many—dispersed with a roar.
I’ve looked online, but I can’t find anything to support the claim that Kersal is haunted. I do know I heard it again, several times, when I worked in the pubs around Whitefield, three miles up the road.
I didn’t take much notice of the ghost-talk. My outlook is different now.
Earlier, I warned you about staring in mirrors. For some of you, the effect I described will be quite familiar. You discover it by accident, usually alone, and almost always in the middle of the night. When you enter the bathroom, and light from the landing follows you in, the conditions are ideal. You stand in the gloom, washing your hands before a dark mirror that catches your eye.
It’s easy to stare when you’re half asleep. That’s when you’re most vulnerable. I wish I could say that happened to me, because then I could blame bad luck. The truth is, I did it on purpose.
I was renting a flat in Whitefield at the time, in a place called Besses o’ th’ Barn. It sounds lovely and picturesque, but it’s really just the junction of two main roads. McDonald’s, Aldi and Co-op sit to one side, facing each other like the witches from Macbeth. The car park between them is every bit as bleak as Kersal Moor. It’s got tarmac instead of heather, and painted lines instead of footpaths, but the same cold wind goes hissing through, seeming to sharpen the long shadows.
From Monday to Thursday, I did daytime shifts at a nearby pub. When we lost our student barman, I was asked to cover Sunday lunch—which (to my annoyance) became permanent. It was a graveyard shift, and the only reliable punter was a queer old bird called Jim. He had a square jaw, round glasses, thin grey lips, and a shabby old coat that flapped around when he hunted for his wallet. He always ordered a pint of mixed, in the old-style glass with a handle. He liked to sit at the end of the bar, and his preferred spot was under the sign that said, “Please leave this end of the bar free for collecting glasses” (for obvious reasons, there wasn’t a stool there, but he always got one and dragged it over).
One Sunday, before he arrived, I got an unexpected rush of people. It was a wedding party, en route from church to reception. I looked up in horror as more and more people came through the door. The men loosened their ties, rubbing necks that were still moist from the morning shave. The women had tiny hats stuck to their heads. Half of them were visibly annoyed with half of the men. In short, they were typical wedding guests.
I dealt with the rush but didn’t enjoy it. In bar work, we have a motto: “I’d rather be busy than bored.” On Friday night, when we brace ourselves for a long seige, it’s almost a rallying cry. “I’d rather be busy than bored,” we tell ourselves. It numbs the stress when there’s far too many people, all shouting orders at once.
Even though I say it, the truth is, I don’t believe it. I’d rather be bored than busy any day. On this occasion, I smiled at the customers but seethed inside, hating them for being there. Even worse, not one of them said the magic words that meant I could stick 20p in my tip jar (those being, “and your own, barman”).
They had one drink each and left. I went round, got the glasses, and stacked them on the bar beneath the sign. Then I hurried to the loo.
When I came back, I was annoyed to find Jim in his usual spot, peering over the stack of dirty glasses. The rest of the bar was clear, but he’d got a stool and parked himself in the least convenient spot.
“Come round,” I said impatiently. “I’ll serve you over here.”
He shook his head.
“It’s all right,” he said mildly. “Do the glasses. I’ll wait.”
I cleared the bar in front of him, loading the glasses in a basket for the washer. I made a point of not rushing.
“We do have a sign,” I reminded him, “asking people not to sit at this end of the bar—”
He raised a hand to interrupt me.
“I’ve seen it,” he said. “But there’s no one else here, is there? And anyway—I can’t sit anywhere else.”
“Why not?” I wondered.
He scowled but didn’t meet my eye.
“Mirrors,” he said unexpectedly. “Can’t bear to look at bloody mirrors. And your own, barman.”
I took his money and turned to investigate. My reflection peered back at me between two bottles of vodka. I’d never really noticed, but the whole back wall of the bar was glazed. There were mirrors behind the glasses and bags of crisps. We even had them in the fridges, making them seem twice as full. It’s funny what you see every day and don’t take in.
He’d given me the right money, plus 20p. I put it in my jar.
“Right,” I said uncertainly.
“I don’t trust ’em,” he went on. “Have you ever stared at your own reflection?”
“Well yeah,” I said. “If you do it in the dark, it’s quite creepy.”
He was taken aback.
“You’ve done it too?”
I nodded because I had. Once, when I was young, my brother got us to do “the mirror thing” as a spooky parlour game. We scared ourselves silly in the master bedroom, taking turns to stare at our reflections. We only stopped when Mum turned the light on and kicked us out of there.
“If you stare at anything it goes weird,” I said. “It’s a trick of the eyes. It’s just spooky when it’s your own face.”
He took a long drink and shook his head.
“It’s more than that,” he said darkly—thumping his glass on the bar. “And it’s no bloody trick!”
Before he could explain, the water in the washer stopped sloshing around. By the time I came back with the clean glasses, he’d downed his pint and left. Froth was pooling in the bottom of his glass.
“Bye then,” I said sarcastically.
That night, on a whim, I tried it at home. As I stared at the mirror, my eyes began to swim. I held focus and didn’t blink. Soon, my face seemed to leer at me through the glass. I rubbed my eyes and walked away.
After that, I got on with life. Looking back, my conversation with Jim had aroused a gentle fascination with the “strange face” illusion. I did it from time to time out of boredom, marvelling at my own features—zoning out as they changed, or seemed to move while mine were still. Over time, it took on an almost mystical significance for me.
Jim still came on Sundays. I wondered if I should tell him, just to reassure him, that I’d been staring in mirrors without consequence. I decided not to. Once, he caught me admiring myself in the glass behind the optics. I thought I saw a flash of fear in his eyes.
The watershed moment came months later, when I was confined to the flat with a bad cold (which—obviously—I’d self-diagnosed as “flu”).
Two days into quarantine, I felt lousy, but I’d used my daily ration of sleep. The well of oblivion had run dry. I’d watched all the videos I could think of. I’d eaten all the chocolate in the flat. A delivery boy had been and gone, leaving chicken noodle soup from the Chinese takeaway.
Out of boredom, I decided to do the thing with the mirror.
I turned the light off in the living room but left one on in the kitchen, which was joined to the room through an archway. Because of that, the wall behind me was bathed in dim light.
As I stared at the mirror, my face seemed more and more alien. If anything, because I was under the weather, the fuzz in my head made it more pronounced. I had a growing sense of jamais-vu.
That was stage one.
By stage two, my face seemed angry and old. My mouth started moving, mouthing god-knows-what. I watched with interest, sure it was just an illusion. After all: it isn’t normal to stare, and the brain has a special interest in human faces. It’s no surprise if it flounders in the dark, filling the blanks where shadows fall.
The visual fog thickened before me. Soon, I could no longer see my face at all. Just the dark silhouette of a stranger.
Stage three: I was surprised, but not alarmed, when I began to experience an auditory hallucination. Nothing intense; just a low bell tolling from afar. As it chimed, the tidal roar of Bury Old Road—omnipresent in the soundtrack of my life—died down to nothing.
Soon, there was only the bell. I didn’t stop staring.
I was almost functionally blind by now. My field of vision was an abstract canvas, endlessly re-painted before me. Muted night-time oils. The bell continued to sound, getting louder and louder.
I felt the floor tremble beneath me.
Then, stage four: a loud musical cry. The outrage of a choir.
My vision cleared. There was no shimmer now. Just a terrible stranger staring back.
I was stunned by the level of detail. He was bald, which I’m not. He had maggot-white skin, with scowling eyes lost in shadow. His mouth was a silent “O”. A scream without sound.
There’s nothing I can say, really, to do the face justice. But I can tell you this: years later, I saw a painting by Francis Bacon that made me cry out and cover my eyes, because it was the spitting image of what I’d seen. I’m sure the artist saw it too. Whether in a dream or a mirror, I can’t say—but if you’re curious, do a Google image search for francis bacon screaming popes. You’ll get a good sense of what I saw.
Behind him was a gloomy interior. It wasn’t the one that faced the mirror. It was somewhere else entirely.
Over his shoulder, I saw a dusty throne by a dark window. Beyond that, a barren plain. A single tree bent double in the distance, dark and bare. As I watched, the choir continued to sing, mounting to a terrible chorus.
My eye was drawn back to the foreground. He’d raised two trembling hands and pressed their fingers to the glass. He seemed to be feeling the mirror, testing it from the other side.
Finding it solid, he paused. His face became a mask of fury. He began to strike the glass.
It was so loud I fell backwards in fright. I crawled to the kitchen and covered my ears, shaking in fear. Bang, bang, bang!—I’d never heard anything like it. I knew, with the white-hot certainty of dread, that he was trying to fight his way in.
Then his voice came howling through the glass. It was half-mad with grief and hunger, and I can’t remember what he called to me, but sometimes now I wake in fright and for a moment I do—I do remember—and then it fades away, and I thank God for the mercy of amnesia.
At last, the banging stopped. I heard cars on Bury Old Road.
I got up and moved quickly. Without daring to look in the mirror, I turned the light on in the living room. Then I went to the bedroom. Still shaking, I threw the duvet aside and pulled the sheet from my bed. It got stuck on one corner so I tugged in blind panic. At last it came away with a soft elastic twang. I returned to the living room and put it on the mirror, tucking it in at the top.
Finally, I grabbed my keys, left the flat, and got the last Metrolink to town—shaking all the way to Piccadilly Gardens.
There was one other person in the carriage. I’m sure he thought I was a junkie. I didn’t care. I was heading to town because it was eleven. The local pubs would be ringing last orders. I needed a drink, and more than one.
I got off the tram and found a bar that opened late. They did racks of syrupy shooters, with a “rack” being six on a wooden plank. When I drained three of the racks in half an hour, they asked me to leave.
Again, I didn’t care. I’d stopped shaking by then. I spent the last of my money on a taxi home, all the way to Besses o’ th’ Barn. Fortified with Dutch courage, I let myself in and passed out on the bathroom floor, where I sweated profusely in my sleep (or—more likely—pissed myself in the night).
The next day, with a stinking hangover, I managed to convince myself that the “flu” had made me delirious (well—I say “convince”—but I never took that sheet off the mirror—and anyway—I was soon proved wrong).
As I lay in bed that night, I heard a soft tapping in the living room. I wondered in alarm if the ceiling had a leak. It was raining quite hard. Wind kept slapping the window. Outside, an endless drumroll filled the night. Panes of glass trembled in their frames.
I went to see but couldn’t find a leak. One corner of the ceiling was a known offender, but the floor below was bone-dry. Then I realised, with a cold thrill of horror, that the sound was coming from behind the sheet. He was back again, inside the mirror—knocking on the other side!
The sound got louder as he grew impatient, till he was banging the glass with full force. Bang, bang, bang!
It was too late for a bar then, but I left anyway. I slept rough in the tram stop. At least I didn’t piss myself.
The next morning, I was roused by the sound of tram doors hissing. I went home, got the mirror off the wall, and threw it in the bin with the sheet still on. I unscrewed another from the bathroom cabinet. I got rid of one in my bedroom.
Earlier, I said I’d rather be bored than busy. When it comes to removing mirrors, it turns out I’m quite industrious. You could say it’s my monomania. Everywhere I sleep gets the same treatment now. I always finish by nightfall, for fear of what the night will bring. I’ve removed them, and covered them, and once even painted a whole wall of fitted cupboards, because they had mirrors on the doors (I didn’t get my deposit back).
Even so: when I only cover them, I often hear him tapping. He’s seen me now and won’t give up. When I hear it, I picture him on the other side, confused he can’t see in—testing the glass with his long white fingers. Tap, tap, tap.
I sleep with foam earplugs now. He only comes at night, thank God. In the cold light of day, when people are around, I can just about bear to see a mirror. My phobia isn’t as bad as Jim’s, but I always approach them with caution. When I do, I’m reminded of lines by the Serbian poet Charles Simic: “You must come to them sideways / In rooms webbed in shadow.”
I’ve held down work in four different pubs. I think my colleagues find me withdrawn, but I still show up. I’m punctual. In my modest, traumatised way, I’m functioning.
But for how long?
As time goes by, I still think about it. Fear fades and fascination grows. It’s just a matter of time before I find a mirror, dim the light, and do it again.
I’m convinced that man is real. He haunts the thin space between glass and silver, waiting for someone to make the link.
Who is he? What’s that place, where the lone tree bends on a darkling plain? Where’s the bell, and why does it chime?
Who are the members of the choir—the one that cries when the fog clears—and will I ever see their faces?
Why does he tap at mirrors? Does he want to come here, or drag me over there? Is the throne his, or is he just a custodian? Does he seek a hostage for that high office?
Well—we shall find out.
Ellis Reed, 21/03/2020