One hundred years ago, while William Butler Yeats conjured in magician’s robes and Carl Jung began to transcribe visions into his Red Book, ordinary middle-class Americans, too, dabbled in magic, or as some prefer to say, explored depth psychology.
One night a year, standing alone before mirrors in dimly lit rooms, our grandparents and great-grandparents, some in jest and some on a dare, pretended to pierce the veil that keeps the waking world apart from the shadow realm. Many of them watched in awe as the veil dissolved before their eyes.
For decades, the United States had received boatloads of Irish and Scottish immigrants, importers of the Celtic folklore that Yeats collected from rural Ireland. A Celtic-enriched Hallowe’en caught on here, with its seasonal themes of death and darkness brightened for American consumption. .
Hallowe’en postcards from early Twentieth Century America show children and adults engaged in innocent fun amid witches, cauldrons, black cats and pumpkins. Many cards depict playfully trying to guess the future. Often single women ask about prospective husbands.
For example, bobbing for apples, still a children’s favorite at Hallowe’en, then offered more grown-up competitors a peek at who would marry next. All by itself, an apple provided hints about the future spouse. Peels tossed to the ground might form his initial letters. The number of seeds exposed when slicing an apple also gave clues. As shown on the left, molten wax poured into a bobbing-tub of water would cool to form fantastic shapes to “interpret.”
Another popular game, depicted on the right, was the “three bowls of fate” (It is remarkable how often the ominous term “your fate” in the holiday cards meant “whom you will marry.”). Bowls were set before a blindfolded person, who plunged their fingers into one of them. A bowl of clean water foretold a happy married life. Dirty water meant a marriage ended by widowhood. To choose an empty bowl was to die a spinster.
All these activities point participants’ minds toward spooky “invisible intelligent power,” but none exposes them to anything beyond familiar sensations, emotions and states of consciousness. But something else is remarkable about this last picture. The scene with the blindfolded woman is framed with a hand mirror, which is visually connected with a witch. That a friendly witch might whisper guidance to the guessing-game lady is clear enough, but what would a mirror have to offer to a blindfolded woman? Answer: her next step along the witch’s path.
Real magic for let’s-pretend witches
Mirror scrying is an ancient method to see visions while wide awake. It is as simple as looking at yourself in a mirror for a few minutes. With only a touch of craft, scrying is rapidly effective for producing hallucinations and altered perception even in first-time casual users.
In the First Century, Saint Paul mentions mirror gazing in 1 Corinthians (a letter to an ancient hub of mirror making), “Now we see through a mirror in darkness, but then face-to-face” (13:12). Darkness is key for easy scrying. The mirror itself can be specially made from dark material For example, Elizabethan occultist John Dee used a polished black stone.
In the later American version, only a single candle, maybe flickering inside a Jack o’ lantern, lit the room where an ordinary glass mirror was consulted.
Anecdotal testimony about the scariness of mirror gazing in the dark comes from urban legends like Baby Blue, Bloody Mary and Candyman. Many people insist that they see something in darkened mirrors that doesn’t belong there. Systematic evidence for the phenomenon has been furnished by Giovanni Caputo in Perception (“Strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion,” 39(7) 1007–1008, 2010)
Fifty subjects looked at their own faces individually in a mirror for ten minutes, while back lit by a 25 watt bulb, then wrote down what they saw. Subjects were first-timers and weren’t prompted what to look for.
All fifty of them, 100%, reported some form of “dissociative identity” experience – an “otherness” in a face they saw in or behind the mirror – often because they saw somebody else’s face there. Almost half, 24 of the 50, reported seeing “fantastical or monstrous beings.” Usually, it took less than a minute for some aspect of the “strange face” perception to start.
As to why this weirdness occurs, visual processing of faces is a complex and incompletely understood cognitive activity. Caputo’s results, in combination with earlier work on peripheral viewing of facial photographs cited in his paper, suggest that face processing in less-than-ideal viewing conditions is vulnerable to surprisingly rapid fatigue. Uninterrupted looking at the same not-entirely clear face can degrade the processing catastrophically, yielding badly misperceived targets within minutes.
From practical joke to serious depth psychology
Hallowe’en is the perfect night for pranks. Could holiday scrying cards be pointing to a “harmless charm,” a meaningless, if briefly shocking, prank, like Candyman and other urban legends?
Some cards do document practical joking. The left-hand card above (with the close-up of its text) reveals that an eligible gentleman sometimes hid in a room where a lady, maybe encouraged by her friends who were in on the gag, did the mirror ritual. Thinking she was alone, maybe the lady had a momentary unsettling jolt – but then, behold! Her beau reveals himself. Kiss and fade to black.
The card on the right above gently ridicules the ritual. The lady in this picture has taken matters into her own hands, and arranged that her beloved’s portrait will appear along with her face in her mirror.
But this card is ambiguous. The lady seems to have whirled around to confront the apparition. His reflection is still there, even after she’s stopped looking at the mirror, but he is fuzzy, unlike her own reflection, which is sharp. The whole scene is visually dominated by the shadow-witch. Is the gentleman in the mirror supposed to be really there in the room or not?
We can predict from Caputo’s results that whoever performed this ritual, even for a few minutes, could not rely on seeing a “well behaved” vision confined to the topic of matrimony. About half of Caputo’s subjects saw fantastical or monstrous beings, with no manipulation of the setting or set. In contrast, our Hallowe’en mirror scryer does have a suggestive setting: Hallowe’en itself. The holiday’s general archetype-invoking trappings complement an apparent specific association of this ritual with a powerful female shadow icon and magical helper, a witch.
Looking at what’s behind you is the very emblem of a conscious encounter with what is literally unconscious material. As the illusion unfolds, to see the fundamental symbol of the persona, one’s own face, in the same frame with strange images from the interior depths is as much a glimpse of Jungian individuation as any abstract mandala could be.
If the static image of seeing what is usually unseen were not evocative enough to stir up unconscious projections, then there was a dynamic variation of the ritual: to descend stairs backwards and alone, guided by what the scryer saw in her mirror, often down into the cellar of her house. That enacts something which is all but a caricature of an incident from a Jungian “big dream.”
What the cards depict is a surprising and little-known (even today) physiological-perceptual phenomenon, combined with shameless manipulation of setting and set toward archetypal imagery and magical ideas. We therefore have good reason to suppose that on Hallowe’en night 1914 many women saw marvels in their mirrors. These marvels probably paralleled what Jung and his patients were seeing during therapeutic “active imagination,”
… you start with any image, … Contemplate it and carefully observe how the picture begins to unfold or change. Don’t try to make it into something, just do nothing but observe what its spontaneous changes are. Any mental picture you contemplate in this way will sooner or later change through a spontaneous association … Hold fast to the one image you have chosen and wait until it changes by itself. (from Jung’s letter to his patient “Mr O” of 2 May 1947)
and which Yeats shared with his lodge brothers and sisters during their magical rituals,
…my imagination began to move of itself and to bring before me vivid images that, though never too vivid to be imagination, as I had always understood it, had yet a motion of their own, a life I could not change or shape. (from Yeats’ 1901 essay, “Magic,” available from the Unlinks page).
In early Twentieth Century America, what happened on Hallowe’en, stayed on Hallowe’en. I have not found reports from ordinary Americans of that time about their once-a-year mirror gazings. If readers have such material to share, then I’d be delighted to post it here.
Meanwhile, discreet silence is unsurprising. There is an intuitive taboo against loose talk about such things, to say nothing of what the neighbors might think. As Yeats put it in his “Magic,”
They say in the Aran Islands that if you speak overmuch of the things of Faery your tongue becomes like a stone, … More than once, too, as I wrote this very essay I have become uneasy, and have torn up some paragraph, not for any literary reason, but because some incident or some symbol that would perhaps have meant nothing to the reader, seemed, I know not why, to belong to hidden things.