Metaphors & Symbols in Oculus

In the public bathroom where I work are four mirrors and washing sinks below three. The nearest mirror hangs over what remains of the removed sink, the grouting and makeshift piping. Standing in front of that mirror is more convenient. The reflection off it just seemed more spacious because it extended further below the other three, with the basins beneath. Yesterday I went to understand why. They were all identical. The unobstructed path to it gives a wider angle, creating the perception that it was bigger.

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Fascination with objects is evident from myth and folkloric tales ascribed to them. Often, alternate truths, eseentially attempted rationalizations, manifest around those objects and our apprehensions toward them. Seeing as they inspire wide-ranging sentiment, mirrors belong on the Mount Rushmore of fascination. Not for lack of familiarity with the human form, specifically its visage, but where one’s own reflection is concerned, polarizing superstitions are inevitable. Such is mirrors’ all-encompassing sphere of influence. Vanity, or hubris personified, as Narcissus’ undoing was brought on by seeing his reflection in the water for the first time, elevating the vice to deadly sin statud in Catholicism. Muslims mustn’t pray facing one. And Jews cover them during mourning. Never mind that the qualms are nothing but our inability or unwillingness to embrace how we appear to the world, or are simply our failure to reconcile our artificially recreated appearance within one [a mirror] and against the real one [our appeearance] which we can never see, because, without, there is indispensable value to how we use and why we needed mirrors. So long as our reflection does not appear while we use them. Where superstition treads, horror can be found lurking. Oculus contributes to that lore and, with uncanny parallels to an early Stephen King short story, builds on old conventions.

Again, much like my experience with the Snowpiercer, I had gone in based on a synopsis I read, this time way earlier than showtime. The basic misunderstanding lied with the lead (Kaylie) attempting to exonerate an incarcerated sibling (Tim). Quite the contrary it turned out; Tim had been institutionalized for some time then released to join the rest of us. I guess it was a linguistic misinterpretation of the legal kind of exoneration as opposed to the general absolving of blame, guilt, etc., but it was a confusion i quickly shrugged off to follow the story.

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The gist of the story is an eerie period mirror finds its way to the Russell residence then begins unsettling the family, turning the parents on each other. Tim is implicated in the murder of his father who murdered his wife and mother of Tim and Kaylie, his children as well. Except he was tried as a minor and was sent to a juvie mental hall instead. Eleven years later,  and concurrent with our time, he is deemed fit to join society as a twenty-one-year-old. Kaylie has got on with her life without him and is now engaged. Her fiancé is also her coworker and they both work as antiques agents, or something to that capacity. It is the perfect ruse-slash-job-choice to allow her to find the much vaunted, malintentioned mirror. Once she crosses paths with the mirror again, the intent is to destroy it after proving its malevolent effect on living beings. She employs her brother who reluctant at first (first Incendies and now this guy too?) eventually caves in. The result, without spilling too much, is one of the most sadistic exercises in irony and inadvertent defeatism. The acting, while not spectacular, is never dull or forced, with the younger Kaylie (Annalise Basso) being the standout. It rather is sufficient enough in its efficacy as to drive the plot. A feature in its storytelling is the interchange between past and present events. But since this isn’t a blow-by-blow examination, and today being ten days removed from having watched it, my memory is bound to betray me so I will instead extol its metaphoric features. Like for example how losing track of real and perceived between storyline switches eventually breaks the fourth wall.

Isolation: figurative, literal and subjective

Among diverse themes and concepts — oppressive patriarchy, vengeful fantasies, and sanity transfixed between reality and illusion — Oculus assigns to mirrors metaphors of isolation and, given the right type of glass, skewed perception. The sight viewed through a mirror serves as the new metaphoric vehicle for a subjective idea. What a mirror frames is extracted from its autonomous form. It is cropped out of panorama briefly; a juxtaposition in mockery of origin. A recurrent motif here, of the physical and mental isolation, is not different from how angles viewed in a mirror are restricted and possibly, even, subjective. Outside the two leads, and the Russells as whole, supporting roles are rendered peripheral intrusions. A neighbor stops by but dismisses the possibility of tragedy. He’s greeted behind the door. Kaylie’s fiancé, curiously enough contents himself with brief, curt check-in calls. Whether or not the validity of their arrangement can be doubted, isolation is occurring. Elsewhere there are no supporting roles as there is no need for any more. They would be merely out of focus and resigned to a periphery beyond the frame.

For all its menace, the mirror is most intimidating when left alone with. With intensified dread when in a small room, it beckons acknowledging. Or confrontation, almost. In both past and present, the mirror is hung in the same room on the same wall; a cozy, contained study. Though smaller confines are not a requisite, all of its victims were preyed on alone before going on to act out its will on aggregate victims. Singled out, let’s say. Prior to the experiment the mirror makes a couple of appearances — both in the present plot: first during the auction and then immediately following the sale.

When we first see it, the mirror doesn’t look spectacular. It looks stained — grimy almost — though possibly by design as opposed to negligent disrepair. Kaylie and her fiancé appear in reflection during bidding. Except he’s looking around the room, uninterested by the routineness of the plethora of antiques on sale. The unique subjectivity of each (Kaylie’s is an a expression of intent deliberation) is made unclear to others present by the dusty reflection. The mirror is sold without much fanfare, for a paltry sum and rather quickly, signifying its lack of unanimous appeal perhaps, and is soon moved to the docking bay.

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Out back, one of the movers interrupts a Kaylie now engrossed in the reunion. Brief encounters would not suffice. For that alone time, Kaylie did not attempt to swoop in with a bid… she falsifies repair forms to hijack it. Cue the first act of manipulation, and the mirror’s first line of defense. By risking her employment, relationship, and more importantly her credibility, the longed-for encounter is realized. Never discussed are the explanations to give the auction house and the buyer when the mirror is destroyed or found missing past it delivery time, unless the documented experiment is sufficient on its own. The Mirror is thinking two steps ahead, showing intention when two covered busts appear as two then three on the mirror, then briefly as two then three in person all while the mover is away.

Mirrors as supplanted vision

Ocular is Latin (or medical) for “pertaining to the eye.” I remember hearing something about the mirror making you see what it wants you to see. Along with reflecting heat, mirrors in essence warp light and reflect it. Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear, to borrow a disclaimer. Much as a mirror contextualizes what it frames and juxtaposes, it duplicates under false pretense. Reality is fabrication. No wonder religions find contention with mirrors in some way; the reproduction is unholy. And if one were to subscribe to notions of the God within, then mirrors are blasphemy of the highest order for the recreated image is ungodly. But the dichotomy inherent in the duality of mimicry is an exercise in reconciliation that must still be followed through with.

Oculus addresses the conundrum as is evidenced from its title. Not everyone has an encyclopedic command of language. I certainly had to look up the meaning of the title after I watched the film and it helps understanding the effort behind it. Science taught us that human eye sight, and that of any creature with eyes, deciphers images by absorbing light reflected off objects. Virtually all objects which are not luminescent function as crude mirrors. In theory. By the same logic, mirrors are the perfect object, as far as the oculus is concerned. Here, the distorting power of the Oculus mirror manifests through hallucination, rising room temperature, dehydration of present biology and general disorientation. Some of those effects can be said to be true of all mirrors, in extreme conditions and theoretically speaking at least. Under normal circumstances people in close proximity of this [Lasser] mirror suffer from these effects, with disorientation in particular compounded when staring directly into the mirror. It first invites the eye with a fleeting glance before progressively working toward a surrendering gaze following the mental breakdown of the victim, and all that that entails. So, in essence, what is viewed is projected onto the beholder’s behavior and possibly their subsequent vision long after they turn their eyes elsewhere. Somewhere in between is reality and hallucination blending freely until the boundaries of each are no longer discernable. When exactly that happens is debatable and perhaps intentionally so — the fourth wall counting as among those barriers.

Kaylie had a few ideas to combat the basic elements. Time and time again, she and Tim have had to remind themselves to stay sharp, and hence the recurrent reminders to eat, hydrate, and change bulbs and batteries. Though there was little urgency in avoiding the mirror’s presence to match the meticulous due diligence. Kaylie, shown as fearless in referring to the mirror in the second- and third-person, experiences the brunt of those distortions initially, although Tim’s early cynicism only wasn’t a lasting immunity. Much of what is attributed to being in proximity of the mirror can be said to be due to looking at/into its surface. We are not privy to much as for example thermostats, not thermometers, were used. But we are witness to a couple of instances of an absent and hungry Kaylie reaching for the wrong thing. An apple? What broken plate?

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There’s also vanishing point concept at the center of a painting, the representation of distance. It is applicable to mirrors as well when two mirrors face each other. Halls of mirrors and funny houses of mirrors have a way of creating a black hole for light where light appears to be sucked into each mirror… a dissolving infinity made imperceptible. Coincidentally, this approach is never considered, of having the mirror look directly into its vanishing point projected from an opposite-facing mirror. It is alluded to, however, in a highpoint in the prolonged buildup… We discover the two cameras used in taping were turned toward each other. What that created instead, apart from the chilling realization of manipulation at play, one may imagine would constitute perversion of the vanishing point concept the protagonists should have given a try. Camera lenses are not practical as mirrors.

Not to sound snobbish, I liked the story the way it unfolded. It’s just that with all other known side effects neutralized, hallucination was the only uncovered base and perhaps new effects (if any existed) may have emerged. The film played with the idea of supplanted vision as the covert modus operandi. Perhaps the movie would have ended that much sooner. Though I’m sure there would be no shortage of story to tell. And perhaps that’s left for a new, unassuming owner to try next. Franchising.

Afterword

The mirror is referred to as the Lasser Glass. It has a small crack in the bottom right-hand corner. Sitting through Oculus I couldn’t help but be reminded of a short story by Stephen King featuring a similar mirror. The Delver Glass mirror in the Reaper’s Image also has a cracked surface, and similar disorienting properties fast culminating in disappearance of the beholder. There was an attempted destruction of the mirror and hence the crack in the upper left-hand corner. It is noted for the genius and craftsmanship of its maker, and its rarity — only five Delver Glass mirrors are known to have been made. Unlike the nondescript appearance of the Lasser mirror, the Delver Glass is noted for its pristine, crystal-like reflection. And unlike the Lasser Glass, it doesn’t appear to have an ability of defending itself, per se. Its victims allegedly quietly sauntered off into nowhere never to be seen again — a balancing act of warranting legend status and staving off potential obliterators. However, its effect, though subtle, is fast-acting. Again, for this reason few people had had reason to suspect any sinister causes, and little to no observable pattern to notice within it a harbinger of evil. In this instance we have a witness (a believing, familiar one; the museum curator) to the glass’ power, a la Kaylie. Spangler, a skeptic collector looking to verify and buy the mirror, grows nauseous in a hurry and runs off to presumably throw up, and never to be heard from again.