By JENN ADAMS
Mirrors are essential, but often forgotten elements of our lives. Unassisted, our vantage point causes us to look out on the world, but mirrors offer us the ability to look inward, to see ourselves as we appear to others. Or at least that’s the promise. Though appearing real, what we see in the mirror is only a projected image, a reflection of reality rather than reality itself. Can we ever truly trust what we see? In Mike Flanagan’s 2013 film OCULUS, a sinister mirror known as the Lasser Glass weaponizes this reflected reality. It preys on the Russell family, distorting their vision and driving them to madness.
The Lasser Glass is an expensive antique mirror with a troubled past. As the film’s title suggests, it is more than a simple reflective surface, but an eye from another reality looking into ours and feeding on anyone who falls under its influence. Thought to have caused the gruesome deaths of its previous owners, the Lasser Glass finds its way to the home office of software designer Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane). Here it begins to prey on the family by distorting what they see and hear, creating an alternate world full of lurking danger. Some tricks of the glass cause minimal damage. Daughter Kaylie (Annalise Basso, Karen Gillan) imagines biting into a lightbulb believing it to be an apple and Alan pulls off his fingernail because he sees a stubborn bandage in its place. But slowly drawing energy from plants and pets, the mirror gains power and begins to destroy the family from within.
The first cracks appear between Alan and his wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff), preying on existing tensions in the relationship. Alan is starting a new business and consumed with the pressure to succeed, while Marie is self-conscious about her body and questions Alan’s affections. The Glass exploits these benign insecurities, warping them out of proportion. Marie’s c-section scar appears more prominent and she hears whispered insults she believes are coming from Alan. When Kaylie casually asks about the woman in Alan’s office, a ghostly woman projected by the mirror, the fires of Marie’s suspicions are stoked. She becomes paranoid and hypersensitive, further pushing Alan away.
Feeling unsteady himself, the mirror exploits Alan’s need to focus on his work and causes him to dismiss Marie’s concerns. In a fit of rage, she tries to smash the mirror as it reflects back the pathetic wife she fears she is becoming. In defense, the Glass consumes her, shooting her towards her family like a bullet from a gun. She attacks her children and Alan must subdue her to protect them. He calls for help, but the advice he receives is another projection of the mirror, it’s influence growing strong enough to manipulate the voices he hears on the phone. The Glass removes his objective reasoning and convinces him to “help” her by keeping her chained in the bedroom, tortured and starving.
Kaylie and her brother Tim (Garrett Ryan, Brenton Thwaites) experience tragedy most of us can only imagine. They are both attacked by their own parents and Tim is forced to kill his father to protect his sister. Before being seperated by the foster care system, the siblings vow to remember the truth and one day return to destroy the mirror. But time fades the clarity of their memories. Tim is raised in a mental health care facility where he receives intensive therapy designed to help him process his father’s death. He is convinced to alter his understanding of what happened and begins to view his father as an unfaithful murderer. He believes his young mind created another version of reality and doesn’t trust his initial perception of events. Kaylie has grown up with a single-minded purpose, to vindicate her father’s legacy and destroy the mirror that destroyed her family. By asking Tim to help her, she pulls him back into her version of events causing him to question the lens through which he now views his past.
To destroy the Lasser Glass, Kaylie has put in place a series of safeguards: independently operated cameras, land lines, temperature controls, and alarms all designed to prove that the mirror contains an observable paranormal entity. Her goal is twofold: to destroy the mirror and to prove to the world that her father was not a heinous murderer who tortured her mother. She wants to reflect the truth to the world by proving that he was acting under the mirror’s influence. But the Glass’s defenses are strong. Kaylie’s intention is to use cameras as proof, but what are cameras but more elaborate mirrors? They capture reality and replay it on demand in the same way the mirror captures and reflects reality instantaneously. Both exist within the perceptions of those who view what they reflect so can either ever truly be trusted?
Returning to his childhood home for the first time since his father’s death, Tim begins to relive his trauma. He sees visions of his old dog and remembers happy memories from his childhood. But soon the more upsetting memories begin to play out. He tries to convince Kaylie that her memory is wrong, showing her alternate explanations for the uncanny things that happened in the house. But as the mirror’s power over him grows, he’s confronted with the truth. He begins to relive the memories as they actually happened. Time ceases to exist logically inside the house and Tim and Kaylie lose themselves inside it’s walls, unable to tell if they are inside or outside, old or young. The mirror reflects back to them what actually happened, confronting them with the painful truth in a cruel attempt to defend itself by throwing them off guard. Tim can no longer choose the reality he created in therapy and Kaylie cannot continue believing that she has control. For all of her safeguards, she’s been pulled back within the mirror’s grasp.
Kaylie and Tim both act in ways they’re not aware of under the influence of the Lasser Glass. They lose track of time and place and the cameras capture them doing things they don’t remember. They suddenly find themselves in rooms they have no memory of entering and see visions of themselves standing in front of the Glass while consciously standing outside the house. The mirror has permeated their perception of physical reality and they are unable to determine what is real and what is hallucination. The cameras capture their actions but not the reality they believe those actions are occurring in. Like Alan, everything they do appears to be stemming from their own free will.
Once the Lasser Glass claims a soul, it becomes trapped, existing as an image controlled by the mirror to terrify and confuse. Alan and Marie have become weapons the mirror uses against their now grown children intended to compound their emotional pain and guide their actions. Kaylie repeatedly has visions of her parents attacking her, weaponizing the trauma she suffered as a child. Trying to defend herself, she inadvertently kills her own fiancé believing him to be her reanimated mother. Longing for Marie’s embrace, Kaylie is killed by this sinister mirage, positioned in front of the mirror to absorb the blow meant to shatter it. The Glass hides Kaylie from Tim and he triggers the kill switch, once again accidentally responsible for the death of a loved one under its influence. Dragged away again by police, he sees reflections of his lost family members in the window, their ghostly eyes now mirrors. They have been ensnared in the Glass’s grasp and now exist as reflections of what Tim has done.
We trust mirrors with images of ourselves. We rely on them to show us the hidden truth and we navigate the world based on what they reveal. The horror in Flanagan’s film lies in the idea that we cannot trust what we see with our own eyes, what we remember in the eye of our mind. By the film’s conclusion, we’re left questioning where the truth lies. Our hearts break with Tim’s because we’ve allowed ourselves to believe the illusion that we have control over the reality we see. We’re left with the terrifying fear that if Tim and Kaylie can lose themselves in the mirror’s reflection, so can we.