I’m not afraid, and I wish I were.

I’ve always been bothered by the common horror-story trope that vampires can’t be seen in mirrors. If they can be seen with the naked eye, it means they reflect light. If they reflect light, they will be visible in mirrors. But, in addition to not making sense, the whole idea seems needless and tacked-on; which kind of detracts from the scariness of vampires, I think.

So I searched on this phenomenon, and it turns out, according to “J” at Yahoo answers, that people believed that mirrors reflected the soul of a person, not just the actual person. Vampires, having no souls, don’t show up in mirrors.

For some reason–and forgive me for going all geeky here–I find this to be rather absurd. I don’t know why; and obviously it’s silly to complain about this being unbelievable–vampires are mythical creatures and therefore the whole thing is no more unbelievable than the rest of it. And yet I can’t help but find that sometimes some elements of the fiction screw up the rest of it for me.

Some people find this irritating, and I guess I see their point.  I know sounds ridiculous to demand “believability” from fictional stories. But forgive me if I believe that fiction needs to have “internal logic”. More than that, there is a chance of a writer putting in too many fantastic or unreal elements, so that it all becomes utterly unbelievable and ruins the immersion.

One of the most illuminating explanations of this problem comes from a rather unlikely source. In his book A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and SullivanGayden Wren writes:

“Most… Gilbert and Sullivan operas rely on a single preposterous element–the witch’s curse in Ruddigore, for example, or The Yeomen of the Guard‘s masked marriage–which are subsequently treated plausibly enough that each opera as a whole seems logical.” (Emphasis added.)

What Wren describes is indeed a key part of G and S’s humor, but I believe that writers of the horror genre would have even more to gain by following this method. You can maybe get away with an anything-goes illogicality in comedies. It is often very jarring in a horror story.

To tie all this back in with the vampires: I suppose this overabundance of implausibility is an inevitable consequence of the way mythology and folklore work–a story gets new facets and touches every time it is retold. The vampire myth–on which, I admit, I’m no expert–seems remotely possible, and thus scary, if you’re just going on the premise that there exist beings which can subsist on human blood for a very long time.

I can easily imagine that this was how it all started–but over centuries other details, like turning into bats, can’t go out in sunlight, vulnerable to crucifixes, holy water, garlic etc. all got thrown into the mix by various people.

All this adds up to make the whole myth much less scary. One unbelievable element I can take; a dozen is much harder. And while I’m never going to actually believe in anything I read in a horror book or see in a movie, it is possible to subconsciously be put on edge by a well-done horror story.

This is one reason I like many of H.P. Lovecraft‘s stories. He was fairly successful, I feel, at using only a single implausible idea–the “Great Old Ones“–and then following it logically. I certainly don’t believe such ideas, but it sounds remotely possible. (And unknowable, since the Old Ones exist in other dimensions and in far reaches of the Universe.)

In something of an irony, though, much of the “Cthulhu mythos” was redesigned by August Derleth and now suffers from the same flaws that befell other myths–too many unnecessary elements thrown in that spoil the original frightening elements. (For me, this is. Some love Derleth’s work. To each his or her own.)

Still perhaps this quest to find horror that really does seem believable while being simultaneously entertaining is a Quixotic one. After all, there’s only so scared one can get reading a book or watching a movie. Even my favorite horror movie ever, The Omen (The ’76 one, not the ’06 remake) still suffers from too many unbelievable and needless elements that are unrelated to the central premise.

I guess to really get immersed in a horror story, my best bet is probably video games. After all, at least in games like Doom 3, F.E.A.R. and Dead Space, you are the one wandering around in the dark, not passively watching or imagining some character doing it. So, even if there are implausible elements, it’s easier to forget about them.


  1. Very interesting post, mysterious man, and quite possibly why I never liked reading about vampires. I think I need the believability factor. I think Stephen King is best when he doesn't go over the top, as he tends to do. There is a book about Charles Dickens (can't think of title) that is really good. It's a fictional novel about his obsession with the supernatural and the underground dwellers. It it wasn't 3 am, my mind my be working better, but, I thought it was terrific because the terror was there and it was believable- for me anyway.. : 0

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