The Troxler Effect

There’s this game that children used to play. It was back when you only had your own imagination to distract you from the world outside. It was played like this…

You find a mirror somewhere – usually a bathroom – and you light some candles. You turn off the lights and stand there by yourself, looking in the mirror and chanting quietly. Slowly. They used to call it “Bloody Mary” because that’s what you were supposed to say, and that’s what you were supposed to see.

After a few minutes of staring and chanting, the child’s face in the mirror, it would disappear. It would be replaced with terrible things. Monstrous faces. Distorted, horrible images that would make the child scream. They’d run away and tell their friends about it. Tell their friends about Bloody Mary.

But it’s not real. Bloody Mary doesn’t exist.

You see, in 1804, Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler discovered that if you stare at a single point for long enough, your peripheral vision starts acting screwy. Things start to disappear. You’ve seen it before. It’s called Troxler’s Fading.

The thing about Troxler’s Fading though, is that it doesn’t just make things disappear. It distorts them. Warps everything beyond recognition. Changes images until they no longer resemble what was there. There’s no Bloody Mary. Just a trick of visual perception. A penalty for staring too long.

When you focus on one thing, your eyes get lazy. Your brain gets bored. It constructs terrible images to wake you up. Make you look away. Focus on something else.

But when we were kids, it was just a game, and we could look away.

Now we look for so long and stay so focused that we can’t distinguish the original image anymore. Like your mother tried to warn you about making faces. “It’ll freeze that way,” she said. She didn’t know about Troxler. She didn’t know we want to imagine ourselves as monsters. She didn’t know we make monstrous faces to cope with the damage. Real or imagined, it doesn’t matter.

So we find a mirror and look at ourselves in the dim light, further worn from sleeplessness and anxiety. We stare and distort those things we see. We focus on one thing and the periphery fades. Our eyes make us ugly. Our brains turn us into hideous things. It’s not real. It’s a trick of perception. But this time, instead of noses and ears and eyes distorting, it’s those other things. It’s vices and addictions and damages. It’s emotions and regret. It grows on our bodies in the mirror. Tumors and boils and scars. The Troxler Effect. It all becomes unbearable until we scream and want to look away. But we keep staring; making our faces become terrifying.

We aren’t seeing a ghost. We’re seeing ourselves. We take it with us. We carry Bloody Mary in our minds like something to hide. Something to regret. If only we could separate that distortion from the real image. But we keep staring at a fixed point. Keep imagining the monsters we want to be.


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