Friday, November 21, 2008

Through the Looking Glass

Jonathan Boakes has crafted some of the spookiest and most enjoyable interactive media I've ever experienced. The creator of horror adventure games like Dark Fall: The Journal and The Lost Crown, his work contains creepy sounds and images (If you click on the website for The Lost Crown above and don't get a shiver, you just don't have a functioning nervous system).
Boakes often delves into the lore of the British Isles and ghost-hunting methods both ancient and modern in his games. He also seems fascinated with the supernatural possibilities of mirrors.
I wanted his take on scrying, so I fired off some questions, and he was kind enough to answer. (Warning: Here there be spoilers.)

How old is this procedure?
As a practise, Scrying goes back into pre-history, long before the existence of the mirror, as we know it. Any reflective surface can be used, from metal to water. The Celts, Norse and Vikings believed that another world, a mirrored world, existed beyond the reflection; a domain where gods, mythical beasts and the afterlife resides. Staring at a reflective surface, usually a pool, lake or pond, was thought to provide an insight, or vision, of that world. The longer the vigil, the more detailed and revealing the vision would become.

The same practise was modified, or customised if you like, in the Middle Ages to use actual mirrors of polished metal, which were activated when water was poured, gently, over the surface. Those gazing at their distorted reflection believed they saw their face change, quite dramatically, to the face of another. Some thought the strange faces were significant to the viewer; was the face that of a future lover, life or enemy? Others believed that demons and evil spirits dwelt in the mirror world, and glared back through the watery vision, envious of those living on the other side.

Scrying continues, today, in many forms; from the traditional mirror/water combo, to the newer digital version, in which a lone sitter stares into a locked-off camera, for as long as possible. The recording has been thought to show distortions in the face, a change in the eyes, or present an entirely different face altogether.

Where did you first hear of it?
Boakes: Scrying is something most people are familiar with, due to its use in film and literature. The crystal ball is an obvious example of popular scrying, as is the image of the Queen in Snow White, staring into her mirror, and requesting "Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all". The mirror image changes to show the face of another, (Snow White in this case), so it is a perfect an example of Scrying as one would hope for, but it is never referred to by that name in the film.

My first encounter with the word scrying came in the field, during an actual ghost-hunt. I was following the work of a group of paranormal enthusiasts (, as research for The Lost Crown. The team had chosen one of Cornwall's many great homes to explore, in this case the ancient seat of the Trelawney Family, armed with ghost-hunting gadgets, both old and new. After setting up all the high tech monitoring equipment, I enquired whether they use any older techniques, such as dowsing, compass reading or Ouija boards. Those experiments all require the use of equipment, or props, so I was surprised to hear that one of the most successful, and entertaining, rituals was called scrying, and needed only two items, which are available at almost every possible site you would ever want to investigate; a mirror, and water.
As a descriptive word, 'scrying' sounds pretty horrible activity. There's something nasty about it. So, I was a little nervous, when it came to taking part in my first scrying session. I was informed, just prior to 'the pouring', that I should expect to see my face change; to become more like that of a monster, or demon. It sounds rather daft now, but at the time, I half expected clawed hands, or talons, to reach out from the mirror, to rip out my throat. I'm glad to say that didn't happen! But, it certainly made my first scrying session a memorable one.

What regional legends have you heard?
Boakes: There are several pools, ponds and lakes in deepest, darkest, Cornwall, believed to possess supernatural powers. Dozmary Pool, which is a short drive from my home, is believed to be the resting place of Excaliber, no less, and home to The Lady of the Lake. It's an eerie place, at the best of times, so gazing into those waters can be an illuminating experience. Even closer to home, is Saint Nonna's Well; an anceint natural source of spring water housed in an oak covered shrine, like something out of Tolkien. Galadriel's scrying pool, the aptly named Mirror of Galadriel, is often depicted as a bowl, or basin, in which the past and future can be 'seen', distorted in the ripples. Saint Nonna's Well, in reality, is crystal clear, and decorated with fairies, ribbons and crystals, placed there by those who believe the well is enchanted, or magical in some way. Thousands make a pilgrimage to the site, each year, to peer into the pray, to be blessed or seek answers.

What stories of scrying captured your imagination?
Boakes: Going back to my first scrying experience, I have to admit that I DID see changes within the reflection. The room seemed to darken, both the reflected version and the room around me, and my face became one that I did not recognise. I'm not saying there was anything supernatural about it, but it was unnerving. Staring into a mirror, for a long period of time, is quite hypnotic, especially if you focus on the area between the eyes. The brow seems to become heavy, the eyes more intense and the general appearance is of someone more feral, or primitive. Quite scary, really. It is easy to understand why those superstitious folk of the Middle Ages believed that a demon version, of their very self, dwelt on the other side of the reflection. Something as simple as a reflection proved to be unnerving. I guess that's why I wanted to feature scrying in the games that I have produced, so far. There was a seer pool, in Dark Fall, which allowed the gamer to see a vital clue, which would of been impossible to find through conventional means. Various minerals were placed around the pool, to activate its power of sight. So, in that case, the scrying session was being used to see into the past, or future...much like Galadriel.

Further on, I decided to feature a traditional scrying session, in The Lost Crown. The gamer pours a bottle of water, (locally sourced spring water, purchased from the nearby pub to be precise), down an antique mirror, and stares deep into the distorted reflection. An image, or vision, is prompted into appearance by some simple seance questioning ("is there anybody there"). The vision is that of a woman, a melancholy face, that seems to need some help from the player (the living), to help her move on into the afterlife. It's a mildly startling image, like all positive scrying experiments, as we only ever expect to see our face, when gazing at the reflection. To see someone else is alarming, but, and this is most strange thing of all, we are not entirely surprised. Whether this says something about our perceptions of self, or our mistrust of the mirrored world is unknown, but I believe scrying, as an experiment, is something we will be exploring for some time to come.

(For more information check out his website.)

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