The Mirror People
Giovanni De Feo

An excerpt from The Broken-Mirror Syndrome
(H. P. Scott and E. A. Quipple, London, 2015: pp. 18–26)

1. Early reports of the Syndrome.

The first reported cases date to the period of the initial colonization of the island by the Emerald Empire. According to these early records, the Syndrome was referred to as “sailor sickness’ since it mainly affected the many sailors who frequented Arani prostitutes.1

      These sailors were described locking themselves in their cabins, unusual behavior for anyone who had just spent three months at sea. Some subjects became violent, which manifested either in self-injury or against the Arani. There were reports of the kind of disfigurement typical of the sixth stage of the Syndrome, although at the time it was considered self-inflicted. Outcomes were in general very poor, often resulting in the death of the sailor, either by hanging for murder or by his own hand. It is impossible to ascertain how many reports can be attributed to sailors’ “rowdy behavior” rather than to the effects of the illness. But considering that the Arani harbor district saw a 400% rise in violent crime2 in comparison with the neighbouring island of Hy-Bra, it seems highly probable that the Syndrome played an important role in the spike in violence.

      Although direct links between these early reports and the illness as it is now understood have not been established, one connection is perfectly clear: There was no Syndrome prior to the arrival of the Emerald Empire on the island. More than one radical activist (Sackville, 1975) has affirmed that the Syndrome is in fact the Arani’s only way to strike back against the colonisers’ “imposed metrification.”3 This aligns with an old radical theory that the Syndrome is an “artificial illness” fabricated by the Arani to fight their occupiers. Although this theory has been disproven several times over—for the simple reason that the Arani themselves are often murdered by those infected by the disease—it tended to return to prominence every time there was a new insurgence of the illness. Despite these issues, Arani remains the most visited island in the Emerald Empire, with a visitor influx twenty times higher than similar islands such as Manuria or Hy-Bra.

2. The Vaughan case.

In April 1924 a young woman visiting Arani on her honeymoon killed herself by removing her face with a mirror shard. Her husband, Mr. Vaughan, a surgeon in the Royal Navy, opened the first medical inquiry which later gave his name to the illness.

      Vaughan noticed that the deterioration of his wife’s mental faculties began her after her first visit to the Red Light District. At first he imagined his wife to be affected by the moral predicaments of the girls. His logical arguments regarding the matter—that what she was seeing had been a part of Arani culture for centuries, that the prostitutes were well paid and earned twenty times as much any other Arani on the island—were in vain. Mrs. Vaughan retired to her quarters in shock. This was the beginning of the first meticulously recorded case, which is still used today to mark the seven different stages of the illness.

      Initially Mrs. Vaughan seemed merely concerned about a skin rash she had had for some time. The rash itself was considered a “trifle.” However, Mrs. Vaughan soon became convinced that the maids were teasing her when she was out of earshot. After a week the young woman refused to leave her rooms. She maintained that everybody in Arani was disgusted by her skin rash. Even the slightest glance from a stranger would leave her sobbing in a corner. As a result, Mrs. Vaughan developed an irrational hatred for the Arani in general and for the prostitutes in particular. Servants reported hearing her say that their beauty “mocked her,” and that they were an “outrage to God.”4

      Her mental condition worsened when Mr. Vaughan, convinced that a partial exposure to the source of her hatred would cure her, brought her back to the Red Light District. After engaging in a very brief conversation with a sixteen-year-old prostitute Mrs. Vaughan became convinced her husband was a regular client of the girl. Over the following days this belief evolved in detail until she was certain that the prostitute had stolen her own visage, leaving her in an “ugly” husk of a face that was not her own.

      Through his wife’s remarks Mr Vaughan was able to reconstruct the pattern and development of her paranoia. His wife lamented that her appearance had first been “corrupted” (the skin rash) and then stolen away by the prostitute. She claimed that the girl stole her likeness, although she admitted that Arani ethnic features, the golden eyes and the caramel skin, made the prostitute the more beautiful one. From then on she began living like a recluse. Even her maids were not allowed to see her face, which she covered with a cloth mask. At the same time mirrors became objects of both fear and desire. When confronted with one Mrs. Vaughan could not stop herself from checking her “disfigurement.” In his journal Doctor Vaughan made an acute observation of this duality: “Bella is both attracted to and repulsed by mirrors. She needs them for reassurance, as she is compelled to see she is still herself. But when the mirror doesn’t perform as she wishes, she destroys it.”5

      Doctor Vaughan also noted that his wife would use people as if they were mirrors. In the last stages of the illness she considered others solely in relation to her own self-worth. However, even the most impressively credentialed of visitors was soon discovered to be “biased”; not in the least because her husband would “pay them to lie.” Desperate to find a cure, Doctor Vaughan made one last attempt6 to dispel her hysteria.7 He bought all the mirrors available and created a “mirror-apartment” where his wife would stay. This strategy seemed to produce some positive results. After the first days of screaming Mrs. Vaughan appeared calmer and even removed her cloth mask. It was then that the final symptoms of the Syndrome were observed. Her skin rash had developed into an extreme case of Epidermodysplasia.

      This new ailment not only flew in the face of all medical prediction, but also disfigured Mrs Vaughan so badly that one of her maids fainted after seeing her without the mask. And yet the surgeon’s wife minimized her disfigurement (“It is only a little rash”). Likewise, she now seemed unaware of the reactions her appearance provoked, even misinterpreting them with a touch of vanity (“If they are staring at your wife, my dear doctor, is because your young bride is not without a touch of charm”).8 This predicament, though more manageable than her previous condition, left the doctor with grave concerns. He was afraid that, should she see herself as she truly was, she would die of shock from “ruptured vanity.”

      His fears proved to be well founded, though not quite what he had predicted. Until this point Mrs. Vaughan had been locked inside by her own volition. Now she demanded to go out, which was of terrible concern to her husband as he was afraid that people’s reactions to her disfigurement would deepen her mental affliction. Still, Mrs. Vaughan was so insistent that the doctor had no choice but to let her.

      They were riding together in an open coach when Mrs. Vaughan noted a young woman in the crowd. Much to the doctor’s disconcertion it was the Arani prostitute, more beautiful then ever. She was standing by the roadside looking at the carriage “with the blank eyes of the hallucinated.” Immediately Mrs. Vaughan was moved. “Oh sweet Lord, that poor girl, her face looks awful. What do you think ails her?”

      Those few words were enough to provoke in Mr. Vaughan the “interior tremors of supernatural terror,” an experience it would take him years to recover from. Immediately he ordered the coachman to head back. But the damage was done. A strange tremor had set upon Mrs. Vaughan, even though she professed to be perfectly fine. When they arrived home she went to refresh herself before luncheon. Vaughan writes that she was alone in her rooms for less then twenty minutes. When he knocked on her door and heard no reply he knew immediately there was something amiss. He and the butler broke open the locked door only to find his wife on the floor in a pool of blood. Mrs. Vaughan had broken a mirror and with a shard proceeded to remove two-thirds of her face with “almost surgical precision.”

      The loss of blood from the removal of her nose was so severe that the young woman fainted before she could complete her task. Indeed Mrs. Vaughan never regained consciousness. She remained in a coma for six days before passing away on the 20th of April, 1926.

      By then the entire island had heard about her demise. It was said that Mrs. Vaughan had been mad from the start and suffered from bouts of depression. In an effort to dispel this notion Doctor Vaughan started the medical inquiry that made his name. Vaughan remained in Arani for sixteen years as a GP at the local hospital, compiling an impressive archive of Syndrome-related cases. It began to become evident that, though less severe in manifestation, many Emerald citizens had suffered from the Syndrome in one form or another. These mind-body ailments varied greatly, and maybe for this reason had never before been connected to a single illness. It took Mr. Vaughan’s obsessive drive and record-gathering to discover the link. Although there were differences, sufferers of the Syndrome all had three things common. None of them were Arani; they had been on the island for less then a week; and, most importantly, they were all rather plain, with slightly poorer-than-average looks. This is why the Vaughan Syndrome is called sometimes the “broken-mirror syndrome,” or the “vanity scourge.”

      Two main characteristics set it apart from all other psychic diseases. Firstly, it can be “caught” and is considered an infectious disease. Secondly, it can only be caught in Arani. Though many sufferers do not share the same symptoms, Vaughan was able to identify seven distinct stages. To this day they are used to quantify the disease’s severity, although infected subjects may “skip” to later stages without manifesting the initial ones.

3. The seven stages.

The first stage of the illness is commonly known as the “awe stage.” During this stage the infected subject experiences the Arani’s beauty with an intensity akin to that experienced by sufferers of Stendhal Syndrome. Often, they become so overly appreciative that they develop a kind of enthrallment, especially for Arani of their own sex.9

      The second stage is when the first negative symptoms manifest themselves. As in the Vaughan case, these symptoms consist of an obsession with a single physical flaw, however temporary or delusional. Very often the infected obsesses over one body part, typically hair, nose or hands; and begins to develop a complex paranoid pattern.

      This pattern is consolidated in the third stage. Initially subjects believes that their loved ones frequently comment on their flaws and laugh about them. Discouragingly, the more the subjects are reassured about their looks, the more their disbelief in these reassurances grows. It is then that the afflicted begin to solicit the opinions of strangers. The strangers’ spontaneous reactions (surprise or amusement) are disbelieved as well, triggering even more severe forms of paranoia. Over a short period of time, the subjects become convinced that everyone is secretly whispering about their flaws. Even television programs or radio shows are believed to make allusions to their physical defects.

      The fourth stage10 is the “mirror stage.” Currently there is also a similar, parallel stage known in the media as the “selfie stage.” The patterns are the same: Unable to trust the judgment of others, those affected search for the objective solace of a reflecting surface. For them, no mirror behaves in the same way, nor does the same mirror ever show the same image. At times, mirrors appear to exaggerate the flaw. At other times, they minimize it; but in this case they usually reveal another flaw the patient was not previously aware of. Indeed some patients never manifest fourth-stage symptoms at all. The so-called “selfie stage” is very much the same, but with one difference: Not only does the subject obsess over photos, but also about sharing them. If others don’t react as anticipated, the patient may resort to extreme behavior, such as stalking or harassment.

      So far there have been only twelve recognized cases of “online” Vaughan Syndrome. Nine of these patients recovered, the remaining three committed suicide. In all twelve cases, the affected had posted not only their own photos but pictures of the Arani “transfers” (see Stage Five). It is precisely for this reason that Doodle, Facebloom, and Phantagram have prohibited all Empire citizens from sharing pictures of the Arani.11 There are three software applications12 that recognize Arani features and block their pictures immediately, automatically notifying the postal police.13 This issue has become even more controversial since the next Nebetton advertising campaign—due out in summer 2017—will feature real Arani models. Some politicians have proclaimed that the campaign will produce a worldwide pandemic, making the Syndrome as common as the flu. However there is no evidence backing these claims, and the scientific community has rebuked such notions more than once (see rebuttals below).

      The fifth stage is by far the most controversial. In this “transfer stage,” the infected subject identifies an individual Arani culprit who is responsible for the affliction. From this moment the Syndrome leads rapidly to psychosis. The patient is convinced that the Arani is stealing the affection of loved ones, especially romantic partners. In this regard, singles are less likely to be affected by the fifth stage.

      The delusions of the afflicted vary greatly, but all are based on the same notion: that an Arani has “switched” his or her appearance with that of the patient. Some patients even claim this is the reason for the Arani’s beauty. According to them, the Arani would be of average attractiveness, or even ugly, had they not the supernatural ability to switch their appearance with that of anyone who looks at them. This—according to the infected—is why the beautiful are targeted. The stolen beauty will then be enhanced by the exotic features of the Arani, while the victim’s original appearance first becomes plain, then “horrendous.” When confronted with the illogic of their arguments, patients may resort to the most fantastical explanations. Typically, they may assert that the transfer is so powerful that the universe has reacted to it.

      Patients will maintain that all images, digital or physical, change to reflect the switch. Accordingly, all the memories of the people who ever knew the afflicted would change as well. This is one of the reasons patients fear the abandonment of their partners, who they believe long for their lost beauty. This leads to extreme jealousy of the transfers, who patients consider to now “own” their original appearance.

      At this stage the afflicted may become violent, either towards their partners or the Arani. Arani police claim that in the last ten years alone some three hundred Arani have been wounded or killed by patients suffering from the Syndrome. This fact plainly disproves the radicals’ allegations that the Syndrome is an artificial weapon fashioned by the Arani to wage their war of independence against the Empire.14 The Arani seem happy to stay alive, much like anyone else.

      The sixth stage is rare and possibly the most scientifically puzzling. Only one-fifth of the infected subjects exhibit it, but when they do the symptoms are unmistakable. It manifests with a plethora of disfiguring ailments (from alopecia to skin cancer) located in the body part obsessed over as flawed. So if a stage-two patient is worried about the “thinness” of his hair, it is not unlikely that he will go completely bald.

      This aspect of Vaughan Syndrome is as yet inexplicable. Some patients have shown skin-cancer proliferations that would be expected of someone who has been suffering for over a decade. Sometimes there are changes to bone structure, turning patients into hunchbacks, shortening their legs, reducing their height. This alone would be uncanny, but the patients’ reactions are sometimes even more horrifying.

      Simply put, stage-six patients are the opposite of those in stage two. Although their disfigurement is now real, they are oblivious to it; nor do they take heed of any emotional reaction from people around them.15 In fact, when they do notice, their response is paradoxical in the extreme. This is what is also known as the vanity stage. Stage-six patients think themselves to be extraordinarily beautiful. It was not an uncommon sight—before hospitalization became compulsory—to see a deformed patient walking along the Promenade with a demeanor of flirtation.

      What makes this stage nearly 80% fatal is that eventually patients see themselves for what they have become. This will happen even in complete isolation. The shock alone can kill. Otherwise sufferers will do everything in their power to “remove” the disfigured part. When hospitalization and restraints prevent self-harm, patients lose their will to live and nearly all are dead within three months.

      The seventh stage is even rarer, occurring only in stage-six patients who are unfortunate enough to have seen their “transfer Aranis.” Since today all patients are compulsorily hospitalized, there have been no cases of stage seven since 2001. What happens during this phase is not well defined, as effects vary widely. However the manifestation of this stage most certainly takes place when a stage-six patient sees his or her Arani and perceives the Arani to be affected by the same physical disfigurement that the patient suffers from. This alone triggers the last, lethal phase of the illness. But often the identification with the Arani doesn’t stop there, and goes on to become a delusional bond of metaphysical proportions. In short, stage-seven patients believe they are connected not to one Arani, but to all Arani.

      This is a complete reversal of the “beauty awe” of the first stage. Infected subjects now see all Arani as deformed. Their delusion shows them Arani as they “truly are”: crippled by poverty, disfigured by malnutrition and illness. However, patients don’t experience any sensation of horror. On the contrary, what happens instead is that a terrible compassion takes root, and this ugliness is perceived to be ultimately the fault of the Emerald Empire.16 The infected subjects become—of a fashion—“hostages” of the Arani, even becoming partisan to their cause and resorting to violence against the Empire.17 This behavior is indeed outrageous, as it harms four hundred years of amicable bonds between the Arani and Emerald citizens. For this reason, any symptom of the seventh stage must be reported to the Emerald Police, and the only treatment is long-term forced hospitalization.18

6. The present day.

The last patient to reach stage six died in 2003. In the twelve years since, much has been done. Sixteen million Emerald citizens visit Arani every year. Less than 0.2% show any symptoms beyond stage four. While is true that signs of the early stages have increased, this can be attributed to greater awareness and early diagnosis. Despite the claims of the radical press, the Arani are totally free, prostitution having been their sacred trade for over one thousand years, half a millennium before the Emerald Empire was even established.

      As you can read in our study about the Glass District, the days of the old Red Light District are gone. No muddy roads where the Arani suffer under the scorching sun. All child prostitutes live in picturesque apartments; they can expose themselves at the display windows or not, at their leisure.19 They are all monitored by the local authorities and are certified as healthy. Child prostitution is of course perfectly consensual and legal20 in Arani. Parents expose their children in the apartment windows so clients can conveniently pass by and ring the bell. A child who doesn’t wish to see a client can refuse at any time. The children’s wages are so high that by the age of eighteen they can often retire and become Street Models.

      It is interesting to note that the Arani gender-neutral word for “prostitute” literally means “chosen by beauty.” We cannot impose our moral standards on another culture. It is so very typical of radical propaganda to assert that the Arani are “trapped” on their island. In fact no Arani has ever stated a desire or intent to leave the island. The only restrictions the authorities impose are for visitors, not for the Arani.21

      While recent history of the Arani and their impact on Emerald Empire tourism must still be charted, it’s not in the scope of this work to do so. However, we cannot refrain from considering a few facts, though not strictly related to the Syndrome, which illustrate how its perception has changed in the last ten years.

      In 2010 the great Italian fashion houses of Borgia and Malvento debuted the first Arani fashion show, with one hundred of the most beautiful Arani prostitutes dressed in the finest designer clothes and accessories. The show is not broadcast, and tickets can go for up to three thousand Emerald crowns. A worldwide TV replica—with non-Arani impersonators—follows. Last year the event was viewed, online and offline, by over one billion people around the globe.

      As for the future, advances in technology and medical research are such that in a few years taking pictures of the Arani will be both legal and perfectly harmless. A scrambling software is being developed by MIT and the University of Cambridge to deAranisize all images of the autochthones.22 This is why, after a long legal battle, in 2017 Nebetton will be able to release the first world-broadcast fashion show with real Arani models. Though still controversial, the TV images will be scrambled so as to be “Syndrome ineffective.” Arani medical authorities have stated on several occasions that the new data-scrambling technology will make the show perfectly safe.

      In spite of the ravings and alarmism of some extremists,23 this is a strong positive sign that the Syndrome years are steadily moving behind us. The “Broken-Mirror Curse” will be probably be studied in years to come as a manifestation of collective guilt for our colonization. That is why Nebetton’s 2017 show is so important, not just for medical community, but for any Emerald citizen. It will demonstrate beyond any doubt that the Arani are not at all the sex slaves painted by radical propaganda, but free Emerald citizens.

      In two years, those who aren’t able to visit Arani will be able to see it virtually. More than a fashion show, Nebetton’s campaign will be a rejoicing in beauty in the widest sense. It is estimated by Arani authorities that the show will attract around two billion viewers. If that is true, one Emerald citizen out of three will see the Arani. It will be the most-watched television show since the Emerald Coronation.

      We are positive that it will be a world-changing event.

1. The link to Arani prostitution is by no means a coincidence, as we will see later.

2. Peal, 1989: pp. 24–36.

3. Sackville, 1975, 2009: p. 89.

4. Vaughan, The Broken Mirror, Mac Millian, 1927.

5. Vaughan, The Diaries 1923–27, Mac Millian, 1941.

6. It has been claimed by several authors (Zaira, 1987; Gavazzi, 2001) that Vaughan’s second attempt at “partial-exposure” therapy seems highly suspect, given how disruptive the first had been. Some even claim that this therapy demonstrates sadistic tendencies; others (Biriani, 1999) have accused the doctor of having an actual affair with the sixteen-year-old Arani prostitute. In spite of these claims, no real evidence of an affair has ever been found.

7. The Syndrome was first diagnosed as “hysteria” by Vaughan. Only after the 1940s did it became common to call it by the modern name.

8. Vaughan, 1927: p. 273.

9. The famed attractiveness of the Arani has become part of the debate regarding one of the most controversial anthropological questions: whether human beauty is universal or relative. Both ideas have been argued (see Jeremy, 1956; and Hutchinson, 1987). Hutchinson maintains that Arani conform to the mathematical proportions known as Da Vinci’s golden ratio, and thus are considered “universally beautiful.” But then—as Jeremy notes—the golden ratio is not considered harmonic by all cultures (for example, the Inuit do not react positively to it). Despite these objections, Arani have been selected as more attractive than similar non-Arani faces/bodies by an overwhelming majority of people from all cultures and ethnicities. To this day no satisfactory scientific explanation has ever been found.

10. This is the first infectious stage. Today hospitalization and quarantine are compulsory for anyone exhibiting this behavior (see p. 328).

11. The infamous Arani Internet Censorship Act, 2006.

12. Arani Pic-Block, Vanity Scourge, Rorrim: all by Dunix.

13. Naturally, morphed/partial pictures of Arani do circulate on the web. As to why they don’t provoke an epidemic few psychologists agree. The most credible explanation (Baltham, 2001) claims that the psychoaffective mechanism of the Syndrome is set off only when there is visualization of both the infected subject and the Arani transfer. In short, a source of comparison is necessary.

14. “Indeed the Arani die. Isn’t that what war is all about? They are like terrorists, blowing themselves up with their victims. Only, instead of bombs, they use beauty.” (Sullivan, 1993: p. 45).

15. “Their self-perceived ugliness has now materialized on their exterior: thus they are free from it, and from all the judgment of others. They might very well be monsters, but as such they can only exist outside any aesthetic judgment” (Juarra Ka Ben, 1943: pp. 80–81).

16. It is not unheard of for stage-seven patients’ delusions to become political: “We forced them to be beautiful, don’t you see? They’re like chameleons, they’ve adapted to our own expectations to survive the changes we brought them. What you see, my disfigurement, is what they feel inside. We are doing this to them. It is only fair that they reflect this horror to us. No, they are not chameleons, not at all. They are the mirror people” (Art, 1971: pp. 17–19).

17. See the attack on the Emerald Embassy carried out by Jack Napier, a stage-seven patient known for the radical political views brought on by his illness (February 10, 1997).

18. Indeed, since the 1995 Jubilant Act, protests against the occupation of Arani are considered under law to be stage-seven symptoms, resulting in quarantine and isolation. Forced hospitalization ranges from one month to two years in the case of more severe felonies.

19. Some radical tabloids (The Green Sun, March 5, 2013: p. xii) have stated that the Arani live in “glass cages”; a crude misinterpretation, since all Arani have signed their housing/prostitution contracts.

20. Since 1932, the Arani Children Liberalization Act.

21. The notorious “four rules” the medical authority enforces in Arani:
  • 1. It is absolutely forbidden to take pictures of an Arani.
  • 2. It is forbidden to take an Arani to the house or accommodations of an Emerald citizen.
  • 3. It is strongly recommended not to befriend Arani outside of sexual preliminaries.
  • 4. If anyone exhibits any behavior suggestive of the Syndrome it is compulsory to report it immediately to the local authorities (see www.Vaughan.em/4rules).
22. Gavazzi and Paneidos; see Science, October 2013: pp. 126–152.

23. “Don’t you see? This is exactly what they want! They want to be seen, by as many Emerald citizens as they can. It is not a victory for Nebetton but for the Arani. In a moment they will reach billions, infecting us with their terrible beauty. And we will bow down to them, while they walk on our necks, laughing at our stupidity. All of our technology, all of our science, our power will be nothing, we will let them trample us under their feet, only to have the privilege of basking in their splendor for one more minute” (Cesar’s Ring, March 2, 2014: p. xii).

Screenwriter and writer of speculative fiction Giovanni De Feo lives in Genoa.