Bram Stoker created one of the most enduring pieces of media vampire lore in Dracula (1897)—the idea that they do not reflect in mirrors. In fact it was meant to be more than that, his notes tell us that “painters cannot paint him—their likenesses always like some one else” and “Could not codak him—come out black or like skeleton corpse”. Those additional pieces of lore didn’t make the book, but what neither the book nor the notes tell us is why.
A cottage industry has arisen trying to explain this. In the TV series, Moonlight (2007–2008), they couldn’t be traditionally photographed, but were fine being digitally captured, due to the silver emulsion in the film. This was an expansion on an often used (lack of) reflection explanation that it is the silvering of the back of the mirror that prevents reflection.
I personally like the idea (especially with the painter element) that it is perhaps a version of the Dorian Gray effect. As you’ll know, Gray—in Oscar Wilde’s 1891 tale—has a portrait of himself that ages and shows the impact of his excesses rather than his own face. If the vampire is then physically frozen in time it follows that the painting/reflection etc. can’t exist. There is no evidence that this was Stoker’s thought, but interestingly he and Wilde knew each other as students and though there was some ill feeling when Stoker married Wilde’s ex-fiancé, they eventually did become acquainted once more.
Questions then come up as to why it is the vampire and their clothes that do not reflect? Some films do actually have the clothes reflect but not the vampire—the earliest example that I can think of is The Return of the Vampire (1944), starring Bela Lugosi, which shows the corpse of the vampire in a coffin and then a reflection that only shows the clothes.
Close on its heels was The Vampire’s Ghost, which is one of the few versions of John Polidori’s The Vampyre: A Tale (1819), and dates to 1945. Interestingly, of course, Polidori used no such trait in his original story.
The trouble with lack of reflections in a film is that surfaces reflect and the filmmaker cannot guarantee that they will keep all accidental reflections at bay. This brings us to John Badham’s 1979 version of Dracula, staring Frank Langella as the Count. The film makes it very clear that vampires cast no reflection. Indeed there is a point in the film when Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) and Jack Seward (Donald Pleasence) show Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve) the fact that the staked Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis) has no reflection—they then cut out her heart to finally free her.
However, earlier in the film, Van Helsing had gone into mines below the graveyard looking for his vampiric daughter (Mina in the film takes on the traditional Lucy role and is given a familial relationship to Van Helsing). A bat flies at him and he drops his crucifix into a puddle of water. As he gropes for it we see, reflected in the water, a grim vision—that of the ghastly visage of the reanimated Mina. The scene gathers detraction as she is reflected, clearly against the film’s own inner logic.
In a featurette on the DVD release, Badham liked the scene and invented the rule that vampires do cast reflections in holy water and, as the cross had fallen into it, the pool had become holy water! The scene is shown below:
For the record, dropping crosses in puddles is not how you make holy water! This Wikipedia article explains how it’s done.
Andy has written a novel, Concilium Sanguinarius (2008), and a non-fiction book, The Media Vampire: A Study of Vampires in Fictional Media (2012). He’s also covered another popular vampire trope here: vampires changing into bats. Give that—and my rebuttal—a read.