You’re young. You’re at a sleepover and the party has moved into the middle of the night. It’s that time of the night when the urge to tell a scary story begins to rise. A story or two is told then someone says, “Have you guys heard about Bloody Mary?” Among the giggles and looks everyone agrees to give it a try. Everyone gathers in the bathroom, huddled together in your pajamas. Starring into the mirror someone turns the lights out. After a moment of hesitation someone starts saying “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.” Nothing happens. But someone twitches. Someone screams they see something. Now everyone is screaming and frantically trying to open the door. It opens, everyone runs out. The screaming stops once everyone is out. In the end everyone laughs it off.
Bloody Mary is an urban legend that has been around for at least forty years. The above narrative is a typical narrative of those that try to act out the Bloody Mary ritual. I was really young when I was exposed to this urban legend. The version I knew said that if you stood in a dark bathroom, in front of the mirror, and said “Bloody Mary” three times her bloodied face would appear in the mirror.
I don’t know where I originally heard it from. I was that odd kid who liked scary stories and spooked out others with them. There were a couple of times the kids at my daycare went into the bathroom and tried it out. When I was a little older I found myself in the bathroom with some friends, we were looking at a glow in the dark puzzle. One of the older ones started saying “Bloody Mary.” I was the one closest to the mirror. They bolted out of the bathroom and held the door shut, leaving me in a panic. I don’t know if I saw anything, I tried my best to not look in the direction of the mirror.
The common elements of the legend are that you stand in front of a mirror in the dark and perform some sort of ritual. Once the ritual is performed the apparition known as Bloody Mary is supposed to appear. There are many variations of these core elements.
In some versions the ritual can only be performed at certain times otherwise she does not appear. You can either do it alone or in a group. The ritual itself is also varied. Sometimes it is performed with candles. There are a varying amount of times you should say “Bloody Mary,” sometimes you say something different such as Mary Worth which is a popular alternative. And what appears and happens also varies. In some versions you will only see a bloodied face in others she is supposed to lunge out of the mirror and try to harm you.
So where did this urban legend come from and who is Mary? In some versions she remains nameless. She has also been linked to historical figures like Queen Mary, Mary Queen of Scots, the Virgin Mary, or Mary Magdalene. She has also been said to have been a burned witch or a child killer. Among the many many versions of the legend that is passed around by teenagers there are many more explanations of who Mary is supposed to be.
The origins of the Bloody Marry legend are hard to trace. One of the earliest academic recordings of the myth comes from 1976. In this version the name that is chanted is “Mary Worth” which should be chanted forty-seven times. When she appears she is supposed to appear with a wart on her nose and a knife in her hand. When this version was recorded Bloody Mary was already an urban legend being passed among school children. Some of the versions of the Bloody Mary legend do have some overlap with other folklore such as banshees or some versions of the disappearing passenger legend. These overlaps though do not make it any easier to find where what we know of as the Bloody Mary legend started.
It should be noted that the mirror element of the legend has links to divination. Using reflective surfaces such as mirrors or pools of water has long been a method of summoning/communing or foretelling the future in folklore and occult traditions.
Does the Bloody Mary legend mean anything? Is it a reflection of subconscious fears we carry in our youth? Dundes argues that the Bloody Mary myth is a reflection of pre-pubescent girls’ fears about womanhood and menstruation. He basses this conclusion on the blood imagery that often appears in the legend and the fact that the ritual is more often performed by pre-pubescent girls at parties or sleepovers. He also draws upon certain versions of the myth such as one where blood is actually drawn from the participants during the ritual. And another one where instead of looking at the mirror you should look at the water in the toilet or some versions that suggest flushing the toilet as a way of banishing Mary. He suggests this focus on the toilet parallels the flushing away of menstruation.
Norder offers alternative meanings behind the legend. He suggests that the legend might be an attempt to scare children away from occult practices by religious leaders or to warn people away from calling upon the Virgin Mary outside of proper ritual. He also suggests it could be a reaction from Protestant leaders to scare people away from calling on Mary instead of Jesus.
There is another interpretation of the Bloody Mary legend. It could just be a good scary story that kids tell each other. It is a scary story that has the participants act it out, adding to the tension. While it is true that ritual is often performed by pre-pubescent girls it is also sometimes performed by boys or those well into their teens. Given the age of the legend this disproportion can be explained others ways. At the time that this legend started to bud gatherings of boys or girls would have had different expectations.
It would have been normal for girls to have sleep overs and easy access to a bathroom in order to perform the ritual. Coupled with the generalization girls or young women travel to bathroom in herds no one would question the gathering for the ritual. Boys would have had different gatherings such as camping trips where they would have had their own stories to better suite the setting. A gathering of boys for a ritual around the bathroom might have raised some eyebrows.
Another explanation for the ritual being mostly performed by girls is it might have some continuity with another folklore tradition that was performed by young women. A woman was supposed to walk backwards up a flight of stairs while holding a candle in one hand and a mirror in the other. While gazing into the mirror they were supposed to glimpse the face of the future husband. But they could also see a skull which meant they were going to die before getting to marry. If parts of the Bloody Mary legend did grow out of this piece of folklore it might help explain why it exists predominantly among girls and young women.
Scary stories often contain bloody imagery so it is not out of the ordinary. A bloodied face is probably also a close description of what people might actually see as their mind plays tricks on them as they stare into the mirror. There is also another explanation for the toilet elements within some versions of the legend. As I already mentioned, pools of water were also used to commune with spirits. The toilet contains its own pool of water to summon Bloody Mary. Flowing water is also associated with banishing negative or evil spirits. Flushing the toilet in a way creates a source of flowing water in order to banish Bloody Mary.
Bloody Mary is not an obscure legend. It continues to be passed to each new generation. It has entered into entertainment. It has inspired several movies, episodes of The X-Files, Supernatural, Charmed, and Ghost Whisperer. It has been mentioned on Warehouse 13 and parodied in an episode of South Park. The legend has even spawned a horror comedy web series called The Bloody Mary show. The urban legend is thriving and its haunting apparition is going nowhere soon. Bloody Mary will be waiting to grab us from our mirrors for generations to come.
- Dundes, Alan. “Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety.” Western Folklore, Vol. 57, No. 2/3 (Spring – Summer, 1998), pp. 119-135. – An interesting article that tries to interpret the Bloody Mary legend as being about the anxiety young girls feel about menstruation. I already argued against his conclusion but the article also sidetracks sometimes into berating other folklorists for not reading meaning into urban legends and folklore. He also relies upon Freudian analysis to make some of the connections that forms his conclusion.
- Norder, Dan. “The Face in the Mirror: Looking at Bloody Mary, Mary Worth and Other Variants of a Modern Legend.” 2003. – A pretty good article that surveys the Bloody Mary legend including its overlap with other folklore. I originally found the article online but the site that it was hosted at no longer seems to be up. I searched but it looks like the article has not been uploaded to a new home. Thankfully I had printed off a copy of the article when I originally stumbled across it. It is unfortunate that it is no longer available as I feel it is an interesting and valuable piece in studying Bloody Mary.
- Schwartz, Alvin. “A Ghost in the Mirror.” More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. 1984.
- Tucker, Elizabeth. “Ghosts in Mirrors: Reflections of the Self.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 118, No. 468, Emerging Legends in Contemporary Society (Spring 2005), pp. 186-203.