As a teenage girl, it was almost a rite of passage at midnight to lock one of your friends in a bathroom and ask them to call out Bloody Mary. Some would be too scared. There was always that one person who would bang on the door at a crucial moment and scare us all and we would all run back to our room screaming and laughing. My son who is 9 recently went away to camp and told me that Bloody Mary was knocking at his door because one of his roommates said the words in the bathroom. Clearly, her myth is still with us! So what is the story behind Bloody Mary? Was there a real Bloody Mary?
In order to play, you would put yourself in a dark bathroom with a candle. Stare into the mirror and slowly chant ‘Bloody Mary’ three times and spin around at the same time. If you don’t see anything appear in the mirror, blow out the candle and leave the bathroom. The things that supposedly can happen if you are successful in contacting ‘Bloody Mary’ are:
Janet Langlois was one of the first to write academically about the Bloody Mary tale in the 1970's connecting the story to a local legend of Mary Whales.
My first adventures as a legend hunter began in 1972 when I was a graduate student at the Folklore Institute, Indiana University, taking a legend seminar with Linda Dégh who had brought European concepts of the genre to the U.S. when she had emigrated from Hungary in 1964 (Dégh, 1995: 9-29; Dégh, 2001: 9-22; Tucker and Langlois, 2005: 129-140). Upon her urging, I drove up with several other students from the Bloomington, Indiana campus to Indianapolis to attend a Psychic Fair there one fall day in October. Although I did not interview any psychic healers then, I did strike up a conversation with a young African-American woman, Gia, then 12 years old, who was also attending. She told me that she and a number of her friends at her elementary school in Indianapolis regularly called a spirit back in a mirror in the girls’ bathroom during recess and lunch breaks, and that the spirit they called back was that of a young woman they called Mary Whales who had been killed while hitchhiking on a major street near their school.
Recognizing a version of “the Vanishing Hitchhiker” legend when I heard it, I arranged with Gia’s school staff to work with students during a weekly two-hour period in which community members could come to the school and interact with students in an experimental program. I see now how many factors came together so that I could do this research. At the time, however, doing a broad survey of 80 students with questionnaires and focus groups, interviewing and audio-taping selected students (10 young women in particular with Gia their leader), spending several nights at school-sponsored slumber parties as a participant-observer, and observing re-enactments of the “ritual” of calling Mary Whales who they expected would emerge from the mirror to scratch them (a.k.a. “Bloody Mary”) were all that I could manage
Some (male) folklore experts have even gone as far as to suggest that it is a metaphor of a girl going through changes in puberty as the game itself was popular amongst teenage girls. The rituals of spinning and chanting and the use of mirrors as a form of divination are in fact nothing new. It can be considered no different to a young girl looking into a mirror to see the face of her future husband which was also a popular game. By the time the 1990s came around, chain letters were huge. They have now evolved in email and annoying Facebook messages that tell you that if you don't pass it onto 5 people within an hour bad things will happen to you! It seems there was a Bloody Mary version of this well.
While there were a lot of famous ‘Mary’s throughout history that are candidates for inspiration, the common belief is that Bloody Mary is based on the folklore of Mary Worth.
Mary Worth was first written about in a collection of American children’s folklore stories in 1976. She was referred to as a witch that lived over 100 years ago and liked to dabble in the black arts. There are a few different versions of the story:
One version is that she would kidnap runaway slaves and chain them up to perform rituals and use them as a sacrifice in her barn. This was during the time of the Civil war. Locals found out what she was doing and she was captured and burnt at the stake. Her body was buried on her land and the land became cursed. A few decades later, a farmer and his wife bought the land. When they were clearing the land to plant oats, they found a stone that was believed to be Mary’s grave marker. They moved it up to the house. All sorts of weird things started happening – paranormal things. Soon the farmer realised the connection and tried to put the stone back, but he couldn’t remember where it came from. They were tormented by this ghost for a few more years before the house burnt down.
Another version of Mary Worth’s tale seems like it was written specifically for the Bloody Mary game. They say Mary lived in a small cabin in the woods and would sell herbal remedies in the local village. Young girls started to go missing. Some of the villages considered themselves brave enough to wander up to the woods to see if the girls were at the cabin. Mary denied all knowledge, but this wasn’t a good enough explanation for the villagers. She was usually an elderly and haggard-looking woman yet she seemed to be looking more feminine and youthful so they were extremely suspicious. One night a miller’s daughter was intrigued by a mysterious noise that only she could hear. Her mother was in bed nursing a toothache using one of Mary’s herbal remedies. The daughter wandered off into the night. They shouted at her to return, but it was like she could hear nothing but this noise. The father called upon some of the local townsfolk and noticed that there was a light coming from the edge of the woods. Mary was standing next to a large oak tree holding a wand and pointing it towards the Miller’s home. The wand was glowing with light, that the daughter was walking toward. The townsfolk proceeded to raid the area with pitchforks and guns. Mary broke the spell and ran back into the forest. The farmer shot a silver bullet at Mary and it caught her hip. They captured her and burnt her at the stake. As was burning, she set a curse that if anyone said her name in a mirror that she would be back. The townsfolk then came upon unmarked graves of the missing children and it was believed she used their blood to make herself youthful.
Another variation changes the name from Mary Worth to Mary Worthing or Mary Worthington. She was said to be a beautiful woman who was also very vain and spent a lot of her time looking into a mirror. After a horrible car accident, she became disfigured. She could stand to look at herself and killed herself forever tying her to her favourite item – a mirror.
Over time there are countless different stories related to Mary Worth and even Mary Whales that are changed depending on the book or the website reporting the tale. What they all have in common is the same end goal - the game of bloody mary.
History tells us that Mary I the Queen of England was the ultimate Bloody Mary and is referred to as such in history books. She was the ruler during the Tudor period and was appropriately called Mary Tudor. She gained the Bloody Mary nickname because she was a ruthless executioner. She was very quick to order the execution of people during her 5-year reign. She was a very strict Catholic and her orders were usual against protestants. Nearly 300 of them were burnt at the stake via her order. Even her Father and Brother could not escape and were executed for promoting Protestantism (the second largest form of Christianity). Ultimately her goal of a Catholic England failed. Interestingly, her father Henry VIII was just as 'bloody' as were many of her counterparts, however, it seems that her being a female was the main driver for her acts being deemed so murderous.
Regardless of where the game behind Bloody Mary really came from, I can tell you from the countless time I played this as a teen, and even trying as an adult, that she has never appeared because it is a game. It is an urban legend designed to scare. Of course, there are always stories, but they are just stories. As for those who claim they have seen her or something else in a mirror while performing the game, you also need to think about what spinning around and staring into a mirror does to the mind. We know and psychology tells us that our perception changes and is prone to illusion when staring in a dimly lit space. We start to see things and we can even hallucinate. It would be quite easy for you to see something that wasn't really there. Especially when you are expecting it or fearing it will happen.
Bloody Mary is not someone that you need to worry about. Now Candyman ..... well he is a different story LOL
Dundes, Alan. “Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety.” Western Folklore, vol. 57, no. 2/3, Western States Folklore Society, 1998, pp. 119–35,
Confessions of a Legend Hunter in the U.S.A.
Cover Image: ELIZABETH LIVERMORE/GETTY IMAGES
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