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▶ Bloody Mary

The Bloody Mary legend and its several variants date from the 1960s. Like so many folk rituals and traditional tales, its exact origin is impossible to pin down with any specificity. Folklorists didn’t begin collecting examples of the text until 1970 or so.

That said, there is a body of myth and superstition attributing magical and/or divinatory properties to mirrors dating back to ancient times. Such beliefs typically contain elements of danger and foreboding. The most familiar of these lingering into modernity is the centuries-old superstition that breaking a mirror brings bad luck. The idea that one can foretell the future by peering into a mirror is even older, described in the Bible (I Corinthians 13) as “see[ing] through a glass, darkly.” There are mentions of looking-glass divination in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale (c. 1390), Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (1590), and Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606), among other early literary sources.

Summoning visions

A particular form of divination associated with Halloween in the British Isles entailed gazing into a mirror and performing a nonverbal ritual to summon a vision of one’s future betrothed. This example is from the Poems of Robert Burns, published in 1787:

Take a candle, and go alone to a looking glass; eat an apple before it, and some traditions say, you should comb your hair all the time; the face of your conjugal companion, to be, will be seen in the glass, as if peeping over your shoulder.

Another example of mirror divination, in this case accompanied by ritual chanting, appears in the fairy tale “Snow White,” as told by the Brothers Grimm in 1857 (trans. by D.L. Ashliman):

She was a beautiful woman, but she was proud and arrogant, and she could not stand it if anyone might surpass her in beauty. She had a magic mirror. Every morning she stood before it, looked at herself, and said:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?

To this the mirror answered:

You, my queen, are fairest of all.

As everyone who grew up reading “Snow White” (or watching the animated Disney version) knows, the mirror-obsessed queen was ultimately destroyed by her own vanity, and it is in this and similar cautionary tales that we see basic elements of the Bloody Mary ritual emerge.

Seeing apparitions

"If you look in a looking glass too long you are sure to see the devil," warns a nineteenth-century English saying. A more visceral rendition of the same moral admonishment appears in a book of folklore published in 1883:

When a boy, one of my aunts who lived in Newcastle-on-Tyne used to tell me of a certain girl that she knew who was very vain and fond of standing before the looking glass admiring herself. One night as she stood gazing, lo! all of her ringlets were covered with dripping sulphur, and the devil appeared peeping over her shoulder.

A superstition that lingered from the eighteenth century well into the twentieth held that mirrors must be covered or turned to face the wall in the presence of a dead person. Some said this was to signify “an end to all vanity.” Others took it to be a demonstration of respect for the dead. Still others believed an uncovered mirror was an open invitation for ghostly apparitions to appear.

"It is not good for a corpse to be reflected in a glass or mirror … because the dead will not rest," wrote Marie Trevalyan in Folklore and Folk-Stories of Wales(1909). The possible consequences of failing to act accordingly are made plain in this excerpt from a 1924 issue of Notes & Queries:

Nearly seventy years since, in Durham, I remember seeing my grandmother when laid out. Mirror and pictures were covered with white sheets. I was told then, or later, that this was done lest persons seeing themselves reflected, the corpse should also be seen looking over their shoulders, and give them a fright.
What connects this quaint superstition to the Bloody Mary ritual is the motif of “the apparition in the looking-glass” — the critical difference being that in the former the ghost appears because someone forgot to cover a mirror; in the latter, the ghost is purposely summoned.

Summoning spirits

Make no mistake, when a gaggle of adolescents stand in front of a mirror chanting “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary,” or “I believe in Mary Worth, I believe in Mary Worth,” they’re uttering what they believe to be — or hope to be, or fear to be — a magic spell to conjure up a ghost or demon spirit. The notion that ritual incantations can be used to achieve supernatural ends derives not only from folklore and fairly tales, wherein remnants of so many age-old myths and superstitions are retained, but also from the childhood mindset itself, which is subject to a variety of forms of magical thinking. Among those is a phenomenon identified by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget as “nominal realism,” which, simply put, is the tendency to confuse objects with their names, resulting in the belief that words and thoughts can influence real-world events.

Of the many ways “Bloody Mary” can be interpreted, the most obvious and literal is as a cautionary tale demonstrating the perils of playing with magic. But it’s also a ghost story.

The ghost story

The malevolent spirit called up by the Bloody Mary ritual is always said to be a female — in particular, a female whose face was disfigured as the result of a violent death, usually in an automobile accident. Often, as in the second “Bloody Mary” variant reproduced above, she is said to have been a very beautiful woman in life who was proud of her beauty to the point of self-obsession (hence her ghostly ire at being summoned to appear in a mirror). In some variants she is said to have been a hitchhiker whose spirit has also been seen haunting roadsides and being picked up by unsuspecting drivers before vanishing inexplicably (cf. “The Vanishing Hitchhiker”). In other tellings the character is reminiscent of La Llorona, the “Weeping Woman” of Hispanic folklore who is said to have killed her own children and wanders eternally in penance.

In most versions there is no evident connection between the Bloody Mary whose ghost haunts bathroom mirrors and the historical figure of the same name (though exceptions have been recorded). Her name just happens to be Mary, and she’s bloody because she died in a terrible accident.

Likewise, there is no apparent connection between the Mary Worth of the legend and the Mary Worth of comic strip fame. Essentially a soap opera about the hardships of family life, the comic strip holds up its prim and proper protagonist as the ideal of American motherhood — a far cry from the menacing hag blamed for so many pajama party freak-outs.

Coming-of-age ritual

Some folklorists, notably Alan Dundes in his essay “Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety,” see the Bloody Mary game as analogous to coming-of-age rituals in non-western cultures. The age and gender of the participants (young girls about to enter puberty), references to blood in the legend (e.g. the title, “Bloody Mary,” and anecdotal reports of participants being scratched or clawed by the apparition, drawing blood), and the fact that the ritual itself takes place in a bathroom all suggest a conceptual link with the onset of menstruation. Bloody Mary is an “anticipatory ritual,” says Dundes, “essentially warning girls of what to expect upon attaining puberty.” Performing it “evokes feelings of excitement on the part of participants, excitement tinged with fear and apprehension as well.”

Bloody Mary in popular culture

Like so many horror legends and traditional ghost stories, “Bloody Mary” has proven a natural for adaptation into popular novels, stories, comic books, movies, and even dolls. Released straight to DVD in 2005, Urban Legends: Bloody Mary was the third film in the execrable series that commenced with Urban Legend in 1998. As you might expect, the plot takes great liberties with the traditional tale.

More notably, horror writer Clive Barker essentially constructed a pseudo-urban legend by appropriating the chanting ritual for a 1992 film entitled Candyman. Various characters in the film summon the ghost of a black slave brutally lynched in the 1800s by repeating the name “Candyman” five times in front of a mirror. Some viewers come away with the misapprehension that Candyman was based on actual folklore, but apart from the borrowed incantation it was mostly a product of Barker’s fertile imagination.

A Bloody Mary Plush Toy available for purchase on the Internet boasts the following “product features”:

  • Black hair
  • Red blood on face and hands
  • Terror of beauty lost

Alas, a mirror is not included.