The legend of Bloody Mary is among the most well-known urban legends in the United States. Bloody Mary’s story is an integral part of ghost story hour around campfires or at childhood sleepover parties. Games of Truth or Dare often lead to one member of the party alone in the bathroom chanting “Bloody Mary” into the mirror with either arrogant skepticism or absolute terror. This legend appears in countless forms of popular culture including television shows, movies, even in comic books. Many people’s cousin’s friend’s older brother’s ex-girlfriends have come face to face with this apparition. Because she is so widely recognized, it seemed like any look into her or her story would be redundant, because everyone already knows about the poor girl who died a tragic death and has found herself trapped in the mirror. As it turns out, there is a great deal more to her story than what we’re usually told when we’re children, and her origins are more interesting than the modern re-tellings suggest.
What Came First: The Ritual or the Legend?
The story of Bloody Mary has been tied into the legends of the Vanishing Hitchhiker and La Llorona, the weeping woman. Scholars of folklore have found many connections between all of the stories involving mysterious female specters, and it is speculated that many of them have evolved from one another over time. What sets Mary apart from other entities in folklore and popular myth is the ritual associated with her. Scholars analyzing the legend of Bloody Mary have failed to answer one important question. Much like the chicken and the egg motif, it isn’t known whether the story of Bloody Mary gave birth to the ritual, or if the ritual created the backstory of the tormented spirit. One interesting point concerning this ritual is that it is most often performed by young girls. According to several studies done on the subject, those who take part in the Bloody Mary “game” or ritual are almost always girls aged 7 to 12 years (Dundes, 1998). What makes this legend so girl-centric, and where did it come from in the first place?
The ritual itself has countless variations depending on who you ask about it. The practice is generally centered around a mirror and a dark room. Most often, it takes place in a bathroom specifically. Many individuals questioned about their experiences say that they took part in the ritual while at school, where it would be performed in the girls’ restroom (Dundes, 1998). Some descriptions involve more than one girl pricking their fingers and pressing the blood droplets together before chanting into the mirror. Other times, one girl gets locked alone in the room and recites the words alone, while the rest of the group waits outside the door. One major variation that pops up is in the words that are to be said into the mirror. Some say that you’re supposed to just say, “Bloody Mary” three times. Some say that it must be repeated 10 times, 13 times, 100, or 43 times. The significance of these numbers is unknown, and there is little to explain why the number of times it is to be said changes depending on who you ask. The words themselves are also very different depending on what part of the country is being examined, and often times the difference has to do with the alleged true name of the apparition. It can be the phrase, “I believe in Mary Worth,” “Mary Whales, I believe in you,” or even more intricate incantations such as, “Bloody Mary show your fright. Show your fright this starry night” (Dundes, 1998). Despite the different forms this ritual takes, one aspect remains the same: the appearance of a scarred or bloody woman in the mirror.
Scholars have sought to answer the question of whether the legend or the ritual came first by analyzing the different variations of the “game,” but have formed no consensus on the matter. This only strengthens the draw of the mystery. If the details of the ritual could not bring any clarity to the matter, perhaps the details of the legends could.
Variations of the Legend
There are as many different versions of the legend circulating as there are ritual practices, unfortunately. The saturation of different stories makes it extremely difficult to pinpoint which could be the original tale of Bloody Mary. They range from simple explanations that have survived among the youth of small communities, to exaggerated historical tales, to more probable but unverified true crime stories. To find the common threads and hopefully solve this mystery, scholars have sifted through many of these different renditions of this popular tale.
One of the most common legends of Bloody Mary says that she was originally named Mary Worth. This version describes her as a young woman with a scarred face who lived in Massachusetts during the 17th century. She lived her life in shame because of the scars which had disfigured her, and she spent her time alone or with a shawl covering much of her face. The children of the town would follow her and taunt her for her ugliness as she walked, calling after her, “Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary!” adding to her shame. She was eventually hanged as a witch during one of the witch crazes which swept the region. It is said that shortly after her execution, the children tried to summon her spirit back by chanting “Bloody Mary” into a mirror. She then appeared and scratched all of their faces so that they would suffer as she had (Craughwell, 2005). This explanation provides reason enough for an angry spirit but fails to offer an explanation for the use of a mirror during the first conjuring.
Another version of the legend says that there was a beautiful woman named Mary Whales, who was the victim of a vehicle accident while she was out hitchhiking alone one night. It is said that her ghost is tied to the spot where she was killed and left to die, so she tries to hitchhike home. Unfortunately, she can’t go far from where her ghost is tethered, and she disappears and finds herself back at the spot of her death. This version of the story is one that ties her in with the legend of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. Her anger about the circumstances of her death, and how she was abandoned by the driver to die alone makes her into a malevolent spirit. Children can supposedly summon her through a mirror by chanting “Mary Whales, I believe in you” (Brunvand, 1996). This provides another reason for an angry spirit, and the manner of death makes the addition of the word “bloody” make more sense than the previously examined story. Once again however, the mirror doesn’t seem to hold any relevance.
Other stories say that she is the spirit of a horrible queen who murdered young girls throughout her reign. This is likely a misconception concerning Mary I of England, the daughter of Henry VIII, who was nicknamed “Bloody Mary.” Her nickname is the same, but she earned that alias because of her tendency to brutally persecute peasants who questioned her. Aside from the name, she has nothing in common with the Bloody Mary of the legends. Elizabeth Bathory is said to have bathed in the blood of virgin girls in an attempt to preserve her youth. It is likely that this story is a misunderstanding that combines the two queens.
None of the origin stories that are readily available aptly explain the meaning of the mirror in the ritual. Analysis of the stories and the variations of the rituals gives little information concerning which origin story is most probable. Because the mirror doesn’t seem to appear in any of the stories, it is possible that the ritual came first. According to works published by the University of Kentucky and Oxford University, the ritual of Bloody Mary may have evolved from an old divination practice. The divination ritual required that a young woman hold a candle in one hand and a small mirror in the other. She would then walk backward up a flight of stairs while looking into the mirror. It is said that she would eventually see the image of her future husband in the reflection, or she would see a human skull or an image of the Grim Reaper. If she saw a skull or the Reaper, it meant that she was doomed to die before finding her true love (Ellis, 2004) (Hutton, 2001). If this ritual did indeed give birth to the legend of Bloody Mary, the mirror and the dark room are explained.
With this divination ritual in mind, the fact that this ritual is most common among girls around the age of early puberty makes more sense. Almost everyone in the US knows about Bloody Mary regardless of their age or gender, but the studies do indicate that young girls are the predominant participants in the ritual. It is possible that this practice evolved over time and traveled across the country without enough explanation or backstory to satisfy those who sought to participate. It is easy to see where stories about a beautiful young woman dying a bloody death before she could find love or live her life could be woven as a reason to perform the ritual. It instills a fear of an early death, or of being unable to marry and bear children among young women who may be pressured by society to believe that those things are of utmost importance. The imagination of young people is powerful, and a story like one of a scorned witch could quickly cause the ancient divination ritual to transform into what it is today.
Folklorists have been working to uncover the mysteries of Bloody Mary since the 1970’s. While none have come to a complete conclusion about the origins and meanings of the ritual or of the stories, other important notes have been uncovered. Psychoanalysis of the rituals brings a lot to light about the fears and feelings experienced by pubescent and pre-pubescent girls. Folklorist Janet Langlois suggested that the mirror represents the stress of young girls who are becoming more aware of their appearance and how they are perceived by others. The cultural and social influences which are beginning to assert pressure and beauty standards upon girls at this age can explain the imagery, and the significance of reflections in the practice. The appearance of a scarred and ugly young women over their reflection could have evolved from common and pervasive feelings of self doubt and negative self image among girls (Dundes, 1998). It has been suggested that this ritual is just an American version of the many rituals around the world that are performed when a girl experiences her first menstrual cycle, explaining the name “Bloody” Mary. These social and psychological factors may only account for the interest that girls take in the already existing legend and ritual, however. Because boys have also been known to take part in the activity, only less often, it isn’t a girl exclusive piece of culture, but it could make sense of why girls tend to participate so much more regularly.
Brunvand, J. (1996). American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, Inc.
Craughwell, T. (2005) Urban Legends: 666 Absolutely True Stories That Happened to a Friend… of a Friend… of a Friend. Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, Inc.
Dundes, A. (1998). Bloody Mary in the mirror: A ritual reflection of pre-pubescent anxiety. Western Folklore, 57(2/3), 119–135.
Ellis, B. (2004). Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folklore and Popular Culture. University of Kentucky Press. ISBN 978–0–8131–2289–2.
Hutton, R. (2001). Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978–0–19–285448–3.