The Origins of ‘Bloody Mary’

The Origins of ‘Bloody Mary’

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If you’ve ever been a tween girl at a sleepover, then you’ve probably know about all about Bloody Mary.

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No, not that kind of Bloody Mary. Wait, is that a whole shrimp being used as garnish? I think we’ve discovered the real horror here.

But we were talking about the spooky parlor game! The rules are simple. Lit only by a candle or flashlight, you stand in front of a mirror in a dark room and stare at your own reflection while repeating the name “Bloody Mary.”

Depending on the local tradition, you need to say her name anywhere from three to thirteen times. Once you do it, you’ll see her face in the mirror. Spooky!

The ‘Real’ Bloody Mary?

According to Snopes, “Bloody Mary” actually has a lot of names. “The avenging spirit goes by many names: Bloody Mary, Bloody Bones, Hell Mary, Mary Worth, Mary Worthington, Mary Whales, Mary Johnson, Mary Lou, Mary Jane, Sally, Kathy, Agnes, Black Agnes, Aggie, Svarte Madame.”

Many of the legends involve either a murdered bride or a dead baby, proving that tween girls have a strange sense of what constitutes “fun” at slumber parties.

In some tales, she is a witch named Mary Worth who was killed hundreds of years ago for practicing the black arts. In others, she was horribly killed by her lover or will show up holding her own murdered infant.

Other, more historically minded people will point out that Mary, Queen of Scots, who ruled England in the mid 16th century. She earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” for sentencing three hundred Protestants to burn at the stake.

Elizabeth Bathory portrait
Wikipedia

Another historical figure is sometimes thrown in the mix for good measure. Elizabeth Bathory was a noblewoman who allegedly murdered dozens or even hundreds of young girls and bathed in their blood in order to stay young forever.

Science Time!

Why has this urban legend lasted for so long? And why does it have such appeal to young women at sleepovers?

Researcher Alan Dundes, in his article “Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety” in Western Folklore (1998), draws a link between Bloody Mary and menstruation. After all, the girls who play this game are usually just entering puberty, and the ritual most often takes place in a bathroom. It’s a rite of passage at a sleepover, proof that you’re brave enough to face the bloody horror that is adulthood as a woman.

Or maybe it’s just a bit of spooky fun.

The phenomenon itself may have scientific basis. Staring too long into a mirror in low light can cause optical illusions, such as the Troxler effect, that makes strange afterimages appear when you stare at a fixed point for too long.

You can try a simple, less scary version by staring at the black cross in the center of the image below. Do you see a green dot after a few moments? If you look away, you may also see a ring of green dots.

By TotoBaggins, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1697762

In Pop Culture

The Bloody Mary phenomenon is popular fodder for horror movies. The Legend of Bloody Mary (2008) took a straightforward approach to the story. Be warned, though, that the reviews on this one are scarier than the actual film.

A much stronger twist on the story can be found in the first season of Supernatural. The Winchester boys track down a mirror haunted by a murdered woman name Mary, but there’s a twist. Once summoned, ghost only kills those with a secret that involves someone else’s death.

20th Century Fox

It stalks the victim through any reflective surface. Sam, who believes that he’s responsible for his girlfriend’s murder, summons the ghost to the original mirror so that his brother can destroy it–and her–once and for all. It’s one of the best early episodes of the series and is legitimately scary.