The Bloody Mary legend is a very popular form of modern folklore with an unknown origin. Since the 1970s, researchers and folklore experts have attempted to analyze the legend in order to determine where and when it started.
A Variety of Bloody Mary Legends
In its modern version, this legend advises young children, typically young girls at a slumber party, that if they enter a dark bathroom with a candle, stand in front of the mirror and repeat a the chant "Bloody Mary" a number of times while turning in circles, the image of a witch or female apparition will appear with a bloody face.
Variations of the Legend
This childrens' "game" has a number of variations, including:
- Using names such as "Bloody Mary", "Hell Mary", "Mary Worth", "Mary Whales", "Agnes" or "Black Agnes'.
- A variety of chants such as "I believe in Mary Worth", "Bloody Mary", "I stole/killed your baby Bloody Mary".
- The apparition is sometimes headless, or only blood appears.
- Some versions involve either her face or blood appearing in the toilet water.
- The chant should be repeated from three to one hundred times.
A list of variations on the legend can be found in one of the most in-depth essays on the legend entitled 'Mary Whales, I Believe in You': Myth and Ritual Subdued published in 1978 by folklorist Janet Langlois. This essay was also reprinted in 1980 in the book Indiana Folklore, A Reader by Linda Degh.
Throughout the years, researchers have attempted to tie this children's legend to real life historical events. Some explanations include:
- A reference to Mary I of England (Mary Tudor) reveal she had countless Protestants put to death for heresy, earning her the nickname "Bloody Mary."
- Some say the legend refers to Elizabeth Bathory, aka "Queen of Blood". She was convicted for torturing and murdering over 600 young women for their blood.
- Some versions of the legend refer to "Mary Worth" as a witch who was executed at the Salem witch trials, while other versions identify her with a Mary Worth from Illinois.
Ultimately, no researcher has been able to prove conclusively where and when this legend began.
Folklore, Society, and Bloody Mary
Folklore throughout many societies and cultures consist of customs, practices, superstitions and most often stories that provide a historic record of that society during the time when the story was told. Many of these stories also teach children certain lessons or warnings, such as the old nursery rhymes that originated in Europe. Native American cultures that do not keep a written history rely heavily on folklore to carry on the oral traditions of their people.
Folklorists Weigh In
Janet Langlois' study in 1978 found that the ritual served to thrill and excite children who were looking for some form of entertainment. Her study concluded that most children who take part in the ritual are only looking for entertainment. However, many scholars who review the story make note of the many elements that can be traced back to earlier myths and superstitions.
- Mirrors: Mirrors, or a "looking glass" have always represented a form of divination. Throughout the British Isles in the 1700s, young girls would take part in a ritual that involved using a candle in front of a mirror. If the girl combed her hair and ate the apple, she would see the face of her future spouse peering over her shoulder. The tale "Snow White" written by the Brothers Grimm in 1857 made use of a magic mirror as well. Other superstitions through the 1800s noted that excessive vanity before a mirror would result in an apparition of the devil himself. Mirrors were also covered whenever a person died in a particular room to avoid the spirit from being trapped in the house.
- Magic Rituals: Turning in circles, the use of candles and repeating incantations are all elements of a typical magical ritual that can be found throughout many cultures.
Bloody Mary as a Female "Coming of Age" Ritual
Alan Dundes, a folklorist from the University of California at Berkeley, wrote a fascinating 1998 article entitled "Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety". In this article, Dundes successfully explores how the Bloody Mary ritual has many parallels with initiation rituals used by various cultures to mark the beginning of puberty in females. With a heavily Freudian analysis, Dundes shows how the story and ritual serves an important purpose of providing young women an outlet for the fear and anxiety they feel related to body changes during pubescence.
- Bloody Mary, Mary Worth and Mary Whales (or "Mary Wails") are all symbolic names that refer to the emotional response to these physical changes.
- The use of the mirror is symbolic of the girl's self image and fear of approaching physical changes.
- Early versions of the story suggest scratches on the cheek, drawing blood, would occur if the girl committed any sins. This represents fear that physical changes are the result of having done something "wrong".
- Dundes points to parallel older legends that reflect bloody apparitions with the same Freudian symbolism.
Ultimately, Dundes reflects that such a ritual and story would develop, just as so much other folklore develops, as a method for children to deal with difficult and scary changes throughout life. Such rituals allow children to release fear, anxiety and excitement in a justified way.
Regardless of the origins of the story or the symbolism hidden within it, this particular tale and ritual has spooked and terrified countless children throughout the last few decades who believe it is a true ghost story. The Bloody Mary legend has persisted, and continues as one of the most popular slumber party games throughout Western society. Although researchers may never determine how or where the story started, it is sure to remain part of our culture and society for a very long time.