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Fear the Mirror: The Legend of Bloody Mary

Updated on March 30, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

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Midnight – the bewitching hour -- approaches. At a slumber party, five giggling pre-pubescent girls are unrolling their sleeping bags, slipping into their pajamas and getting ready to call it a night. As they do so, one of them brings up a story that was passed down to her by her oldest sister.

“If you go into a candle-lit room that has a mirror and chant the name Bloody Mary twenty times while spinning in circles, she will appear,” she says.

The giggling stops as she continues to tell her tale. She adds that Bloody Mary, a powerful spirit, will reveal their future husbands to them. This bit of information piques the girls’ interests. But, most importantly, the thought of conjuring a dangerous entity from a superstitious realm has titillated them.

“There’s one way to find out,” the hostess of the party states.

She gets out of bed, exits the room and returns with a candle. From that moment, the hostess leads her friends to the one room with a large mirror: the bathroom. There, in the candle-lit bathroom, they chant Bloody Mary’s name twenty times. And, no sooner after they complete the process, the image of a bloody witch appears in the mirror.

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The scenario presented is one of many examples of the legend of Bloody Mary. It is an urban legend of the late 20th century. However, its roots stretch as far back to 16th century Europe. The myth has been associated with historical figures, as well as age old beliefs about the power of divination and mirrors.

The backstory, as well as the identity of Bloody Mary, is as strange as it gets. It is filled with misconceptions and numerous variations. Some have viewed it as mere parlor games, while others have taken it very seriously. Whatever the case may be, Bloody Mary has been scaring slumber party patrons for a long time.

Who was Bloody Mary?

According to the legend, Bloody Mary was a witch or a vengeful spirit. In at least one version of the story, she was a demon or the devil in disguise. Most accounts, according to Snopes.com, state that she was a witch that was executed for “plying the black arts.”

There are some modern twists to her origin. In a webpage on the matter, Snopes.com writer Barbara Mikkelson wrote that some accounts claim she was a woman who died in a “local car accident in which her face was hideously mutilated.”

She has several aliases, too. In typical urban legend fashion, her name changes nearly every time the story is told. She has been called Mary Worth, Mary Worthington, Bloody Bones, Hell Mary, Mary Whales, Mary Johnson, Mary Lou, Mary Jane, Sally, Kathy, Agnes, Black Agnes, Aggie, or Svarte Madame. In one case –as this writer recalls from his childhood – Bloody Mary was a male demon with no name.

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Possible Historical Origins

There are speculations that the Bloody Mary of legend was actually an historical figure. The problem with this, however, is that most researchers can’t agree on the identity of the person. Usually, three people come to mind: Mary I of England, Countess Elizabeth Bathory of the Hungarian Empire, and Mary Queen of Scots. These powerful women lived around the same time and were notorious for the atrocities they committed.

At first glance, Mary I of England (1553-1558) would appear to be the most likely choice. She was given the nickname of “Bloody Mary.” However, that seems to be the only comparison. Mary I was Queen Elizabeth I’s older half-sister. During her short reign, Mary I tried to re-establish Catholicism in England. In doing so, she ordered the execution of numerous Protestants in the country. While she ordered the deaths, they were not random and were more in line with what rulers of the era would have done. She eventually was replaced by a protestant queen and was vilified by those she persecuted.

Elizabeth Bathory (1560 -1614), on the other hand, was an insane and murderous sociopath. As many writers on the subject mentioned, she fit the part of an evil spirit. The countess was obsessed with her looks, and formed a morbid idea that the blood of young women would help to keep her youthful beauty. As a result, she had these women (often hired as “servants”) butchered and drained of their blood, in which she would bathe in. Eventually, her crime was exposed and she was locked up in isolation by her royal family until her death.

Bathory would become the inspiration for numerous horror stories (including a scene in the movie Hostel II.). On top of that, she has been called a vampire and a witch – something many horror and suspense writers over the years have used.

The third person to be considered the source of Bloody Mary was Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1567). Mary Queen of Scots, as many historians point out was far from being a bloodthirsty ruler; however, her inclusion of being the inspiration for Bloody Mary has more to do with her being confused for Mary I and Bathory (Also, it should be mentioned that Bathory and Mary I are often confused for one another, possibly due to one person’s nickname and the other’s hideous crimes).

A fourth name pops up from time to time, but it has more to do with one of Bloody Mary’s alias: Mary Worth. Mary Worth was believed to be the name of one of the women that were tried, convicted and executed during the Salem Witch trials.

Bloody Mary (film short)

Mirror Witch

Variations of myths and fairytales about mirrors have been around for ages. In ancient times, mirrors were seen as being more than something that reflected one’s image. Many held the belief that mirrors were portals to another dimension such as a spiritual world. In some cases, this dimension was a doppelganger of sorts, opening a view into an evil world. This view dates back to 1700 England. However, in similar myths dating as far back and the Ancient Greece, the mirrored or reflected image from metal or water were viewed in the same fashion.

Even the type of predictions made by Bloody Mary or other mirror witches seem to have its origins from ancient times. This influence may range from the Oracle of Delphi all the way to 16th century France’s Nostradamus.

The idea of a mirror witch, or to be precise, an entity emerging from the mirror with nefarious intent, is rather new. While 19th century stories such as Grimm Brother’s “Snow White” used this device (in which the evil queen gets her advice from a spirit in the mirror), the term and accounts of mirror witches such as Bloody Mary came to the public attention in the 20th century. Some websites dedicated to the topic claim that the height of its popularity started in the early 1960s and continued onward through the 1970s

Coincidentally, this was about the time folklorists began recording the accounts of mirror witches. Possibly the first and most significant research on the subject came out in a 1978 publication from folklorist and researcher Janet Langlois.

Langlois’s essay pointed out several important components to the mirror witch tales. First, there’s the mirror-as-portal motif and the magic rituals (spinning, chanting, candles).

Dundes pointed that Bloody Mary is a symbolic name for the initial menstruation cycle; and the mirror signifies their realization (fears) of their physical self-image.

What’s the Meaning behind the Legend?

Another folklorist, Alan Dundes from the University of California, Berkeley added a slant to this legend. In his 1998 article, “Bloody Mary in the Mirror”, he wrote that the legend was actually a “ritual reflection of pre-pubescent anxiety.” He claimed that it seemingly paralleled a coming-of-age ritual for girl entering puberty.

Often, these forms of rituals signify or represent physical and mental changes that occur during puberty. Dundes pointed that Bloody Mary is a symbolic name for the initial menstruation cycle; and the mirror signifies their realization (fears) of their physical self-image.

Another take on the legend comes from researcher Gail do Vos. Her focus was on the motives of the girls who told and attempted to conjure the spirit of Bloody Mary. She states that the girls have reached the ages between 9 and 12, which is considered the “Robinson Age” by psychologists. According to do Vos, “This is the period when children need to satisfy their craving for excitement by participating in ritual games and playing in the dark. They are constantly looking for a safe way to extract pleasure and release anxiety and fears.”

Some Element of Truth

When the five girls entered the darkened bathroom with candles, chanted Bloody Mary’s name twenty times while spinning in circles, they did so with the anticipation of seeing this apparition. And, in all likelihood they may have seen it. However, not in the way they may have expected.

There is some element of truth: when one does perform the ritual. They may or may not have seen Bloody Mary; however, the apparition may be all in the head of the viewers and was created by the actions they took in that darkened room.

The dimly-lit room, the chanting and spinning may have helped to create a phenomenon caused by sensory deprivation which may cause hallucinations, or mirrored images of facial features to seemingly “melt” or disappear. This is known as the Caputo Effect in which one may observe in the mirror the deformation of one’s own face. This is caused by a poorly lit or uneven environment such as a darkened bathroom. Also, an element of Troxier’s fading (an optical illusion affecting visual perception) and self-hypnosis can be at play in this situation.

Also, add the spinning to the ritual. Spinning often leaves one disoriented and seeing doubles of distorted images. Spinning is often a part of many religious rituals in which the person believes that they are “one with god” or in a state of nirvana after doing this activity.

Thus, what the girls saw in the mirror was not merely Bloody Mary. Instead, it was an image of them that held some allegorical truths if not a literal one

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© 2014 Dean Traylor

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