History | March 12, 2020
The Myth of ‘Bloody Mary’
History remembers the English queen as a murderous monster, but the real story of Mary I is far more nuanced
Associate Editor, History
The first woman to rule England in her own right didn’t simply inherit the throne. She seized it with unprecedented ambition from those who sought to thwart her.
Historian Sarah Gristwood describes the ascension of Mary I as a “staggeringly bold” course of action undertaken with little chance of success. Still, she rode into London on August 3, 1553, to widespread acclaim. In the words of one contemporary chronicler, “It was said that no one could remember there ever having been public rejoicing such as this.”
Centuries later, however, the Tudor queen is remembered as one of the most reviled figures in English history: “ Bloody Mary .” This is a story of how a heroic underdog became a monarch who was then mythologized as a violent despot—despite being no bloodier than her father, Henry VIII, or other English monarchs. It’s a tale of sexism, shifting national identity and good old-fashioned propaganda, all of which coalesced to create the image of an unchecked tyrant that endures today.
Born on February 18, 1516, Mary was not the long-awaited son her parents, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, had hoped for. But she survived infancy and grew up in the public eye as a beloved princess—at least until her teenage years, when her father’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn led him to divorce her mother and break with the Catholic Church. Declared illegitimate, downgraded from the title of “princess” to “lady,” and separated from her mother, Mary refused to acknowledge the validity of her parents’ divorce or her father’s status as head of the Church of England. It was only in 1536, after Anne’s execution and Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour, that Mary finally agreed to her mercurial father’s terms.
Welcomed back to court, she survived Henry—and three more stepmothers—only to see her younger half-brother, Edward VI, take the throne as a Protestant reformer, adopting a stance anathema to her fervent Catholicism. When Edward died six years later, he attempted to subvert his father’s wishes by leaving the crown to Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey, excluding those next in line—Mary and her younger half-sister, Elizabeth—from the succession. Though Mary could have sought refuge with family members in Europe, she chose to remain in England and fight for what was rightfully hers. Eluding the armies of her antagonists, she rallied support from nobles across the country and marched on London. Mary and Elizabeth rode into England’s capital side-by-side, one as a queen and the other as a queen-in-waiting.
During her five-year reign, Mary navigated the manifold challenges associated with her status as the first English queen to wear the crown in her own right, rather than as the wife of a king. She prioritized religion above all else, implementing reforms and restrictions aimed at restoring the Catholic Church’s ascendancy in England. Most controversially, she ordered 280 Protestants burned at the stake as heretics—a fact that would later cement her reputation as “Bloody Mary.”
The queen also set precedents and laid the groundwork for initiatives—among others, financial reform, exploration and naval expansion—that would be built upon by her much-lauded successor, Elizabeth I. Mary failed, however, to fulfill arguably the most important duty of any monarch: producing an heir. When she died at age 42 in 1558 of an ailment identified alternatively as uterine cancer, ovarian cysts or influenza, Elizabeth claimed the throne.
Prior to England’s break from Rome in 1534, Catholicism had dominated the realm for centuries. Henry VIII’s decision to form the Church of England proved predictably contentious , as evidenced by the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace uprising , which found some 30,000 northerners taking up arms in protest of the dissolution of the monasteries, banning of feasts and holy days, and bloody treatment of clergy who refused to accept the new order. Under Henry’s son, the English Reformation reached new extremes , with legislation ending the practice of Latin Mass, allowing priests to marry, and discouraging the veneration of relics and religious artifacts.
According to Linda Porter, author of The Myth of “Bloody Mary," Edward VI “moved much faster and much further than the majority of the population wanted, … remov[ing] a great deal that was familiar and depriv[ing] the congregation of what many of them saw as the mystery and beauty of the experience of worship.” Protestantism, she says, was the “religion of an educated minority,” not a universally adopted doctrine. At its core, Porter and other historians have suggested, England was still a fundamentally Catholic country when Mary took the throne.
Herself still a Catholic, Mary’s initial attempts to restore the old Church were measured, but as historian Alison Weir writes in The Children of Henry VIII , grew more controversial following her marriage to Philip of Spain, at which point they were “associated in the public mind with Spanish influence.” During the first year of her reign, many prominent Protestants fled abroad , but those who stayed behind—and persisted in publicly proclaiming their beliefs—became targets of heresy laws that carried a brutal punishment: burning at the stake.
Such a death was an undoubtedly horrific sentence. But in Tudor England , bloody punishments were the norm, with execution methods ranging from beheading to boiling; burning at the stake; and being hanged, drawn and quartered. Says Porter, “They lived in a brutal age, … and it took a lot to revolt your average 16th-century citizen.”
During the early modern period, Catholics and Protestants alike believed heresy warranted the heavy sentence it carried. Mary’s most famous victim, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer , was preparing to enact similar policies targeting Catholics before being sidelined by Edward VI’s death. According to Gristwood’s Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe , “That obdurate heretics, who refused to recant, should die was an all but universal tenet.”
To the 16th-century mind, heresy was a contagion that threatened not just the church, but the stability of society as a whole. Heretics were also deemed guilty of treason, as questioning a monarch’s established religious policies was tantamount to rejecting their divinely ordained authority. The justification for one heretic’s death, writes Virginia Rounding in The Burning Time: Henry VIII, Bloody Mary and the Protestant Martyrs of London , was the “salvation of many innocent Christians, who might otherwise have been led astray.” Even the gruesome method of execution had an underlying purpose: Death at the stake gave recalcitrant heretics a taste of hellfire, offering them one final chance to recant and save their souls.
Mary and her advisors hoped the initial spate of burnings would act as a “ short, sharp shock ” warning errant Protestants to return to the fold of the “true” faith. In a January 1555 memorandum, the queen explained that executions should be “so used that the people might well perceive them not to be condemned without just occasion, whereby they shall both understand the truth and beware to do the like.” But Mary had grossly underestimated Protestants’ tenacity—and their willingness to die for the cause.
“In mid-16th-century Europe,” writes Porter, “the idea of respecting another person’s beliefs would have provoked incredulity. Such certainties bred oppressors and those who were willing to be sacrificed.”
All that said, inextricable from Mary’s legacy are the 280 Protestants she consigned to the flames. These executions—the main reason for her unfortunate nickname—are cited as justification for labeling her one of the most evil humans of all time and even depicting her as a “ flesh-eating zombie .” They are where we get the image of a monarch whose “raging madness” and “open tyranny,” as described by 16th-century writer Bartholomew Traheron , led her to “swimmeth in the holy blood of most innocent, virtuous, and excellent personages.”
Consider, however, the following: Even though Henry VIII, Mary’s father, only had 81 people burned at the stake over the course of his 38-year reign, heresy was far from the sole charge that warranted execution in Tudor England. Estimates suggest Henry ordered the deaths of as many as 57,000 to 72,000 of his subjects —including two of his wives—though it’s worth noting these figures are probably exaggerated. Edward VI had two radical Protestant Anabaptists burned at the stake during his six-year reign; in 1549, he sanctioned the suppression of the Prayer Book Rebellion , resulting in the deaths of up to 5,500 Catholics. Mary’s successor, Elizabeth I, burned five Anabaptists at the stake during her 45-year reign; ordered the executions of around 800 Catholic rebels implicated in the Northern earls’ revolt of 1569; and had at least 183 Catholics , the majority of whom were Jesuit missionaries, hanged, drawn and quartered as traitors.
If numbers are the main reasoning behind such sobriquets as “Bloody Mary,” then why aren’t Mary’s family members dubbed “Bloody Henry,” “Bloody Edward” and “Bloody Bess”? Why has the myth of “Bloody Mary” persisted in Great Britain’s collective imagination for so long? And what did Mary do that was so different from not only other Tudor monarchs, but kings and queens across early modern Europe?
These questions are complex and predictably fraught. But several recurring themes persist. As England’s first queen regnant, Mary faced the same challenge experienced by female rulers across the continent—namely, her councillors’ and subjects’ lack of faith in women’s ability to govern, a dilemma best summarized by contemporary Mary of Hungary : “A woman is never feared or respected as a man is, whatever is his rank. … All she can do is shoulder the responsibility for the mistakes committed by others.”
Historian Lucy Wooding says descriptions of Mary tend to have misogynistic undertones. “She’s simultaneously being lambasted for being vindictive and fierce” and “spineless and weak,” criticized for such actions as showing clemency to political prisoners and yielding authority to her husband, Philip II of Spain. Most experts agree that the Spanish marriage had an adverse effect on Mary’s reputation, painting her, however unfairly, as an infatuated, weak-willed woman who placed earthly love ahead of the welfare of her country.
While Mary’s gender played a pivotal role in the formation of her image—especially during her own lifetime, according to Porter—arguably the most important factor in the “Bloody Mary” moniker’s staying power was the rise of a national identity built on the rejection of Catholicism. A 1563 book by John Foxe known popularly as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs played a pivotal role in the creation of this Protestant identity, detailing the torments suffered by men and women burned at the stake under Mary through word-of-mouth accounts and visceral woodcut illustrations . (The accuracy of Foxe’s manuscript remains a point of contention among historians.) The book was enormously popular during the Elizabethan era, with copies even placed in local churches alongside the Bible.
“Foxe’s account would shape the popular narrative of Mary’s reign for the next 450 years,” writes Anna Whitelock in her biography of the Tudor queen . “Generations of schoolchildren would grow up knowing the first queen of England only as ‘Bloody Mary,’ a Catholic tyrant.”
Porter argues that Mary’s burnings might have become a “mere footnote to history” if not for the intervention of John Foxe; historian O.T. Hargrave , meanwhile, describes the persecution as “unprecedented” and suggests it “succeeded only in alienating much of the country.” Either way, after taking the throne, Elizabeth took care not to replicate her sister’s religious policies. Writing in Mary Tudor , Judith Richards observes, “It may have helped protect Elizabeth’s reputation that many [executed] … were hanged as seditious traitors for seeking to restore Catholicism rather than burned as heretics.”
To put it bluntly, says Porter, “Mary burned Protestants, [and] Elizabeth disemboweled Catholics. It’s not pretty either way.”
The myth of “Bloody Mary” is one mired in misconception. England’s first queen regnant was not a vindictive, violent woman, nor a pathetic, lovestruck wife who would have been better off as a nun. She was stubborn, inflexible and undoubtedly flawed, but she was also the product of her time, as incomprehensible to modern minds as our world would be to hers. She paved the way for her sister’s reign, setting precedents Elizabeth never acknowledged stemmed from her predecessor, and accomplished much in such arenas as fiscal policy, religious education and the arts.
Mary burned Protestants, [and] Elizabeth disemboweled Catholics. It’s not pretty either way.
If she had lived longer, says Gristwood, Mary might have been able to institute the religious reforms she so strongly believed in, from a renewed emphasis on preaching, education and charity to a full reunion with Rome. But because Mary died just five years after her accession, Elizabeth inherited the throne and set England on a Protestant path. Over the centuries, most significantly in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Protestantism became a core component of British identity.
Mary’s reputation, says Wooding, was “very painstakingly constructed after her death [and] had extraordinary longevity because of the fundamental place that Protestant identity came to take in British identity.” Her enduring unpopularity, then, reflects a failure to properly contextualize her reign: Writes historian Thomas S. Freeman , “Mary has continually been judged by the standards of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and not surprisingly, has been found wanting.”
For all her faults, and regardless of whether one falls into the competing camps of rehabilitation or vilification, Mary—the first to prove women could rule England with the same authority as men—holds a singular place in British history.
“She was an intelligent, politically adept, and resolute monarch who proved to be very much her own woman,” argues Whitelock. “Mary was the Tudor trailblazer, a political pioneer whose reign redefined the English monarchy.”
As the Bishop of Winchester observed during Mary’s December 1558 funeral sermon, “She was a King’s daughter, she was a King’s sister, she was a King’s wife. She was a Queen, and by the same title a King also.”
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Meilan Solly | | READ MORE
Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's associate digital editor, history.
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The Bloody Mary Legend – The True Story of the Bloody Mary Ghost
The Bloody Mary legend is an old, old legend, that you probably heard way back in primary school and that your younger siblings and family members have probably heard too. Based on many urban legends and folklore that many believe was based upon the true story of the witch Mary Worth, the Bloody Mary story may seem somewhat innocent until you learn quite how gruesome and violent the tale is. It has it all – witches, kidnappings, burning a witch at the stake and magic. Take a ride with us through the spooky world of Mary Worth and learn just why and where the legend came from – and why you still might not want to say “Bloody Mary” three times in a mirror.
Just think back to your childhood sleepovers and talking about ghosts, spooky stories and watching horror movies that are completely inappropriate for your age. Were you that piping voice who said, “Who is Bloody Mary?” Hopefully not, because you likely would have been suckered into this bit of the legend, which says that if you hold a lit candle in a darkened room with a mirror (any darkened room will do, although it’s usually a bathroom) and say, “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary” into that mirror, you’ll be greeted with the rather startling image of Mary’s reflection in the mirror behind you. Different re-tellings of the story offer different versions of the tale, with some imagining Bloody Mary quite literally dripping in blood when she appears behind you, others telling of her dragging you away if you turn around to look at her in person as well as more macabre tales that talk of violent murders and blood pouring from taps.
Is Bloody Mary real? Some people think so, based on the story of witch Mary Worth. It’s fair to say that the Bloody Mary history is long, and, well, extremely bloodied (ba-dum-tsh). Many people already believed that Mary was a witch, simply because she lived in the forest, in an extremely small cabin, and was known around the local village for selling tinctures and herbal remedies. Locals were very wary of her and didn’t want to get too close, fearful that she’d curse them or their or animals and those who chose to use her remedies were sometimes even shunned by the very religious for partaking in “wicca”.
Soon, small girls started to go missing. The people in the village looked everywhere that they could think of for them, but they just could not think of where she could be. A few brave folk even ventured toward Bloody Mary’s cabin to search for the girls there, and although the witch denied all knowledge of the girls’ disappearances, the families were suspicious. Her usually elderly and haggard appearance had drastically changed and she was starting to appear more feminine and youthful. The villagers were suspicious, but there was little they could do.
The Miller's Daughter
The Bloody Mary story continues with the miller’s daughter. One night, the poor girl was captivated by a mysterious noise that only she could hear, whilst her mum was sitting up in bed treating a very bad toothache using – as luck would have it – with a herbal tincture that she’d bought from Mary. The miller’s wife was very frightened, and shouted for her husband to come and help and follow her daughter. They were shouting at her daughter for her to come back but to no avail, as it was almost as though she was following an unspoken and unseeing force. Getting the help of a few townsfolk, the town farmer noticed that there was a light at the edge of the woods. When they got closer, they noticed again that Mary Worth was standing in a clearing, next to a huge oak tree. She was holding a wand, pointing it towards the miller’s home, and was almost glowing with an unnatural light – and the miller’s daughter was headed straight toward that light.
When people ask “What is Bloody Mary?” it’s quite hard to answer, particularly as witches don’t typically have wands, or glow with an unnatural light, but it’s fair to say that most people imagine her as a witch or some other type of supernatural being. Once the farmers and the miller’s father noticed just what Mary Worth was doing, they set upon her with pitchforks and guns and when she realised that everyone from the village knew what she was, she broke the spell and made for the forest.
So how did Bloody Mary die? Well, she wasn’t quick enough for the farmer. Quickly loading his gun with silver bullets in the event that Mary ever decided to turn her attention towards his daughter, he fired a shot and caught her in the hip. She was caught, kicking, thrashing and screaming and tied to a stake and a bonfire was promptly built so that this supposed witch could be gone for good. As she was burning, she set a curse upon the villagers and told them that if they ever dared to utter her name in a mirror, she would be back for them – her spirit would return to wherever they summoned her from to exact her revenge.
Unfortunately for the villagers with missing children, when they got back home to the village and returned to Mary’s house and did a proper search, they found what they were looking for – rows and rows of unmarked graves. It seemed that she’d been using the blood of their children to make herself more youthful!
The Bloody Mary Curse
The Bloody Mary legend doesn’t quite end there, however. The most common version of the legend states that if you chant her name three times into a mirror, you’ll summon the Bloody Mary ghost – and unfortunately for you, she’ll take your soul for her own, ripping yours to shreds in the process. She’ll leave your soul to burn, just like she was left to burn by the villagers and to top it all off, you’ll be subjected to an eternity trapped in the mirror. Now, are you still asking “is Bloody Mary real?” I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the one to test out this particular legend…
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The Legend Of Bloody Mary Explained
Everyone loves a good scary story. There are campfire stories, best told outside in the dark, real-life horrors, best heard from a Netflix binge of Investigation Discovery shows, even classic ghost tales, passed down through the centuries but still effective. But alongside all of these exists a specific kind spook story: the urban legend .
Also known as folklore, these are, of course, the stories you hear from someone who heard it from someone else that it totally happened, 100 percent, for-real. Since the dawn of the internet, these stories have taken on new life with social media to spread them and a few quick searches to debunk them.
But some of the most fascinating ones are the classics that have existed for generations. These tend to go through so many permutations and changes over time, giving them their own sort of timeline. Maybe you heard of Bloody Mary from kids at school when you were young, but how much do you really know about this timeless legend?
The OG version of Bloody Mary is simple
With Bloody Mary, sometimes there's a backstory, but it's not really important. What matters is the ritual. You probably heard it at a sleepover at a friend's house when you were little, and it's simple to remember because it's not super complicated. It's easy to share with other unsuspecting kids who have never heard it for exactly the same reason. It's like a really basic meme that makes you laugh so you send it to everyone you know, except scary.
First, you need a dark room and a mirror, according to Snopes . Bathrooms are the most commonly used, since they tend to not have windows, or at least not very big ones, but there's no hard and fast rule that it has to be in the same room as your toilet. Though, admittedly, it might be handy to have the toilet near-at-hand if you end up getting too scared.
When the lights are off and you're in front of the mirror, you merely need to say "Bloody Mary" three times. The multiple repetitions are presumably so that you have a chance to chicken out before plunging headlong into terror. After the third time, simply wait, and something terribly spooky will happen (or probably nothing will happen, but just stick with us here).
But wait, there's more
The "something terribly spooky?" It seems to vary a lot . You might see an evil figure standing behind you. Some tellings say that Bloody Mary herself appears and scratches you, either to injure you or to leave you marked with her curse, which will cause bad things to befall you. According to Snopes , there's even versions that say Bloody Mary will outright kill you, if you like to add a little edge to your sleepovers.
What's more, the number of times you say the name can vary. Some legends say seven times, and a few even say 13 times, by which point you're probably super tired of saying it and the words have lost all meaning to you, so you might forget what you're doing by number 13 and get extra scared by her. That's a pretty cruel trick, Bloody Mary. It's not a telephone call you can just ignore, you're a ghost or a witch or something, you have a job to do.
You may not even need a dark room. Some tellings say that she wants a lit candle or two flickering before Bloody Mary will swing by for a visit. While this may seem like a purely atmospheric thing, there might be more to it. More on that later.
What's in a name?
But wait, you might not even need to call her Bloody Mary. Some variations out there have different names, like Mary Worth (not related to the comic strip of the same name, hopefully), Mary Worthington, Mary Johnson, basically any Mary plus last name combo is on the table. Then there are others that say you need to call her Bloody Bones or Hell Mary, according to Snopes . There are even versions where she's called Black Agnes, Black Aggie, or, strangely, Svarte Madame (which seems to be derived from "svarta madam," Swedish for "woman in black").
Occasionally, you have to say more than just a supernatural being's name. In some versions, you have to say, "I believe in Bloody Mary," or the exact opposite of that, "I don't believe in Bloody Mary." You can, of course, substitute any other of the various names in there. In one take on the story, you're instead supposed to say, "Kathy, come out!" Maybe Kathy/Bloody Mary has been in the bathroom on the other side of the mirror for too long?
Some even get real dark. For example, there's one particularly gruesome variation where you have to say, "Bloody Mary! I killed your baby!" Maybe don't taunt the supernatural being with false murder confessions like this. Just seems like a bad idea all around.
Bloody Mary has regional twists
Much like the menu at McDonald's , Bloody Mary has regional variants, too. These are often adaptations of existing local legends, but adjusted to fit into the dark room, mirror, and chant ritual, according to Folklore Thursday . For example, near the Mexican border, you can find versions of the story starring La Llorona — the weeping woman searching for her lost child.
Another example is found primarily in Tennessee, where you're meant to say "Bell Witch" or "I hate the Bell Witch" instead. This is based on a legend from Adams, TN, where a farmer named John Bell (who was a real person ) and his family were allegedly cursed by a neighboring witch, Kate Batts, over a dispute of some kind. If the name sounds kind of familiar, you might be thinking of the Blair Witch, who was inspired by the Bell Witch legend.
Horror author Clive Barker played with this idea in his story, " The Forbidden ," which was later adapted into 1992's Candyman. Candyman himself is summoned the same way as other legends like Bloody Mary. Main character Helen, a folklorist, is exploring this local variant for a thesis paper when she inadvertently discovers that this version is actually true and the Candyman is real. Of course, this sort of implies that Bloody Mary is actually a variant on Candyman in that universe instead of the other way around, right?
Bloody Mary's got a history
Bloody Mary sometimes gets a tragic backstory. She can be a witch who was put to death for practicing the black arts centuries ago, but the exact time period varies, according to Snopes . Oddly, it seems the most obvious answer ( the Salem Witch Trials ) is actually not terribly common. Usually, she's given a more local backstory, in a sort of light take on the regional variations of the story.
She's occasionally a woman who maybe didn't die violently, but lost a child, which may be related to the La Llorona variation. This is also where the creepy "Bloody Mary! I killed your baby!" chant seems to come in, too. Certainly, a vengeful ghost would be summoned by someone declaring infanticide. You monster.
But a more modern update, a gritty reboot perhaps, has her being either a very vain woman who spent a long time staring into the mirror, a woman who died in a violent, bloody accident (often automobile related), or both. Curiously, a vain woman dying violently and becoming an angry spirit has some parallels in a Japanese urban legend called kuchi-sake onna , or ripped-mouth woman. The ripped-mouth woman was a beautiful, vain woman who died, usually during a botched plastic surgery attempt, and now walks around Japan with a veil covering her mouth, asking people if they think she's beautiful. No matter what you say, she pulls down the veil, shows her mouth is cut from ear-to-ear, and kills you.
But Bloody Mary is probably not from history
Bloody Mary is sometimes tied to famous figures from history, such as "Bloody" Mary I of England, who reigned in the mid-16th century. While the two do share a nickname, Mary I was not a witch (that we know of), nor did she die violently. And she never had children. She was called Bloody Mary because she had a proclivity for ordering the execution of Protestants, which definitely isn't nice, but doesn't seem to relate her to the legend of Bloody Mary at all, according to Snopes .
Another target for the legend is Mary, Queen of Scots , who reigned over Scotland in the 16th century as well. However, she has even less in common with the folklore figure of Bloody Mary. While she did have a violent death — she was executed by beheading in 1587 — there's not really a whole lot of blood in her story otherwise. It seems more likely that she was roped into the legend just because her name happened to also be Mary.
There are a host of other historical figures the legend is supposedly based on, but these are even more unlikely than Mary I or Mary, Queen of Scots. To put it simply, folklorists and researchers haven't found any strong evidence that the legend is based on a singular historical figure.
Bloody Mary: The Prequel
There is one thing we do know about where the Bloody Mary legend originated from — it bears a striking resemblance to a divination game played by people in centuries past. The way it works may sound extremely familiar. A person stands in front of a mirror in a darkened room, chants a rhyme or phrase, and a spectral vision comes to them, according to Folklore Thursday .
It's pretty much a dead ringer (pun sort of intended) for Bloody Mary, but this game was meant to tell the future instead of summoning a supernatural presence. Specifically, the idea was that young women would do this in hopes of seeing a glimpse of the man they were to marry (which seems incredibly quaint now). If the ritual was performed correctly, a ghostly apparition of the supplicant's one true love would appear before them. But even this proto-Bloody Mary can be spooky. If the person is going to die before getting married, then the ghastly form of the Grim Reaper might appear instead.
While this particular divination game only goes back a few centuries, there are tons of examples throughout literature and history talking about telling the future based on things seen in reflective images. Think of Snow White 's evil stepmother and her magic mirror on the wall. Even the Bible, in 1 Corinthians 13 mentions seeing "through a glass darkly," a reference to such practices which existed back then, too, according to LiveAbout .
So how old is Bloody Mary?
We know that people have been trying to see stuff in mirrors for millennia, and we know that similar rituals have been kicking around for a few hundred years, so how old is the Bloody Mary legend? This may surprise you, but Bloody Mary seems to be a bit of ancient folklore stretching back to that far-off time of... the 1970s. The earliest print references to Bloody Mary are only about 50 years old, according to Folklore Thursday .
At best, folklorists can trace the legend back to the post-World War II era. So you had things that vaguely resemble Bloody Mary and similar stories before then, but Bloody Mary herself is a newcomer on the urban legend scene. Those regional variants, like the Bell Witch and La Llorona? Those legends both significantly predate Bloody Mary. They were retrofitted into the Bloody Mary format when that legend became so popular in the latter half of the 1900s.
So, despite being a legend that resembles European ghost stories from centuries ago, Bloody Mary is practically the new kid on the block. The concept of flying saucers, that is, mysterious disc-shaped objects flying through the sky, comes from about the same post-war era as Bloody Mary. If she was a real person, she'd probably still be collecting social security right about now.
Through the looking glass
The most unifying factor of all the Bloody Mary legends and their variants is the mirror. Everything else is negotiable, but the mirror is not. Every version includes it, and without the mirror, it effectively becomes an entirely different legend. A version where you say a ghost's name facing a blank wall would be pretty weird . So what is it about the mirror that's so integral here?
Well, it turns out that seeing scary things in the mirror has been a big deal for a very long time, according to Astonishing Legends . There's no shortage of tales about people seeing a different face in the mirror, or being pulled into the glass to live in the mirror world, where they presumably don't have right-handed scissors or computer mice. What's interesting there, though — and another reason the Bloody Mary myth isn't too terribly old — is because mirrors as we know them weren't even invented until the 1830s.
Obviously, people looked at their own reflection before this time, but they did so in glass, polished metal, or water, which didn't reflect as clearly. This makes them approximately one million times scarier, because you could barely make out your own features, much less those of a ghost behind you. So it seems that mirrors were already scary, even before their official invention, and those fears were brought straight into the Bloody Mary legend.
The official mascot of slumber parties for 50 years
One particular thing that researchers have noted about the Bloody Mary legend is how it spreads. Or, more specifically, who spreads it. While you boys reading this have likely heard the story at one point or another, the Bloody Mary legend is mostly the domain of girls . It is deeply associated with slumber parties (themselves a fairly recent invention) as opposed to, say, being told around the campfire.
So why is the legend so prevalent among budding young women? Well, folklorists have some theories. For one thing, it's related to fears of aging and physical appearance. Try as we might, we still haven't broken the social stigma that women's worth is judged by their beauty. This stress is especially high on young girls, because middle school and high school are a Thunderdome of social pressure. While Bloody Mary herself isn't meant to be a representation of how they'll look when they're older, there's still a lot of fear surrounding unexpected things in the mirror.
However, an even bigger influence seems to come from puberty and, specifically, menstruation, according to LiveAbout . Yes, the "Bloody" part is pretty on-the-nose, but even on a more subtle level, girls are preparing to become adults and that's pretty scary. Summoning an angry spirit with a violent past is a simple way to confront some of the horrors adulthood might one day throw at them.
Bloody Mary is scary because it's simple
Speaking of Bloody Mary's simplicity, that actually has a lot to do with how urban legends spread. Folklorists have found that the urban legends that get spread the furthest are those that are " minimally counterintuitive ." What this means is that stories that are almost entirely realistic but just have one small difference are the ones that spread like wildfire. The reason is because they're more memorable. It's hard to remember a legend that gets caught up in details, but for stories like Bloody Mary, the details are mundane stuff we do every day anyway, like go into the bathroom and look in the mirror.
With Bloody Mary, the bathroom, mirror, and so on, are normal, but the supernatural encounter is not. That's the key twist that makes the story, well, viral. It's like how fake news works today. A story that's mostly basic facts and then one big whopper stuffed into it will fly under a lot of people's radar, because their BS detectors aren't tripped enough to make them question it too closely.
Many of the most popular legends throughout history work on this premise, according to Folklore Thursday . Take Bigfoot , for example. There's a strange animal in some isolated woods, which is perfectly plausible. Large primates exist, which we also know to be true. Humans shared a common ancestor with apes. Those things are facts, but Bigfoot is not. Still, it's minimally counterintuitive, and so it's easy to remember and share.
How to see ghosts
So, real talk: Will you see something unexpected in the mirror if you chant a name in the mirror multiple times in a dark room and wait? Actually, yes. Sort of. You don't need the chant, though. Just go into a room with a mirror, turn the lights off, stare into the mirror, and wait. There's an excellent chance you'll see your own face warping and changing or even see what looks like another figure next to or behind you. G-g-g-g-ghosts!!
Not quite, according to Mental Floss . Our brains have this feature called pareidolia, which lets us identify faces where there may not actually be a face. It's useful for spotting predators, but sometimes it glitches out, like with the Face on Mars, where we see a face that isn't really a face. Darkness can mess this up, too. This is an illusion called the Troxler Effect, where staring at the same unchanging thing for a while can cause our brain's view of it to warp.
This effect is actually made stronger with dim, flickering light from a candle, because our eyes dilate to adjust to the lack of light. During this time, things that weren't visible previously, say a pattern on your wallpaper, come into focus slowly and unevenly, and can look like something entirely different. Also, if there is a ghost in the room, it will take you longer to notice it, thus giving you precious seconds before your untimely demise.
Is the Bloody Mary Story True?
Will chanting 'bloody mary' 13 times in front of a darkened mirror summon a vengeful ghost, barbara mikkelson, published apr 27, 2001.
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The research into Bloody Mary goes back to 1978, when folklorist Janet Langlois published her essay on the legend. Belief in summoning the mirror-witch was even at that time widespread throughout the U.S.
Mary is summoned whenever squealing girls get together for a sleepover, but boys have been known to call on her too. (The 'Bloody Mary' legend was common when I was a kid in the early 1970s. We typically performed the "ritual" in bathrooms, because the bathrooms of our suburban homes had large mirrors and were easily darkened even during the day since they had no windows. A familiar 'Bloody Mary' story was one about a girl who supposedly ended her incantation with a spiteful "I don't believe in Mary Worth," then tripped over the doorjamb while exiting the bathroom and broke her hip.)
Examples: [Collected on the Internet, 1995]
If you go into the bathroom and look into the mirror with the lights off and the room completely black, and then say 'Bloody Mary' thirteen times, a woman will appear and scratch your face up/off. I was told that if you said "Hell Mary" seven times in front of a mirror in a dark room, you would see Satan's image in the mirror. The story was embellished further by the teller, who claimed that after three "Hell Mary", the mirror turned red, and that after five an unclear face appeared. Here's how I always heard the story. You go into a room with a mirror and turn all the lights off (this works well in a bathroom). You begin, in a whisper, to chant "bloody mary. bloody mary, Bloody Mary", as you continue to chant your voice should grow louder and louder into a near scream. While you are chanting you should be spinning around at a medium rate and taking a glimpse in the mirror at each pass. Near the 13th repetition of the words . . . "she" should appear and...? A frend of mine said that her roommate tried this and ran out screaming from the bathroom. She was shaking and appeared genuinely terrified and refused to talk about the incident, but those who were around her when she came out noticed that her clenched fingers were covered in blood.
Read more scary stories and creepy urban legends.
- 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.
- Summoning Mary requires the right chant. "I believe in Mary Worth" is the key phrase according to one version, but others require the shouting of "Kathy, come out!" or the repetition of "Bloody Mary" into the mirror as many times as the ritual demands. (Sometimes Bloody Mary gets more of a script and is summoned by calls of "Bloody Mary! I killed your baby!")
- The precise requirements of the ritual vary. Some specify that the mirror must be illuminated by a single candle; in others, there must be a candle on each side. In some versions, the message to Mary is repeated by just one girl who is either a volunteer or one selected by the others to summon up the mirror-witch. The number of chants needed to fetch Mary also varies.
- What the mirror-witch does upon arrival varies too. She may strike her summoner dead, drive her mad, or fiercely scratch her face. She may merely peer malevolently out through the mirror, or she may drag one of the girls back through it to live with her.
Mary is said to be a witch who was executed a hundred years ago for plying the black arts, or a woman of more modern times who died in a local car accident in which her face was hideously mutilated.
Some confuse the mirror witch with Mary I of England, whom history remembers as "Bloody Mary." An expanded version of that confusion has it that this murdering British queen killed young girls so she could bathe in their blood to preserve her youthful appearance. (That legend more properly attaches to Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian countess who lived from 1560 to 1614.)
Mary I of England (1553-1558) was anything but a famed beauty terrified of losing her looks — she was a matronly, fortyish woman who had about as much sense of style as a dust mop. The idea of her bathing in the blood of slaughtered virgins to preserve her loveliness is ludicrous. She came by the moniker "Bloody Mary" because she had a number of Protestants put to death during her reign, as she tried to re-establish Catholicism as the religion of the land after the reigns of her father (Henry VIII, he who married six wives over the course of his lifetime and established himself as the head of a new religion rather than tolerate the Pope's saying he couldn't divorce wife #1 to marry wife #2) and her brother (Edward VI, who ruled after Henry died but passed away himself at the age of 16). Mary was a devoutly religious woman who saw what she was doing as the saving of her subjects' souls from eternal damnation, and in those times — as crazy as this sounds now — the eternal wellbeing of a soul was deemed far more important than the comparatively fleeting life of a person. That bringing the country back to Catholicism would also safeguard her throne was also a major consideration.
Mary I was the half sister of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Both were daughters of Henry VIII, but Mary's mother was Katherine of Aragon and Elizabeth's mother was Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth I became Queen upon Mary's death. During her reign, Elizabeth returned the country to Protestantism and in the process ordered the deaths of at least as many of her subjects as her half-sister did during her time on the throne, yet she earned the sobriquet "The Virgin Queen" (she never married) rather than any version of "Bloody Elizabeth."
Some muddlings of this "murdering queen" variant claim that Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1567) is the "bloody Mary" of mirror summonings. Though this Mary was indeed a vain and foolish woman, history does not know her as a murderous one. (Well, she did have a hand in doing away with a husband. But she didn't go after her subjects en masse, as did Mary I of England.)
So, although there was a British queen known as "Bloody Mary," no connection between her and the mirror witch has surfaced, save for their both having the same name. Likewise, the "Mary Worth" appellation of the malevolent apparition doesn't appear to be drawn from the lead character of a popular comic strip of the same name. In lore, as elsewhere, coincidences occur.
Why would otherwise rational youngsters want to risk setting a murderous spirit on the rampage? Gail de Vos offers the following explanation:
So why do children continue to summon Bloody Mary, flirting with danger and possible tragedy? The ages between 9 and 12 are labeled "the Robinson age" by psychologists. 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.
It's possible these "mirror witch" games have their roots in oldtime divining rituals involving unmarried girls and future husbands. There are a number of variations of these divinations, some involving chanting a rhyme in a darkened room on a special night and then quickly looking in the mirror to catch a glimpse of the bridegroom-to-be.
The concept of mirrors as portals between this world and the realm of spirits shows up in other beliefs, namely those surrounding funerals. It was common practice to cover mirrors in a house where a death had occurred until the body was taken for burial. (Back in the days before funeral homes, corpses were washed by the deceased's relatives, dressed in their funeral finery, and laid out in coffins in the front parlor. Consequently, the dead would be in the house for days.) It was believed if the dear departed caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror, his ghost would remain in the house because the mirror would trap his spirit.
Sightings: The villain in the 1992 film Candyman is summoned by chanting his name into a mirror. In the 1998 movie Urban Legend , two co-eds try to summon an evil spirit by chanting 'Bloody Mary.' In an episode of television's The X Files ("Syzygy," original air date 26 January 1996), two teenage girls lure a rival for a boy's affections into the bathroom — and a "Bloody Mary" ritual — during a birthday party. They prevent her from leaving the bathroom, and the camera cuts to the rest of the partygoers downstairs, who hear a crash of breaking glass and a scream. Last updated: 27 October 2005-->
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Mexican Pet . New York: W. W. Norton, 1986. ISBN 0-393-30542-2 (pp. 80-82).
Brunvand, Jan Harold. "Urban Legends." The San Diego Union-Tribune. 28 April 1988 (p. D2).
de Vos, Gail. Tales, Rumors and Gossip . Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996. ISBN 1-56308-190-3 (pp. 67-68).
By Barbara Mikkelson
- United Kingdom
The True Story Behind Bloody Mary
The sad, true story behind the bloody mary mirror legend.
For weeks, she would lie in her bed without speaking, like one dead. Then, she would sit for whole days on the floor, huddled up, with her knees against her face.
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What Inspired Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary’s Gruesome Nickname?
By: Una McIlvenna
Updated: June 8, 2023 | Original: October 25, 2018
She was the first-ever Queen of England to rule in her own right, but to her critics, Mary I of England has long been known only as “Bloody Mary.”
This unfortunate nickname was thanks to her persecution of Protestant heretics, whom she burned at the stake in the hundreds. But is this a fair portrayal? Was she the bloodthirsty religious fanatic that posterity has bequeathed to us? While hundreds died under Mary’s reign, her dark legacy may have as much to do with the fact that she was a Catholic monarch succeeded by a Protestant Queen in a country that remained Protestant. History, as they say, is written by the victors.
During her five-year reign, Mary had over 300 religious dissenters burned at the stake in what are known as the Marian persecutions. It is a statistic that seems barbaric. But her own father, Henry VIII , executed 81 people for heresy. And her half-sister, Elizabeth I , also executed scores of people for their faith. So why is Mary’s name linked with religious persecution?
Being burned at the stake was typical punishment for heresy.
First, it’s important to understand that heresy was considered by all of early modern Europe to be an infection of the body politic that had to be erased so as not to poison society at large. All over Europe, the punishment for heresy was not only death but also the total destruction of the heretic’s corpse to prevent the use of their body parts for relics. Therefore, most heretics were burned and their ashes thrown into the river and Mary’s choice of burning was completely standard practice for the period.
Her sister, Elizabeth I, was a little more savvy: in her reign, those convicted of practicing Catholicism by training as priests or sheltering them were convicted as traitors and punished accordingly, by being hanged and quartered. The idea behind the different crimes was that, while people could dispute religious belief, no one could ever possibly agree that treason was permissible.
If one person can be held responsible for Mary’s reputation, however, it is the Protestant “martyrologist,” John Foxe. His bestselling work, The Actes and Monuments , better known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs , was a detailed account of each and every martyr who died for his or her faith under the Catholic Church. It was first published in 1563 and went through four editions in Foxe’s lifetime alone, a testament to its popularity.
Although the work covered the early Christian martyrs, the medieval Inquisition, and the suppressed Lollard heresy, it was the persecutions under Mary I that got, and still receive, the most attention. This was partly due to the custom-made, highly detailed woodcuts depicting the gruesome torture and burning of Protestant martyrs, surrounded by flames. In the first, 1563 edition, 30 out of the 57 illustrations depict executions under Mary's reign.
The power of Foxe’s work arose also because of the intensely poignant way in which those martyrs were alleged to have gone to their fates. Whether his sources were accurate or not (and many believe they were not always entirely accurate ), it is hard to not feel emotion at this typical account of some of the early Marian martyrs, the bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley:
“Then brought they a fagot kindled with fyre, and layd the same downe at D[octor]. Ridleyes feete. To whom M. Latymer spake in this maner: ‘Be of good comfort M[aster]. Ridley, and play the man: we shall this day lyght such a candle by Gods grace in England, as (I trust) shall neuer be put out.’”
As the fire took hold, Latimer was suffocated and died quickly, but poor Ridley was not so fortunate. The wood burned too furiously against his feet and so he writhed in agony and repeatedly cried out, “‘Lord haue mercy vpon me, intermedling this cry, let the fyre come vnto me, I cannot burne.’”
Protestant martyrs become powerful folklore.
First published five years after Mary’s death, Foxe’s work was a huge success. Printed as an enormous folio, the second edition was ordered to be installed in every cathedral church and church officials were told to place copies in their houses for the use of servants and visitors. But by the end of the 17th century, Foxe’s work tended to be abbreviated to include only the most sensational episodes of torture and death. So the graphic accounts of pious Protestant martyrs submissively going to their painful ends at the hand of a “tyrant” became the folklore of the English Reformation .
Mary died at age 42 in 1558 during an influenza epidemic (although she had also been suffering from abdominal pain and may have had uterine or ovarian cancer). Her half-sister, Elizabeth, succeeded her as a Protestant monarch and England remained Protestant. Even if the various sects of that religion were then so at loggerheads that they plunged the kingdom into a civil war , Catholicism—or what they called “Popery”—was something they could all agree was worse than anything else.
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The Story of Bloody Mary
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Faces in the Mirror: The Urban Legend of Bloody Mary
Bloody Mary is a scary urban legend that has been told for decades, but what might psychology tell us about its appeal and origins? Typically the story involves a young woman performing a ritual before a mirror. As a result of the ritual, a frightening, supernatural figure appears and often inflicts violence upon her. Bloody Mary legends are found across the world, with similar variations being found in North America, Europe and Asia. It has also found its way into popular culture, being the focus of horror films such as Urban Legends: Bloody Mary and The Legend of Bloody Mary and a key influence on the film Candyman .
Bloody Mary is thought to have evolved from much older mirror divination rituals. In a footnote to his 1786 poem Halloween , Robert Burns described a mirror ritual used in Britain for the purpose of a person (typically a woman) seeing the face of their future spouse. This continued in European folklore up to the 20 th century, with Halloween greetings cards being produced with pictures of this ritual. The results of the ritual could, however, be horrific. It was said that if the woman was destined to die unmarried she would see the face of the Grim Reaper reflected in the mirror. It was also said during the 19 th century that if you stared into a mirror for too long the devil would appear. It was not until the 1970s, however, that examples of Bloody Mary legends were first published in print. The first examples of ‘Mary Worth’ legends were published in an anthology of American children’s folklore in 1976 and the first academic writing on the subject was by Janet Longlois in 1978. As with any oral tradition, Bloody Mary legends are likely to have existed for many years before they were first published, however, it is argued that the current form of Bloody Mary legend originated in the USA after WWII.
The legends themselves can be separated into three parts: a back-story for the ghost, the ritual, and the result of the summoning. There is a wide range of variation in these elements, even when just looking at Western, English language versions. Most frequently the supernatural entity is a ghost named Mary, or Bloody Mary. Other variations include Mary Worth, Mary Whales and Black Agnes. She is sometimes linked to the historical figures of Mary Queen of Scots or Queen Mary I of England and Ireland (who was nicknamed Bloody Mary by Protestants in the 16 th century) or local folkloric figures such as the Bell Witch, a regional variation specific to Tennessee, USA. Her back-story often involves being the victim of violence, such as being the ghost of a woman executed for witchcraft, a female student murdered by teachers or a beautiful woman who was disfigured. She is also sometimes depicted as the ghost of a woman whose children were murdered, occasionally with a direct link to La Llorona, the weeping woman of Hispanic folklore.
At its most basic the ritual involves reciting a summoning phrase, often the ghost’s name repeated three times, in front of a mirror in a dimly lit room. The phrase sometimes relates to the back-story, for example, “Bloody Mary, I killed your baby” links to the back-story of Bloody Mary being the ghost of a mother whose children were murdered. The ritual can also involve more complex elements such as lighting candles, turning around, throwing water over the mirror or flushing a toilet. Means of protection or escape are sometimes offered, such as turning on a light or using a protective ring of salt. The summoning is typically said to result in violent injury or death. This can range from finger nail scratches on the body or face, to eyes being scratched out or decapitation. Others have the summoner tested with holding the ghost’s baby, if it cries they receive a violent death, if not they are saved.
But why is Bloody Mary or similar supernatural tales so appealing? Cognitive anthropologists have suggested that some of the appeal of supernatural stories can be explained by a psychological bias in humans for information which is “minimally counter-intuitive”. Pascal Boyer argued that people hold intuitive assumptions about how the world works, referred to as ‘folk physics’ and ‘folk biology’, i.e. we assume that heavy items will fall to the ground, or that solids cannot pass through other solids, or that animals need food to live and plants cannot talk. Concepts which break these folk assumptions are counterintuitive and, importantly, a balance between a minority of counterintuitive and a majority of intuitive concepts is more memorable and more likely to be passed on to others, hence minimally counter-intuitive. A number of traditional folktales, myths and legends support this: they have only a small number of supernatural elements, such as a talking wolf, embedded in a story of normal, everyday events, such as visiting grandma. This is also likely to be the case with contemporary supernatural folklore and is certainly the case with Bloody Mary, with a normal everyday setting such as a bathroom being interrupted by a counterintuitive supernatural element, such as a murderous ghost. My own research examining Bloody Mary legends found that the vast majority contained one to three counterintuitive concepts, a result which closely matches similar studies using traditional folklore such as Grimm’s fairy tales.
Of particular relevance to the Bloody Mary legend, is a perceptual illusion discovered by psychologist Giovanni Caputo in 2010. Caputo found that staring at your own reflection in a dimly lit room results in the perception of strange faces, often including monstrous beings, archetypal faces such as babies or old women or the faces of deceased relatives. Caputo suggests that this ‘strange-face in the mirror’ illusion is caused by dim light producing fluctuations in the stability of the perceived definition of the face, which is then over-interpreted as another person by our cognitive system for face recognition. The rituals for summoning Bloody Mary (as well as much older mirror divination) consistently require the person to look into a mirror in a dimly lit room. It is easy to imagine that when primed with a scary story, the strange-face illusion could produce some genuinely terrifying perceptual effects.
Whatever the historical or psychological origins of the Bloody Mary legend, the story has survived for decades across the world and persists to this day. Do you dare call on her this Halloween?
References & Further Reading
Armitage, M. (2006). ‘All about Mary’: Children’s use of the toilet ghost story as a mechanism for dealing with fear, but fear of what? Contemporary Legend , 9, 1-27.
Barrett, J.L., Burdett, E.R., & Porter, T.J. (2009). Counterintuitiveness in folktales: Finding the cognitive optimum. Journal of Cognition and Culture , 9, 271-287.
Barrett, J.L., & Nyhof, M.A. (2001). Spreading of non-natural concepts: The role of intuitive conceptual structures in memory and transmission of cultural materials. Journal of Cognition and Culture , 1, 69-100.
Boyer, P. (1994). The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion . Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Burns, R. (1786). Halloween . Retrieved from http://www.robertburns.org/works/74.shtml.
Caputo, G. B. (2010). Strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion. Perception , 39(7), 1007.
Ellis, B. (2004). Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folklore and Popular Culture . Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press.
Hutton, R. (2001). Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Knapp, M., & Knapp, H. (1976). One potato, two potato…. The secret education of American school children . New York: W.W. Norton.
Longlois, J. (1978). Mary Whales, I believe in you: Myth and ritual subdued. Indiana Folklore , 9, 5-33.
Norenzayan, A., Atran, S., Faulkner, J., Schaller, M. (2006). Memory and mystery: The cultural selection of minimally counterintuitive narratives. Cognitive Science , 30, 531-553.
Stubbersfield, J., & Tehrani, J. (2013). Expect the unexpected? Testing for minimally counterintuitive (MCI) bias in the transmission of contemporary legends: A computational phylogenetic approach. Social Science Computer Review, 31(1), 90-102.
Joseph Stubbersfield is an honorary research fellow in the Anthropology Department of Durham University, UK. He completed his PhD at Durham, investigating cognitive biases in the cultural evolution and transmission of urban legends, before working on a project examining the transmission of moral information in the School of Biology at St. Andrews University and returning to Durham for a project examining health-related conspiracy theories in the UK and Sri Lanka. Visit Joseph’s website , or follow him on Twitter .
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The Ghost in the Mirror: The Legend of Bloody Mary Revealed
Bloody Mary 3) Elizabeth Bathory (1560 – 1614)
She might not be called Mary, but the violent deeds of Countess Erzébet Báthory (Elizabeth Bathory when anglicanized) make her a strong contender for the figure of Bloody Mary. From her base in the now very-ruined castle of Čachtice in Slovakia, she sadistically tortured and brutally murdered anywhere between 100 and 650 young girls. Owing to the nature of our evidence, we’ll never know the exact number. If the figures are even conservatively accurate, however, this would make her the most prolific female serial killer in history.
Elizabeth Bathory was better known as the “Blood Countess” because she used to bathe in the blood of her victims. She did this, we’re told, from the belief that their blood would preserve her youthful appearance. It’s likely that she was already embarked upon such cruelty while her husband was still around. She was married to Ferenc Nádasdy, a Hungarian war hero who fought with distinction against the Ottomans and gifted her his family estate of Čachtice Castle for their wedding.
However, Nádasdy’s death in 1604 gave way to six years of unabated killings. After exhausting the nearby village’s supply of adolescent peasant girls, she started searching further afield. Bathory began inviting the wealthy daughters of minor aristocrats to Čachtice to be instructed in the arts of court etiquette. Rather than receive a courtly education, however, they were instead ritually slaughtered.
An investigation launched by the King of Hungary (but requested by concerned, recently daughterless aristocrats) found that, for years, Bathory had been committing the kind of atrocities that make “Game of Thrones” torture scenes look like child’s play. Some victims would be scalded with white-hot tongs before being dunked in freezing water. Others would be covered in honey and slowly devoured by ants. Some would be burned, mutilated, and even cannibalized. The luckier ones would merely be beaten to death.
On December 30, 1610, Bathory was finally arrested along with four female accomplices. They were put on trial, during which dozens of witnesses came forward to testify. Elizabeth’s accomplices were tortured and burned at the stake. But it was decided that the countess shouldn’t be put to death; doing so would only be detrimental to the reputation of the nobility.
Instead Elizabeth it was decided that Elizabeth be walled up in Čachtice Castle , consigned to solitary confinement in a windowless cell where she would stay for four years until her death. Her macabre story has been cited as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula”. And it still brings a fair bit of tourism to the area of Čachtice. Amongst the souvenirs available are bottles of “Bathory Blood” from the local winery. Ruby red, naturally.
So which of our three contenders has the strongest claim as Bloody Mary? Ultimately it comes down to what kind of apparition you expect to find staring back at you: a pallid figure bathed in the blood of burned protestants, a headless, sinewy queen, or a serial killer countess. Just one thing’s for sure: none are the kind you’d like to meet in a dark alley, nevermind a candle-lit bathroom mirror.
USC Digital Folklore Archives
A database of folklore performances, bloody mary – ghost story origins.
“This is the Bloody Mary legend that I learned when I was a kid. So, she was a woman who lived in this big beautiful Victorian house. A man was planning on marrying her and she was very very beautiful, and she always wore this ribbon around her neck. On the night of the wedding, he goes ‘can I take the ribbon off your neck?’ and she says ‘no.’ Every night she says no and then one night while she is sleeping, he pulls the ribbon off her neck and her head falls off. And because she was Bloody Mary, if you stand in the mirror and you spin around three times and say ‘Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, come and haunt me’ she’ll come and cut your head off.”
B is an informant from Southern California. This is a story she learned when she was a child from her friends. She never performed the described ritual because she was always too scared that it might actually happen. I gathered this story from her while we collected ghost stories from each other.
Bloody Mary is a very interesting ghost story because the name always stays the same, but almost every single time I have heard the reason or story behind the name, it is different. Some are more involved, like this one, and sometimes the there is no story just the ritual on how to summon her. The legend of Bloody Mary is often utilized as a kind of dare amongst children to see who is brave enough to complete the ritual. However different the stories tend to be, many aspects are similar across the different versions, such as saying the name three times, standing in front of a mirror, and the fact that Bloody Mary will harm you in some way if you summon her. She is never perceived to be a nice spirit, so these reoccurring aspects likely appear in the original legend of the Bloody Mary ghost. This ghost story is considered a legend because of its wide proliferation, the potential truth factor, and its real world setting. Although many brush it off as a just silly game for children, many do believe in it. Some might claim to not believe in it, but still will not preform the ritual “just in case” or out of fear.
Where did the legend of Bloody Mary come from?
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Standing in front of a mirror in a darkened room with a candle, chanting "Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary" won't cause a cocktail to appear (as much as some people might hope!). However, according to legend , the ritual might cause a ghastly apparition to materialize. Are you brave enough to try it yourself?
Many a girl at a slumber party has played the Bloody Mary game, or at least heard of it. Nobody really knows how long people have been telling the story of Bloody Mary, but historians began attempting to trace the roots of the story in the 1970s [source: Dube ]. The details of the Bloody Mary "game" tend to vary, but the basic tenets are always the same.
The participant enters a darkened room with a lit candle. She or he looks into a mirror while chanting Bloody Mary's name or a phrase a specific number of times. If the ritual is performed correctly, Bloody Mary might either appear in the mirror, reach out of the mirror and scratch the participant's face, or be released from the afterlife to haunt him or her forever. Other versions of the story include the mirror dripping blood , the participant's hair turning white, or the participant disappearing without a trace.
Sometimes the ritual involves chanting simply "Bloody Mary," whereas other versions involve chanting, "I believe in Bloody Mary" or even "I killed your baby, Bloody Mary."
Folklore experts searching for the origins behind the legend of Bloody Mary came up with several theories.
A unique, quite Freudian take on the legend by folklorist Alan Dundes suggests that the story is an initiation ritual into womanhood. He notes that the Bloody Mary legend revolves around blood suddenly appearing, and that the ritual typically takes place in a bathroom with girls who are right on the edge of puberty [source: Dundes ].
However, other theories put the origins of the story in a more historical perspective. Bloody Mary may have been one of the following women, all of who might have a good reason to come back from the afterlife to wreak havoc among the living:
- Mary Tudor (Mary I of England), who put many Protestants to death for heresy, giving her the nickname "Bloody Mary."
- Elizabeth Bathory , also known as the "Queen of Blood," who was supposedly convicted for murdering hundreds of young girls so she could bathe in their blood.
- Mary Worth, a witch executed in the Salem witch trials.
Regardless of where the story began, Bloody Mary provided (and continues to provide) many a night of haunted excitement for anyone game enough to try it. With the other classic superstitious elements of mirrors and magic rituals, Bloody Mary is sure to remain a popular legend for years to come.
Lots More Information
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- Dube, Ryan. "Bloody Mary Legend." LoveToKnow, 2014. (Dec. 14, 2014) http://paranormal.lovetoknow.com/Bloody_Mary_Legend
- Dundes, Alan. "Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety." Western Folklore, Spring-Summer 1998. (Dec. 14, 2014) http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1500216?sid=21105415855971&uid=4&uid=2
- Radford, Benjamin. "Do You Believe in Bloody Mary?" Discovery, Oct. 31, 2013. (Dec. 14, 2014) http://news.discovery.com/history/do-you-believe-in-bloody-mary-131031.htm
- Scary for Kids. "Bloody Mary Legend." Aug. 21, 2014. (Dec. 14, 2014)
- Scary for Kids. "Bloody Mary Legend." Aug. 21, 2014. (Dec. 14, 2014)http://www.scaryforkids.com/bloody-mary-legend/
- Welsh, Chris. "Bloody Mary." Timeless Myths, Dec. 4, 2012. (Dec. 14, 2014) http://www.timelessmyths.co.uk/bloody-mary.html
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Where Did We Get Bloody Mary? | Bloody Mary Origins
Even been to a sleepover as a kid and had someone dare you to stand in front of the bathroom mirror and say “Bloody Mary” like 3 times? If you haven’t, the idea is that a ghost is supposed to look back at you. But… who is Bloody Mary anyway? Yes, we know a Bloody Mary is a cocktail. Feel free to drink one as you read this post. Also, props if you did this as a kid. Even if ghosts logically shouldn’t be real we don’t really want to mess with them on the off chance they are real. We’re not superstitious. But we are a little stitious.
Mary I of England
Historically, Bloody Mary has been both a malevolent and benevolent spirit. Not that that really matters, because the Bloody Mary of folklore is based on Queen Mary I of England (Mary Tudor). She was born in 1516 and died in 1558; with her reign going from the years 1553-1558. Mary I was born to King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon . Henry VIII is probably best remembered for being married to like 6 people; but also how incredibly petty over his marriages he was. Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII’s first wife, and Henry VIII really wanted to marry other people or something–because he tried to get his marriage with Catherine annulled. This was mostly because Henry VIII wanted a male heir to the throne.
The Pope didn’t much agree, and Henry VIII disagreed so hard he started the English Reformation , where the Church was separated from the authority of the Pope.
Anyway, English royalty is weird. Back to Mary I. When she took the throne she was the first queen of both England and Ireland, and Queen Mary really wanted everyone to be Catholic. Her father, Henry VIII, was known for using accusations of heresy (maybe a little ironic) or treason to quell dissent against his rule. Most of the accused were executed.
Mary I was almost not queen, since Henry VIII really didn’t want a woman to be heir to his throne. After annulling his marriage with Catherine, Henry VIII married her maid of honor Boleyn. Henry VIII and Boleyn had Elizabeth–which Henry VIII still wasn’t a fan of. But Boleyn pushed for Mary to be declared illegitimate, which ended up working.
The Name Bloody Mary
Remember when we said Henry VIII really liked executing people who didn’t conform to his rule? Well like father like daughter, because when we said Mary I really wanted England to return to the Catholic Church we meant it. She ordered around 300 Protestants to be burned at the stake. This was quite the theatrical move, and is what gave her the nickname “Bloody Mary.”
Why did she want to persecute all the Protestants? Well Henry VIII married a lot of people, and eventually Mary’s younger half-brother Edward VI took the throne from 1547-1553 . He was crowned king at like 9 years old, and was raised Protestant. He tried to deny Mary the throne, as she was Catholic, but Mary ended up rallying support and took the throne. So to say she had an axe to grind is kind of an understatement.
The Bloody Mary Ghost
Mary was also a profoundly depressed person. Part of it probably had to do with how her father really didn’t like the fact that she wasn’t a boy. For most of her life Mary I was incredibly insecure and frustrated with her own femininity; not a surprise when her stepmom had her declared an illegitimate child because she was born a woman. You probably won’t be surprised to read that Mary I suffered from infamously painful menstrual cramps, something that would have been used against her already burgeoning insecurity about her sex.
Mary I wanted to impress her father, and part of that was having a child to serve as heir to the throne. Eventually, she married a guy named Philip from Spain and became pregnant. Except she never had a kid, despite being recorded to have the symptoms of pregnancy . This is why part of the Bloody Mary legend also has babies involved. Either the ghost is going to come for your firstborn, or the ghost is carrying a baby in the mirror.
As far as seeing a ghost in the mirror is concerned, hallucinating faces when looking into a mirror in the dark is actually fairly well-documented. Funnily enough, it appears that having depression makes it less likely to hallucinate faces in mirrors . Probably not the best way to self-diagnose, though. .
Speaking of Bloody Mary, see if you know what actually goes in one here .
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Bloody Mary with the Vorpal Blade.
Bloody Mary is the ghost of an unhappy woman who either committed suicide due to having her baby stolen or was accused of murdering her children.
Description [ ]
Depending on the variation used this turned her spirit mad with grief or anger, and she would haunt the world via the use of mirrors.
Unlike most ghosts (who merely frighten humans) Bloody Mary is said to be capable of physical harm and will either kill her victims via disfigurement, decapitation or scratching their eyes out. If she is in a "merciful" mood, Bloody Mary is said to simply turn her victim insane or (in rarer tales) she may take a fancy to someone and drag them into the mirror (presumably to the Other Side.)
Overview [ ]
Known in life as Mary Worth it is traditionally said that "Bloody Mary" will appear if a brave (or foolish) soul chants her name three or more times next to a mirror in complete darkness at midnight. According to the variations of the legend above one is also said to be able to make the ghost appear via stating "Bloody Mary, I killed your baby" or "I believe in Mary Worth". Of course anyone foolish enough to provoke Bloody Mary is said to pay the price.
Although the tales of Bloody Mary are dismissed as a modern fairytale of sorts by most people it is still a popular "game" amongst certain groups of people and may even be a rite of passage to some, a means of confronting one's fears or a way to play a mean prank on someone.
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