The legend of Bloody Mary is a story many of us in North America are familiar with. Or we think we are. I thought I knew the myth, but once I started digging, I realized I only know the tip of the iceberg and found myself on a fascinating adventure around the world and through the decades
Who is Bloody Mary?
Bloody Mary is one iteration of what folklorist's call "toilet ghosts". Turns out in schoolyards all around the world kids share these stories, nearly all made of the same elements
- A ritual done in front of a mirror, most frequently a bathroom mirror
- The summoning of a spectral, usually murderous woman
The details from there vary drastically. In some versions the woman has no name, or backstory. In others there are elaborate and horrific origins. The most common figure known around the world is Bloody Mary
But who is Bloody Mary? And was she ever real?
Mary I of England
Mary was given a rough lot, an unwanted daughter to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon who wound up in power for five short years. And as what happens to all women in power, she was constantly criticized for both being too severe and being too weak. She could do nothing right, she was a woman after all in 1550s. But not every judgment of her was made out of sexism.
You see, Mary was a Catholic, and you know who wasn't? Her dad, Henry VIII. And why was that? Well he started as a Catholic until he decided he wanted a divorce (allegedly because his wife couldn't give him sons) and the Pope would have none of that, so he decided it was probably time for church and state to separate and declared himself the Supreme Head on earth of the church of England in 1534. He became open to different Christian reforms, Protestant among his favorite flavors.
19 years later, his daughter Mary would take the throne and pushed to reinstate Catholicism. Some were fine with this, others she burned at the stake. It's estimated that around 300 religious dissenters were dealt with this was and thus earning her the title of Bloody Mary
Mary Queen of Scots
Mary took the throne at 6 days old. She would later marry a man only for him to die in an explosion two years later. The man suspected of murdering her husband then became her new husband, this was all hella suspicious so Mary wound up imprisoned and her one year old became King. She later would plot to kill her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (who also was Bloody Mary's half sister). She would go to trial for this and be executed. So while a strange series of events, doesn't seem like a ghost that would hang around bathrooms to be summoned by children
Our next contender is Elizabeth Bathory a seventeenth-century Hungarian countess, who despite not being named Mary, definitely has the mythos to justify being a murderous, blood-soaked ghost. It is believed that Elizabeth tortured and killed around 650 girls and women, bathed in their blood, and was accused of Vampirism
Mary Worth is commonly cited as the origin of this story, but no one can agree on what that story is. In some versions she was a woman who killed slaves who were escaping the American South via the Underground Railroad in others she was a witch that was convicted and killed in the Salem Witch Trials. Though, the History of Massachusetts Organization's blog showcases an official list of all the accused witches, and Mary Worth isn't listed. However, there are 20 women named Mary on the list.
Some stories combine the two, that she was using the slaves she caught to perform dark rituals, but was eventually caught and killed by the townspeople as a form of justice
There are many nameless iterations being a witch, a woman that died too young, a woman who had her face horribly scarred due to a horrific accident, a woman whose child died (in some cases at her own hand)
Some legends even go as far as to say that she is the Virgin Mary. Some say she's the devil's sister, daughter or wife
In some stories Mary isn't even based on an actual person, but is manifested into existence by the belief in her and the practice of the rituals
Other names: Mary Worthington, Mary Lou, Bloody Bones, Hell Mary, Mary Whales, Mary Johnson, Mary Jane, Sally, Kathy, Agnes, Black Agnes, Aggie, Svarte Madame, Mary Moore, Black Molly, Bloody Molly, Molly
The renditions are endless, we even have some very different ones from Japan...
Japanese Toilet Ghosts
In Japan there are a number of toilet ghosts, but probably the most famous is Hanako-san. In some stories, Hanako-san protects children from other toilet ghosts, but in most versions she's malevolent and murderous.
The basis of her story is that she died in a toilet stall. The cause of this death on the other hand is a lot less consistent. In some versions she's killed by an intruder, others a bombing raid during the war, some murdered by an abusive parent and lastly by taking her own life. The general legend is that this occurred in a school on the third floor girls' washroom in the third stall. Which school isn't unclear, as nearly all schools in Japan have some version of this legend in their repertoire
Unlike the Bloody Mary legend, summoning Hanako-san does not usually involve a mirror. One must simply knock on the door of the third toilet stall three times asking "Hanako-san, are you there?"
Hanako-san will affirm her presence in the voice of a little girl. The door to the stall will open and the student investigates "the ghost of little Hanako, wearing a red skirt and with her hair done up in an old-style bun, will pull her into the toilet and down to Hell"
Like Bloody Mary, it's common for children to dare each other to perform the ritual and Hanako-san has become firmly embedded into pop culture through films, anime, video games and comics.
The story supposedly dates back to the 1950s
And like Bloody Mary there are many versions:
In the version my wife grew up with in elementary school, a girl who goes to the bathroom by herself will sometimes hear a voice asking her if she wants to be friends. If the poor kid is smart and tries to save her life by saying yes, Hanako's ghost will come up beneath her and drag her down through the toilet to Hell. If the kid says no, Hanako will simply cut her to pieces. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Another famous toilet ghost in Japan is called Aka Manto. This male ghost haunts public or school bathrooms, usually women's and commonly the last stall in these bathrooms.
The spirit is said to wear a flowing red cloak and a mask which hides his face, and is sometimes described as being handsome and charming beneath his mask.
According to legend, if a person is sitting on a toilet in a public or school bathroom, Aka Manto may appear, and will ask them if they want red paper or blue paper. If they choose the "red" option, they will be lacerated in such a manner that their dead body will be drenched in their own blood. If the individual chooses the "blue" option, the consequences range from that person being strangled to all of the person's blood being drained from their body.
If an individual attempts to outsmart Aka Manto by asking for a different color of paper, cloak, or cape, it is often said that they will be dragged to an underworld or hell as a result. Ignoring the spirit, or replying that one does not want or prefer either kind of paper, is said to make the spirit go away.
And then we have Kashima Reiko. A young girl who is said to have died her legs were severed by a train. Her legless torso now haunts bathroom stalls, asking unlucky visitors, "Where are my legs?" The correct response, "On the Meishin Expressway," could save your life. Otherwise, it's said that she might tear a person's legs off.
In some versions of the story she will appear within one month to anyone who learns her story.
So back to Bloody Mary, when did this all begin? The general consensus is that the practice began in the 1970s in the US. But leading up to that are many practices that are likely what evolved into what would become the Bloody Mary ritual
Magic and Mirrors
Since recorded history, people have had a fascination with reflective surfaces. Divination rituals using bodies of water were common and frequently involved spirits of some kind.
Back in Ancient Rome priests that
used catoptromancy were fairly
common, which was the practice of divination using a mirror.
Pausanias, an ancient Greek traveler, described as follows:
Before the Temple of Ceres at Patras, there was a fountain, separated from the temple by a wall, and there was an oracle, very truthful, not for all events, but for the sick only. The sick person let down a mirror, suspended by a thread till its base touched the surface of the water, having first prayed to the goddess and offered incense. Then; looking into the mirror, he saw the presage of death or recovery, according as the face appeared fresh and healthy, or of a ghastly aspect.
As time went on active divination became less of a thing, but mirrors were still associated heavily with spirits. Back in the times before funeral homes, when someone died the family would clean the bodies, dress them and have them laid out in the front parlor frequently for days so that loved ones could come pay their respects.
It was common for mirrors in the house to be covered during this time. 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.
Future and Marriage
While divination became relegated to Fortune Tellers and insular groups or cultures with strong spiritual ties. Young people have always been fascinated with the idea of telling their futures, I know me and my friends loved to make those paper fortune tellers to try and answer the burning questions of who we would marry and how many kids we would have.
But before that, young women had a different way to find out who they would marry. A woman would walk up a flight of stairs backward holding a candle and a hand mirror, in a darkened house. As they gazed into the mirror, they were supposed to be able to catch a view of their future husband's face. There was, however, a chance that they would see a skull (or the face of the Grim Reaper) instead, indicating that they were going to die before they would have the chance to marry
How long that was practiced is hard to say, it's not like teen girls were telling anyone outside of their close friends their romantic fantasies. But we do know that a similar ritual is mentioned in a Robert Burns poem, written in the 1700s
"[t]ake a candle, and go alone to a looking glass; eat an apple before it; and some traditions say, you should comb your hair all the time," you'll see over your shoulder the face of the person you'll marry
The connection of ritual and mirrors with a focus on marriage has made some psychoanalysts wonder if Bloody Mary simply evolved as a homophone for marry as in marriage
Others speculate that bathroom ghosts represent an updating of the traditional supernatural motif of hauntings taking place near bodies of water, in this case, plumbing instead of a river or lake
Since the first records of Bloody Mary-like rituals fifty years ago, the practice has largely remained unchanged, outside of the variations within the mythos.
There are three parts to these practices: setting, ritual result
- Most versions have the ritual performed in the dark, though sometimes accompanied by one or more candles
- This is frequently a group activity, but also can be a solo activity wherein friends challenge one person to go into the bathroom alone and perform the ritual
- Girls are the most frequent practitioners, but boys have been known to get involved too, especially as challenges to their masculinity
- The ritual almost always includes the repetition of a name or phrase. The number of times varies, but 3 and 13 are common
- In some the practitioner must spin around a certain number of times
- In some version the chant references the ghost's baby, often in these stories the origins of the ghost being tied to their child.
- "Bloody Mary! I killed your baby!"
- In group settings either one person says the phrase, or all people do
- This is where things can be most different
- In near all versions, the apparition will appear after the ritual is completed
- The appearance of the spirit is woman, whose age varies on the telling. Frequently she will be wearing a white dress. It seems fifty-fifty as to whether or not the woman will appear covered in blood a la Carrie or not.
- In many iterations the woman will violently attack the summoner either to the point of death or serious injury. In some she will scratch out your eyes
- In some, her appearance alone is enough to strike the summoner dead or insane
- Sometimes she will grab the summoner and drag her back into the mirror to live with her
- In some she will appear and stare malevolently out through the mirror
- In some stories seeing her brings bad luck but others say it brings happiness
- In some versions nothing happens right after the ritual, sometimes the consequences come later.
- In some versions you wake up the next day covered in bloody scratches
- In some it's your own face that changes. Some you're missing your eyes, most you're covered in blood. In one particularly interesting one:
- You will see yourself upside down and face covered in blood and every time you look in the mirror Bloody Mary will appear, until you become her
Where the Hell Did This Come From?
Bloody Mary is largely thought to have originated in America, but turns out children have been summoning ghostly women in bathrooms all over the world.
In 2006 Marc Armitage wrote a paper. In the early 90s he had been an independent children's play consultant and advisor and would visit schools across England to observe and make recommendations to schools on how to improve the play environment
One of the children helping me pointed to a part of the school building and told me the story of a character said to live there. At the time the story seemed insignificant; I made a note of it and took the conversation no further. Six weeks later, the same character appeared during a play audit at a primary school in a different part of the country. Here the story was almost word-for-word the one I had been told at the first school, and, intriguingly, the central character of the story was said to occupy the same part of the school building
He made a point to ask children about this character at his next six play audits. The character was mentioned in four out of the six and in all four cases the story was very similar and the location within each school was the same.
A study group was made of around 120 primary schools, and 65% of them had stories about a similar toilet ghost. And interestingly, very few of the adults working at these institutes were aware that their school was allegedly haunted.
It doesn't seem to matter whether the school is urban or rural, wealthy or disadvantaged, small or big, or even those run by the state vs those run by the church. The prevalence of these stories was the same across the board
Most schools referred to the character as the White Lady. Two referred to her as the Green Lady and two the Grey Lady. In only one school was the ghost male, interestingly, this ghost was called the Vaker, while he did not fit the framework of the White Lady, he did allegedly have a daughter called the White Lady and this character did align with the other stories
In the 70s a study was performed on 100 houses in England that had or used to have a priest hole. Priest holes are hiding places that were built into houses in the Elizabethan period to hide material and sometimes Catholic priests who were secretly delivering mass, which was illegal at the time. Many of these houses had a local ghost legend and more than half were about a white Lady. Which was surprising as you would expect a priest or a monk to be a more prominent figure
Some of these stories have existed for decades. Armitage was told a story by a British Child Psychologist about her own daughter from 1957. She came across her daughter praying in the bathroom. There was no mirror, but when asked if she was okay, the daughter burst into tears and told her mother about the "Green Lady" that was at school. She said, "... she could sometimes be seen peeping out from a cupboard during assembly" and that "she had never seen her, but lots of other people had so she must be real"
In 1984 at the same primary school in Nottingham, a headteacher on her first day is warned by a child to not go to a specific bathroom stall as there was a woman there. In 1996 Armitage visited the same school, and finds that the Green Lady is still a hot topic among children. And when asked where she could be found, the children all pointed to the same stall as they had in 1984.
To put this into context, this is similar to saying that the story has survived and remained consistent for around six generations of children attending this school.
The ritual usually involved the chanting of a phrase, but not all versions involved a mirror as not all bathrooms had a mirror. In some versions the turning of taps in a specific sequence or knocking on a particular stall with a set number of knocks were common. The toilet ghost didn't always appear in the mirror, in some versions she emerged from a toilet stall or even out of thin air
Sometimes she didn't appear in the bathroom at all. In one case, the ritual is performed in a bathroom, but the ghost actually appeared in a small area of trees outside the school grounds and would float toward the school and enter the toilet to confront whoever called her
For example, "...you stand in front of a mirror and say a rhyme [she could not remember what]. Then you flush a toilet and a headless lady comes out" (girl 10 years, Hull, Sept. 1997a)
The rhymes used most frequently were all of a similar vein
- "White Lady, White Lady, we've killed your white baby" (audit March 1996a).
- "White Lady, White Lady, we killed your black baby" (audit July 1997a).
- "White Lady, White Lady, what have you done with your white baby?" (audit July 1998a).
Interestingly only four schools in the study had an origin story for the ghost, but all four said it was a fall or jump from a high roofed building or tower, and not always on school grounds
When we look at the 1973 study of the priest hole houses, only five stories had a cause of death, one was a murder, the rest were due to a fall or jump from high a place
In earlier versions of the tale, the ghost was generally more benign, being able to tell the future or answer questions asked of her. But in Armitage's research nearly all stories resulted in the ghost doing some more malevolent. In most cases though, if the summoner fled the bathroom quick enough they could escape her wrath
It's interesting to note that in studies performed on assessing what children's greatest fears are throughout the decades, it was only during times or in countries where war wasn't a big threat that the fear of supernatural entities was most prevalent. This trend could be why the stories of the toilet ghost evolved to be more violent over the years
The earliest published "Mary Whales" stories collected by Janet Langlois occurred in 1972 in Indianapolis, from children at a Catholic elementary school. There are a lot of similarities to the toilet ghost stories, but it also tied in elements of the hitchhiking ghost and weeping women stories. It's likely these may all have similar roots that diverged with time and the introduction of new elements.
In the united states, go to any county and there will be at least one origin story for a Bloody Mary figure that happened in that very county.
The village Wadsworth Illinois is one of the many. Here the figure is Mary Worth. According to Lake County's Ghostland Society, Mary had lived there in the 1860s, and there was an access point to the Underground Railroad.
The story is, Mary captured slaves under false pretenses and would sell them back to the south. Some rumors say she practiced magic and tortured and killed slaves for her rituals. Eventually the town turned on her and lynched her on her property
According to "Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City" by Ursula Bielski, in the 1960s a Lake County resident in her 90s claimed she watched Mary Worth burn at the stake.
Mary was allegedly buried on her property. A century later a house was being built nearby and the construction worksers found a stone and removed and placed in the path to the house. Legend goes this had been her grave marker. Strange things would go on to happen on the property, typical poltergeist-esque behavior, stuff flying off shelves, weird noises. The house is even said to have burnt down twice
In Russia we see something different. In the 70s existed a different figure of notoriety, known as the Queen of Spades. The name seems to originally be taken from story written in the 1800s. Unlike Mary, The Queen of Spades was a lot more benevolent and would tell the future or grant wishes. The earliest rituals describe using a deck of cards to summon her, but would move to using a mirror in the 80s.
As the ritual changed, as did the outcomes, changing from a boon to a curse
The ritual can be done as a group or as an individual, it is to be done in a dark room with one lit candle. The first step is to draw a door and a staircase on a mirror with red lipstick. Then the summoner must say her name three times and then say their wish out loud. If done in a group, the candle can then be passed to the next person and they too can say their wish, so on and so forth
Once you make your wish, the Queen of Spades can be heard saying, "I will take you all with me." if you listen close enough. But you don't necessarily have to hear to in order to have a successful summoning.
The next morning, you will notice a lock of hair taken from your hair. It doesn't have to be an excessive amount. But in order for the Queen of Spades' magic to work, she needs something from each player. Hair is her price, as she is said to be bald
Over the next week those that made wishes will feel like they're having the best luck, but their wish will begin to twist. For example, if you wish for a million dollars, it might come to you because your parents died in a car crash and you receive insurance money. Your wish will not come to you simply. It will be granted in the most awful way possible.
This ritual is irreversible. You cannot undo the Queen of Spades summoning once you start the process. There is nothing you can do or say to ask her to leave you alone.
Bloody Mary first starts penetrating Russian culture in the 90s and the lore shifts to include Bloody Mary as the younger sister to the Queen of Spades. While their legends seemed to synergize even homogenize, they are still considered separate entities
In the Czech republic, historically it was not uncommon for children to summon spirits, but these ghosts were usually historical figures. In the 80s one was the Czech writer Božena Němcová. There is this idea of ethic inversion, that the ghost's of people that were good in life, become evil. So while Božena is famous for her prose, with no real history of violent or malicious behavior, she becomes a demon in legend.
Her life story is changed to one where her children were killed and that's why she hates children and wants to kill them. Other popular Czech figures include the founder of the Czech Boy Scout Movement or the first president of Czechoslovakia
So it's natural that when Bloody Mary-esque legends crossed into the country that these ideas merged. In the Czech Republic, we see a lot of similarities with other stories, but there are some versions were Krvavá Mary was a cannibal and that by summoning her, she will try to eat you.
Some Czech iterations say she can only be called on certain days. Some say water must drip onto the mirror or that the summoner needs to hold a knife. Some stories say you must attempt to summon Bloody Mary whenever you pass a mirror in the dark.
Around the World
- Stories about a white lady-esque toilet ghost have been recorded in the United States, Canada, Sweden, Holland, France, Australia, Japan and Thailand
- In a 1999 study of 100 similar stories across the world, the name Bloody Mary or some version of the name Mary was the most prominent. Sometimes the character was Bloody Molly or Molly
- In Sweden a similar study was run and they too found that the stories seemed to all originate in the 1970s. Commonly known as Svarta Madame (Black Madame), her legend, rituals and results fit the White Lady Framework. Swedish researchers do believe that these stories originated in America
- Bloody Black Madame, White Madame, Dirty Madame and Creepy Madame
- In Holland she is known as 'De Witte Dame' and in France: 'La Dame Blanche'
- In Spain the ghost that is invoked is known as Veronica
- In Germany they use both Bloody Mary and Heilige Blutige Maria (Holy Bloody Mary)
- Bulgaria where it has survived, known by its local name of Damapika, which is similar to the Queen of Spades
Here are some different accounts:
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...?
Fall of 1970
this is sort of magical tale that was being passed around and a favorite thing to do at a party, especially a drinking party. Anyway heard about it when I was going to Marshalltown Community College from a girl who heard it from another girl at another college. The story was that a Mary Worth had been burned at the stake back when they were having trials. Anyway It's said that you go into a darkened room by yourself with only a single candle and that if you stare into mirror and repeat, "I believe In Mary Worth" thirteen times that you will see her reflection In the mirror. Several people tried this, and most got scared out. Some claimed to have seen something, but I think the reason was, that we were at a drinking party, and they were pretty well drunk
And of course there are the stories where something unexplainable happened or a friend of a friend saw Mary
A friend 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.
Sure, she exists. When I was about 12, with a friend of mine we chanted 3-times into the mirror "bloody Mary". We made a joke of it and went to bed. However, in the morning, I had a finely scratched letter "M" on my forehead and my friend had the same on her forearm. So I believe in her and I have respect until now. By the way, I am 20 now.(Ingrid, 7thMarch 2010, 17:09
So if there isn't anything there, why do some people swear to see something? There are a couple theories
In 2010, Italian psychologist Giovanni Caputo did a study in which people were asked to enter a dimly lit room and look at their reflection in the mirror for 10 minutes. Afterwards, they were asked to report what they saw. Of the 50 test subjects, 66 percent reported seeing "huge deformations" of their face, and 48 percent also saw "fantastical and monstrous beings." Others described seeing the face of a parent (some of whom were deceased), the face of an animal, or the face of an old woman or child.
He calls the "strange-face illusion", is believed to be a consequence of a "dissociative identity effect", which causes the brain's facial-recognition system to misfire in a currently unidentified way
Apophenia is the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things. Apophenia has also come to describe a human propensity to unreasonably seek patterns in random information, such as can occur while gambling
One specific version of Apophenia is called Pareidolia: A common example is the perception of a face within an inanimate object-the headlights and grill of an automobile may appear to be "grinning". People around the world see the "Man in the Moon". People sometimes see the face of a religious figure in a piece of toast or in the grain of a piece of wood.
Although there is no confirmed reason as to why it occurs, there are some respected theories.
- Pattern recognition: a cognitive process that involves retrieving information either from long-term, short-term or working memory and matching it with information from stimuli
- Evolution: One of the explanations put forth by evolutionary psychologists for apophenia is that it is not a flaw in the cognition of human brains but rather something that has come about through years of need. The study of this topic is referred to as error management theory
Troxler fading or the Troxler effect, is an optical illusion affecting visual perception. When one fixates on a particular point for even a short period of time, an unchanging stimulus away from the fixation point will fade away and disappear. Research suggests that at least some portion of the perceptual phenomena associated with Troxler's fading occurs in the brain.
Troxler's fading was first identified by Swiss physician Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler in 1804, who was practicing in Vienna at the time.
It is part of the general principle in sensory systems that unvarying stimuli soon disappear from our awareness. For example, if a small piece of paper is dropped on the inside of one's forearm, it is felt for a short period of time. Soon, however, the sensation fades away. This is because the tactile neurons have adapted and start to ignore the unimportant stimulus. But if one jiggles one's arm up and down, giving varying stimulation, one will continue to feel the paper.
The question is why have such stories endured?
Some analysts like
to say the Bloody Mary legend is representative of female angst around their
"coming of age". That the blood a symbol of menstruation. The whole
thing sounds like very Freudian stretch to me. There are some other
explanations I find more believable
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.
"This is perhaps the most important function of the [toilet ghost stories] in ... children's development. It means that they actively challenge and conquer fears" (Klintberg 1988:165-166)
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