Explaining the Legend of Bloody Mary in the Mirror

Ghost in Mirror
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The legend of Bloody Mary and the terrible fate she inflicts on those foolish enough to summon her has been around in one form or another for hundreds of years. Sometimes the evil spirit is known as Mary Worth, Hell Mary, Mary White, or Mary Jane. Her tale emerged from British folklore in the 1700s and took on new life with the advent of the internet. Is there any truth to this story?

Mary's Story

Chain letters have been circulating online since the 1990s when email first became popular.

In some versions of the story, the ghost of Mary kills anyone who summons her. In other versions, she merely scares the wits out of them. This version was one of the first to appear online in 1994:

When I was about nine years old, I went to a friend's for a birthday/slumber party. There were about 10 other girls there. About midnight, we decided to play Mary Worth. Some of us had never heard of this, so one of the girls told the story.

Mary Worth lived a long time ago. She was a very beautiful young girl. One day she had a terrible accident that left her face so disfigured that nobody would look at her. She had not been allowed to see her own reflection after this accident for fear that she would lose her mind. Before this, she had spent long hours admiring her beauty in her bedroom mirror.

One night, after everyone had gone to bed, unable to fight the curiosity any longer, she crept into a room that had a mirror. As soon as she saw her face, she broke down into terrible screams and sobs. It was at this moment that she was so heartbroken and wanted her old reflection back, she walked into the mirror to find it, vowing to disfigure anybody that came looking for her in the mirror.

After hearing this story, which was told very scarily, we decided to turn out all of the lights and try it. We all huddled around the mirror and starting repeating "Mary Worth, Mary Worth, I believe in Mary Worth."

About the seventh time we said it, one of the girls that was in front of the mirror started screaming and trying to push her way back away from the mirror. She was screaming so loud that my friend's mom came running into the room. She quickly turned on the lights and found this girl huddled in the corner screaming. She turned her around to see what the problem was and saw these long fingernail scratches running down her right cheek. I will never forget her face as long as I live!

Analysis

As best anyone can tell, the legend of Bloody Mary and its comparably gory variants emerged in the early 1960s as an adolescent party game. In most versions, there's no connection drawn between the Bloody Mary whose ghost haunts bathroom mirrors and the British queen of the same name. Likewise, there is no apparent connection between the Mary Worth of the legend and the Mary Worth of comic strip fame.

Folklorist Alan Dunes has suggested that Bloody Mary is a metaphor for the onset of puberty in girls, describing both the fear of one's body changing and the excitement of the taboo nature of sex. Others argue that the story is just the product of an overactive childhood imagination. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget describes this as "nominal realism," the belief that words and thoughts can influence real-world events.

That said, there's a body of folklore and superstition attributing magical and/or divinatory properties to mirrors dating back to ancient times. The most familiar of these lingering into modernity is the centuries-old superstition that breaking a mirror brings bad luck.

Historic Variations

The idea that one can foretell the future by peering into a mirror was first described in the Bible (1 Corinthians 13) as "see[ing] through a glass, darkly." There are mentions of looking-glass divination in Chaucer's "Squire's Tale," written in 1390, Spenser's "The Faerie Queen" (1590), and Shakespeare's "Macbeth" (1606), among other early literary sources.

A particular form of divination associated with Halloween in the British Isles entailed gazing into a mirror and performing a nonverbal ritual to summon a vision of one's future betrothed.

Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, wrote in 1787 of standing before a mirror, eating an apple, and holding a candlestick. If you do so, Burns writes, a spirit will appear.

A variation of this story appears in the fairy tale "Snow White," written by the Brothers Grimm. As everyone who grew up reading "Snow White" (or even watching the animated Disney version) knows, the mirror-obsessed queen was ultimately destroyed by her own vanity.

A more visceral rendition of the same moral admonishment appears in a book of folklore published in 1883:

When a boy, one of my aunts who lived in Newcastle-on-Tyne used to tell me of a certain girl that she knew who was very vain and fond of standing before the looking glass admiring herself. One night as she stood gazing, lo! all of her ringlets were covered with dripping sulphur, and the devil appeared peeping over her shoulder.

A superstition that lingered from the 18th century well into the 20th held that mirrors must be covered or turned to face the wall in the presence of a dead person. Some said this was to signify "an end to all vanity." Others took it to be a demonstration of respect for the dead. Still others believed an uncovered mirror was an open invitation for ghostly apparitions to appear.

Bloody Mary in Popular Culture

Like so many horror legends and traditional ghost stories, "Bloody Mary" has proven a natural for adaptation into popular novels, stories, comic books, movies, and even dolls. Released straight to DVD in 2005, "Urban Legends: Bloody Mary" was the third film in the execrable series that commenced with "Urban Legend" in 1998. As you might expect, the plot takes great liberties with the traditional tale.

More notably, horror writer Clive Barker essentially constructed a pseudo-urban legend by appropriating the chanting ritual for his 1992 film "Candyman." Various characters in the film summon the ghost of a black slave brutally lynched in the 1800s by repeating the name "Candyman" five times in front of a mirror.