Bloody Mary in the Mirror

The Urban Legend

Ghost in Mirror
Alain Daussin/Image Bank/Getty Images

Also known as "Mary Worth," "I Believe in Mary Worth," "Mary Worthington," "Mary Jane," "I Believe in Mary Whales," "Mary White," "Hell Mary," etc.


Some girls Kat didn't know invited her over for a sleepover. That night they played Truth or Dare. When it was Kat's turn she picked dare. One of the girls said, "I dare you to do Bloody Mary." Kat accepted. They gave Kat a lit candle and pushed her into the bathroom. Kat spun around three times and said, "Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary."

When nothing happened, she walked to the door. Before she could reach it, her only light blew out. She banged on the door, begging the other girls to open it, but they just laughed. She backed up against the door. The sink and the bath started to run. Thick, black blood poured out of the faucets and was soon overflowing onto the floor. Kat screamed a blood-curdling scream as Bloody Mary rose from the bloody water and crawled out. When she reached Kat she slit her throat and dragged her into the bath. The next morning, the other girls checked on her. When they saw her dead body, their screams could be heard for miles.

Example, as told on the Internet, Feb. 16, 1994:

When I was about 9 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, that 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 friends 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 and saw these long fingernail scratches running down her right cheek. I will never forget her face as long as I live!!

Example, viral text shared via Facebook, Aug. 16, 2012:

You are now cursed. You must send this on or you will be killed. Tonight at 12:00am, by Bloody Mary. This is no joke. So don't think you can quickly get out of it and delete it now because Bloody Mary will come to you if you do not send this on. She will slit your throat and your wrists and pull your eyeballs out with a fork. And then hang your dead corpse in your bedroom cupboard or put you under your bed. What's your parents going to do when they find you dead? Won't be funny then, will it? Don't think this is a fake and it's all put on to scare you because your wrong, so very wrong. Want to hear of some of the sad, sad people who lost their lives or have been seriously hurt by this email?

CASE ONE - Annalise [Surname Removed] he got this email. Rubbish she thought. She deleted it. And now, Annalise dead.

CASE TWO - Louise [Surname Removed]: She sent this to only 4 people and when she woke up in the morning her wrists had deep lacerations on each. Luckily there was no pain felt, though she is scarred for life.

CASE THREE - Tommy [Surname Removed]: He sent this to 5 people. Big mistake. The night Thomas was lying in his bed watching T.V. The clock shows '12:01am'. The T.V mysteriously flickered off and Thomas's bedroom lamp flashed on and off several times. It went pitch black, Thomas looked to the left of him and there she was, Bloody Mary standing in white rags. Blood everywhere with a knife in her hand then disappeared. The biggest fright of Thomas's life.

Warning... NEVER look in a mirror and repeat - 'Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary.' Bloody Mary... I KILLED YOUR SON' Is it the end for you tonight! YOU ARE NOW CURSED

We strongly advise you to send this email on. It is seriously NO JOKE. We don't want to see another life wasted. ITS YOUR CHOICE... WANNA DIE TONIGHT? If you send this email to...

NO PEOPLE - You're going to die.
1-5 PEOPLE - You're going to either get hurt or get the biggest fright of your life.
5-15 PEOPLE - You will bring your family bad luck and someone close to you will die.
15 OR MORE PEOPLE - You are safe from Bloody Mary

Analysis: As best anyone can tell, the legend of Bloody Mary and its comparably gory variants ("Hell Mary," "I Believe in Mary Worth," "I Believe in Mary Whales," etc.) first emerged in the early 1960s as an adolescent party game — albeit a very dark and creepy party game.

Like so many folk rituals and urban legends, the exact time and place of its origin is impossible to pin down. Folklorists didn't begin recording examples of it until the 1970s.

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

Summoning Visions in a Mirror

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. This example is from the Poems of Robert Burns, published in 1787:

Take 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; the face of your conjugal companion, to be, will be seen in the glass, as if peeping over your shoulder.

Another example of mirror divination, in this case accompanied by ritual chanting, appears in the fairy tale "Snow White," as told by the Brothers Grimm in 1857 (trans. by D.L. Ashliman):

She was a beautiful woman, but she was proud and arrogant, and she could not stand it if anyone might surpass her in beauty. She had a magic mirror. Every morning she stood before it, looked at herself, and said:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?

To this the mirror answered:

You, my queen, are fairest of all.

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, and it is in this and similar cautionary tales that we see basic elements of the Bloody Mary ritual emerge.

Seeing Apparitions

"If you look in a looking glass too long you are sure to see the devil," warns a nineteenth-century English saying. 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 eighteenth century well into the twentieth 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.

"It is not good for a corpse to be reflected in a glass or mirror . . . because the dead will not rest," wrote Marie Trevalyan in Folklore and Folk-Stories of Wales (1909). The possible consequences of failing to act accordingly are made plain in this excerpt from a 1924 issue of Notes & Queries:

Nearly seventy years since, in Durham, I remember seeing my grandmother when laid out. Mirror and pictures were covered with white sheets. I was told then, or later, that this was done lest persons seeing themselves reflected, the corpse should also be seen looking over their shoulders, and give them a fright.

What connects this quaint superstition to the Bloody Mary ritual is the motif of "the apparition in the looking-glass" — the critical difference being that in the former the ghost appears because someone forgot to cover a mirror; in the latter, the ghost is purposely summoned.

Summoning Spirits

Make no mistake, when a gaggle of adolescents stand in front of a mirror chanting "Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary," or "I believe in Mary Worth, I believe in Mary Worth," at least some of them are uttering what they believe to be — or hope to be, or fear to be — a magic spell to conjure up a ghost or demon spirit.

The notion that ritual incantations can be used to achieve supernatural ends derives not only from folklore and fairy tales, wherein remnants of so many age-old myths and superstitions are retained, but also from the childhood mindset itself, a mindset subject to a variety of forms of magical thinking. Among those is a phenomenon identified by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget as "nominal realism," which, simply put, is the tendency to confuse objects with their names, resulting in the belief that words and thoughts can influence real-world events.

Of the many ways "Bloody Mary" can be interpreted, the most obvious and literal is as a cautionary tale demonstrating the perils of playing with magic. But it's also a ghost story.

The Ghost Story

The malevolent spirit called up by the Bloody Mary ritual is always said to be a female — in particular, a female whose face was disfigured as the result of a violent death, usually in an automobile accident. Often, as in the second "Bloody Mary" variant reproduced above, she is said to have been a very beautiful woman in life who was proud of her beauty to the point of self-obsession (hence her ghostly ire at being summoned to appear in a mirror).

In some variants she is said to have been a hitchhiker whose spirit has also been seen haunting roadsides and being picked up by unsuspecting drivers before vanishing inexplicably (cf. "The Vanishing Hitchhiker"). In other tellings the character is reminiscent of La Llorona, the "Weeping Woman" of Hispanic folklore who is said to have killed her own children and wanders eternally in penance.

In most versions there's no connection drawn between the Bloody Mary whose ghost haunts bathroom mirrors and the historical figure of the same name (though exceptions have been recorded). Her name just happens to be Mary, and she's bloody because she died in a terrible accident.

Likewise, there is no apparent connection between the Mary Worth of the legend and the Mary Worth of comic strip fame. Essentially a soap opera about the hardships of family life, the comic strip holds up its prim and proper protagonist as the ideal of American motherhood — a far cry from the menacing hag blamed for so many pajama party freak-outs.

Coming-of-Age Ritual?

Some folklorists, notably Alan Dundes in his essay "Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety," see the Bloody Mary game as analogous to coming-of-age rituals in non-western cultures. The age and gender of the participants (young girls about to enter puberty), references to blood in the legend (e.g. the title, "Bloody Mary," and anecdotal reports of participants being scratched or clawed by the apparition, drawing blood), and the fact that the ritual itself takes place in a bathroom all suggest a conceptual link with the onset of menstruation.

Bloody Mary is an "anticipatory ritual," suggests Dundes, "essentially warning girls of what to expect upon attaining puberty." Performing it "evokes feelings of excitement on the part of participants, excitement tinged with fear and apprehension as well."

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 a 1992 film entitled 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. Some viewers come away with the misapprehension that Candyman was based on an actual folktale, but apart from the borrowed incantation it was mostly a product of Barker's fertile imagination.

A Bloody Mary Plush Toy available for online purchase boasts the following "product features":

  • Black hair
  • Red blood on face and hands
  • Terror of beauty lost

Alas, a mirror is not included.