Sleepovers! Those are a thing that used to happen, back in the days before COVID-19. The ones I experienced growing up were pretty stereotypical. There was ice cream, sleeping bags, attempts to reproduce music videos, and, of course, dares. More often than not, these dares included one many American girls might be familiar with: the dare to lock yourself in the crapper and invite a ghost to kill you.
I had always assumed that the Bloody Mary “game” was just shallow fun, with no real meat behind it in terms of meaning or actual sightings. Hot damn, was I wrong.
Let’s start out with an introduction. The Bloody Mary legend is young-ish, with first written mentions dating back to the 1970’s. It’s unclear where exactly it came from, but it does seem to have some ancestry in older British traditions of catoptromancy (such as one where a girl would walk up a flight of stairs backward in a darkened house, holding a candle and a hand mirror that would show either the face of her future husband [score!] or her own skull [eat more healthily and avoid cigarettes and fast-moving buses!]).
For those uninitiated, the game goes something like this:
- Go into the bathroom, shut the door, and turn the lights off.
- Look at whatever you can see of yourself in the darkness in the mirror.
- Repeat “Bloody Mary” aloud three times, keeping your eyes on your reflection.
- Bolt before Bloody Mary coalesces in the glass.
The details of the rules vary. Some say you’re supposed to spin while you say her name, others that you need to have the water on or have a single lit candle below the mirror. You can say “Bloody Mary” a bunch of times (way more than three), or for good measure add “I killed your baby!” You can do it by yourself or in a group. Sometimes, you have to flush the toilet before you leave.
Even if you escape that vision in the mirror, you might experience “signs” of Bloody Mary for the rest of the day–a bloodied knee on the playground. Splattered ketchup across your shirt. A dead bird on the way home from school.
And if you don’t escape her? If a woman drenched in blood, or headless, or simply very dead does coalesce before you, either over your shoulder or in place of your own reflection? Bloody Mary can scratch you, show you a sign of your own impending death, or reach out of the mirror, grasp your shirt, and drag you through.
So this is all good and well. But as a kid I never stopped to ask: who is this Bloody Mary ghost supposed to be? It turns out that there are three generally-cited possibilities.
The first and least likely (IMHO) is Erzsébet Báthory, the infamous Hungarian noblewoman who tortured and murdered a metric butt-ton of women in the late 1500s (possibly as much as 650, though it’s possible that Báthory was a victim of a conspiracy to steal her property and tortured/murdered much fewer). Legend has it that she bathed in her victim’s blood to preserve her youth.
It’s all very grisly and memorable. But Erzsébet (or, anglicized, Elizabeth) is “Erzsébet,” not “Mary.” What’s more, her life doesn’t resonate with the Bloody Mary game in a way that the other candidates do, as we shall see.
Mary Queen of Scots
The second candidate is Mary Queen of Scots, who was an unlucky contender for the throne against Queen Elizabeth I. After a life spent mostly imprisoned and struggling for power, Mary was beheaded in 1586. She went to her death bravely, even making jokes, but the executioner botched the job horrifically.
The first swing buried the axe into the back of Mary’s skull. The second went into her neck, but didn’t sever it. Finally, the P.O.S. executioner just sawed away at the sinew attaching Mary’s head to her body, blood sluicing everywhere, Mary’s faithful dog still clinging to her skirts, trembling. Job finally finished, the executioner held her severed head aloft, crying “God Save the Queen!” But he’d only grabbed Mary’s wig, and her head fell out and smacked to the floor.
In short, there is plenty about the scene that makes it easy to believe that Mary might come back as a vengeful ghost. But for me, she’s not as strong of a contender as Elizabeth I’s half-sister, Queen Mary I.
Queen Mary I, “Bloody” Mary
Queen Mary I actually was nicknamed Bloody Mary, thanks to her burning some 300 Protestants at the stake. Those killed included many vulnerable poor and disabled people. One victim was even pregnant–the trauma of the burning made her give birth, but her newborn was simply tossed back in the fire with her.
Hard as it is to empathize with someone who could order that, Mary I wasn’t the only monarch to do so, and much of the vitriol against her seems to stem from misogyny and cruelty against her frumpiness. She was a miserable woman. Her father was King Henry VIII, who famously annulled his marriage to her mother in order to marry Anne Boleyn, who gave birth to the much prettier and more charming Elizabeth I, who Mary would forever be compared unfavorably to. She was plagued throughout her life by terrible menstrual pains and irregular periods. She married someone ten years her junior whom she was madly in love with, but who was indifferent to her.
Desperate for affection and political security, Mary hoped, at least, for a child. But when she finally got pregnant–the happiest point of her life–people whispered that it was all a fake, that her growing stomach contained nothing but a tumor. That was cruel enough, but then, when Mary went to give birth, nothing happened. Her stomach deflated, and no baby came out. The vicious rumors were right, but not through any fault of her own. She’d wanted to be pregnant so badly that she’d tricked her body into believing that it was, leaving her with nothing but very public humiliation and hate.
A common plight
Why do I think that Queen Mary I is mostly likely the Bloody Mary? Because in addition to actually being nicknamed that and killing a bunch of people, Queen Mary I’s problems with fertility and periods dovetail perfectly with the game of Bloody Mary itself.
Think about it: the game is played mostly by girls. In a bathroom. Looking at your own reflection, you’re summoning another woman that’s covered in blood. It’s frightening, sometimes painful. And in some cases, you take pains to flush the toilet before you leave.
As scholar Alan Dundes points out, when you look at what goes into the game, it’s hard not to see Bloody Mary as a handy way for pre-pubescent girls to process the oh-so-taboo prospect of getting your first period, and all of the horror that entails. Enter Mary I, Queen of frustration, pain, and blood. Who better to teach you about the importance and terror of periods than the woman whose problems with them made her life a living hell?
The monster in the mirror
So there is all of that. Bloody Mary is a surprisingly nuanced allegory for something almost all girls have to contend with. But clever though that allegory might be, here’s something even more fun: sometimes, Mary isn’t an allegory at all. Given the right conditions, shrieking slumber party participants will actually see another face in the mirror.
A 2009 study of 50 test-naive individuals revealed that after less than a minute of gazing into their reflections in dim light, so-called “strange-face illusions” began–for every single participant. From Giovanni Caputo, the author of the study:
“The descriptions differed greatly across individuals and included: (a) huge deformations of one’s own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants); (b) a parent’s face with traits changed (18%), of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased; (c) an unknown person (28%); (d) an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait of an ancestor (28%); (e) an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%); (f ) fantastical and monstrous beings (48%).”
Obviously in the context of Bloody Mary, we are interested chiefly in this last one. Caputo himself seems puzzled by it, especially as he tries to put together what exactly is happening with these illusions. As he puts it:
“The disappearance or attenuation of face traits could be linked to the Troxler fading that occurs in the periphery while staring at a central fixation. However, this explanation would predict that face traits should fade away and eventually disappear (Wade 2000), whereas the apparitions in the mirror consist of new faces having new traits.”
Maybe, he postulates, this “strange-face” illusion thing is just a misfiring of the brain’s face-processing mechanism–with the dim light and the fixed attention, it’s freaking out and scrambling and deforming your own face. Seems simple enough. And yet…
“Frequent apparitions of strange faces of known or unknown people support the idea that the illusion involves a high-level mechanism that is specific to global face processing. On the other hand, the frequent apparition of fantastical and monstrous beings, and of animal faces cannot, in our opinion, be explained by any actual theory of face processing. Neither constructive approaches nor top down accounts seem to provide adequate explanations.”
God, I love me some weird stuff that science can’t explain. And I love me some weird modern rituals that get at the ID of our brain, and some dramatic and twisted histories. Who would have known that plain old Bloody Mary would have all three?
Had any fun times gazing into a dark mirror? Maybe you haven’t looked close enough. Give it a try and share your hallucinations (…?) in the comments below.