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Home > Scary Urban Legends - Bloody Mary

Scary Urban Legends - Bloody Mary

Urband Legend of Bloody maryAlso known as: Mary Worth, I Believe in Mary Worth, Mary Worthington, Mary Jane, Mary Whales, Hell Mary, etc.

As told on the Internet, Dec. 21, 1997:

Some of my friends, five of us, cramped ourselves into a small bathroom in my friend Cathryn's House. We ended up saying Bloody Mary (more like chanting it) about 20 times or so for anything to appear. When we did finally see something it started out as a green glow then the darkenened portrait of a face became more visible, by that time half of us were screaming so we knocked each other down trying to get out of the bathroom and then I flipped on the light. It was a welcome relief.

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 curiousity 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!!

Comments: The Bloody Mary legend and its several variants date back to the 1960s, if not earlier. Like so many folk rituals and traditional tales, it's impossible to pin down its origin with any specificity. Folklorists didn't begin collecting the texts until around 1970.

That having been said, myths and superstitions attributing magical and divinatory properties to mirrors go back to ancient times. Nearly all of them contain some element of foreboding. The most familiar of these lingering into modernity is the centuries-old superstition that breaking a mirror brings bad luck. The notion 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 literary sources.

A particular form of divination associated in the British Isles with Halloween involved gazing into a mirror and performing a nonverbal ritual to see 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.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall

A different form of mirror divination, in this case accompanied by ritual chanting, appears in the fairy tale "Snow White," as rendered 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 with the story knows, the wicked queen was ultimately destroyed by her own vanity, and it is in this and similar cautionary tales that we begin to see elements of the Bloody Mary legend take shape.

"If you look in a looking glass too long you are sure to see the devil," warns a nineteenth-century English saying. Here's a more visceral rendition of that moral admonishment as recollected 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 gasing, 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 old superstition to the Bloody Mary legend is the central motif of "the apparition in the looking glass" -- the only difference being that in the former the ghost appears because someone forgot to cover a mirror; in the latter, the ghost is purposely summoned.

The incantation

Make no mistake, when a group of adolescents stands in front of a mirror chanting "Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary," or "I believe in Mary Worth, I believe in Mary Worth," they are uttering what they believe to be -- or hope to be, or fear to be -- a magic spell to conjure up the presence of a ghost. The notion that ritual incantations can be used to achieve supernatural ends derives not only from folklore and fairly tales, wherein remnants of so many age-old myths and superstitions are retained, but also from the childhood mindset itself, which is subject to a variety of forms of magical thinking. Among those is a phenomenon identified by developmental pscychologist 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 is 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 is no evident connection 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.

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 actual folklore, but apart from the borrowed incantation it was mostly a product of Barker's fertile imagination.

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

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

Alas, a mirror is not included.

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