Monday, 1 August 2011

The origin of Bloody Mary


If you're a horror fan like me then you will probably be acquainted with the Paranormal Activity series - a soon-to-be trilogy of films that 'document' violent hauntings through found footage. I have yet to see the sequel but I thought the first was a good effort from an independent director on a shoestring budget and showed how you can make a horror film without resorting to stupid CGI monsters and torture scenes.

Paranormal Activity 3 will be hitting the cinemas soon and from what I can tell in the trailer it may focus on the Bloody Mary urban legend, in which if you say her name three times in a mirror she will supposedly appear and eviscerate you. Fun stuff. But where did this folktale come from and why is it so prevalent in modern western cultures?

Like all good folk tales, this one comes with a few different variations on the ritual to summon the eponymous Bloody Mary. It is widely assumed that the room must be dark and her name must be chanted, but some lore tells that she will come if you run the tap, rub your eyes, repeat her name thirteen times or say "Bloody Mary, I killed your baby". Any way it's done, the ritual is said to summon Mary, who is widely considered to be a child murderer or someone wrongly accused of killing their child.

The legend was first properly researched by Janet Langlois in 1978 and published in an essay. Back then, the story was prevalent in younger girls and some boys, who would dare each other to carry out the ritual. Mary was called by many different names, but the most popular seems to be Mary Worth.

It's difficult to say whether Mary was a real person. Often Mary I, the 16th century English Queen, is cited as being the inspiration for the story. In 1555, Mary was convinced that she was pregnant, as were the doctors and all who surrounded her. However, in July it was found to be a phantom pregnancy and because of her overwhelming desire to have a child Mary fell into a pit of depression. The Queen gained the name Bloody Mary due to her persecution of the Protestants during her rule, of which she executed 287, and in 1563, only 6 years after her death, she was given the image of a bloodthirsty tyrant in Foxe's Book of Martyrs.


I've seen articles that say Mary Tudor would bathe herself in blood in order to stay young, which is a legend born out of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who was famously accused of murdering 650 girls. Of course, the propaganda espoused by the Protestants in the 16th century probably went a long way to skewing people's perception of Mary and perhaps that is what remains with us today with the Bloody Mary legend.

Like most folklore, the tale is a patchwork of stories from a variety of cultures and time periods, all culminating in what we have now. Indeed, the Greek Lamia and similar Aztec legends bare similarities with the modern story.


This folktale opens doors to a multitude of research opportunities to the discerning folklorist. For instance, why are mirrors often used for divination practises? Who began this practise? Why should it be a woman who is the killer?