The Legend of Bloody Mary

By Brett Barnett · Last Updated 7 years ago
Bloody Mary remains one of the world's most well-known urban legends and permeates pop culture the globe over.

As long as they have existed, mirrors have been a source of superstition in many cultures, and there are too many legends to count surrounding them, many of which are rooted in the old belief that the mirror reflects back a person’s soul.

According to ancient belief, the soul renews itself every seven years and when a mirror is broken, so is the cycle, thereby casting seven years of bad luck onto the person whose reflection was broken. Mirrors are often covered in times of mourning in a superstitious attempt to prevent the soul of the deceased from becoming trapped inside a mirror, and sinister creatures, such as vampires, are said to have no reflection, as they have no soul.

As these superstitions worked their way down through the chain of popular culture, they eventually found their way into party games, especially among young girls. Urban Legends spread about the divining properties of mirrors and it was said that if certain instructions were carried out, a young girl could catch a glimpse of her future husband in the reflection of the mirror. Alternatively, they may catch the reflection of a skull—a sign that she would die before she was married.

Participation in this legend offers a thrilling brush with the supernatural, and an exciting risk of learning about one’s unfortunate fate. But, with time, children have become more and more desensitised, and with stories of divination no longer providing an adequate thrill at slumber parties, darker and more sinister legends began to spread.

Among them was Bloody Mary, a legend which may trace its roots directly back to the mirror divination ritual carried out decades earlier. The details of Bloody Mary vary depending on your location, who you heard the legend from, even the era that you heard the legend in.

In some variations of the legend, Bloody Mary is summoned by the light of a single candle, sometimes many candles, sometimes complete darkness is required. Sometime she can only be summoned by a lone practitioner, other times multiple people are needed. The exact chant also varies. Even the entity’s name differs between retellings. While best known as Bloody Mary, she has also been known as Mary Worth, Mary Lou and Black Agnes, among others.

One thing that all retellings of the legend have in common is that Bloody Mary is never portrayed as a pleasant or comforting presence. At best, she is an inactive image, a harmless reflection who stares back at you through the mirror. At worst, she is a vicious and vengeful spirit who will emerge from the mirror, whether it is to carve out the eyes of her summoner, or to capture her victim and pull them back into the mirror with her.

Just as there are many stories of how to summon Mary or what she will do to you when she appears, there are many stories about who Mary is and why she attacks her summoners.

Some say she was a witch who was burned at the stake, others say her origins are more recent, that she died in a car accident or was murdered by a madman. Often she is said to have been a grieving mother in versions of the tale in which the summoning chant is “Bloody Mary, I stole your baby.”

These origins are mostly a mix of various urban legends, and all share the same friend-of-a-friend quality, explaining the wide variety of different stories. But, while the fictional origins of Bloody Mary may be uncertain, the real-life origins of the legend are even less clear…

Mary I of England

Mary I, daughter of Henry VIII, ruled England and Ireland from 1553 to 1558. She is remembered for her attempts to reinstate Catholicism as the main religion in the country, a pursuit which led to the deaths of a great deal of Protestants, and the vast murders ordered by the queen earned her the nickame “Bloody Mary.”

Thanks to this name, Mary I is often believed to be the origin of the Bloody Mary legend. This, however, is untrue, and the two Marys are not known to share any connection. Bloody Mary’s actual roots are far less clear, and it’s something we may never know for sure.

Folklorists first began to write about Bloody Mary in the 1970s, and the legend most likely dates to around the 1960s. The tale is widespread and it’s impossible to pin its origin down to one location.

The rapid spread of the story makes it unlikely that the tale did originate in only one location, and the breadth of variety among different tellings of the tale is perhaps further evidence that the legend doesn’t have one particular origin at all, but that similar legends instead evolved separately from earlier stories and eventually blended together to form what we now know as Bloody Mary.

What ever its origins, the legend of Bloody Mary has clearly had a lasting effect and has permeated pop culture, acting as inspiration for films, books, comics and more.

You can ask five different people and be told five different versions of the legend, but finding someone with no knowledge of Bloody Mary would be a very difficult task indeed.

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