B   L   O   O   D   Y      M   A   R   Y

The story of Bloody Mary goes back for many years, with research into the Urban Legend as early as 1978, when folklorist Janet Langlois published an essay on the tale. This was at a time where the belief in the ability to summon the witch in the mirror was widespread across the Western Hemisphere. The avenging spirit goes by many names, depending on who it is you’re asking, and what part of the world you’re in when you do so. Famously, she is known as Bloody Mary, but she also goes by names of Bloody Bones, Hell Mary, Mary Worth, Mary Worthington, Mary Whales, Mary Johnson, Mary Jane, Mary Lou, Kathy, Sally, Agnes, Black Agnes, Aggie, or Svarte Madam.

 

This woman who goes by so many names also, inevitably, holds many variations to her origin. Most notably is the belief that Mary was in fact a witch that had been executed hundreds of years ago for her part in the black arts and devil worship, now destined to return whenever summoned by playful teens in the mirror. A more modern take brings her to the 21st century, as Mary sits as the victim of a terrible car accident that horribly mutilated her face and now appears in the mirror, angered by the beautiful faces of those that summon her. This plays on the less imaginative concept of what would be considered a disability, twisting it and feeding the old movie cliche that the villains are always to be disfigured in some form.

 

The name itself has over time caused confusion, misinterpretations and misunderstandings regarding the origins of Mary; with many confusing her with Queen Mary I, who, by sheer coincidence, has been named by many historians as ‘Bloody Mary’. The daughter of the famous Anne Boleyn garnered her macabre nickname after having numerous Protestants put to death during her reign as Queen in an attempt to re-establish Catholicism as the religion of the land after the changes of her father, Henry VIII. It would seem, like many things in life, the shared name of ‘Bloody Mary’ is nothing more than a coincidence, with no real connection between the misguided Queen and the mirrored apparition. 

The name itself has over time caused confusion, misinterpretations and misunderstandings regarding the origins of Mary; with many confusing her with Queen Mary I, who, by sheer coincidence, has been named by many historians as ‘Bloody Mary’. The daughter of the famous Anne Boleyn garnered her macabre nickname after having numerous Protestants put to death during her reign as Queen in an attempt to re-establish Catholicism as the religion of the land after the changes of her father, Henry VIII. It would seem, like many things in life, the shared name of ‘Bloody Mary’ is nothing more than a coincidence, with no real connection between the misguided Queen and the mirrored apparition. 

The story of Bloody Mary goes back for many years, with research into the Urban Legend as early as 1978, when folklorist Janet Langlois published an essay on the tale. This was at a time where the belief in the ability to summon the witch in the mirror was widespread across the Western Hemisphere. The avenging spirit goes by many names, depending on who it is you’re asking, and what part of the world you’re in when you do so. Famously, she is known as Bloody Mary, but she also goes by names of Bloody Bones, Hell Mary, Mary Worth, Mary Worthington, Mary Whales, Mary Johnson, Mary Jane, Mary Lou, Kathy, Sally, Agnes, Black Agnes, Aggie, or Svarte Madam.

It is difficult to trace these somewhat ritualistic, playful games about the girl in the mirror but the concept of looking into a reflection, only to see something in the room with you goes back far beyond any mention of Mary. In fact, the original concept of this idea was somewhat sweet in its agenda, where young girls would stand in front of a mirror at the stroke of midnight of Halloween. Amongst the darkness behind them, the face of their future husband would supposedly appear to them. It was always a somewhat exciting and reassuring game to play amongst the spooks of Halloween night. Who knows where the change occurred to become so dark and dastardly. Children and young people require engagement, we know this - they are easily bored and to the great exhaustion of their parents, often need constant entertainment, there is almost a compulsion to prank, tease, and play. 

Although, as seen by the ever-expanding scare attractions across the U.K and the consistent love for Halloween already prevalent around America, not to mention the sure-fire genre of Horror films that always manage to grab an audience, the love to be afraid, to test our nerves to their very limit is a craving many of us feel, no matter the age.

The belief that mirrors were somehow portals between our world and that of the spirits shows up in various places around the globe in several situations, namely those surrounding funerals. For a long time, it was common practice to cover every mirror in the house where a death had occurred until the body had been taken away for burial. The common belief was that if the departed caught a glimpse of themselves in the mirror in any way, their spirit would be caught, left to haunt the house forevermore, trapped amongst the looking glass. Some covered the mirrors out of fear that they themselves would die if they were their reflection in the same house; this may seem illogical, but then most superstition does. 

With this idea being told to generations ahead, even as the custom slowly dissipated and disappeared into history, it is no wonder the notion of spirits in the mirror had become such a prevalent part of our societies scary stories. We can all think of several horror films from the top of our heads that have either used mirrors to show a spirit, or to trap one inside; some stories go as far as to show an evil reflection staring back at us, or a glimpse into another time or place.

In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the mirror is enchanted, a spirit in itself able to look upon the world and answer all the questions the evil Queen may have for it.

In a mirror we can see all the fears and insecurities we have in our appearance, all the things we wish were different on our bodies and faces as we study ourselves with negative eyes, allowing the mirror to tease us, playing on our worries and disappointments. Traditionally, vampires have no reflection in a mirror, one of the key ways to prove that they are in fact demonic creatures underneath their charming capes. This is because, in folklore, they are already dead, their soul has already left them and so, the reflection, or their soul, is not there to stare back at them when they peer through the glass, leaving nothing but blankness in their stead.

But, with all good scares comes an element of truth to this idea, but unfortunately, it far more simple and far more psychological than mystical and spooky. I appreciate that the soul in the mirror narrative is still a wonderful tale from history and our new understanding of where it came from, to me at least, makes it all the more fascinating. The true notion of a scare in the mirror is loosely down to what is known as the ’Troxler Effect’, discovered way back in 1804 by physician and philosopher, Ignaz Troxler. You have most likely seen the optical illusions of a dot in the centre of an image, asking for you to focus on it, only to find that the image around changes colour, shape, or disappears entirely. This is something our brain has evolved in order to survive this world of so much noise, colour, and texture. Listening to me now, you may be driving your car, or lying on your bed, or working away on your desk, but you are focusing on those tasks, whatever they are. Right now you’re not thinking about your breathing, you’re not contemplating the texture of the clothes against your skin because it would be ridiculous to do so. If our minds focused on all of these things and more in any given moment, we would never get anything done and so our mind turns a blind eye to those parts of our brain to ensure our focus and energy is exactly where it should be. 

It’s brilliant, logical, evident, and helpful, and yet it, like most things in our evolved psyche, it has side effects. In 2010, Italian psychologist Giovanni Caputo, set up a study, under controlled laboratory conditions with 50 healthy young adults. Amongst these experiments was the simple task for those adults to stand for about one minute and gaze in the mirror. Out of those 50, 66% of the individuals reported to see huge deformations of their own faces, whilst 48% reported seeing a monstrous face, 28% reported an unknown person, 18% reported the face of a parent or relative, and 18% even reported seeing a face that resembled that of an animal.

Interestingly, although, not surprisingly, those with schizophrenia, or depression, perceived things either better or worse depending on their diagnosis. This will trail us off down a different path so I’ll not go too deep into it now, but if you wish to find out more of that side of the experiment, you’ll find it on the sources section of our website. Just like staring at the dot in the centre of a circle, only to see that circle disappear in an amazing, yet simple optical illusion, we find our cheeks morphing into one amongst the darkness of the shadow. Whilst we stare into our eyes we may found our mouth disappears, or droops down past our chin, we may find that our foreheads disappear into the shadow or that our ears stretch and bend in a way that seems torturous and impossible. 

You stare into any corner of a dark room and watch the black shadow people begin to move around your room as our mind create shapes as our eyes adjust. How often have we looked across the room to see a lurching creature staring us dead in the eyes, only to turn on the light and find it is a jumper draped over the back of a chair. Our minds create the reality we exist in, it is what carries our thoughts, our personalities, our desires, and yet, it is almost constantly fooling us.In partnership with this remarkable feat of psychology creating ghosts in the mirror is Pareidolia. A phenomenon we all have experienced and are capable of, and that is the sighting of faces in places that they do not exist.

Many of us have laid on the green grass of a field on a summers day and looked up into the sky, pointing out the creatures and people we can see taking shape amongst the clouds. We’ve all read of the people that find Jesus in their toast, we’ve all looked at a marking in a tree, or the shape of a bin and seen a face looking back at us. Even cars fronts have such face like structures in our minds that you can buy fake eyelashes for their headlights - Pixar took this further, creating a whole world where these faces that we see on a daily basis come to life. To many this a normal part of existence that we all do, sometimes even a bit of fun if we’re in the mood, others aren’t even aware that this is a psychological phenomenon, but then there is the third camp - those that take this very seriously indeed. Diane Dyser of Miami took advantage of this with both hands as she sold a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich, that she claimed bore the image of Jesus Christ on eBay for a whopping $28,000 in 2004.

There are a number of theories as to why we see faces where there are none, leading us to the shadowy glares of strangers in the shadow as we look into the mirror, summoning the name of Bloody Mary. Many experts believe Pareidolia provides a psychological determination for many delusions that involve our various senses. They say this could be the reason behind sightings of UFO’s, the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, and even a still alive Elvis. Carl Sagan, the brilliant American cosmologist and author, believed that it was an evolved survival tool and from my understanding of evolution and psychology, I tend to agree with this hypothesis. He argued that the ability to recognise faces from a distance in poor visible would have been a vital survival technique for early humans. This would be helpful for us to quickly figure out whether what was ahead was a friend or foe. Sagan also noted, like I had mentioned earlier, that this could result in some misinterpretations of random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces, when in fact there is nothing there.

This phenomenon is used and understood in many ways. From religious figures in baked goods to artists work - or from the senses of sound, known as auditory pareidolia, seen mostly in the usage of EVP’s in ghost hunts, or playing a record backwards to hear a hidden message, to the Rorschach inkblot test that intends to reveal the deeper thoughts in the patient's psyche. 

There will always be that part of us that clings to the idea of the spirit world we are so often told exists throughout our lives by family members, churches, or film. Even non-believers would have to admit that a teeny tiny part of them would hesitate as they looked deep into their own eyes, in the shadow of the darkness of the mirror and whispered the name ‘Bloody Mary’.

© Luke Mordue

Based in London, UK