Bloody Mary: A Strange Phenomenon

The lights are off. The room is dark. You light a candle and stare into the mirror. 

“Bloody Mary,” you say, rather sure of yourself at first.

“Bloody Mary,” you feel a chill in the air. Maybe a draft from under the door. The candle flickers. Still you stare into the mirror, shadows dancing across your face. For a moment, you appear older. The candle carves deep shadows across your cheeks and around your eyes. A trick of the light, surly.

“Bloody Mary,” you whisper, for the third and final time.

There are countless versions of what happens next. According to some, she reaches though the mirror to claw at your face. According to others, she’ll drag you back into the mirror, never to be seen again. Sometimes, you taunt that you’ve stollen her baby, and she kills you to get it back.

Wether it be at midnight sleepovers, or in school playgrounds, you’ve probably heard your own version of the above, and may well have practiced it too, yet here you are, reading this case file, blissfuly unaware that she’s behind you as we speak. Don’t bother looking. She’ll hide away, just in time. She’s sneaky like that. 

But exactly who is “Bloody Mary”? Why, despite the variations, is the ritual more or less the same? Let’s explore the origins of this delightfully frightening and strangely widespread piece of folklore. 

An Early 20th Century Greetings Card


Although there are discrepancies and variations, the core ritual remains the same. You need a darkened room, preferably candle-lit, and a mirror. Some say it only works when you’re alone, but others have huddled around the aforementioned mirror in trembling groups to repeat the words together.

Invocations include, “Bloody Mary”, “Hell Mary”, and “Mary Worth”, and these must be repeated a certain number of times. Usually, 3 or 13 are the most popular. According to some, the magic words are some variation of, “Bloddy Mary, I stole your baby”.

The words don’t really matter. The ritual itself is an act of catoptromancy – also known as mirror divination. This is a practice that goes back thousands of years and is a form of scrying – staring into crystal balls, water or any other reflective surface to receive images to be interpreted by the user. 

Such divination had a resurgence in the early 20th century and the rise of modern spiritualism. In one example, young women would walk up a flight if stairs backwards, with a mirror in one hand and a candle in the other. While gazing into the mirror, they would catch a glimpse of their future husbands face. If, however, they saw a skull, they (or their lover) was destined to die before marriage. I would suppose walking backwards up and down the stairs may have something to do with such untimely demises. 

Who is Bloody Mary?

Mary I of England

Stories behind Bloody Mary are as various as the incantations to summon her, but there are three popular candidates who are best thought to fit the bill.

The first, and most famous, is Mary I Of England. Daughter of the equal infamous Henry VIII, Mary was the daughter of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In context of Henry’s wives, Catherine was one of the lucky ones, keeping her head, but loosing her status when she was divorced, their child being labeled as illegitimate. 

After the death of Henry VIII and his short lived heir, Edward VI, Mary succeeded to the throne after overthrowing Lady Jane Grey – appointed successor by the protestant Edward. She earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” due to ordering around 300 protestants to be burned at the stake as a result for her religious reforms. 

Mary I shares more than just a nickname with our mirror-haunting ghoul. The sometimes forgotten in the context of her reign, Mary was desperate for a child, although, sadly never conceived. She is said to have developed at least one ‘phantom’ pregnancy, which even her closest physicians believed to be real, until no baby ever arrived. It is today speculated that Mary died of ovarian or uterine cancer, the symptoms of which also coincided with some of her “pregnancy” symptoms, particularly towards the end of her life, when she believed she was again, pregnant. 

Other identities have also been suggested, including that of Elizabeth Bathory. As we discussed in our previous case file, Elizabeth was suspected of murdering over 600 girls, however, these claims were likely fictitious. 

Another recurring identity is that of Mary Worth, a supposed “witch” who was said to murder those trying to escape slavery via the Underground Railroad. When her crimes were discovered, she was said to have been burnt at the stake for witchcraft (rather than murder). Despite these claims, historical evidence is lacking and the tale is likely untrue.

Mirror, Mirror on the wall

Photo by Tasha Kamrowski on

Bloody Mary isn’t the only folkloric ghoul with a taste for mirrors. They come with a whole host of important superstitions and magical properties. 

Everyone knows breaking a mirror causes seven years bad luck, but across different cultures, many believe mirrors reflect more than just the physical body. They are often thought of as portals to and from other worlds, a la Alice and her looking glass adventure.  

Some believe mirrors reflect aspects of the soul, and it’s not uncommon to find them covered upon a death in the household. This is thought to prevent the soul from becoming trapped in the reflective world and help them find their way to the afterlife more easily.

Bloody Mary isn’t the only troublesome spirit linked with mirrors. It’s a common belief that vampires can not be reflected in mirrors – stemming from a time when silver was used in their construction. Similarly, mirrors are often seen hanging in Chinese temples, so any nasty spirit thinking on entering would be scared away by their own reflection.

So we have our incantation of choice, our mirror and a few identities to choose from. How then do we explain the strange phenomenon.

Mind over Matter?

Bloody Mary aside, have you ever started into your reflection in a mirror? Even in a fully lit bathroom, strange things begin to happen and after a while, it seems as though you’re looking at a stranger, rather than your own face. It’s an entirely creepy activity, and I don’t suggest doing it, unless you want to trigger an existential crisis before bedtime. 

Fortunately, this is probably more to do with our brains, rather than any paranormal. Hopefully, anyway. There are a few proposed reasons for this, including the brain’s facial recognition system going a little hay wire, to something called Troxler’s fading – an optical illusion effecting your perception. Ultimately, the brain begins to pick and choose what it sees, and decides to haunt itself. 

If you ritualise a set of actions in an attempt to communicate with a ghastly woman in a mirror, you can scare yourself silly. By the time you think you see your face changing, or a spirit sneaking up behind you, you’ve already freaked out enough to slam the lights back on, or so stampeding out of the bathroom, cartoon style. You tell your friends the ritual worked and you escaped Bloody Mary, just before she was about to scratch your eyes out. Thus a fun little coming of age ritual is born. 

So next time you’re at a sleepover and decide to have a little fun, lock yourself in the bathroom and haunt yourself.

It’s perfectly safe, right? 

Well, that’s what the nice lady in the mirror said, anyway.

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