One of the most famous, widespread, and puzzling ghost stories is that of Bloody Mary. Kids on ghost tours I run ask me about this ALL the time. The basic idea is that if you look in a mirror in a dark room, you can summon a spirit known as Bloody Mary (or Mary Worth*, or something like that). Kids never ask if I’ve HEARD the story, or even if it’s true – they ask how you’re REALLY supposed to do the ritual.
The version of the story at my school was that Mary was the Devil’s wife or girlfriend (there were arguments about this), and to summon her, you were supposed to be in a totally dark room, look in a mirror and say “Bloody Mary” 100 times, followed by “come out with your ax!” She would then, according to the story, come out with her axe and cut you. The kid who first told me the story swore that the only three kids who ever went all the way to 100 came running out of the bathroom as blood-red skeletons.
Stories as to who Mary was before she started hiding in mirrors vary wildly. Some say she was a woman who killed herself when her baby died (and the way to make her appear is to say “I killed your baby.”) In others, she killed her own baby. More often, she’s supposed to be a “witch” who was burned at the stake. Often, there’s a local gravestone associated with her.
There are tons of variations as to how the ritual works, too. Sometimes you have to touch the mirror, sometimes it has to be at midnight. Exactly what you say differs. Many kids think they’ve actually seen a face in the mirror (the fact that your mind probably plays tricks on you when you stare into a mirror in the dark for this long is a pretty easy conclusion to jump to). Others swear they’ve been scratched. The fact that there are so many variations works to the legend’s advantage – a kid who tries it and doesn’t get it to work can decide later that they failed because they forgot to touch the mirror or something.
But here’s the thing: no one know where this story comes from. Forms of divination based on looking in the mirror certainly go back a long way, but Bloody Mary rituals seem to have come out of nowhere in the late 1960s and captured the imagination of a whole country full of kids simultaneously. Usually we can trace this sort of thing to a book or a movie, but no one knows quite where this came from (which only makes it spookier, of course, though these things can spread FAST in the kid world; kids in Australia knew the Davy Crocket song parodies before the original song was released there).
I’d certainly be remiss in my duties around here if I didn’t point you to Myths Over Miami, a 1997 article which details the central role Bloody Mary played in the folklore passed among homeless children in the city at the time. How widespread these stories were is totally unknown, but social workers tell me they hear stuff like this (though not exactly like it) all the time.
Rumors that a book about Mary legends is in the works go around from time to time, but they never seem to materialize.
As for me, I STILL get nervous around mirrors late at night. I’d love to hear the versions you knew in the comments!
* A local variation that’s spread around here in Chicago is that she was Mary Worth, a 19th century woman who lived up in Lake County, north of the city, where she used to torture runaway salves in her barn (where she was finding all of these runaway slaves us another matter). She was killed as a witch, then buried in a Catholic cemetery (for some reason). One folklorist even claims to have met a woman in the 1960s who remembered being five or six and witnessing her execution. Making the story even better, old bits of chains were said to be found on her farm occasionally. I’ve always wondered if Tom Waits’ song “Don’t Go Into That Barn” was based on a story like this.
As for whether the story is true…. well, folks, I’m a Chicago historian who runs ghost tours. Getting to the root of these stories is sort of my job. As far as any records indicate, this Mary Worth was not a real person, and even a 90-something was not old enough in the 1960s to have remembered the execution of a slave-catcher, slavery having been illegal since 1865 (unless they took FOREVER to catch her). It’s fairly difficult to imagine that even suburbanites (at a time when the suburbs were still largely woods) could have burned a woman at the stake without it making the papers seems pretty unlikely. I’m not aware of any actual stake-burnings of suspected witches in America – in Salem the method of execution was hanging (or, in one case, pressing with stones).
The story may have no basis in fact, but ghost hunters who aren’t as concerned with facts still tell the story and swear that research has confirmed at least the historical part, and kids around here still look in the mirror and say “I believe in Mary Worth.” Simon Bronner referred to these legends as “Mary Worth Rituals” exclusively. From what I hear from kids on tours, though, “Bloody Mary” has far eclipsed “Mary Worth” in popularity by now.