“Bloody Mary”: From the Bathroom to the Laboratory

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody…even joking about the mirrored specter gives me
chills. One of the most popular urban legends is that of Bloody Mary, the spirit of a woman who
can be summoned by repeating her name thirteen times into a dimly lit mirror. For whatever
reason, this practice has persisted across generations with research on the topic beginning in
1978 when Jane Langlois wrote about the “game” as she came to call it and the origins. In
2014, Italian researchers explored the science and psychology behind Bloody Mary, ultimately
adding a bit of credibility to the legend. If this story is true then it essentially proves witchcraft,
ghosts, and an afterlife; a truly extraordinary claim.
A surprising number of adults will admit to at least hearing about the infamous “Bloody
Mary” (or any of her variations) and the ritual to summon her at least once in their lives. If any of
these individuals are like me, the story was told at a sleepover or campfire by a friend or older
peer. As with most legend the story started with “A friend of a friend” or “My cousin’s friend”, to
add validity and personality to the story, attempting the ritual. Alan Dundes writes in his article
“Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety” that most participants
are young girls at sleepovers who decide to try and summon Bloody Mary, or her alias ‘Mary
Worth as she is commonly believed to be a witch who was burned for practicing magic
(Snopes). Some modern iterations believe she is a young woman who died in a car accident, in
some stories specific lines need to be uttered, and in different regions a different image is said
to appear. Whatever the name or story the process remains the same regardless of region or
era, somebody walks into a room with a mirror and utters a phrase until an image appears
behind them.
It is important to understand how legends spread, according to a Washington Post piece
it is due in part to word-of-mouth and the practicality of a concept. The word-of-mouth is
precisely what I spoke of previously, sitting around a campfire and sharing stories. In the same
way the stories of the “murderer in the backseat” or the “phone call from inside of the house”
persist in our culture we latch to stories that are told to us in an appropriate setting. The other
essential part is that the story must make sense to us or at the very least seem fun or
interesting. We discount alien abductions and flat earth because it inherently sounds ridiculous,
which whether or not we should is a different post entirely, but when we hear “a girl had a killer
in her backseat” it seems just real enough for us to go along with. A post on The Conversation
elaborates that urban legends play on our social fears and insecurities, people are afraid of
being kidnapped, murdered, and ultimately stalked by a witch’s spirit (apparently).
In concept the whole summoning ritual of Bloody Mary should result in nothing of
significance occurring. Giovanni Caputo and his colleagues found however that there is
something happening that could be responsible for the urban legend. In the article “Visual
Perception during Mirror-Gazing at One’s Own Face in Patients with Depression”, researchers
found that staring into a mirror in low light does result in seeing apparitions and distorted faces.
According to findings within neuroscience (BBC) humans have a fascination with faces, being
capable of finding a face within food, machinery, and household appliances. It therefore makes
sense that when faced with little to no stimulation the brain attempts to find a face within a dimly
lit mirror. There is actual science behind Bloody Mary, which is not what many expect and that
makes the allure of the urban legend even stronger.
If kids today are anything like me they will go into the bathroom, spin and say “Bloody
Mary” thirteen times, and then run out of the bathroom. Odds are, most will never see the
tortured woman due to their own cowardice but if someone stares into the mirror, according to
the research, a face or distortion will most likely occur. So, while nothing extraordinary seems to
have been proven from the research into the topic, neuroscience uncovered a chilling
phenomenon. Ghosts, witchcraft, and urban legends are still unproven but why not go and stare
into a mirror now that you know your brain will attempt to scare itself!


Mikkelson, D. (2001, April 28). Fact Check: Is there a True ‘Bloody Mary’ Story Behind the
Legend? Retrieved from https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/bloody-mary-story/
Caputo, G. B., Bortolomasi, M., Ferrucci, R., Giacopuzzi, M., Priori, A., & Zago, S. (2014).
Visual perception during mirror-gazing at one’s own face in patients with depression.
Dundes, A. (1998) Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety,
Western Folklore, 57(2), pp. 119 – 135
Stubbersfield, J. (2014, June 30) Why some urban legends go viral, Retrieved from
Dagnall, N., Drinkwater, K. (2017, May 15) Why urban legends are more powerful than ever,
Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/why-urban-legends-are-more-powerful-thanever-76718
Robson, D. (2014, July 30). From Virgin Mary in a slice of toast to the appearance of a
screaming face in a man’s testicles, David Robson explains why the brain constructs
these illusions. , Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140730-why-do-wesee-faces-in-object

13 thoughts on ““Bloody Mary”: From the Bathroom to the Laboratory

  1. I grew up with different urban legends so Bloody Mary was something that I didn’t learn until high school when my friends were trying to look up popular urban legends. I never heard of it originating from a car accident but rather from the clawing on a coffin. When we talked about urban legends in class, it was interesting to see the different versions of urban legends. I think is kind of how people keep beliefs alive as time progress so that the urban legend can make sense it that time period. I think it really is just fear what keeps these urban legends of alive and it so interesting to see that our brain will scare itself.

  2. This was actually an urban legend that I first heard of in high school! I feel like I’ve seen Bloody Mary integrated into a lot of thriller movies as well. I like how you iterated that if enough research backs this legend up then we are basically finding firsthand evidence that witchcraft is real as well too. I also found it interesting that in this particular legend, Bloody Mary has to be said aloud into a dimly lit mirror thirteen times in order for her to appear. Along with believers of witchcraft, believers of the eeriness surrounding the number thirteen could also be aroused by this research. Because of this too, I think conspiracy theorists could easily piggyback on all theories as a way to utilize directional goals with aspirations in mind to conclude that a certain legend ACTUALLY has validity. Overall, nice post!

  3. This certainly is an extraordinary belief that gives me some heavy goosebumps. I definitely remember learning about this in elementary school. I believe there were quite a few kids that tried this, but I always wanted to stay as far away from it as possible. It is honestly terrifying. I still would not mess with a belief like this even if it is indeed false.

  4. This was definitely a popular sleepover game when I was growing up. I remember girls playing it at sleepovers, but unfortunately most of them ran out of the bathroom screaming because they were to scared to complete the ritual, so unfortunately we never got to learn if they actually summoned bloody mary. I never played the game because I was young and actually thought it was really and she would really appear!

  5. This was certainly a sleepover classic growing up, but similar to the comments above it was rarely fully completed. I think it is interesting how as teenagers / adolescents these sorts of urban legends seem not only believable, but worth attempting! I would love to know more about why despite hearing of the horrid consequences of summonging spirits, many of us chose to try it anyway.

  6. I can’t even count the number of times my friends or siblings wanted to play Bloody Mary wow. Learning about this theory more in depth really brings me back. I always remember chickening out but I know that we never knew if anyone ever saw anything ~real~ but they certainly ended up really scared. It’s interesting to think about how this little game has a real explanation behind it, in terms of your brain wanting to see something and scaring you itself.

  7. I remember hearing about the Bloody Mary from my sister when we were both in middle school. Of course she started off with “My friend’s friend said…” as all these types of stories do, but in the version I was told was you were suppose to go in the bathroom, turn all the lights off, spin and say ‘Bloody Mary’ three times, and if she showed up she was there to kill you. I obviously never stayed in the bathroom too long to find out. Looking back it is so crazy that to think that so many different people around the world have this type of story and actually believe it. It is also interesting about the science behind this theory. The brain to do so many things and in this situation scare yourself.

  8. The first time I heard of the “Bloody Mary” legend was when I went camping in 6th grade. I think the reason they are so relevant to society is that they instill fear. I knew that you weren’t supposed to look in the mirror and say “Bloody Mary,” but I had no idea the story behind that superstition. I don’t entirely understand how superstitions such as these help us make sense of the world or manage threats as urban legends do, but they validate people’s feelings anyway. I think urban legends or superstitions are more for entertainment and social context.

  9. I suppose that everyone would have the desire to be the special one in the world, at least in teenage years. Urban legends and other superstitions offer the teenagers a stage to show their uniqueness. By participating certain kind of groups’ activity about some extraordinary belief, they could also get a sense of belongingness in the same time. But I don’t think these kind of beliefs would survive for long, most people would recenter their focus while they grow up.

  10. I first heard about the bloody marry urban legend from my older siblings who were trying to scare me when I was about 8 or 9 years old. They took me into a bathroom and started chanting “bloody marry” I cried and would not open my eyes until they turned the lights back on so I cannot say I have had experience with seeing a face in the mirror. I like how you were able to explain the science behind why some may see a face in the dim light. I for one remember going outside in the dark at my summer camp one night and remember seeing a face in the distance and I screamed, but then I realized it was the folds of a zebra printed towel on the clothes line.

  11. Whenever I think of urban legends, I can’t help but think about me 1990s film Candyman. It covers a supernatural killer in the projects of Chicago, and the importance of folklore is highlighted throughout the entire film, both from the research and practical standpoints. When you have tales like this, I am always curious as to how important the folklore aspect is versus the conspiratorial one. Is Bloody Mary an extraordinary belief or a part of culture?

  12. I did a similar blog post on the urban legend surrounding The Candyman, which I find so interesting because both urban legends are remarkably similar–they require different variations of name repetition, dark lighting, a hyper-aware individual–the whole sha-bang. I think these types of fun games persist because they usually involve little to no stakes; a participant goes into the game feeling very afraid, but leaves feeling exhilarated and more powerful.

  13. I think this urban legend is interesting because I once believed it. I heard about it from my sister when I was in middle school and I was always to chicken to try it out because I was scared this woman was going to pop up in the mirror and kill me. Did you ever believe in the Blood Mary legend? I never knew there was scientific evidence that supported the reason why people really think she is real. It’s because our brain is wired to find faces in things. I think I may try it now that I know my brain is trying to play tricks on me to see what I find. Awesome post!!

Comments are closed.