“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

Who Ya Gonna Call? A Look at Ghosts and the Facts Around Them

Belief in the paranormal is one that has been argued for literal centuries, most specifically
belief in spectral beings. A ghost is defined in the dictionary as “an apparition of a dead person
which is believed to appear or become manifest to the living, typically as a nebulous image”.
Pliny, a Roman author in the first century A.D., is credited with documenting the first spectral
haunting. Writing that an elderly man was haunting his home. In 856 A.D. the first poltergeist
was reported in Germany. Reportedly the poltergeist threw rocks and ignited fires in an attempt
to harm the German family (History of Ghost Stories, History Network). These are two of the
earliest recordings of ghost encounters. The belief in ghosts is not an archaic one however, USA
Today reported on a YouGov poll of 1,000 people that found that 45% of polled individuals held
the belief that ghosts exist and can come back from the dead in certain situations (Ashley May,
USA Today).

Evidently, believing in ghosts is still a rather prevalent belief in the United States that is
most definitely extraordinary due to the fact that if ghosts were proven to be real the existence of
an afterlife would be confirmed. This proof would then move to reaffirm or deflate religious,
moral, and scientific arguments made around existence and death. It is important to note that
there is research arguing that religious and paranormal beliefs are different and that there is no
correlation between the two (Langston, Fehrman, Anderson, D’Archangel & Hubbard, 2018) and
that people, religious or not, hold the same affinity to believe in ghosts and paranormal activity.
Certain groups are noted as popularizing the investigation of ghosts, the most famous being The
Atlantic Paranormal Society, otherwise known as T. A. P. S. from the hit show Ghost Hunters.
They claimed to apply the scientific method to ghost hunting and it seemingly took hold in the
early 2000s. Even with the show very rarely finding a location haunted and often debunking
stories, the investigators continued to believe in what they were searching for. The question
becomes, why do people believe in ghosts?

The facts within the belief is extensive, which is expected given the span of time the
belief has been held. The website Ghosts and Gravestones describes the five most common types
of ghosts. First are the most commonly known type of ghost the “Interactive Personality”. This
type is often a deceased family member or historical person and are supposed to retain the
personality traits they had in life. The second type of ghost is the Ectoplasm, which is often seen
as mist or fog within pictures or photographs. The third type being orbs, another entity seen often
in photographs and videos. Funnel ghosts are the fourth and are associated with “cold spots” and
show themselves as a wisp of light in photographs. Finally, the most popular type, the poltergeist
is often referred to as the “noisy” ghost due to the tendency of the spirit to knock things over,
interact with the environment and generally getting our attention by making a ruckus. The point
can be raised, what evidence is there to support this type of thinking.

The easy answer is that there is no undeniable evidence in favor for the existence of
ghosts. Most believers point to personal experiences (Live Science) and anecdotal evidence.
These are most often situations where the individual is unable to confirm the happening was due
to a ghost, but they also are unable to dismiss. A scientific concept used to justify a belief in
ghosts is the First Law of Thermodynamics, which conceptually states that energy is not created
nor is it destroyed but rather it is transformed. Believers using this logic assert that energy from
our bodies will become a spirit when we die. The immediate rebuttal to this argument, as
articulated in a Live Science piece, is that our energy is dispersed to the organisms in the soil and
not through so supernatural energy. The existence of ghosts also relies on photographic evidence,
debatably the most convincing for skeptics on the fence. Photos have been taken for well over a
century that depict a ghostly presence. That may be through picture blurring, orbs (a common
form of ghost), or even full body apparitions. No matter the circumstance, most photos have been
debunked as either being staged, altered, or simply coincidence (BBC). Personal experiences are
also presented as objective evidence and, to be fair, the instances can never be entirely debunked
due to the personal nature of these events. Psychology can try to explain why we continue to
believe these extraordinary beliefs, despite the presence of skepticism.

David Robson of the BBC reported in an article titled Psychology: The Truth About the
Paranormal that there are clear psychological explanations as to why individuals continue to
claim interactions with ghosts are real. The first being that illusions and perceptions of “shadow
people” or ghosts is tied to damage of the right-hemisphere which results in the perception of
beings that are not there (BBC). A less neurological explanation is that the belief in ghosts is not
falsifiable to many believers. While images, videos, experiences, and locations have been
debunked numerous times they belief still holds with the “yeah, but…” mentality. The
experience is inherently personal and anecdotal which lends itself perfectly to confirmation bias,
by simply seeking information that agrees with the mentality exhibited. Ghost stories are a
defining part of urban folklore, the stories are designed to seem plausible no matter the case, and
therefore they contribute greatly to the anecdotal telling and perception of extraordinary events.
It also makes sense because believing is also more comforting for people because that would
affirm that there is in fact an afterlife and therefore eliminates some uncertainty in life.

Ghost stories began with Pliny, moved to Shakespeare (with Macbeth), and still haunt us
through the “based on a true story” films like The Conjuring, The Exorcist, and Paranormal
Activity. Overall, believing in ghosts seems to be harmless with very little interpersonal
ramification. Around half of polled individuals believe in ghosts and that seems to make sense.
There is as much evidence to “prove” they do exist as there is convincing evidence that they do
not exist. This dichotomy is achieved through a non-falsifiable nature of argumentation which
will result in a never-ending cycle of skepticism. Personally, I think believing in ghosts is fun
and I also think attempting to debunk ghosts is fun. The potential for the existence is exciting and
I would be tempted to say that those “hunting” ghosts want them to be real as much as they want
them to not be.

Editors, History.com. “History of Ghost Stories.” History.com, A&E Television
Networks, 29 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/halloween/historical-ghoststories

May, Ashley. “How Many People Believe in Ghosts or Dead Spirits?” USA Today,
Gannett Satellite Information Network, 25 Oct. 2017,

Ghosts & Gravestones. “Types Of Ghosts and Spirits.” Ghosts & Gravestones,

Radford, Benjamin. “Are Ghosts Real? – Evidence Has Not Materialized.” LiveScience, Purch, 17 May 2017, www.livescience.com/26697-are-ghosts-real.html

Timberlake, Howard. “Future – The Intriguing History of Ghost Photography.” BBC
News, BBC, 30 June 2015, www.bbc.com/future/story/20150629-the-intriguinghistory-of-ghost-photography.

Suedeld, P. & Mocellin, J. S. P. (1987) The “sensed presence” in unusual environments.
Environment and Behavior. 19 (1); 33-52.

Langston, W., Fehrman, C., Anderson, K., & D’Archangel, M. (2018) Comparing
religious and paranormal believers. Peace and Conflict Journal of Peace
Psychology. 24(2): 236-239