A Modern Guide to Superstition “Bloody Mary” and Other Things Only Spoken of in the Dark
I try to talk openly about everything that was shrouded in mystery when I was growing up. I try to take the distorted sense of my younger self and change her shape.
This is A Modern Guide to Superstition, a column by Dorothy Bendel on folk belief and ritual in chaotic times.
Cheryl herded us into the bathroom to summon Bloody Mary. Her house was what I considered to be a rich person’s house. It had a second floor and more than one bathroom, and Cheryl had a bedroom all to herself. As we lined up, Cheryl gathered up her long blonde hair, pulled it through a scrunchie, and barked at the taller girls—of which I was one—to move to the back. The mirror in her bathroom was much larger than the one we had at my grandparents’ house, in a single bathroom that seven of us all had to share. I hated mirrors, but at least in Cheryl’s bathroom I could position my body behind the shorter girls to hide my awkwardness, my soft belly and the wiry hair on my arms. The fourth-grade girls posed like they were shooting a spread in Tiger Beat when they saw their reflections: chins up, heads cocked, and coy smiles.
“Okay, listen up,” Cheryl said in her Long Island accent, the one feature we all shared. “Here’s how it’ll go. I’ll turn the light off and count to three. Then, we all say ‘Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, I hate you!’ We say it again and again, louder and louder each time, until we see her. No one is allowed to leave. Got it?” She flicked the light switch. “One . . . two . . . THREE!”
Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, I hate you!
Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, I hate you!
Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, I hate you!
I waited for Bloody Mary to come, but I had no idea what shape she would take or what she would do. As we all stared in the darkened mirror, our eyes adjusting to the dark, our own faces emerged, distorted: taller foreheads, wider shoulders, black empty pools where our eyes should’ve been. My mind mixed up the incantation with a prayer my grandmother had taught me in secret, since my father’s Catholic-school experiences had left him vehemently opposed to the church: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.
Our chanting nearly rose to a scream until one of the girls ran out of the bathroom, quickly followed by all the others. I stayed behind.
Bloody Mary hearkens back to mirror-divination rituals in the nineteenth century. Early iterations suggest that the performer should walk backward up a flight of stairs before looking into the mirror. Some versions insist that the performer should spin around before looking into the mirror to find Mary’s face, while others require blood pricked from a finger before her image is revealed. You might repeat a phrase like “I believe in Bloody Mary” thirteen times at midnight, by either moonlight or candlelight.
Bloody Mary might offer you a peek into your future. She might scratch your eyes out. She might steal your soul. Originally, the purpose of the ritual was to offer the girl performing it a glimpse of her future husband in a mirror. If a girl saw a skull or Death himself, it meant that the girl would die before she had a chance to marry. Mary is said to be the spirit of a witch executed long ago, or the ghost of a woman who died on her wedding night. Sometimes she is linked to stories of murderous queens or a tale of a grieving mother. Most of the stories that purport to be the true origin story are tragic—and still, we are supposed to hate her or fear her.
Other names for Bloody Mary include Hell Mary, Mary Worth, Mary Worthington, Mary Whales, Mary Jane, Mary Lou, Black Agnes, and Svarte Madame (Black Madame).
Other names my father had for me: worthless, pain in the ass, piece of shit.
Maybe I didn’t run out of the bathroom when the other girls did because I wasn’t shocked to see myself take on a monstrous shape. It felt familiar to me, and the idea of opening a portal between the living and dead didn’t scare me off. There was already so much I didn’t understand, and as I moved toward adolescence, my body felt less and less like my own.
When people describe Mary’s visage, her face is covered in blood. Scholars have associated Bloody Mary with the fear of menstruation, of moving from childhood to supposed “womanhood,” although some people get their periods as young as eight or nine. Like Mary, menstruation has many names; the International Women’s Health Coalition conducted a study and identified over five thousand euphemisms for menstruation. You might refer to a period as the red curse, the crimson tide, code red, the visitor, Aunt Flo, or Bloody Mary.
When I think back to that girl in the bathroom, a part of me wants her to smash the mirror. I want to release her from years of shame.
On my thirteenth birthday, only a few years after attempting to summon Bloody Mary at Cheryl’s party, I got my first period. I didn’t want to tell anyone, but I had to ask my grandmother for a pad. I asked her to keep the secret of my period between us, but when I entered the kitchen, where the rest of my family sat around my birthday cake, I could see my father trying to hold back laughter. The secret was out, in ten minutes flat.
I already had a distorted view of myself, and now menstruation became another part of me wrapped up in secrecy and shame, another part of me to be laughed at. We didn’t learn much about it in school, except that it was coming for approximately half of us. The boys went to another classroom while the girls watched a short cartoon about a girl with a transparent body, so we could see the animated menstrual process unfold. The blood passed quickly through her simply drawn uterus and vagina, and then the lights went on and the lesson was over. No time was allotted for questions. Like the Bloody Mary ritual, for us, menstruation was only spoken of in the dark.
Every generation carries legends forward from the generation before, reinventing them. Bloody Mary endures because the changes we experience growing up will always cause some anxiety—just how much anxiety is another story. When my son tells me about the lessons he’s been learning in his biology class—about sexual health, the menstrual cycle, consent—which every student of every gender learns together, I feel hopeful that kids might now be moving into adolescence with less fear and shame than I did. I try to talk openly with my kids about everything that was shrouded in mystery when I was growing up. I try to take the distorted sense of my younger self, now that I am grown, and change her shape.
I’ve learned that neuroscience can explain the phenomena of the monstrous shapes I saw in the mirror that night at Cheryl’s. When we focus on our faces in low-lit mirrors, our brains react to the stimuli by disregarding some information and selecting other information as relevant, which results in a blurred or distorted image. When I learned this, I thought of how it took decades for me to begin seeing myself as I am, not as the monstrous names I was called as a child. At times, I still catch myself warping what I see and hearing my father’s words. I still have to force myself to choose what’s real.
I finally left the bathroom that night at Cheryl’s sleepover when my friend Priscilla begged me to come out and I could tell that my reluctance to do so scared her more than whatever she saw in the mirror. Legend says that if Bloody Mary comes for you, it may be too late to be rescued. If you break the mirror when she appears, you might release her into the world, where she can’t be contained. When I think back to that girl alone in the bathroom, a part of me wants her to smash the mirror. I want her to set Bloody Mary loose so the world can hear her wailing and feel her pain. I want to release her from years and years of shame.