Life

How One Playground Horror Story Reached Millions of Children Around the World

We've all heard the myth: say her name in the mirror and Bloody Mary will appear. But where did it come from? And why is it everywhere?
July 15, 2021, 8:15am
How The Legend Of 'Bloody Mary' Became a Global Rite of Passage In Schools
Illustration: Tom Harwood

We all know how it works: say her name repeatedly in the mirror, and Bloody Mary will appear. The exact details might change depending on the time or the place, but those are the basics.

No one at my school in Mumbai knew who Bloody Mary was, or where she came from. A rumour went around that a girl named Mary had died in an accident near our school – but mostly it was just a story kids would frighten each other with. One time, a group of boys pranked someone by dangling their hand over a bathroom stall, claiming it was hers. Another time, someone wrote “I’ll drink your blood” on one of the mirrors and poured a load of red ink in the sink.

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It got so bad – the younger kids were so afraid of using the bathroom – that the principal had to announce that a “Bloody Mary” was just a drink, and nothing to be worried about.

I used to think this phenomenon was exclusive to India’s schools, but it turns out the legend of Bloody Mary is known around the world.

In France, says 19-year-old Margot Pradels, Bloody Mary has a bracelet, and she’ll leave you alone if you manage to take it off her. “One girl in my school said she summoned her in one of the bathrooms, but she couldn’t take the bracelet off of her, so Bloody Mary was still there,” she remembers. “Those bathrooms were always empty after that.”

In Dubai, 23-year-old Zain Fiaz says kids chanting Mary’s name resulted in a huge crack in his school’s bathroom mirror. Alex Groce, 25, who went to school in Denver, USA, says she heard a pounding after her friends did the same in their school bathroom. “My friends came out screaming, claiming it was Bloody Mary,” she says. “I was terrified of that bathroom after that.”

So: who is Bloody Mary, and how did she make such an impression on children around the world?

The bathroom ritual seems to have evolved from mirror divination rituals dating back to the 18th century. As for the figure of Bloody Mary herself, it’s difficult to pin down one single origin. Mary Worth, one of the witches executed in the 1692 Salem Witch trials, is said to be one inspiration. Another is Mary Tudor (Queen Mary I of England), who earned that name after she had 280 Protestants executed for heresy during her five-year reign, from 1553 to 1558.

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This is the Bloody Mary that 22-year-old Liam Skillen heard about at school in the UK’s East Midlands. “I went to a Catholic comprehensive school, and this was a very prominent legend,” he says. “It dates all the way back to the 80s – everyone who went to my school remembers it. You had to [say the name] in a certain lot of toilets downstairs, because they were dark, but I think the ghost was supposed to be an apparition of Queen Mary I.”

Bloody Mary has also cemented herself in pop culture; the 1992 film Candyman is heavily inspired by the urban legend, and you’ll also find her in episodes of popular shows like Supernatural, The X Files and Charmed. Jay Wall, who works at a high school in Luton, just outside London, remembers hearing about Bloody Mary around the same time, “I was in Year 5 or 6,” she says. “I never actually did it, because I was too scared. But Candyman came out then, and it was clearly derived from this.”

“Traditional folklore narratives, especially legends like Bloody Mary, tend to be passed orally among groups,” says Dr Daniel Compora, an associate professor in the department of English Language and Literature at the University of Toledo. “Typically, they tend to share a strong context, like gender, or geographic location. School-aged children are huge purveyors of folklore because of this. When a tale moves from one community to another through word of mouth or a phone call, it becomes a migratory legend. That is why similar legends are present in many different places.”

Rhiannon Bevan, a 22-year-old journalist from the UK, says the rumour in her Ipswich high school was that if you said Bloody Mary’s name in the mirror, she would kill you. Interestingly, her mother went to the same high school back in 1987, and heard a different version.

“My mother’s version is that if you said her name in the mirror on Halloween, you’d see the face of your future husband. My younger sister is now going to the same school – however she’s yet to hear any rumours,” she says.

Mind you, it seems there’s still gas in the myth’s tank. “My eight-year-old came home from school the other day and told me one of her mates had dared her to say ‘Bloody Mary’ in the mirror,” says Jay. “I couldn’t believe it was still a thing. Some urban legends really have staying power, I guess.”