It goes without saying that the legend of Bloody Mary has spawned innumerable retellings as horror movies, most of them awful.
Ah…who hasn’t heard the legend of Bloody Mary? Or, rather, a legend of Bloody Mary as there are several variants of the story and the ritual alleged to summon the vengeful spirit. The most common variant holds that Mary Worth lived in Puritan New England, where she had the nerve to become pregnant out of wedlock and, gasp, not be ashamed of it. She also continued to indulge in her lustful ways throughout her pregnancy. The Puritan mind, apparently, could not fathom that one of their number could be so sinful and they thus declared her a witch (funny that her lovers did not receive such a sanction. The double standard goes way, way back).
When the baby was born, the terrified villagers took it from its mother’s arms and burned it alive before tying Mary Worth to a stake and scratching her face with branches. One woman held a hand mirror in front of poor Mary Worth’s face, taunting that her once legendary beauty was now gone. Finally, the villagers lit the stacked branches. When the flames began to lick at Mary Worth’s legs, she screamed a curse at her tormentors. When Worth died, the hand mirror shattered, cutting the taunting woman’s hand. Later, the woman was found dead due to illness. Several other villagers who participated in Mary Worth’s murder met similar fates, all found dead near shattered mirrors.
Now, the story goes that if you chant Bloody Mary anywhere from five to fourteen times in front of a mirror in a dark room, the spirit of Mary Worth will appear and do one of several things. If she feels you are taunting her, she’ll claw your eyes out or drag you into the mirror, never to be seen again. Other versions of the story say that Mary will allow you to talk to a dead relative if you ask nicely.
A wood cut depicting a witch burning. I don’t know about you guys, but pictures like this make me glad I live in the Twenty-First Century.
The story of Mary Worth’s execution is dubious at best. The smoking gun, in my mind, is the method of execution. Burning a witch was outlawed in England by the time the Puritans came to North America. Generally, the Puritans emulated English common law so they would not have burned a person accused of witchcraft. Instead, the prescribed method of execution for a witch was hanging. Afterward, the body would either be burnt or buried in a shallow grave. As evidence, I cite the Salem Witch Trials; no accused witch was burned at the stake during those proceedings. In fact, all the executions that resulted save for one were hangings; the lone non-hanging saw a man be crushed to death under heavy rocks when he would not confess to being a witch.
That’s the nature of the beast when it comes to urban legends; at best, they’re half remembered fragments of tales passed through the collective grape vine over decades, if not centuries. Naturally, the facts are going to be a bit skewed, if there was any factual basis to start with.
While the historical basis for this legend might be a bit murky, one of the phenomena underlying it is indeed based in fact. There is a good reason why the ritual to summon Bloody Mary’s vengeful spirit has to be performed in front of a mirror under low light conditions; those are the best conditions to induce a phenomenon called Troxler’s Fading (aka the Troxler Effect).
You see, your brain is pretty busy, what with all the various stimuli bombarding it at any given moment. So, now and then it will take a shortcut. Notice how you generally don’t feel your clothes against your skin (until some blogger comes and calls your attention to it, at any rate). The stimulus doesn’t vary, so your brain feels pretty safe in ignoring it.
A similar thing occurs with your vision. If you stare at a fixed point for about twenty seconds or so, your peripheral vision essentially shuts off and your brain begins filling in details. A perfect example is the picture to the right: stare at the red dot for about twenty seconds and the blue circle will disappear.
Scientists believe something similar is happening when you stare at a mirror in a darkened room. However, since there is no fixed point of reference, the Troxler Effect is incomplete; only parts of your face fade out. Your brain will fill in these faded spots with about anything. For example, sometimes an eye will appear on your forehead or a nose where an eye ought to be.
In studies, volunteers asked to stare at a mirror under low light conditions for ten minutes all saw odd things. The bulk saw monstrous or inhuman faces, many saw their own faces deformed, and a smaller minority saw faces of dead relatives or archetypal faces such as an old woman or a child.
It’s interesting that every volunteer saw something. It’s easy to see how the legend of Bloody Mary took off then; groups of sugar-addled preteens piled into dark rooms, all aware of the story and all feeding off each others nervous energy would be bound to see what they were looking for.
So, what we have here is an urban legend with some basis in human sensory perception. Being a science major, when I discovered the Troxler Effect I had to try it. So, last night, I made four attempts with four separate results. Now I must qualify that I did not stare at myself for ten minutes like the folks in the study did; instead, I only looked for maybe a minute each time. Also, I used my cell phone back-light to achieve the needed low light effect since I didn’t have any candles handy.
When I did the experiment in full light, it appeared as if my face floated loose from my head. In the first of my three low light trials, my face deformed–my nose became huge and lumpy, like a potato. In the second trial, my face took on the appearance of a gargoyle and in the third I looked like Captain Howdy from The Exorcist.
Strange indeed. Is it any wonder then why so many folks are afraid of what they see in the mirror, then? Look too long, and you just might see something monstrous staring back at you!
Have you tried the Bloody Mary ritual? What did you see if you did?