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Who Was Bloody Mary?

shadowy reflection of a woman in a antique golden mirror

There are many ways to play the urban legend game, Bloody Mary, all of which are variations on the same theme. Shut yourself in a quiet room with a mirror, turn out the lights, fire up a candle or flashlight, and then chant the name “Bloody Mary” a few times while facing the mirror.

What happens next depends on who tells the story. If the game “works,” so to speak, Bloody Mary herself is supposed to appear in the mirror. She might look like a ghost, she might look like a witch, she might look dead, or she might be covered in blood. She might scream at you, curse you, steal your soul, scratch your face, or claw out your eyes. But who is Bloody Mary, exactly? Why is she so angry? What happened to her to raise her ire?

As is often the case with folklore, there isn’t just one answer to the question of who Bloody Mary is. Several options exist, depending on which story version you hear. Here are the most common possibilities.

Historical Royalty

One version of the Bloody Mary legend collected by folklorist Alan Dundes and published in his 1998 article “Mary in the Mirror” describes the summoned specter as “a headless female in a white gown with a bloody knife in one hand and her head in the other.” Dundes posits that the lack of head may point to this version of Mary being an actual historical personage: Mary, Queen of Scots. After a decades-long struggle for power between Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth I of England, Mary was put on trial for plotting to assassinate Elizabeth; she was found guilty and executed by beheading in 1587.

However, Dundes also points out that Mary, Queen of Scots, is not the monarch who would come to bear the nickname Bloody Mary. In reality, the moniker refers to Mary I of England, also known as Mary Tudor. Mary spent much of her reign, which ran from 1553 until she died in 1558, attempting to reverse the English Reformation and restore Catholicism to England. Her methods included the prosecution and execution of more than 300 Protestants, thus earning her the name Bloody Mary. This Bloody Mary may not have lost her head, but she’s sometimes pointed to as the identity of the Bloody Mary of legend all the same.

Witches and Witchcraft

According to several versions of the legend collected by folklorist Janet Langlois in her seminal 1978 article “Mary Whales, I Believe In You,” Bloody Mary is the vengeful spirit of a Puritan woman who was accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. In these versions, Bloody Mary’s real name is identified as Mary Worth or Mary Johnson; she’s said to have been found guilty and subsequently executed by burning.

Of course, issues abound with this theory concerning historical accuracy. For one, while several people named Mary were accused, tried, or executed during the Salem Witch Trials, none of them had any of the surnames given to any version of Bloody Mary. And, for another, those who lost their lives during the Salem Witch Trials weren’t burned; the majority of them were hanged. (Additionally, one was pressed to death, while several more died in jail.) However, the Salem Witch Trials were far from the only witch hunts to have occurred in the world during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so even if this specific historical event did not give rise to Bloody Mary, plenty of others could have.

The Vanishing Hitchhiker

Many other versions of the tale gathered by Langlois depict Bloody Mary as the victim of a traffic collision. In these stories, she’s often referred to as Mary Whales or Mary Worth. She may have been a girl on her way to a dance, she may merely have been standing at a street corner, or she may have been particularly vain. She may have either been in the vehicle, or she may have been a bystander. But no matter what the details may be—whether she is inside a vehicle that veers out of control or is struck by one—she is said to have suffered severe injuries to her face. These versions of the tale, notably, have no historical basis— they’re true urban legends.

Even more interestingly, these legends often contain elements of another well-known urban legend: that of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. Vanishing Hitchhiker stories can be found throughout history and across a variety of cultures. Still, the modern versions tell of drivers who stop to pick up beautiful young women looking for a ride in the dead of night, only to find later on that the young women in question have been dead for several years. In Langlois’ collection of stories, the Vanishing Hitchhiker is Bloody Mary herself, although it’s unclear how we get from point A (the traffic collision) to point B (the mirror game).

A Mourning Mother

One version of the game involves chanting not just the name “Bloody Mary,” but repeating a more specific phrase: “Bloody Mary, I killed your baby!” This, in turn, implies that Bloody Mary may be a mother who lost her child.

Of all the stories surrounding Bloody Mary’s possible identity, this one is the least detailed; indeed, it tends to function more as a seasoning for the other versions of the legend than as a story in its own right.  Per Laura Winter’s 2014 work Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Comparative Examination of a Living Tradition, for example, Mary Worth or Mary Johnson—the woman said to have been burned for witchcraft—is sometimes described as having died while pregnant or even with her child in her arms. Mary Tudor, meanwhile—the real-life Bloody Mary—had no children, but not for lack of want: She wished desperately to have a child, but her only apparent pregnancy turned out to be a false one. She is also believed to have died of uterine or ovarian cancer.

Ultimately, who Bloody Mary is depends mostly on your own beliefs. She may be nothing more than a fictional boogeyman—but even so, you might want to be careful before you try to summon her. You never know if it might actually work.

Lucia Peters Lucia Peters
Lucia Peters is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared at Bustle, The Toast, Crushable, The Gloss, and others. She also writes and manages The Ghost In My Machine, where she haunts readers several times weekly with spooky stories of the strange and unusual. Her first book, Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, was published by Chronicle Books in September of 2019. Read Full Bio »