Bloody Mary and The Truth Behind the Woman in the Mirror
Breanna Lucci dives into the elusive history behind the legend of Bloody Mary and the game that still terrifies children.
What is childhood without a few good old-fashioned scary stories? Stories are told in secret, away from the prying eyes and ears of adults. When I was a child, my friends and I would whisper these stories to each other between bus seats, while exchanging food over the lunch table, or while waiting in the forever-expanding line to the bathroom.
There is one story told by children far and wide. It was a game we’d play to scare each other. Each time it was told, there was a looming shadow of terror behind the storyteller’s eyes. They would whisper the name “Bloody Mary” as if they were afraid she would hear her name and suddenly appear.
When I told the chilling tale, I would say: "There is a woman that lives in the mirror. Something terrible happened to her, something unspeakable." I’d pause for dramatic effect as my peers rummaged through their minds for all the possibilities. "At midnight, if you go into your bathroom with all of the lights off, stand in front of the mirror, and say her name three times, she will appear. But be careful because she will never leave your mirror once you do that. She will haunt you forever!" They would stand there, mouths agape, the blood rushing from their faces, before inevitably asking, "What is her name?" I would pause for a moment before whispering, "Bloody Mary." Cue the anxious gulps and the shifting of little feet.
"Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary!"
The story scared me, too, but it was also thrilling. Admittedly, I spent my fair share of sleepovers forcing my terrified friends into the bathroom to see if we could summon Mary. We never actually saw her, just our dark silhouettes staring back at us in the mirror. It was enough to freak us out.
Who is Bloody Mary? She can’t have just appeared, this urban legend has been passed through time from one frightened child to the next. Bloody Mary originated from the infamous Queen Mary Tudor of England that ruled during the 1600s. Meilan Solly writes in "The Myth of Bloody Mary", that Mary was subjected to "sexism, a shifting national identity, and good old-fashioned propaganda, all of which coalesced to create the image of an unchecked tyrant that endures today."
Born February 18, 1516, Mary Tudor was the living child of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry, frustrated by the lack of a male heir, declared his marriage to Catherine null in 1533. The separation of their union effectively declared Mary illegitimate, and when her father married Anne Boleyn, Mary became a lady-in-waiting to her half-sister, Elizabeth I. Mary fought hard to become Queen of England, and once in power, she revealed her intent to reinstate Catholicism as the true religion. This is where the legend of Bloody Mary begins. Solly notes that Mary’s claim to her Bloody fame was because “she ordered 280 Protestants burned at the stake as heretics.”
Burning at the stake was a common practice for crimes against the crown, therefore it’s impossible not to take notice of the historical disparities.
In her article, "What Inspired Queen 'Bloody' Mary's Gruesome Nickname?", Una Mcilvenna writes that Mary’s punishment of choice was a common practice for the time. "All over Europe, the punishment for heresy was not only death but also the total destruction of the heretic’s corpse to prevent the use of their body parts for relics." Essentially, heretics were burned at the stake, and "their ashes were thrown into the river."
Why was Mary Tudor singled out as such a terrible tyrant if the practice was common? According to Solly, propaganda had a lot to do with it, while Mcilvenna references John Foxe and his book The Actes and Monuments (1563). Also known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, it details "each and every martyr who died for his or her faith under the Catholic Church." The book includes "highly detailed woodcuts depicting the gruesome torture and burning of Protestant martyrs, surrounded by flames. In the first edition, 30 of the 57 illustrations depict the executions under Mary’s reign." How could you not feel their pain when every detail of someone’s death is presented to you? This was Foxe’s successful argument. Foxe and the media worked fervently to crucify Mary and damage her reputation.
Burning at the stake was a common practice for crimes against the crown, therefore it’s impossible not to take notice of the historical disparities. Foxe’s argument was sexist. Mary was not just a woman in power—she was the very first ‘Queen Regnant’—a queen who ruled the country as its primary monarch. In other words, Mary Tudor was the first woman to rule as an absolute leader. In a patriarchal society, when men and women were forced to conform to narrow stereotypes, Mary’s bloody rein must have appeared gruesome. It was a common belief that women were weak. Therefore, Mary was likely seen as an aggressive anomaly. Men are considered naturally violent, so when a man in power sentences someone to burn at the stake, that person must have deserved it, right? We all know that gender roles in society have never been fair and balanced.
However, exercising her rights as a powerful leader wasn’t enough for Mary, and as the first woman in regimented power, she wed Philip II of Spain in 1545, crowning him the joint sovereign of England until Mary’s death in 1558. As Solly argued, “Mary’s gender played a pivotal role in the formation of her image.” They wrote, "Most experts agree that the Spanish marriage had an adverse effect on Mary’s reputation, painting her, however unfairly, as an infatuated, weak-willed woman who placed earthly love ahead of the welfare of her country."
I feel it important to note, although it feels obvious, that Mary’s father, Henry VIII, had married and divorced several women during his reign—breaking from the Catholic Church as the first sovereign to dissolve a marriage. While he fielded criticism for it, he was not called “spineless and weak” like Mary was. Mary’s public perception during her reign and marriage clearly highlights societal views on women at the time. "Bloody Mary" is a vicious cultural icon because she was a woman in power who acted like a woman in power. She failed to uphold gender norms and because of that, would be demonized for centuries to come.
"Bloody Mary" is a vicious cultural icon because she was a woman in power who acted like a woman in power.
It's entirely possible that the woman in the mirror that my elementary school friends and I talked about had nothing to do with Mary Tudor. I find it unlikely, but some think that Bloody Mary is a reference to Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, the Hungarian noblewoman and four of her servants were accused of torturing and killing hundreds of girls and women between 1590 and 1610. There were rumors that she "bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her youth". Báthory was imprisoned in her home, the Castle of Csejte, where she later died.
The legend of Bloody Mary may have originated from the story of Mary Worth, a Puritan woman who was tried and executed for witchcraft, like all urban legends, it depends on who tells you the story. Whether Queen Mary I or the woman accused of witchcraft, these Marys were real victims of misogyny. Mary Tudor, who is most consistently brought up in Bloody Mary origin stories was merely a woman born into a brutally patriarchal society.
While I don’t condone her actions, I understand how they were met with considerably more hostility than similar actions from her male counterparts. While I will not be repeating "Bloody Mary" in front of my mirror anytime soon, the story of how society repeatedly demonizes women will stay with me. I think it’s important these stories be told from new perspectives.
Breanna Lucci is an Ohio-based freelance writer, columnist, and content editor with a focus on blog writing and film analysis with a particular focus on the horror genre.