The ghost story
The malevolent spirit called up by the Bloody Mary ritual is always said to be a female in particular, a female whose face was disfigured as the result of a violent death, usually in an automobile accident. Often, as in the second "Bloody Mary" variant reproduced above, she is said to have been a very beautiful woman in life who was proud of her beauty to the point of self-obsession (hence her ghostly ire at being summoned to appear in a mirror). In some variants she is said to have been a hitchhiker whose spirit has also been seen haunting roadsides and being picked up by unsuspecting drivers before vanishing inexplicably (cf. "The Vanishing Hitchhiker"). In other tellings the character is reminiscent of La Llorona, the "Weeping Woman" of Hispanic folklore who is said to have killed her own children and wanders eternally in penance.
In most versions there is no evident connection between the Bloody Mary whose ghost haunts bathroom mirrors and the historical figure of the same name (though exceptions have been recorded). Her name just happens to be Mary, and she's bloody because she died in a terrible accident.
Likewise, there is no apparent connection between the Mary Worth of the legend and the Mary Worth of comic strip fame. Essentially a soap opera about the hardships of family life, the comic strip holds up its prim and proper protagonist as the ideal of American motherhood a far cry from the menacing hag blamed for so many pajama party freak-outs.
Some folklorists, notably Alan Dundes in his essay "Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety," see the Bloody Mary game as analogous to coming-of-age rituals in non-western cultures. The age and gender of the participants (young girls about to enter puberty), references to blood in the legend (e.g. the title, "Bloody Mary," and anecdotal reports of participants being scratched or clawed by the apparition, drawing blood), and the fact that the ritual itself takes place in a bathroom all suggest a conceptual link with the onset of menstruation. Bloody Mary is an "anticipatory ritual," says Dundes, "essentially warning girls of what to expect upon attaining puberty." Performing it "evokes feelings of excitement on the part of participants, excitement tinged with fear and apprehension as well."
Bloody Mary in popular culture
Like so many horror legends and traditional ghost stories, "Bloody Mary" has proven a natural for adaptation into popular novels, stories, comic books, movies, and even dolls. Released straight to DVD in 2005, Urban Legends: Bloody Mary was the third film in the execrable series that commenced with Urban Legend in 1998. As you might expect, the plot takes great liberties with the traditional tale.
More notably, horror writer Clive Barker essentially constructed a pseudo-urban legend by appropriating the chanting ritual for a 1992 film entitled Candyman. Various characters in the film summon the ghost of a black slave brutally lynched in the 1800s by repeating the name "Candyman" five times in front of a mirror. Some viewers come away with the misapprehension that Candyman was based on actual folklore, but apart from the borrowed incantation it was mostly a product of Barker's fertile imagination.
A Bloody Mary Plush Toy available for purchase on the Internet boasts the following "product features":
- Black hair
- Red blood on face and hands
- Terror of beauty lost
Alas, a mirror is not included.