Back when I was a little girl, I was at a slumber party and distinctly remember the other girls at the party wanted to play “Bloody Mary“. I am not sure if I had heard of the legend before that moment or if they explained it to me, but I knew I wanted nothing to do with it. Between my Catholic upbringing (don’t tempt the devil), my fear of ghosts, and my general “skitterishness”, there was no way I was going to play it. While everyone else thought it’d be tremendous fun, I was the party pooper. I waited nervously in the bedroom while all the other girls headed to the bathroom. I can’t recall if they “saw” anything in the mirror; I’m sure they excitedly came out of the bathroom to tell me what I missed, but I didn’t care.
To this day, I won’t stare into a mirror in a dark room. My natural inclination has always been not to do it. Even at night, when I have to use the bathroom, I actively avoid looking in the mirror. Am I afraid “Bloody Mary” will reach out and scratch my face? Of course not; I’m just a big scaredy cat. It’s just the way I’m wired, I guess.
Who was/is “Bloody Mary”?
“The Daring Book for Girls” gives a bit of background on the legend of “Bloody Mary”, so I’m using it as my main source for the history, though there are countless versions floating around.
“Bloody Mary” was the moniker given to Queen Mary Tudor of England by her opponents because she had over 300 people burned at the stake for not converting to the Roman Catholic faith, though another link on Wikipedia says it was because she had so many miscarriages.
So of course the “Bloody Mary” in the mirror is the “Bloody Mary” who earned that nickname, right? Not so fast! Some believe it to be Queen Mary Tudor, but others believe “Bloody Mary” is Mary Queen of Scots, who happened to be Mary Tudor’s cousin.
Still, it could be Mary Worth, who was accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials, despite the fact that there is absolutely no record of a Mary Worth from that place and time.
What about this one? Elizabeth Bathory (I know her name is Elizabeth and not Mary, but that’s a minor point) is estimated to have killed over 650 people. It was said that she would drink and bathe in virgins’ blood to keep her youthful appearance. I guess because her nickname was “The Blood Countess”, Elizabeth’s story and nickname crossed with Queen Mary Tudor’s to create one horrifying legend.
Since we can’t end this list of Bloody Marys with an “Elizabeth”, we’ll do one more “Mary” for good measure. Mary was a local girl, she probably went to your high school. Maybe you knew her? She was in an awful car accident and died. When she appears in the mirror, she is horribly disfigured because of the accident.
How to Meet “Bloody Mary” in Person
For those of you who grew up without hearing about “Bloody Mary”, let me explain how to conjure her up (directions via “The Daring Book for Girls“):
Go into the bathroom, or another darkened room with a mirror. Holding a flashlight beneath your chin so that it lights up your face in a ghostly way, close the door and turn off all the lights. Stand in front of the mirror and chant “Bloody Mary” thirteen times to summon the spirit of Bloody Mary. Ideally this should be done alone, but you can take your friends in there with you for moral support…if you get to the thirteenth chant of her name, Bloody Mary will appear in the mirror and either scratch your face, pull you into the mirror with her, or scare you to death…Ultra daring girls can play this game with one crucial variation: turning off the flashlight and summoning Bloody Mary completely in the dark.
Wow, I’d love to hear the statistics on what percentage of children are being pulled into the mirror during slumber parties.
The Science Behind “Bloody Mary”
You read that correctly, there is actual science behind the “Bloody Mary” game. Part of it seems to be caused by what’s known as the “Troxler Effect“. Our brains can only handle so much stimulation, so when forced to focus on a specific thing, it will sort of fade away the areas not being focused on.There are some wonderful examples to trick your brain with here.
Giovanni B. Caputo did an experiment where he put 50 people in a dark room (individually). With a lamp directly behind them, they were asked to gaze into a mirror. Within a minute, people would usually start seeing things and the things they saw were surprising, to say the least:
At the end of a 10 min session of mirror gazing, the participant was asked to write what he or she saw in the mirror. The descriptions differed greatly across individuals and included: (a) huge deformations of one’s own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants); (b) a parent’s face with traits changed (18%), of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased; (c) an unknown person (28%); (d) an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait of an ancestor (28%); (e) an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%); (f) fantastical and monstrous beings (48%).
From a perceptual viewpoint, the strange-face illusion may be explained by disruption of the process of binding of traits (eyes, nose, mouth, etc) into the global Gestalt of face. This long-term viewing of face stimuli of marginal strength may generate a haphazard assembly of face traits that generate deformed faces or scrambled faces. Frequent apparitions of strange faces of known or unknown people support the idea that the illusion involves a high-level mechanism that is specific to global face processing.
Noting that the Troxler Effect causes fading or disappearance of objects in front of us, Caputo realized that it may not be the only reason for these facial distortions caused by what he calls the “strange-face illusion”.
Caputo posits that something called the “multiple faces phenomenon” is seemingly related to the strange-face illusion his study participants experienced. The multiple faces phenomenon is triggered when you use a photograph of a familiar face and stare at it, following certain criteria. Below is an experiment on the multiple faces phenomenon via PerceptionWeb.com:
We have observed a new and peculiar phenomenon involving face perception. When a familiar face measuring about 12-14 cm is placed in such a way that its nose coincides with the blind spot, we create the best conditions for observing a series of interpolation events, including the multiple-faces phenomenon. During observation of this phenomenon subjects can report events like a few subtle changes in the facial expressions relative to the printed face as well as events where a countless number of different faces appear in place of the original one. These faces may be recognized or not. We started by informally investigating it with twenty-five mixed-sex subjects with ages extending from 7 to 77 years. Twenty-one (i.e. 84%) of these subjects described the phenomenon. We then proceeded to a more formal experimental setting with twenty-five naive subjects where we used either audio (fourteen subjects) or video (eleven subjects) recording. As we noticed that it is much easier to observe the phenomenon with a face that is very familiar to the subject, we asked each subject to provide a photograph of a familiar face (parents, brothers, sisters, etc). Our method consisted of placing a solid black circle over the nose and marking two fixation spots to either side for viewing at about 25-30 cm (refer to figure 1). The subject was instructed to close one of the eyes and fixate the right or left point (accordingly) and move the face printout forward or backward until the black circle on the nose disappeared. Subjects were asked to describe any changes they were seeing while maintaining steady fixation. The same procedure was used for each eye. Subjects were also told that events could be happening very fast.
Subjects typically describe random disappearance of the nose, either or both eyes, mouth, hair, of either half-face, etc. Increases in the size of the eyes or the mouth are often mentioned. All those events may occur in the absence of the multiple-faces phenomenon. This phenomenon is often preceded by some noticeable emotional expression such as a smile, an exclamation, a laugh, and a reaction of surprise. The time to observe the effect varies widely from subject to subject as well as from trial to trial, and depends on whether the subject has seen the effect before or not. From our twenty-five subjects, eighteen (i.e. 72%) produced accounts consistent with the experience of the multiple-faces phenomenon.
It’s as if the brain recognizes the reflection it sees in the mirror but since it’s skewed by the low light/flashlight, it doesn’t know what to think and so it creates its own version of what it thinks it sees.
Too chicken to try Bloody Mary on your own? It’s surprisingly easy to fool your brain into see weird images, which is probably why this video is one of my favorites because you don’t have to go into a dark room and stare at yourself in a mirror. If you watch it, don’t be too close to your screen when you are viewing it or the effect might not work. Try being a couple of feet away from your screen.
After reading about Caputo’s experiment results I was interested in seeing if I could reproduce the experiment myself. Actually, to be more precise, I was interested in seeing if my daring husband Rob could experience the effect and then tell me about it. Explain the phenomenon all you want but I still don’t want to see freaky stuff in the mirror! So, first he stared at himself in the bathroom mirror for 10 minutes with a dim lamp in the room, imitating the conditions of Caputo’s experiment. He then followed the traditional “Bloody Mary” slumber party recipe above. His description of the experience:
The first experience with the lamp was actually sort of disappointing. My features would fade and reappear, my eyes would look crossed or too large, and when I shifted my gaze a bit my features would distort or shift slightly. It was nothing particularly frightening, more like a boring, eye-watering, staring and waiting sort of experience.
The dim flashlight under my face in the pitch black produced much more interesting visual phenomena. My face was already strange looking due to the novel lighting situation so it didn’t take long for it to become unfamiliar. Eventually I could see it as the face of someone else. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of a sinister, saggy-faced, Palpatinesque old man, and sometimes I would seem to be a caricature of a wide-faced authoritarian with chiseled features. The first time I started to see these illusions I could feel a chill go up my spine, my scalp tighten, and my breath shorten. Now this was exciting! I saw the most drastic changes when I stopped focusing on my eyes or facial features but instead trained my eyes indistinctly towards a deep level of focus, such as when looking at one of those Magic Eye posters which were so popular in the 90’s. When doing this I saw things like an ape-like face with big puckered lips as if in a classic “ooh-ooh” grunt, or a mask of a face with big droopy lips like in that Twilight Zone episode. I speculate that because my mouth was the brightest part of my face that was probably why so many of the phenomenon focused on lips and mouth as primary features. Overall the experience was interesting but admittedly unsettling.
Rob wasn’t the only one to get the chills during the strange-face phenomenon. More from Caputo:
The participants reported that apparition of new faces in the mirror caused sensations of otherness when the new face appeared to be that of another, unknown person or strange ‘other’ looking at him/her from within or beyond the mirror. All fifty participants experienced some form of this dissociative identity effect, at least for some apparition of strange faces and often reported strong emotional responses in these instances. For example, some observers felt that the ‘other’ watched them with an enigmatic expression, a situation that they found astonishing. Some participants saw a malign expression on the ‘other’ face and became anxious. Other participants felt that the ‘other’ was smiling or cheerful, and experienced positive emotions in response. The apparition of deceased parents or of archetypal portraits produced feelings of silent query. Apparition of monstrous beings produced fear or disturbance. Dynamic deformations of new faces (like pulsations or shrinking, smiling or grinding) produced an overall sense of inquietude for things out of control.
I can see how little girls in an already heightened state could be terrified by such phenomenon, so it’s no surprise that the “Bloody Mary” games continue to be a popular slumber party game. I double-dog-dare you to try it yourself!