The following was originally written for a Candyman (1992) episode.
Toilet, Toilet in the stall….
It can be any time of the day, but you usually do it at night. You go into the bathroom—hot water has to be on—you turn on the hot water full blast—and the bathroom has to have a mirror. Then you flush the toilet and as you’re flushing the toilet, you say, ‘Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary’—three times you say ‘Bloody Mary’ and you turn three times while you’re saying it. And then you look in the mirror and some people say you see Bloody Mary…If you see her, she haunts your house. (Collected in 1995 from a 9-year-old female who learned the custom in second grade) [Part of the Dundes essay linked below.]
I asked one of my classes if they had heard of Bloody Mary. Many of them had, so I asked for details or rules for summoning her. Each person had a different magical sequence for the ritual, and researching the legend delivered even more variations.
If you’re unfamiliar with Bloody Mary, you can read a good explanation from the Encyclopedia of American Folklore. The quote that opens this essay gives one variation to call on Bloody Mary. The basics are that a person goes into a room with a mirror, usually a bathroom. The person lights a certain amount of candles, turns off the lights, closes their eyes or stares into a mirror, and chants an incantation a certain number of fixed times (I’ve seen anywhere from 3 to 100), and then waits for something to happen. That something also varies, but it often involves blood and or the spirit of a woman with some form of the name “Mary.”
I tried this while staying with a group of cousins and their friends. Most sources refer to the feminine nature of the game, but it sounded like fun to me, like an Ouija board or seance or something. I don’t remember the incantation exactly, but I know we referred to the game as “Bloody Mary” and not “Mary Worth.” I think it was just saying “Bloody Mary” three times. I didn’t see anything strange, but the atmosphere was one of ritual and my face in the mirror looked distorted by candle light and the adjustment of my eyes. That was about it. I had been hoping it would be scarier than it was. I guess it’s more about process than product.
“Bloody Mary, show your fright. Show your fright this starry night.”
I didn’t have the time or resources to find what’s considered the first study of Bloody Mary. I tried. It’s called “‘Mary Whales, I Believe in You’: Myth and Ritual Subdued” by Janet Langlois, but I did find some analysis of Langlois in other sources including what’s probably the second-most cited source on the legend: “Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety” by Alan Dundes.
Dundes begins his essay railing about how folklorists, while they may be good about finding and publishing texts, do a terrible job of interpreting said texts, if they even try at all. His essay is a chance for him to look at the few studies, including Langlois’s, that had been done on the Bloody Mary legend and interpret the texts themselves, rather than simply reproduce them.
For Dundes, who doesn’t care for Langlois referring to Bloody Mary as a “game,” this “anticipatory ritual” is a way for young girls to process the excitement, fear, and apprehension that comes with thoughts about the transition from girlhood to womanhood and the oncoming first menstruation cycle. Since there are various forms of blood involved (seeing blood, or even finger pricking, sometimes Mary holds her own head in her hands), the most frequent setting is the bathroom, and many versions use toilet flushing, he believes that Blood Mary is then a North American anticipatory ritual akin to more formal initiation rites into womanhood in other cultures.
From there, Dundes interpretation gets even more Freudian, so if you enjoy psychoanalytic readings of culture and language, then you’ll find the essay interesting. If the Freudian approach makes you uncomfortable or if you begin from incredulity, don’t bother.
“Oh, Harry! If you die down there, you’re welcome to share my toilet!” ~ Moaning Myrtle
Marc Armitage’s “‘All About Mary’: Children’s Use of the Toilet Ghost Story for Dealing with Fear, But Fear of What?” led me to the British version of Bloody Mary. The White Lady, a frequent ghostly figure in England, is said to haunt a bathroom or particular bathroom stall. Sometimes she is “The Grey Lady” or the “The Green Lady.” She is summoned sometimes in exactly the way Bloody Mary is conjured (even by this name) or alternately faucets are turned on or are turned on in a specific order, or one knocks at a stall in a certain pattern or repeated pattern, similar to the chanting in North America.
Armitage, who would have made Dundes proud, though he offers differing perspectives, also provides an interpretation into the use of such stories and rituals. He writes:
A school toilet block can be an eerie place full of echoes and strange sounds; it may also be poorly lit or have the kind of lighting that casts suggestive shadows, both of which contribute to the kind of environment that may result in spooky stories. In the context of the toilet ghost stories, it may also be significant, in terms of creating an effective liminal space, that these are places rarely visited by adults. This effectively creates an environment that easily lends itself to pretence and the imaginary, and which also provides privacy from unbelieving adults and time to experiment and share with other children the sensations that these stories create.
Armitage also connects the stories to the rise of “stranger danger” and the fear of human intruders. One of the last interpretations he offers is that “rather than being a mechanism for dealing with real, malicious and possibly life-threatening situations, they may be more about dealing with irrational fears triggered within children at a particular stage in their development. These stories, therefore, may actually be an outward manifestation of the developing human mind itself.” I’m intrigued, but this line of inquiry doesn’t go much further.
Armitage’s essay is interesting for any number of reasons, but I particularly enjoyed hearing about the Bloody Mary myth/ritual from another culture’s perspective.
“Are you there, Hanako-san? It’s me, Margaret.”
Japan has their own toilet ghost for elementary-aged girls. Hanako-san seems to mostly reside in the third stall from the right on the third floor of a building. If a girl asks for her, she may answer “I’m here.” There may need to be three knocks, three questions, three turns in a circle, etc. before she comes out of the toilet. She seems to be the inspiration for many of the Japanese film ghosts from turn-of-the-century films like Ringu (1998) and Ju-on (2000), but she also has spawned various film and anime characters under her own name.
Marie Mockett’s “The Japanese Toilet Takes A Bow: A Personal History” gives an interpretation of the appearance of Hanako-san in the 1950s. She writes, “While no one seems to be able to pinpoint exactly how she arose, at least one Japanese television news program suggested that Hanako-san’s origins lie in the number of restrooms in Japan’s post-war public schools, which were dirty, old-fashioned, and poorly lit.” Mockett also describes a city in Japan that overhauled school bathrooms with toilets that have heat and lid-lifting sensors. Evidently, the schools’ toilet ghosts left with the old plumbing.
This Friday The Terror Test will be grading Candyman, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, and “The Forbidden.”
I like red peppers and Jan Svankmajer movies.
1. Current Listening: May Day by Silica Gel
2. Current Viewing: "Uncle Yanco" (1967).
3. Current Reading: Ottessa Moshfegh: Death In Her Hands