A year ago on my blog, I began a series called “My First Fright” which sought to examine the things that scare us most when we’re children, to re-situate us in those moments when we first encountered feelings of fear. Upon consideration, it has occurred to me that a first fright, or a first confrontation with the feeling of fear, can be, and often is, much different than a first encounter with something – a story, experience, movie, and so forth – that may typically be considered part of the horror genre. While I may have experienced fear listening to the dreaded chipmunk song or watching Large Marge’s face contort during Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, those horrifying moments were far different than early moments I faced that constituted my first encounter with horror. And while I can’t decide, with certainty, what qualifies a work or a story for membership in the horror pantheon, and what my definitive first-horror moment is, I very much recall hearing the story of the formidable Bloody Mary, the violent mirror witch-ghost, for the first time. To that end, I’ll delight in re-living my first encounters with the Bloody Mary myth, and how she partially initiated me into the genre during my early years of childhood.
I always associate my introduction to the Bloody Mary myth with my vivacious next door neighbor, Martha, whose name I’m changing as I have in previous posts, but who was a close friend in early childhood. Martha, as I’ve indicated – also a next-door neighbor – knew exactly how to scare me when we’d watch Pee Wee’s Big Adventure together. But she – or, perhaps, her brothers – also terrified me when she, or they, first told me the myth of Bloody Mary. Without going into detail, I’ve realized, as an adult, that the presence of horror often indicates, to me, the (oddly) comforting existence of a magical other-world, an other-world that should perhaps be grotesque and terrible but isn’t; it is, rather, a world of make-believe and play. And the presence of this horrific other-world has, I should mention, an unexpected effect; it simultaneously, to me, illuminates this world, makes it look a little more radiant, exciting, inviting. So it is perhaps rather ironic that the gatekeeper, the sort of Joseph Campbell-esque threshold guardian into this imagined terrain of play, make-believe, and intrigue was a terrifying mirror witch who made me afraid to go to the bathroom at night, but so it is. Bloody Mary was, at least, one of my gatekeepers into the world of horror.
Probably, you’ve heard the myth before, and I’m sure there are multifarious versions of it. My memory recalls a whimsical young girl – the aforementioned friend, Martha – sort of lilting about on the hill between our houses, smiling and laughing almost mischievously around sun down, passing down, to me, the unnerving legend that her older brothers had passed down to her. According to the lore, you had to enter the bathroom, close the door, turn off the lights, and chant the name “Bloody Mary” three times into the mirror before seeing her ghost reflected back at you. The mild version of the myth posited that the otherwise-elusive Bloody Mary would emerge from the mirror with her claws and leave scratches on your back. The more merciless myth, and of course, the one that intrigued and petrified me, argued that if you saw Bloody Mary in the mirror, you may as well say goodbye to this cruel world, because she’d kill you upon looking at you. Whichever version I believed, from that point forward, I always stuck my hand inside the bathroom door before entering so I could turn on the light before walking in the bathroom. And, to this day, I’m not sure how much someone would have to pay me to say Bloody Mary’s name three times in the mirror. She was the first sort of monster – elusive, faceless as she was – that gathered a whole host of horrifying possibilities and associations around her verbal name, her signifier – although what her name signified, what she actually looked like, was only fodder for my imagination. But, having no concrete picture of Bloody Mary off which to operate made her, perhaps, all the more frightening. From childhood I always imagined her a pale woman with jet black hair wearing a wedding dress. She had a callous face drenched in blood and, as mentioned before, the sinewy claws that would scratch you relentlessly, and perhaps scratch you to death. In any case, she would appear suddenly, say nothing, and kill you quickly, or so a combination of the legend and my imagination suggested.
The absent Bloody Mary – for indeed, I never did see her, and I always had to concoct a picture of her in my mind – is an interesting sort of contact point into a world of horror that I came to delight in – through imaginary play, in the forms of ghost-hunting and seances, long before watching traditional horror films. And she intrigues me precisely because she was so scary, both in her absence and in her very unceasing, perpetual possibility. After all, as human beings, we all need to go to the bathroom, so the possibility of encountering her malicious countenance in the mirror, while, technically unlikely, was a pervasive, often-imminent danger. I’m not sure how I fell in love with an imaginary world of ghost and witches, having been told a story that mortified me so intensely at such a young age, but so I did, and I suppose, on all counts, I’ve sort of never gone back.
What also interests me about Bloody Mary – and what I think is important to examine, to acknowledge, when discussing horror – is at least the scintilla of inherent belief that lies at the base of someone’s envisioning of the monster, the so-called horror entity, an acceptance of the entity’s existence, or at least the possibility of the entity’s existence. You see, I’ve always been a bit ambivalent, even slightly doubtful, about the existence of ghosts, but the fact that I’d never utter Bloody Mary’s name in a dark bathroom while facing a mirror – or, perhaps, I’d never utter her name three times at all – the fact that I wouldn’t say her name three times as a child and still won’t say her name three times as an adult, indicates a critical point: even in her perpetual absence, I must still, on some level, believe in her possibility. For if I did not, why wouldn’t I croon her name into the mirror, just for sport? This is perhaps the fundamental point of her intrigue; if horror has always been, for me, an imagined world that radiated and illuminated the world I lived in, that made all my surroundings seem fresher, more exciting, and more promising, then my imaginary horror-world (one that, again, wasn’t filled, mostly, with massacre and killings and the like, but with ghosts and remnants and witches and traces of things gone by) had to be real enough to partially seep into the so-called real world, as I understood it. And for that to happen, the threshold guardians, the sort of gatekeepers of my horror world had to seem possible to me. On some level, I had to – and, whether shockingly or not, still have to – believe that they can conceivably exist. And that is perhaps why Bloody Mary appealed to me so much; this macabre, inverted fairy tale wasn’t just a fairy tale. In a sense, she could never be proven or disproven; even if one did say her name in front of a mirror, really the act and its effects might prove (or disprove) very little. And this fact made the evil mirror-witch all the more alluring.
I think, from an analytic standpoint, there is much more one could say about the imagined, absent monster, Bloody Mary. Why the name? How do others envision her? Why a witch? Why a mirror? What makes mirrors so terrifying to us, as human beings, and did mirrors become frightening because of tales like these, or did tales like these tales emerge because of some inherent fear of the sort of Lacanian phenomenon of looking at a visual representation of ourselves and recognizing the “self” as a person separate from, but surrounded by, other human beings. I do not know. I am not sure, in other words, why mirrors are so scary. What I can tell you is that sometimes I still hate going to the bathroom at night. Extant childhood trepidations aside, however, I am rather grateful for my early encounter with this violent mirror ghost. If, indeed, she marked my entrance into an imaginary play world of horror, she marked my entrance into quite a source for fun and imagination, and quasi-escape. To that end, I can’t complain.