Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bloody Mary: The Last Word

If I receive any new stories about our favorite lady in the mirror, I may post them. But we're going to wrap up our series on Bloody Mary (Christmas is coming! And with it, some truly awful things).

We'll end as we began, with the first clip we saw (here), from a group called Grinning Man Pictures (their Youtube page). This short film seemed so cool I wanted to talk to the people behind it, a pair of writers named Daniel Ast and John Thursby. I fired off a series of questions about the concept of the clip, their history with Bloody Mary, and what makes for real horror. Turns out, they've invented a unique and somewhat mysterious myth behind Mary for their project, and they agree with Marge Simpson that there's plenty of horror around the house.

Is this clip is part of a bigger project? What is it?
John: It's a feature-length Bloody Mary script. It's a supernatural slasher about a group of friends who summon Bloody Mary as kids, and nothing happens. But what they don't know is that they're "marked" when they summon her, and she's waiting, and years later she's going to come for all of them at once.
Dan: As John said, it is a feature-length Bloody Mary script that plays very directly with the myth as we all know it. What if Bloody Mary didn't come after you immediately, but years later, long after you'd forgotten about the ritual? What if the only reason she never came after you at all was because you were lucky enough to use the wrong variation of the ritual? Or what if you got it right and your time is almost up? We liked the concept because most people we know have done the 'Bloody Mary' ritual at some point in their childhood. It's a fear and experience everyone can relate to.

When did you first hear of the Bloody Mary myth? Did you ever play the game?
John: Sometime in elementary school. I can't remember when, for sure, but I heard some kids at school talking about Bloody Mary, and was gripped by that same thrill-seeking fear that draws everyone to it. I tried it the first time alone -- said "Bloody Mary" three times in a pitch-dark bathroom. Nothing happened, but I was genuinely terrified, and relieved by the let-down. I scare easy. The next time was at a friend's birthday party. I think there were four of us. We did the same summoning by candlelight. Nobody made a big effort to scare anybody else, but a couple of us claimed that we saw something. A face in the mirror, something moving, whatever. Anything to try and justify the very silly thing we'd just done.
Dan: I remember at some point in my childhood I had a brief fascination with Bloody Mary and wanted to know everything I could about her. This was a few years before the Internet was common in every household, so all I could do was ask friends what they'd heard and it was always interesting because every story was different. Her name was Mary. Her name wasn't Mary. She was a killer. She was a victim. She killed herself. She was evil. She wasn't. So on and so forth. I did try the ritual once with some friends, but nothing really happened and we probably left that bathroom a little disappointed... or relieved.

What were the "rules" of the Bloody Mary legend, as you heard it?
John: The way I heard it, you were supposed to go in front of a mirror, either in total darkness or with a candle lit (heard it two ways), and say "Bloody Mary" three times. That was consistent -- Three times, with no other chanting or ritual. She was supposed to appear in the mirror, then reach out and scratch your face. The fact that I tried this by myself with a possible mauling being the only promised reward still mystifies me. Kids are dumb.
Dan: I remember it going something like 'Light a candle, say her name three times, close your eyes for several seconds, spin around' etc. I get the feeling the idea was to disorient you enough that you would jump at your own reflection in the mirror and think that you'd seen Bloody Mary. I don't remember the specifics of the version we tried, but there were even more things I'd heard that we didn't: "Bang the toilet seat up and town three times. Flush the toilet." Now that I think about it, we just excised the toilet parts.

Tell me about the "chant" the woman recites in the clip?
John: Well, that's actually a big part of the plot of the script. We wanted to play with the idea that this Bloody Mary kids have been trying to summon for so long is real, and can kill you, and that the only reason all these kids are alive is that they've been doing it wrong. We created a whole mythology for our version of the character, and it hinges on this particular chant, and also briefly explains how it may have been misinterpreted and mistranslated to become the simple and ineffective name summoning that kids commonly do. We don't want to give everything away, but let's just say that Mary's true identity, and the event that will unleash her on those who summon her correctly, are all hinted at in the chant.
Dan: Yeah, what John said. Wish we could reveal more because the mythology of the script and how the chant ties into it would be a fun conversation to have with Bloody Mary enthusiasts, but we can't reveal it at this point.

Why is Bloody Mary so intrinsically terrifying?
John:
I think she's a great introduction to horror and thrill games. Kids do it to freak each other out, and to prove they're not too afraid to do it. Even if you don't believe anything will happen, actively attempting to summon a malevolent spirit that only wants to hurt you is completely counter intuitive. But kids do it, because it's just simply fun. A quick little adrenaline game. But what makes it so intrinsically terrifying to me, and such a great idea for a movie, is the fact that so many people actually did this when they were younger. You can play with the "what if it WAS real" idea -- one reason we decided to have there be a long time delay on the curse. To make the audience think about that -- what if that thing I did as a goof years ago was actually dangerous? What if I was playing around with a force I can't understand? What if she's been waiting to get me ever since? It's all about revisiting a classic fear, a classic spook story, and looking at it in a new way.
Dan: As John said, it's a great introduction horror and thrill games and I think it resonates because it's one of the first urban legends kids learn. She's right up there with the 'Hook man that escapes from the asylum' or 'The calls are coming from inside the house!' Mary's a gateway to the macabre for kids right at the age when they're not so interested in being protected and sheltered. They're becoming adventurous and look to find the unknown in their own home. And because Mary is often one of their first ventures into this dark world, it stays with them. Also, the ritual itself plays very directly on fear of the dark and fear of the unknown, which is the basis for most horror stories.

What is your philosophy about horror? What gives people a good scare?
John: Well, like I said I scare pretty easy. It's not hard for a horror movie to freak me out in the moment with a pretty basic jump-scare, but that's a cheap trick. It has its merits, but it's not the basis of a good horror movie. Suspense is even better. I really am scared of the dark, and when you put a character in a dark place where something awful might be waiting to strike, the wait is always scarier than the actual moment of attack (if it even comes). Then there's the visceral terror of watching something truly awful happen to someone, and I think that's a major distinction between the classic horror and slasher genres. We've tried to evenly weigh both types of horror here, the suspense and the visceral, because there's a lot to be said for the effectiveness of each of them. But on top of it all, the movies that scare me the most are the ones that cause me to associate something in my everyday life with fear. These are the ones that stay with me. Psycho -- I'm truly paranoid in the shower. The Ring -- I really don't like being alone in a darkened room at night with a TV. I really think about these things. And that's another thing that's so great about Bloody Mary. You're going to stand in front of a lot of mirrors in your life. And if a Bloody Mary movie really does its job, you'll be thinking about it for a long time, every time you get up at night and go to the bathroom.
Dan: I agree with John that there is a delicate balance between suspense and visceral terror, which is what we tried to achieve in our clip. I think mainstream horror films have lost their way and audiences and filmmakers are confusing disgust with horror. Torture is not horror, it's just disgusting. Also, traditional slasher films have always embraced the idea of celebrating the 'kill' and following a villain through a series, which I don't find particularly scary. I don't know any of these drunk, high, stupid teenagers Jason is slashing or Myers is stabbing, so I'm not scared for them. I think, personally, horror that works best for me is when I care about the characters and therefore, I'm horrified for them when bad things happen to them. That's a philosophy John and I try to work from, so when the villain does kill a victim, it's horrifying because you weren't rooting for the killer. It runs counter to horror programming, but it's definitely part of our approach.

1 comment:

  1. I was five years old in 1968 (several years before the oldest attested versions of the legend/ritual). One day I was pestering my older sisters who were playing with some friends in our garage. It was a bright, sunny day, but the garage was dark and cool, and dust motes danced in the air. There was an old, broken pane of window glass leaning against a box, and a shaft of sunlight coming through the dark struck the glass just so, turning it into a near perfect mirror. One of my sisters' friends said, "Shhh! Look at the glass." She turned to my sister and asked, "Do you believe in Mary Worth?" The events that followed felt like something ancient and terrible, but this must have been right around the beginning of the phenomenon.

    I just discovered your series, and I hope you return to it, "last word" notwithstanding. You might like this article, Myths Over Miami. It connects Bloody Mary to La Llarona (worth a series in her own right) in the context of an emerging cross-cultural folklore among homeless children in Miami, Florida.

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