Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"...Like a Satanic double of the Virgin Mary"

That's how Chad Helder describes his image of Bloody Mary. Over at his blog, Unspeakable Horror!, he has an excellent description of his brother's encounter with "the infamous mirror witch." The ritual he describes -- standing in front of a bathroom mirror, chanting the name 13 times with eyes closed -- is a classic. But it's interesting that Helder connects the creature with the other famous Mary, the one in the manger with Joseph and Jesus. And according to the late Alan Dundes, an internationally renowned folklorist, it's not an accident.

In the Spring 1998 issue of Western Folklore, Dundes wrote a fascinating article about the ritual. According to Dundes, because this game might be some kind of "anticipatory ritual" to mark the fear and excitement that occur when girls begin menstruating. Sorry to put it this way, but Bloody Mary is really Aunt Flo.

Dundes points to several signs:

1. Although boys do play the game, it's usually played by girls on the cusp of puberty.
2. It's often played in the bathroom.
3. The blood, of course, which combined with the use of the mirror might reflect anxiety about one's appearance. Some versions of the legend say there is a danger of receiving a scratch and coming out of the bathroom showing blood.
4. Some versions of the game involve looking into the water of the toilet, flushing the toilet, or the water itself turning red.
5. Dundes collected euphemisms for menstruation, which actually included the term "Bloody Mary."

But why Mary? According to Dundes, all the versions of the lady's name -- Hell Mary, Bloody Mary, Mary Worth -- contained that name. He thinks it could be connected to two reasons:

There could be an allusion to the Virgin Mary here-the ritual does occur frequently in Catholic elementary schools. Virginity is still an issue for young girls, especially when the risk of pregnancy is understood as a concomitant feature of pubescence. In addition, the vowel in the name "Mary" as pronounced in some American dialects of English is the same vowel as in the verb "marry." Part of the culturally defined transition from girlhood to womanhood entails the expectation that one day marriage might occur.

He goes further, getting a little freaky in the process. A reason that Bloody Mary often appears headless could be to refer to "the loss of a "maiden head" as a symbol of lost virginity..." I don't know if I buy that. But Helder's blog and the article by Dundes are both fascinating reads, and a testament to the depth and complexity of this little party game.

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