By Elizabeth Matsushita
I am ten years old and I’m at a sleepover. It’s one of those nights where everyone is trying to scare each other. We’ve probably just watched a bad 1970s horror film that had way too much blood for our fifth-grade eyes. We might have tried to perform a lame séance. Invariably, then, on one of those nights, someone will suggest doing the thing that scares me the most:
“Say ‘Bloody Mary’ three times in a mirror and see what happens.”
My invariable response: NO. EFFING. WAY.
And then I would hide.
It’s funny how the superstition falls away as the years go by. When you’re really young, everything is possible. You’re absolutely full of credulity. Then you become a teenager and you maybe give your mirror the side-eye now and then when you walk by the bathroom in an empty house, but laugh at yourself for doing it. Then you’re an adult and it’s all completely irrelevant. (Note: This may not be true for super superstitious adults.)
The Bloody Mary legend, which claims that by saying the name of the mythical woman in the mirror one can make her appear, can trace its origins back decades, maybe even a century. Though it is not generally thought to have historical origins, many have linked this myth to the actual historical personage of Queen Mary I of England.
Such a link is extremely tenuous, but it raises some interesting questions. How do these stories—or superstitions, or folktales—get birthed? What causes certain people to become not human in our memory, to become more than or less than, to become ghosts?
Mary I, the real person, was the queen of England for five years, from 1553 to 1558. She was part of that famous Tudor family that so often appears in movies and miniseries: dad was Henry VIII, mom was Catherine of Aragon, half-siblings were Edward VI and Elizabeth I. As it was, she did not get along so well with them.
You probably know the story: Henry VIII wanted heirs. Catherine, his first wife, wasn’t having any. (They only had one child, and that was Mary. Girls don’t count!) The Pope wouldn’t let Henry get remarried because divorce is not allowed. Henry broke away from the Catholic Church and started the Church of England. (Greatest reason ever to start a church. Sarcasm.) Henry married Anne Boleyn, and because Henry’s marriage to Catherine was now considered invalid, Mary was newly deemed an “illegitimate” child.
Parental separation, religious differences, being declared illegitimate: a lot to handle for any young woman. Mary seemed not to take it too well, not least because she was now bumped out of the succession lineup.
When her half-brother Edward VI, who succeeded his father Henry, died in 1553, Mary was ready to take the throne, but due to some high-level finagling the practically-non-royal Lady Jane Grey was declared queen instead. She was queen for only nine days, as detailed in an earlier Historical Woman of the Day.
With Jane’s execution, Mary finally was declared queen, and she immediately began showing major Roman Catholic bias. In fact, her nickname, “Bloody Mary,” probably comes from her brutal suppression of Protestants in the kingdom. She threw church leaders in jail, attempted to reverse all of her half-brother’s Protestant-favoring laws, and had lots of Protestants executed by burning.
There’s more stories to tell about Mary: her marriage to Philip of Spain, her false pregnancy, her imprisonment of her half-sister Elizabeth. But I’m interested in the one I started with. The fact that, in some form or other, she became a monster.
Such a development must depend on a lot of factors, like who’s telling the story, and what titillating details can get thrown in. For example, there are variants on the Bloody Mary ritual in which the person must “taunt” the mirror image about her miscarriage, something that may tie back to Queen Mary’s aforementioned false pregnancy.
But even still, what strange acts of fate and agency allow persons to enter into monstrous myth— Mary and Bloody Mary, Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. It’s not that they, personally, don’t deserve the designation. But then, people like Columbus in all his atrocity glory become holidays. History is funny.