The Science Behind 'Bloody Mary'

By | 14:58 7 comments
Mary Tudor
Bloody Mary has been an urban legend for as long as teens enjoy terrifying one another. 

The story goes that if you go in a dark room, look at yourself in the mirror, and chant he name a set number of times, the murderous ghost will be summoned in the mirror and - in some cases - will even mark you for death.
It's uncertain where the name comes from - does it reference the Tudor Mary I, or another murderous woman? - but in the end that matters far less than the power of the legend itself as, when kids look at the mirror,often they will see a strange apparition...

So what or who is Bloody Mary?

Thankfully for all traumatised teens, Bloody Mary can be explained by science and it reveals a fascinating insight to how our brain functions and how we, as humans, try to organise our sense of self. In the end, its nothing more than our brains mistranslating the information of our eyes.

How to 'summon' Bloody Mary

Either do this yourself or, if you're feeling rather wicked, ask your friend to stand around half a metre in front of a mirror. Makes sure that a dim light  (eg a candle) is directly behind them and turn off all other lights.

The key to the bloody Mary illusion is focus, which is often why 'Bloody Mary' is said to work when her name is chanted repeatedly. Get your friend to stare at their own reflection in the darkness and, given enough time, they will start to experience the spooky illusion. According to Giovanni Caputo in his article 'Strange-face-in-the-mirror-illusion' for Perception magazine, around 70% of people will see their face as becoming horribly distorted, to the point where they may look older or even that it is the face of another person with dark holes for eyes and mouths. It's no wonder that the urban legend of the ghost or demon of Bloody Mary was created to explain this creepy phenomenon!

Bloody Mary by theDURRRRIAN
Giovanni described the reason behind this as being due to how your brain pieces your face together. Our sight is not a continuum of one stable 'photo', but instead they move around constantly, picking up pieces of information which our mind then pieces together and stabilises. If we saw the world as we truly perceive it, then we would be beset by horrible motion sickness and an overload of sensory information, so the mind instead creates a relatively stable patchwork quilt of images that we perceive as fluid reality. However sometimes this process can be disrupted or distorted when something causes our mind to function a little less efficiently. In this case, the dimness of the light (or the flickering of a candle), combined with the focus and sense of creeping dread that staring at our own reflection produces, disrupts our own perception of ourselves, what we look like, and how our face is patched together into one image. And so 'Bloody Mary' is born in the surreal image that our confused brain creates.

Things can get even creepier when  this is combined with neurological conditions such as 'mirror misidentification'. It is unlikely that you have this condition, of course, but occasionally it can appear in lesser forms. TH - a 77 year old Australian man - suffered from the neurological condition quite acutely, despite otherwise being healthy. Whenever he would look in a mirror he described the man looking back at him as a 'dead ringer' for himself, but not himself. Unsettled, TH explained this by assuming that the man was a neighbour in his apartment complex, when in fact his brain was simply missing a process in connecting his sense of self with the image in front of him, despite his reflection being exactly the same as it should have been. Similar psychological processes can be seen to explain phenomenon such as out of body experiences, for example. Perfectly healthy people can often experience a form of dissociative identity disorder, often in periods of high stress.

If you're feeling in a spooky mood and like me, despite all scientific know-how, you're STILL too chicken to try this yourself, then why not check out the Supernatural episode of 'Bloody Mary' instead? It's a good 'un and entirely fictional. Woohoo!

-'The Ritual', Paranormality: Why we believe the impossible, Richard Wiseman,(2011)
-The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood
-Bloody Mary art by theDURRRRIAN on Deviantart
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  1. Huh. Like all good magic tricks, it seems kind of disappointing when you know how it's done. And yet, I'm probably not going to try this in the bathroom mirror. Nifty stuff.

    Might have to give Paranormality a read. I'm a big fan of James Randi's work (which if you haven't tried, I strongly recommend - The Faith Healers will have even the mildest person incoherent with rage in parts, but Flim Flam! is well worth a go as well) so this would complement it nicely.

    1. I'd definitely recommend Paranormality. I did a proper review of it a while back ( and I still love to pick it up for re-readings. It's one of those books that hits these supernatural subjects with cutting snark and humor, but not sneeringly and always fully supported by really fascinating facts and personal anecdotes. Also it's the first book I've come across that uses QR readers to bring you to relevant accompanying videos, which is pretty neat in of itself.

      I've not read any of James Randi's work, though his name rings a bell. I shall definitely have to check him out - thanks for the recommendation :)

  2. Well, the review has sold me.

    James "The Amazing" Randi is a professional magician who's pretty infamous for his debunking of Uri Geller (which is a whole matter in and of itself worth exploring), amongst his other work on debunking charlatans and con-artists. He was also buddies with Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, who wrote the forewords for Flim Flam! and The Faith Healers, respectively.

    And now I've been reminded I never did manage to find a copy of Sagan's Demon-Haunted World. Might have to try that again. :) So many books, and not enough time.

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