Society and Menstruation: The Horror of Bloody Mary
Alan Dundes is known not only for his work as a folklorist, but for his trailblazing efforts to establish the study of folklore as a bona fide academic discipline. Using deconstruction methods of analysis, Dundes dissected the socio-psychological implications embedded in a wide range of materials, from the Bible to tongue twisters. In this article, he applies his signature method to the age-old tale of Bloody Mary.
Across the many variations of young American girls’ experience with the Bloody Mary myth, a ritual always accompanies. Its basic framework is as follows: a girl or group of girls goes into the bathroom, turn out the lights, stares into the mirror, and chant “Bloody Mary” (or other variants of the name) a number of times, then a ghostly girl appears, usually with blood on her face. A sample account gathered for Dundes’ folkloristics study fleshes out this plot structure:
“When I was in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, many of the girls celebrated their birthdays (turning age 9, 10, 11) with a slumber party. I remember the game being played a few different ways. The idea was that you go into the bathroom alone and the light would be off or there would be a candle or flashlight so that it would be barely visible in the bathroom. Then you were supposed to chant “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary” as you look in the mirror. After you say “Bloody Mary” three times, there were a couple of things that could happen: 1) An image of a woman covered with blood would appear in the mirror 2) You see your own reflection in the mirror but the mirror would soon be covered with blood so that it looked like you were covered in blood. At this point the girls would either run out of the bathroom screaming, or at some parties I remember the girls had to flush the toilet before they could come out. I think the toilet flushing was supposed to make the image go away, but no one ever stayed in the bathroom long enough to see anything disappear. As soon as they pushed the toilet lever, they would run out scared and screaming.”
In Freudian fashion, Dundes applies psychological meanings to each of the aspects of the Bloody Mary tale. The age of the girl(s) participating in the ritual is almost always 7-12 years old. This age group is on the cusp of puberty and, according to Dundes and Freud, their individual and collective subconscious is inundated with anxieties over the imminent event of menarche. This event is not just physiological in nature – it also bears heavy psychological meaning as the transition into womanhood. The turning off of the lights represents the mystery of this new life stage. Dundes notes that American girls are frequently “kept in the dark” about menstruation, thus the ritual reflects that dark obscurity associated with menarche. The ritual’s bathroom setting is central to Dundes’s interpretation. Menstruation’s events typically take place in bathrooms, where girls apply hygiene products. Moreover, Dundes contends that the pervading requirement to flush the toilet as part of the ritual signifies the need to quickly eliminate the evidence of blood, in order to escape the shame and embarrassment of menstruation. Also important to the bathroom setting is the crucial role that the mirror plays in the ritual. Watching her reflection become obscured by Bloody Mary illustrates the momentous yet ominous change that the appearance of menstrual blood brings for a girl. One Californian girl questioned for Dundes’s study recalled the importance of the mirror: “To make Bloody Mary appear, you look into a mirror at midnight and chant “Bloody Mary” three times. You are then supposed to see your own bloodied face in the reflection.” This account buttresses Dundes’s interpretation that Bloody Mary literally reflects the girls participating in the ritual. The handful of accounts that Dundes shared in his article featured a number of different labels for “Bloody Mary.” Some referred to “Mary Worth” and “Mary Whales,” but despite the variety of modifiers, “Mary” remained a constant. Dundes’s explanation ties the myth and ritual to the Virgin Mary based on the precariousness of virginity and purity introduced by menstruation. He also noted that womanhood, commenced at menarche, is tied to the need to marry, which is a homophone of the name “Mary.” Lastly, Dundes attempts to make a connection to Mary, Queen of Scots, by using Freudian “upward displacement” to relate maidenhood to maidenhead (specifically the loss thereof). This explanation, in my opinion, relies too heavily on a sexual understanding of menarche to make a strong and reasonable argument. Dundes further takes the surnames attached to Mary – “Worth and “Whales” – to bind the myth to menstruation. He asserts that society defines women’s “worth” as her ability to bear children, which is made possible by the process of menstruation. “Whales,” he suggests, evokes the perception of menstruation as a painful, emotional experience, in which a woman “wails.” Those who do not subscribe to Freudian thought (including myself) will likely find these arguments pushed to a level of absurdity. “Bloody Mary” may be connected to a pre-pubescent ritual, but deviations from this traditional name weaken that connection.
Dundes also linked the script and pubescent significance of the Bloody Mary tale to the tale of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. An account from 1973 related that Mary Whales wore a long white dress, stood by the side of the road while it rained, and when a stranger offered a ride, she got into the car. She would then suddenly disappear, leaving only a dark spot on the seat. When the vanishing hitchhiker is a male in other narrations, he always leaves a physical object on the seat. The significance of a female hitchhiker leaving a “wet spot” on the seat, Dundes claims, is the plain reference to menstruation. He suggests that this horror story reflects the social fear of leaking blood while menstruating. Again, he went further to expound on how the backseat of cars is a traditionally sexual setting, and that somehow ties this story to menstruation.
In his analysis, Dundes formed a few reasonable arguments to connect a couple pieces of creepy folklore to menstruation. However, the influence of Freud incited extreme extrapolation. In particular, the tendency to associate menarche and loss of virginity felt excessive and unfounded. His article, nevertheless, makes a persuasive argument for the ritual of the Bloody Mary having something to do with menarche. Dundes concludes that, unlike other cultures, American society has no established rituals or ceremonies for menarche, and “Bloody Mary” is a positive way for girls to prepare for that life-changing event. I disagree with this conclusion. If truly a ritual expressing pre-pubescent anxiety, Bloody Mary actually reinforces negative feelings in young girls, most notably, spine-chilling terror.
Source: Dundes, Alan. “Bloody Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety.” Western Folklore 57, no. 2/3 (1998): 119-35.