Reading Time: 4 minutes

[I’m up against a conundrum within a paradox. Between now and February 1 I have the busiest two weeks of my freelance writing life, including resumption of the job I loved and left behind when I left Minneapolis — U.S. Communications Coordinator for Nonviolent Peaceforce. But Raising Freethinkers is also due to launch in a matter of moments, so this is no time to abandon the Meming of Life. My solution is a short series of “greatest hits” — five or six of the most popular posts from the past two years. Enjoy, and I’ll see you again with new thoughts on Groundhog Day.]

What if she comes anyway?

First appeared on October 10, 2007

Her name was first spoken in hushed tones among children all over America [over] twenty years ago. Even in Sweden folklorists reported Bloody Mary’s fame. Children of all races and classes told of the hideous demon conjured by chanting her name before a mirror in a pitch-dark room. And when she crashes through the glass, she mutilates children before killing them. Bloody Mary is depicted in Miami kids’ drawings with a red rosary that, the secret stories say, she uses as a weapon, striking children across the face.
from “Myths Over Miami” by Lynda Edwards in the Miami New Times, Sept. 1997


“Yeah, B?” It was Erin, my nine-year-old, nicknamed “The B.”

“Can you come into the bathroom with me?”

“Why, you need to talk about something?” Our family has an odd habit: one person sits on the edge of the tub and chats up the person on the commode. A gift from my wife’s side.

“No…I’m scared to go in there.”

“It’s the middle of the day, B.”

“I know, but…Daddy, just come in with me.”

“Not ’til you tell me what you’re afraid of.”

She hesitated — then said, “The mirror.”

“What about the mirror?”

She leaned in and whispered, “Bloody Mary.”

I resisted the urge to say, No thanks, I’ll have a Tanqueray and tonic. I knew just what she meant. I was a kid too, you know.

“Desirée at school says if you turn off the lights and turn around three times in front of the mirror with your eyes closed and say Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, then open your eyes — a woman all covered in blood will be looking at you from in the mirror!”

A quiver-chill went through me. I was a kid again. I remember exactly how it felt to hear such ghastly things whispered by a true believer. Their wide-eyed conviction always did a fine job of convincing me as well. But in my day, Bloody Mary came crashing through the glass at you — a detail Erin didn’t seem to need to hear.

“So just go in, leave the light on, and don’t spin around or say the name, B.” I knew how hopelessly lame a thing that was to say. What if she comes anyway? Once the concept is in your head, why, the very thought of Bloody Mary might conjure her up. She might appear just because she knows I know! And she knows I know she knows I know!

“Okay, I’ll go with you. But you know what I’m gonna do.”


We went eye to eye. “Sweetie, tell me the truth. Do you think Bloody Mary is real, or just a story?”

She looked away. “Just a story.”

“So why be afraid of a story?” Again, I know. Lame! Yes, it’s true, it’s just a story — but ultimately, in our human hearts and reptile brains, such a defense against fear is hopelessly lame.

Her forehead puckered into a plead. “But Daddy, even if she’s just a story — what if she comes anyway?”

See? I remember.


She sat on the lid of the toilet, whimpering.
I turned out the lights. Nooooohohohoho, she
began to moan, with a dash of fourth-grade melodrama.


I walked into the bathroom myself and pulled the curtains. She followed, timidly, cupping her hand by her eyes to avoid the vanity mirror. “You don’t have to come in if you dont want to, B,” I said. She sat on the lid of the toilet, whimpering. I turned out the lights. Nooooohohohoho, she began to moan, with a dash of fourth-grade melodrama.

I walked to the mirror and began to turn. Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary! I opened my eyes. “See?” I knocked on the mirror. “Helloooooo! Hey lady! Look B, nobody’s home!”

Erin peeled her hands from her eyes and squealed with delight. “I’m gonna do it!”

She walked slowly to the mirror, trembling with anticipation. Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary! She peeked through her fingers.

“Eeeeeheeheeheehee!” she squealed delightedly, jumped up and down, hugged me. But if you believe she was cured — if you think Daddy’s words were really enough to slay the dragon — then you were never a kid. Maybe we said her name too fast, you see, or too slow, or or or maybe we didn’t believe in her enough. Maybe she just can’t be tricked by skeptical dads into showing herself. Erin didn’t say any of these things, but I know she was thinking them. And sure enough, the very next day, Erin was requiring bodyguards in the bathroom again.

I haven’t tried to talk her out of it. To paraphrase Swift, you can’t reason someone out of something they weren’t reasoned into in the first place. For a while, it’s even a little bit fun to believe such a thing is possible. And thinking I could talk her out of it anyway would be denying an inescapable fact: that when I pulled my own hands from my eyes in that darkened bathroom and saw the mirror, the rationalist, just for a tiny fraction of a second, dropped back and hid behind me as my little boy heart raced at the question that never quite completely goes away:

What if she comes anyway?

[For one of the most hair-raising and powerful essays I’ve ever read, see the full text of Lynda Edwards’ gripping 1997 piece on the Bloody Mary story as told among the homeless children of Miami — complete with illustrations.]

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.