Myths and legends like Bloody Mary get told and retold over and over again, from generation to generation, for good reason. Stories like these that use horror elements to drive home a moralistic lesson usually stem from some sliver of historical truth, and then get bent and stretched to serve a societal purpose. As far back as time can be marked, parents have been telling their children horrifying stories in an effort to keep them safe; lovers have recounted tales to scare each other into being faithful; and travelers have whispered of wanderers lurking beyond the trees with hooks for hands to keep each other on well-lit paths home. But in each telling of each story, the details get added and removed to suit whatever purpose is needed, which creates a new lesson, and perhaps the most important one: You should basically never trust anything that anyone ever tells you, because most people are trash.
This fifth episode of American Horror Stories uses the tale of Bloody Mary, one of the most popular legends of this sort, to show that greed, selfishness, deception, and manipulation will always be things we need to monitor within ourselves and be wary of in others. The gory elements that stay true to the story from telling to telling — a woman appearing in a mirror with the potential to scratch your eyes out at will — are meant to be less scary than the inner knowledge that we can all, at any time, be betrayed by the people we love the most, and by our own selves. Big lessons from a myth that originates from the real-life story of an English queen who everyone thought was a scary bitch. A woman who pissed off so many people that stories were clumped together to ensure that her name would forever be associated with blood. And fear.
There’s a famous quote attributed to Banksy, of all people, that says, “They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” This will never happen to Bloody Mary. Bored teens and women drunk on wine the world wide will make it so.
At the start of this episode, we see a group of teenage girls perform the ritual many of us have done in the past. First you light a candle in a dark room. Then you say her name three times.
Hell no. I’m not saying it. I’m not even writing it.
After the third time, Bloody Mary appears in a mirror. She can see into the depths of your soul. And if she doesn’t like what she sees …
The friends performing this ritual all want similar things. They want boys, popularity, money, etc. But two sisters, Bianca (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Elise (Raven Scott) want a little bit more. Bianca, being the younger-seeming sister with no friends of her own beyond her sister’s circle, wants a safe life away from her checked-out mom and that mom’s revolving door of handsy boyfriends. Elise wants that too, for both of them, but she differs from her sister in that she’s willing to kill people, including Bianca, to make certain that she gets it. Bianca has spent her whole young life trusting her sister to make things right. But Elise, who’s spent her whole life trusting in only herself, betrays her own inner strength when she succumbs to using it as a weapon of selfishness. Being a good person is exhausting, but you don’t get a break from it. That’s not how life works. You could spend 100 years being a selfless, generous, backbreaking humanitarian, but you’ll always be remembered for that one time someone saw you yell at a dog or pass by an unhoused person without putting a dollar in their cup. Doesn’t mean you get to just give up. Unless you do. In which case, [insert mental image of your eyes being clawed out by Bloody Mary.]
If this all sounds like the basis for Catholicism to you, then you’re onto something. The original Bloody Mary, Queen Mary I, was the none-too-wanted daughter of King Henry VIII, who broke from the Catholic church so he could marry Anne Boleyn. And look what happened to her. No one can “Hail Mary” a good horror story into fruition better than a Catholic. In this story, Elise is Queen Mary I, willing to do anything to crown herself queen of the castle, and Bianca is more like Elizabeth, Queen Mary I’s half-sister, who was kept under surveillance by “Bloody Mary” and ultimately took over the throne from her with far less bloody ease when she died. The lesson? Small steps, measured steps, will win you what you want. Not acting like a complete psycho.
So, back to the girls … Bianca, Elise, and friends Lena (Kyanna Simone) and Maggie (Kyla Drew) all receive assignments from Bloody Mary (Dominique Jackson) with the threat of death if they disobey. Lena, a cheerleader, is told to drop another girl during a routine — something that will paralyze that girl, but leave her as head cheerleader in her place. Maggie is told that if she leaks a girl’s nudes, she’ll steal her ex-boyfriend back and keep him forever. Lena and Maggie ultimately end up dead with their eyes scratched out, but we soon learn Elise was, in fact, the one who did it.
Elise’s instructions were to gather up the blood of three innocents (Bianca being the third) and bring it to Bloody Mary. Along with the blood, Bloody Mary requested the knife she used to kill a woman named Margaret Worth (Maggie Carney), who ran a reverse underground railroad in which she lured fleeing slaves into “safety” and then tortured them.
Toward the end of the episode, we’re given the origin story for this version of Bloody Mary. Right before she was to be turned over to a slave wrangler, she caught her reflection in a mirror within Worth’s cabin and made a plea to the goddess Mami Wata. The goddess gave her the power to kill everyone attempting to enslave her and separate her from her son, but in her fury she also killed a young Black girl working for Worth. Although this girl was doing terrible things, Bloody Mary felt guilt because she should have had sympathy for her as someone doing whatever she could to get by in a white man’s world. With her soul sullied, Mami Wata made an in-between home for newly crowned Bloody Mary that trapped her between Earth and the beyond. Stuck in this new home, a mirror, she answered the calls of people in need, weighing their sins and virtues until the day came along when she could trick someone into taking her place. That person ended up being Bianca, which seems undeserved, but hopefully she won’t be trapped there for long. Or maybe she’ll come to find that being sentenced to the role of Bloody Mary is a better fate than living with her mother for even one day longer.
• “I don’t remember nobody bibbidi-bobbidi-boo-ing Cinderella’s eyes out of her head” is such a great line.
• These kids are lucky to go to a high school that goes from teaching black-hole math into a lesson on spooky mirrors. When I was in high school, I took a math class that included the use of actual toy blocks.
• “She was way more bitch than witch.” Sadly … same.
• If Quvenzhané Wallis, who played Bianca, looks familiar to you, it’s because she was in the amazing 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild when she was only 6 years old. She was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for the performance.
• The actress Maggie Carney, who played Margaret Worth, is giving serious Ann Dowd vibes.