The Bloody Mary Illusion Explained

29 Oct

If you light a candle in a dark room, look in the mirror, and say “Bloody Mary” five times (if you dare), Bloody Mary will appear. And if she believes you’re taunting her, she will reach through the mirror and slash your face or break the mirror to cut you. She may even pull you into the mirror, and you will never be seen again…

If you have dared to try looking in the mirror in the candle light, you might have noticed a face staring back at you. You might even have thought it was Bloody Mary herself. Well, calm your fears, because new research from University of Urbino researcher Giovanni B Caputo finds that you have nothing to worry about (maybe)!

Caputo had 50 participants look in the mirror for 10 minutes in a dimly lit room and describe what they saw (none of them knew what they were supposed to see).

Surprisingly (or perhaps not), two-thirds of participant said they saw huge deformations of their own face. Nearly half of the participants even reported seeing “fantastical” or “monstrous” beings! A few participants also reported seeing faces of parents, ancestors, and strangers, including women and children. ALL the participants saw someone or something in the mirror other than themselves! Many participants also reported feeling that the other someone was watching them. Some even got scared if the face in the mirror looked angry.

The fact that EVERYONE saw something in the mirror indicates that the cause of this phenomenon is in our perception, not somebody in the mirror – although you never know….

Caputo speculates it might have something to do with the Troxler effect. Stare at the + in the below demonstration for 20-30 seconds.

Did you see the purple dots disappear? If not, try it again :)

Caputo believes the appearance of a new face in the mirror might be due to an incomplete Troxeler effect. Since there is no fixation point (like the + ) in the mirror, it might be that only some parts of our face disappear (like the nose or eyes, for example), but not all of them.

It might also be that when our face disappears, our brain imagines another face there since we’re expecting to see a face there. Or it might be some other fun mind trick our brain likes to play on us.

Have you ever tried conjuring the Bloody Mary? Did it work?

Article image via very happy pig.

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6 Responses to “The Bloody Mary Illusion Explained”

  1. Andrew Kincaid 10. May, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    I didn’t see Bloody Mary, but I did see my face change in different ways on different tries. The first was that my nose blew up and looked like a lumpy potato, the second I looked like a gargoyle, and the third I looked a bit like captain howdy from the Exorcist, haha

  2. Psy-Ko 14. May, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    yeah ok, thats believable but now lets see you explain Candyman!!!! ;-)

  3. tribalnoizes 15. Jun, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    The dots!!That blew my freaking Mind!!

  4. Mike 23. Oct, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    The explanation given in the article is on the right path, but fundamentally incomplete. When we focus on a fixed point for an extended period of time, our brains naturally start to disregard what is outside the focal point. In the optical illusion above, you focus on the +, and the purple dots in your peripheral vision “disappear” because your brain disregards them because they’re a distracting (and unimportant) stimulus. The same sort of thing happens to your face in the mirror: the flickering of the candle has a similar effect on your perception of your face as the orbiting gray dot did. This makes your brain start to ignore the “distracting and unimportant” information being processed by your eyes. Parts of your face seem to disappear for fractions of a second in a similar optical illusion. This effect working in conjunction with the inherent “spookiness” of staring into a mirror by candlelight in a dark room, waiting for a supernatural being to attack makes it very easy for you to trick yourself into a scare.


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