Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Bloody Mary and La Llorona

When I was in elementary school in Long Beach, CA, the girls I knew would sometimes talk about Bloody Mary, a specter who would appear in the mirror of the girls’ bathroom whenever her name was chanted a specified number of times (I don’t remember how many). You would go into the bathroom, stand before the mirror in relative darkness (the bathrooms had no lights that I can recall), chant “Bloody Mary,” and she would appear in the mirror and scratch your face. If you looked directly at her, she would scratch out your eyes.

After having done a bit of research, I came across other variants throughout the U.S. in which the chant runs something like “Bloody Mary, I killed your baby.” I have also found that this ritual is usually associated with girls and bathrooms, much as it was in my childhood. Although many folklorists connect her to England’s Mary Queen of Scots or Queen Mary I, what I find interesting about her is her similarities to Southern Californian variants of La Llorona.

La Llorona, the Crying Woman, is a ghostly figure well-known to many hispanic families of California, the Southwest, and Mexico. There are many variants of the legend (just Google her); one version, collected by Terrence L. Hansen in Riverside in 1956, takes place in colonial Mexico: according to this version, there was a beautiful young Indian girl who had fallen in love with a wealthy Spaniard. She had three children by him, but he refused to marry her because of her lowly status. However, he told the girl that he would reconsider if the children weren't around to embarass him. In order to win back his love, she drowned her children one by one in the river. But even after this, he wed another, and she went mad with grief. Now, she wanders the waterways searching for her children. Her appearance is said to be a harbinger of death and misfortune.

Ghosts in California and the rest of the United States are, as a rule, indifferent or generally helpful towards the living. A very meager percentage are as malevolent as Bloody Mary and La Llorona; this prompts me to ask some questions about these two figures. In almost every variant of La Llorona collected thus far, she is some kind of distraught mother searching for or lamenting her dead offspring. Whether she killed them herself or not, she wanders the waterways tormented, along beaches and canals; she has even been spotted wailing and drifting along the concrete bed of the Los Angeles River.

In 1968, Bess Lomax Hawes noticed a gendered element to La Llorona folklore in her study of the female ward of the Las Palmas Juvenile Hall in L.A. Although most United States ghosts are male, she found that of the 31 ghost stories she collected, 28 were of female revenants, most of whom were actively hostile according to variants on the La Llorona theme. La Llorona, she argued, “wildly revenging herself upon men, upon her children, and upon herself, [is a] multifaceted, loving-hating ghost-mother [that] seems the explicit embodiment of the emotional conflicts of the adolescent delinquent girl.”

What are the connections between the hostile and feminine worlds of Bloody Mary and La Llorona? Well, for one thing, in many versions, La Llorona is given a name: Maria. Bloody Mary’s connection to mirrors and bathrooms seems to echo the watery associations of La Llorona. In many versions, La Llorona no longer has eyes because they have dissolved in her tears, and her face is somehow deformed. This is why looking into her face usually means certain death or disfigurement; in the versions Hawes analyzed, La Llorona attacks girls’ faces because she is jealous, or because they look like her dead daughters. The Bloody Mary of my childhood would scratch out your eyes if she caught you looking at her. La Llorona searches eternally for her dead children, and you can summon Bloody Mary by identifying yourself as the murderer of her baby. Two teen-age girls walking along L.A.’s Sunset Strip in the 1960s told a journalist about “La Harona,” a woman who had killed her children in a haze of syphilis-induced insanity. “If you shouted ‘La Harona!’ five times, she would come to you,” one said. The girls were still terrified by this story from their childhood. “They said she came through mirrors.”

Perhaps, La Llorona and Bloody Mary stem from one bundle of folkloric motifs lost in the mists of time. What may be more interesting, though, is this prospect: in Southern California, the United States’ Bloody Mary and Mexico’s La Llorona may have begun to intertwine as their communities of origin mingle and cross paths. And this cross-cultural dialogue is not happening in the grand sweep of politics or the media’s riddled mansion but the intimate and troubled female realm of adolescent girlhood.


sharleen higa said...

Hopefully this doesn't stray too far from the focus of this blog, but: It's interesting that in many cultures the power, and, indeed, the intrinsic value of women, lies in 1) their virginity and 2) their ability to bear children. I read some about this in my research on Guanyin, and I know we've talked about it relating to the Virgin Mary as well. A childless mother, having lost both of these qualities, is a particularly wretched being. And those who have lost the most are, in folktales, often those with the greatest power to help or to hurt.

The virgin/mother figure appears in so many different contexts, one of the most pervasive examples of syncretism. It's easy, because the analogs are so clear. And often she becomes fierce and vengeful, especially in cultures where the poor and downtrodden are oppressed.

This post has set my mind a-whirling.

Stephen Higa said...

This is great! I never thought about these two in the context of the virgin-mother figure. The Virgin Mary, when the Spanish were battling the Moors and conquering the New World, became a symbol of conquest. For example, when Christian Spain was reclaiming Moslem Spain, the Virgin Mary dished out miracles to help her followers in their battles. In gratitude, the Christians took over mosques and turned them into churches, dedicating them to her.

One has to wonder whether the Mediterranean obsession with the Virgin Mary's sorrow at the crucifixion ties into La Llorona's sorrow for her own murdered children.

Unknown said...

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