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The Secret History of Slumber Parties: How ‘Bloody Mary’ and Menstruation Go Hand-In-Hand

by Carlyn Beccia

I NEVER WANTED to meet Mary. Sure, I had heard about her. We had all heard about her. My teenage friends called her “Bloody Mary,” “Mary Worth,” or “the Witch Mary.” She passed through mirrors on mischievous nights when girlish giggles and flickering red candles tempted her out of the darkness. But during one childhood slumber party, my 11-year-old girlfriends and I took turns gazing into the bathroom mirror while chanting, “Mary Worth. Mary Worth. Mary Worth. I believe in you, Mary Worth.”

I really did not believe in Mary Worth, so I volunteered to go first. I was the most incredulous of our clan and the least likely to cower in a dimly lit bathroom with only a candle illuminating my craven reflection. Perhaps Mary sensed my fearlessness, too. Because after 10 minutes of chanting, spinning, sweating, and trying to sound badass, a murky image appeared in the mirror. When I narrowed my eyes, I saw her face, pale and turgid, with long dark hair and eyes blackened by malevolence. I screamed loud enough to shatter every mirror in the house. Hindsight bias might have distorted some of these memories, but I know what I saw. Something appeared in the mirror. But what I remember most about that terrifying moment was my girlfriends gathering around me and holding my shaking body. We laughed about it later. And we never played that damn devil’s game again.

Of course, young girls love to freak each other out. And chances are, you played Bloody Mary at your girlhood sleepover, too. Other popular and creepy games involved levitation (aka Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board), séances (or Ouija board), or MASH (“mansion, apartment, shack, house”). What may surprise you, however, is that your mother, grandmother, and possibly your great-grandmother likely played the same games at their sleepovers, passing them down from generation to generation like a distorted “telephone” game. But while slumber party music, etiquette, food, and sleepwear may change over the decades, the emotions do not.

Confronting fear—especially fear of the supernatural—is an adolescent rite of passage. Psychologists refer to these ages between 9 and 12 as the “Robinson ages”—the awkward liminal stage when children crave and fear danger. This testing period ripens our imagination with creative storytelling and risky dares that heighten a child’s sense of identity. And let’s face it, it’s far easier to stare at mirror ghosts while we have the support of our friends.

Unfortunately, at times, this sort of supernatural experimentation has had terrible consequences. In 1692, in Salem, MA, several young girls held nightly séances before laying their heads to rest. Those nightly séances led to over 200 people being accused of witchcraft, of which 20 were executed and 5 died in prison in what is known today as the Salem Witch Trials. Many scholars have posited that the girls’ claims of demonic possession were a way for disenfranchised teens to rebel. It makes sense. If you were a woman growing up in Salem, you wouldn’t have had any more rights than a milk cow. Sowing discord in a sleepy New England farm town would allow a young girl to plant roots in the patriarchy that starved her of light.


A few centuries later, in 1848, 11- and 14-year-old sisters Kate and Maggie Fox convinced their family they could speak with spirits by rapping a Morse code with the great beyond. Their sleepless high jinks spawned a cult follow- ing of knockers communicating with the dead and also helped give rise to the Spiritualist movement. (After be- coming national celebrities, the sisters admitted that the entire spectacle was a hoax.) But while the Fox sisters may have brought the occult to the masses, kids have toyed with the supernatural for thousands of years. For example, folklorist Bill Ellis writes: “Traditions surrounding Stone Age monuments… repeatedly allude to customs involving trips by courageous youths to challenge the power of the supernatural. Thus, we can trace a lengthy history of occult play activities like Ouija boards and séance rituals.” 

The History of Slumber Parties

While sleeping in the same room might seem innocuous today, it has fallen in and out of fashion throughout history. In medieval times, necessity required people to huddle together on the floors of drafty castle halls, with only straw-stuffed sacks and neighboring bodies for warmth. By the 18th century, beds became more luxurious. It might seem improper today, but in the 18th century, a woman’s bedroom was the place to greet visitors and have long intellectual discussions while sipping tea. Then the Victorians made bedrooms private and killed all the sleepover fun (at least with aristocratic children).

As cholera and tuberculosis ran rampant through nurseries, doctors recommended children have separate bedrooms to contain diseases. To the Victorians, sleeping was serious business, and only the undead stayed awake. For this reason, young women infected with tuberculosis were believed to be victims of vampires who fed on their blood while they slept. But the real reason why you won’t find many accounts of sleepovers before the 19th century is that sleepovers led to the scariest Victorian bugaboo—masturbation. Nineteenth-century American physician William Whitty Hall warned parents that boys and girls learned how to masturbate by co-sleeping. As a result, Hall condemned sleepovers because they caused children to “waste away the vigor and flesh and strength of the body.”

We can partly thank Sigmund Freud for girls getting their sleepovers back. Freud taught that masturbation was a part of childhood development and only problematic if a child did not outgrow it. One of the earliest references to slumber—or “bunking”— parties the way we know them today can be found in 1896. “A slumber party was given Monday night by Misses Taylor and Hawkins and was highly enjoyed by a party of seven,” the Marietta Daily Leader noted in a “Personal and Local” news item. Another reference appears the following year. “One of the novelties of the social season was a slumber party by the Kappa Gamma girls to their friends Thursday evening,” the Indianapolis Journal reported in a column dedicated to goings on at DePauw University.

51958914886 219c0dd141 h 98d7eCOURTESY OF THE CHRIS HAIN COLLECTION

But these reports were rare—before 1900, only a very few mentions of “slumber parties” appeared in U.S. newspapers. By 1905, however, slumber parties had been mentioned in society columns 74 times. At first, folks found the phenomenon baffling. “A friend of ours who is not in society very deep wants to know what a slumber party is,” read an article in Mississippi’s Okolona Messenger of 1905. “He seems to have gotten the idea that the guests sit up all night with the hostess, and they talk and yawn and nod and gab and stretch their arms, and so on.” The paper attempted to set the record straight. “Our understanding of it is that people conduct themselves pretty much like people always do at a party, until late bedtime, when they go to bed in beds or on lounges or on palettes on the floor…and the next morning, a little before noon, they get up and eat breakfast, and then go home.” 

In the ensuing years, slumber parties stopped being a trend and became a tradition. Between 1911 and 1920, over 2,000 of them made it into newspapers. What actually took place at these early events is difficult to ascertain, although a big part of the action seems to have been the “midnight feast”—at which delicious treats were served during the witching hour. But here and there, a hint of darker goings-on can be found. 

For example, Wyoming’s Rawlins Republican of 1908 mentions a slumber party given by Miss Irene Daley at which fortune telling was one of the attendees’ activities. And Colorado’s Salida Mail newspaper recounted a 1909 sleepover where attendees told “awful ghost stories stored away in the memory of each girl, and which it is said they carried out in pantomine [sic] with the effect of frightening even themselves.” By 1920, other mystical activities begin to slip into these accounts. “Miss Olive Kay Waggener entertained with a slumber party in Warrington last Friday,” re- ported Florida’s Pensacola Journal. “The earliest part of the evening was spent in playing [card games], and as the midnight hour began to approach, the Ouija board was brought forth.” Sipping tea was out. Reading tea leaves was in.


Slumber Parties and the Supernatural

While there is little hard evidence about what exactly happened at these earliest slumber parties (no TikTok or Insta!), folklorists have documented the fact that creepy games have been played at girls’ sleepovers for at least the past 50 years, and the phenomenon has been subject to a vast amount of research. For folklorists such as Elizabeth Tucker, these occult activities are more than mere games—they rise to the level of “ritual.” In discussing the levitation game Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board, Tucker writes: “As in many rituals, the order of events must be faithfully maintained, the tone must be solemn, and the outcome is expected to be something al- most miraculous.” But rather than simply recording these rituals, folklorists have tried to answer the most puzzling question: Why do young girls so commonly engage in occult activities at slumber parties?

LIFE cover 216e1Life Magazine Cover, 1945

Folklore scholar Alina Mansfield believes that slumber parties are not just rites of passage— they serve as particularly feminine rites of passage, marking the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Slumber parties, Mansfield writes, are “reminiscent of certain cross-cultural and historic initiation ceremonies or rituals, which, often in the case of females…[consist] of some form of enforced seclusion.” She finds parallels in traditions of the Indigenous American Hupa tribe, where young girls approaching puberty are sent to live in a special “moon lodge” where they ask their spiritual helpers for guidance and gaze into a “shell filled with water.” Could this be similar to a slumber party, complete with a version of Bloody Mary?

Another important connection for Mansfield between slumber party games and traditional puberty rituals is their dependence on “rhythmic and collaborative actions that may transport a cohort of friends into a state of trance.” For example, both Bloody Mary and Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board require those words to be chanted repeatedly. Even “the rhythmic spiral drawing used to divine in MASH” may have a transformative effect on the players, writes Mansfield.


And above all, of course, there is the element of fear. Fear of the future. Fear of adulthood. And most importantly, fear of their changing bodies. One such bodily fear surrounds menstruation. Taking a more literal approach, researcher Alan Dundes posits that the Bloody Mary game serves the same purpose among American girls as puberty traditions in other cultures. Dundes notes the obvious connections: These rituals occur around the age when a girl first menstruates. They happen in a bathroom. And, of course, there is blood. 

These days, however, Bloody Mary is not just an American ghost. Ethnologist Petr Janecek notes that, through globalization, the same scary lady has made her way into Czech children’s folklore and appears as Krvavá Máří. In Sweden, she is known as Bloody Black Madame, White Ma- dame, Dirty Madame, and Creepy Madame. In Spain, girls must beckon Verónica. In Germany, she answers to Heilige Blutige Maria (Holy Bloody Mary). And in Russia, she is “the Queen of Spades.”

The End of an Era?

A few years ago, my teenage daughter returned from a sleepover, claiming she would “never sleep again.” Her friends had shared hyperbolic urban legends until the morning hours. For days she was afraid someone would steal her kidney while she slept. I was wary of ever allowing her to attend a slumber party again. I am not alone. The sleepover monsters under the bed today are much hairier than a hundred years ago. Before agreeing to a sleepover, parents must question the host about firearm security, vaccination status, access to online pornography, etc. There’s so much worry that the hashtag #nosleepovers has gone viral.

@sharon.a.life Replying to @marley._.spam1 #momlife #motherhood #sleepover #nosleepovers #childhoodtrauma ♬ original sound – Sharon.a.life

But keeping children home doesn’t necessarily keep them safe in the era of social media. And while confronting fear has always been a part of growing up, social media seems to have upped the ante, with users egging each other on to eat “chicken Nyquil” or swallow gobs of cinnamon.

Plus, the difference between facing the unknown alone or with a group is vast. When ghosts appear at sleepovers, friends wipe our sweaty brows and hold us close. Now, mirror ghosts have been replaced with social media mirrors. And the latter is always watching. Personally, I would rather take my chances with Bloody Mary, and my girlfriends.

Top photo by Sue Allen. 

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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