three myths, three eras, the same fascination

The White Lady, Bloody Mary or the Slenderman are three very different myths and urban legends, but which testify to the same fascination for the strange and the inexplicable.

The White Lady

The White Lady is a famous myth whose origin is as old as it is unclear. In most of the oldest legends, some of which date back to early medieval times, this term refers to a ghostly woman. She usually appears in a dwelling where one of the residents is about to die. In some more modern versions, she can also appear in photos alongside the future deceased.

But in addition to this generic version, there are also lots of variations of the myth. There are references in various local folklore in the four corners of Europe and North America, but also in Asia. And these are rarely very happy legends; there is always a link with death, with a tragic love story in the background.

© Ebenezer Sibly – Wikimedia Commons

In several British or Eastern European legends, the White Lady is often associated with the story of a young bride abandoned or abused by her husband. Its equivalent in Japan is often described as a woman with long black hair wearing a kimono – the traditional funeral dress in the Japanese archipelago. In Southeast Asia (Philippines, Thailand, etc.), the theme of marriage is less present, but there are systematically references to violent deaths.

In Germanic culture (Switzerland, Germany, etc.), there are also lots of often very specific references to the White Lady. In most cases, these stories concern noble lines whose family castle is said to be haunted, again by a young woman who died in painful circumstances.

Some later versions of the legend also mention ghostly female hitchhikers. For example, we can cite an anecdote that occurred in Pavalas-Les-Flots in 1981. Two young men allegedly picked up a woman dressed in white while hitchhiking before she vanished in the middle of the trip, after scaring the hell out of the good Samaritans. The investigation confirmed that the two witnesses, apparently a little traumatized, were nevertheless sane. They had also not consumed alcohol or drugs that would explain a possible hallucination. According to this article in the Midi Libre, the case remains inexplicable to this day.

It is almost impossible to determine the exact origin of this myth because of its popularity and the large number of variants. Some historians consider that there could be a link with the queens of francewho used to wear white clothes during the mourning of their husbands – a peculiarity which would have earned them the nickname of “White Ladies” which is found several times in historical literature.

Although there is no real consensus, others believe that the myth is rooted in Arthurian legend; some scholars claim that Guinevere’s name comes from the Welsh Gwenhwyfar, which means “Phantom White”.

Despite these hazy origins, the White Lady has become a standard in popular culture. There are countless references in novels and plays. She also appears in movies like Dead End and series, such as the first episode of supernatural. It is also found in songs, in video games like Red Dead Redemption 2… or in bars thanks to the cocktail that bears his name.

bloody mary

Bloody Mary, sometimes referred to as Vierge Sanglante in French, is a famous apparition from Anglo-Saxon folklore. It is a somewhat more recent and better defined myth than that of the White Lady. According to legend, it is possible to invoke this spirit by pronouncing its name repeatedly in front of a mirror, all in complete darkness. Some versions of the myth suggest that three times would be enough; others indicate that it should be recited three, thirteen, or a hundred times.

This would cause the infamous Bloody Mary to appear on the other side of the mirror. She is usually portrayed as a woman in bloody spats, and as you might expect, she doesn’t show up for tea; the sequence of events varies significantly from version to version, especially on the web. But there is still a common point to the various variations of the legend: all of them lend him disastrous intentions.

The most sober versions explain that Bloody Mary would simply scream to death, sometimes driving her victim completely mad. Others suggest that the ghost would pull her to the other side of the mirror, kidnapping her to another world where she would remain locked away forever. There are also more violent alternatives, such as one that suggests the apparition could jump out of the mirror to gouge out the eyes of the unwary.

© SarahRIchertArt – Pixabay

Even if the contours of the myth are clearer than in the case of the White Lady, its origin remains just as debated. The most pragmatic believe that it would have been born following the testimonies of certain people victims of small visual hallucinations, by dint of contemplating a mirror in a dark room for a prolonged period; we speak of the Troxler Effect.

Others believe that the legend would have taken shape following the actions of certain very specific characters. Some see it as a manifestation of Mary Tudor, who became Mary I of England – the first queen of this illustrious monarchy. During her lifetime and after her death, the latter was aptly nicknamed Bloody Mary, because of her relentless cruelty; it was particularly distinguished by its ruthless and bloody purge of the Protestants of the time.

Further east, this legend is more readily associated with another regent whose reputation is at least as disastrous: Elizabeth Bàthory, a Hungarian countess who allegedly tortured and killed hundreds of women in order to bathe in their blood. Some other versions, especially in North America, also involve lower ranked characters. Several tales mention commoners, including a woman named Mary Worth who is said to have returned to haunt the living after being convicted during the famous Salem witch hunts.

In the end, there is no no consensus on starting point of this legend. On the other hand, it remains particularly vivid in the collective imagination. This has been all the more true since the mid-2000s; at the beginning of the millennium, several directors, directors and producers gave birth to a lot of works centered on the myth of Bloody Mary. Today we find another famous cocktail (definitely!), dozens of pieces of music, plays, series, films and games that give a more or less important place to this story.

We can cite in particular the famous Charmed, Supernatural or X Files. There are also references to Bloody Mary in humorous cartoons; it is for example parodied in episodes of South Park and The Regular Show. It is also a recurring reference in many video games, especially horror ones. One can, for example, cite a easter eggs of Phasmaphobia as well as a mini-quest in Dishonored.


The third member of our trio, the Slenderman, is by far the most modern. He is described as a tall, slender, faceless human figure with particularly long arms. Dressed in a black suit, he stalks humans – especially children – to inflict various traumatic experiences on them.

What makes this urban legend interesting is its origin. Since it is much more modern than the Bloody Mary stories, it is much easier to identify its source. The Slenderman was born in 2009, as part of a Photoshop contest on the Something Awful website. The goal: to create paranormal images convincing enough to fool claimed “paranormal hunters” and even mainstream media.

The original image of the Slenderman as posted on Something Awful. © Eric Knudsen

And the least we can say is that Erik Knudsen, the author of the image above, hit the nail on the head; its production has spread like wildfire – but not in the expected places. Instead, it is rather the artists and the amateurs of creepypasta – these frightening urban legends diffused on the Internet – who seized it. The other members of Something Awful have continued to bring this character to life on the forum, and then on loads of other platforms. In the four corners of the web, a multitude of Internet users have contributed to giving substance to the Slenderman through texts, fanarts or cosplays.

This collaborative dimension has contributed a lot to the popularity of the character; in a few years, it has gone from the status of a simple image to that of a true pillar of web culture, and even of pop culture in general. He thus became one of the first true examples of large-scale digital folklore. We find it today in lots of stories, amateur or professional, as well as in many video games… and even in miscellaneous facts section. Because in 2014, this mysterious character crossed the other side of the digital barrier – a bit like Bloody Mary when she bursts from her mirror.

He found himself at the center of a dark murder case, this time very real. In Waukesha, Wisconsin, two 12-year-old girls stabbed one of their classmates to death with a barbarism that stunned all of America. According to several media that covered the case, when explaining their gesture, the two children would have quoted pell-mell the Lord Voldemort of the series Harry Potterthe Ninja Turtles… and especially the Slenderman.

As the investigation progressed, it emerged that this murder was a way of curry favor with the mysterious character after reading his story on the internet. The specialists determined that the defendants suffered from psychological disorders, but that did not prevent the case from generating a real moral panic mixed with morbid curiosity throughout the country. A tragic story, but one that has further consolidated the Slenderman’s place in the history of the web.

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