In 1997 there were about two thousand children living in the homeless shelters of Miami, FL. (There are more than twice as many now at the time of this writing, 2014.) Lynda Edwards, a reporter for the Miami New Times, submitted an article in June of that year documenting the folk tales and beliefs of these children. The article has become something of a quiet sensation on the Internet; it’s long, but it’s powerful and extremely disturbing. I first read about it in 2006, from my friend Kate Gladstone, who guaranteed that I would never forget it.
She was right. I have to say it is still one of the most harrowing and hair-raising things I’ve ever read. It’s a strange combination of the creepiest sort of fantastic horror — the kind you love to hear around a campfire — alongside the reality of homelessness and abject poverty — more mundane maybe, but no less horrible.
It’s a long article, so don’t feel compelled to jump right over and read it immediately, but it is amazing, poignant, and harrowing, and should be read. The children have collectively created a mythology that is rich, colorful, and choked with fear and desperation. For someone such as myself, who believes in various overlapping mythological systems, it raises all sorts of difficult and vital issues. Are the children really tapping into spiritual truths? Are they actually being contacted by spirits, as they claim? If so, why is their vision so full of fear and doom, when the visions of so many other spiritual people have so much light and joy?
A Mythology of Fear
Edwards begins with a story told by an older child at the Salvation Army’s shelter on NW 38th street. Andre is telling an audience of younger children that angels eat neon light so that they can fly. They particularly love the neon lights of the NationsBank building; and they gather there at night to plan their battle strategies against the powers of darkness. The angels must fight because the world is at war; and it’s a war fought street by street, house by house, child by child. Andre tells the children that they have to learn how to fight, how to live — and they have to learn the secret stories.
God cannot protect them, because God has already been defeated. On Christmas night a year ago, God fled Heaven to escape an attack by an army of demons. The demons smashed to dust his palace of beautiful blue-moon marble. TV news kept it secret, but homeless children in shelters across the country report being awakened from troubled sleep and alerted by dead relatives. No one knows why God has never reappeared, leaving his stunned angels to defend his earthly estate against assaults from Hell.
The angels are losing. The evidence of transcendent evil is everywhere for these children, in a world where drugs and gangs and violence and gunfire repeatedly tear their fragile lives apart. Even the angels themselves are essentially homeless, since Heaven has been lost to Satan.
Somewhere in the jungles beyond Miami is a safe, if temporary, refuge, a place guarded by giant crocodiles, where souls can go to rest for a while. But the dead can only enter it if a fresh green palm leaf is dropped on their graves.
The demons invading our world are nourished by dark human emotions: jealousy, hate, fear. One demon is feared even by Satan. In Miami shelters, children know her by two names: Bloody Mary and La Llorona (the Crying Woman). Her eyes are empty sockets that cry blood or black tears, and if you see her, with her robes blowing about without wind, and her red rosaries clicking, you know she has marked you for death. She enters the hearts of friends and family and turns them into deadly enemies. If you dare, smear a mirror with ocean water, and stare at it in the dark as you chant her name, and she will come. The stories say that she killed her own child, and has made a pact with the devil to kill all human children. The stories say even more horrible things, but I will not repeat them here.
The homeless children’s chief ally is a beautiful angel they have nicknamed the Blue Lady. She has pale blue skin and lives in the ocean, but she is hobbled by a spell. “The demons made it so she only has power if you know her secret name,” says Andre, whose mother has been through three rehabilitation programs for crack addiction. “If you and your friends on a corner on a street when a car comes shooting bullets and only one child yells out her true name, all will be safe. Even if bullets tearing your skin, the Blue Lady makes them fall on the ground. She can talk to us, even without her name. She says: ‘Hold on.'”
A blond six-year-old with a bruise above his eye, swollen huge as a ruby egg and laced with black stitches, nods his head in affirmation. “I’ve seen her,” he murmurs. A rustle of whispered Me toos ripples through the small circle of initiates.
Edwards points out that, as dark as this vision is, it helps the children, because it’s a way that they can understand why their lives are so horrible, and why it seems as though the adults in their lives — the ones who are supposed to be taking care of them — either don’t care, or are powerless to help. Even if its the wrong explanation, it’s better than no explanation. And because the children can act to help the angels, their lives — and deaths — are given meaning.
One child whose life has been touched by the Blue Angel is Maria:
She first appeared to Maria at the deserted Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, which Maria calls “the pink haunted house.” A fierce storm was pounding Miami that night. Other homeless people who had broken in milled about the building’s interior, illuminated only by lightning. Her father was drunk. Her mother tried to stop him from eating the family’s last food: a box of saltines. “He kept hitting her and the crazy people started laughing. When I try to help her, he hit me here” — Maria points to her forehead. “I tried to sleep so my head and stomach would stop hurting, but they kept hurting.” A blast of wind and rain shattered a window. “I was so scared. I pray out loud: Please, God, don’t punish me no more!”
An older boy curled up nearby on a scrap of towel tried to soothe her. “Hurricanes ain’t God,” he said gently. “It’s Blue Lady bringing rain for the flowers.” When Maria awoke late in the night, she saw the angel with pale blue skin, blue eyes, and dark hair standing by the broken window. Her arms dripped with pink, gold, and white flowers. “She smiled,” Maria says, her dark eyes wide with amazement. “My head was hurting, but she touched it and her hand was cool like ice. She say she’s my friend always. That’s why she learned me the hard song.” The song is complex and strange for such a young child; its theme is the mystery of destiny and will. When Maria heard a church choir sing it, she loved it, but the words were too complicated. “Then the Blue Lady sang it to me,” she recalls. “She said it’ll help me grow up good, not like daddy.”
Maria agreed to sing some of the song: “If you believe within your heart you’ll know/that no one can change the path that you must go./ Believe what you feel and you’ll know you’re right because/when love finally comes around, you can say it’s yours./ Believe you can change what you see!/ Believe you can act, not just feel!/You have a brain!/You have a heart!/You have the courage to last your life!/Please believe in yourself as I believe in you!”
“Even if my mom say we sleep in the bus station when we leave the shelter, Blue Lady will find us. She’s seen my face.”
Stories For Children
How do the children know these things? Some of the stories are obviously derived from urban legends found in other places. The basics of the Bloody Mary story are known to children throughout America and Europe, especially among girls, although her name is variously Mary Worth or Worthy, Mary Worthington, or Hell Mary, and she is not always viewed as evil. The Bloody Mary legend appears to have been merged with the La Llorona legend of Latin America, a woman crying for her children, whom she drowned. (If you want to be horrified a dozen times over, look at the Wikipedia articles on these urban legends.) As for the Blue Lady, she may have derived from Yemana (or Yemaya or Imanja or Big Mama Wati), a compassionate blue-robed Santeria ocean goddess.
But none of this explains the children who have seen and spoken to these spirits, and whose lives have been touched — for good and for bad — by them. They do not explain Maria and her song. They do not explain the angels and dead relatives that come to the children and give them updates on how the War is going. They do not explain the child haunted nightly by the ghost of his father until he managed to place fresh leaves on his grave. They do not explain the gang that called on Bloody Mary to help them protect one of their members from justice… and how she incited them to kill him themselves.
These stories have real power — powers of meaning-making equal to that of many mature religions; powers of life and death, light and darkness. How, then, can they be so dark? So horrible, so hopeless?
Those of us who pray to God know full well that He has not abandoned us. Those of us who pray to pantheons have experienced firsthand the richness of the spirit world, the cycles of growth and retreat, and the supreme power of Light over Dark (if Dark is acknowledged to be anything other than an illusion!). How can the children be so clearly connected to the spirit world, and yet draw from it so much fear and horror?
The Fascination of Horror
Have you stood in front of a dark mirror and called out her name? Most of us have. Anyone who hears this story is bound to be horrified, but also intrigued and curious… Would it work? Would she really come? What would it be like? Am I brave enough to do it — and if I am, and she appears, am I brave enough to do anything other than scream?
The excitment and delight and thrill of a really good scare — this is nearly universal among us. But why? Lynda says:
Folklorists were so mystified by Bloody Mary, and the common element of using a mirror to conjure her, that they consulted medical literature for clues. Bill Ellis, a folklorist and professor of American studies at Penn State University, puzzled over a 1968 Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease article describing an experiment testing the theory that schizophrenics are prone to see hallucinations in reflected surfaces. The research showed that the control group of nonpsychotic people reported seeing vague, horrible faces in a mirror after staring at it for twenty minutes in a dim room. But that optical trick the brain plays was just a partial explanation for the children’s legend.
“Whenever you ask children where they first heard one of their myths, you get answers that are impossible clues: ‘A friend’s friend read it in a paper; a third cousin told me,'” says Ellis, an authority on children’s folklore, particularly that concerning the supernatural. As president of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, he’s become an expert on polygenesis — the appearance of a story in multiple places at the same time. “When a child says he got the story from the spirit world, as homeless children do, you’ve hit the ultimate non sequitur.”
Regardless of whether Bloody Mary is real, any attempt to contact her or summon her is at best an act of idiocy, at worst a particularly unpleasant way to commit suicide. What is it that pulls us to her? What is the source of the fascination?
In meditation, I’ve visited with many spirits, guides, and gods, including my anima, who had this to say.
First, yes, Bloody Mary is real, and so are a whole host of other evil spirits. But in fact they are not very powerful. In and of themselves, most of them can be banished by sunlight on daisies. What really gives them power over us is our own fear and ignorance. They cannot affect us unless our fear drives us down to a low enough “vibration” that they can reach us. Bloody Mary will not appear in the mirror unless you are already ridiculously frightened — the fear alone will give her the strength to take on a visible form. She really does feed on fear, in a very literal way; and lack of fear will render her powerless.
So what is the source of the fascination?
First, understand that we are immortal souls; we may be damaged or blocked for a while, but we cannot be destroyed. Second, remember that it is by facing our fears that we grow and mature. Therefore, what could be more natural than a fascination — an attraction — to danger and adventure? Danger is an invitation to growth; fascination with it is healthy.
But for these homeless children, who have fear and desperation as constant companions, and have few comforts in life, Bloody Mary is a power to be avoided at all costs.
I experienced the fascination of horror myself while I was researching this article. When I was younger, I would have dismissed the Bloody Mary legend as balderdash, but now I’m a little older and wiser and I know what spirits can do. I found myself intensely curious about this story, and read many different versions of it, and found lots of examples of people online who had seen her.
Clever me — I was doing this research in the middle of the night. I was not in a room with a mirror, but of course all the windows around me had been turned into mirrors by the darkness of night behind them. I slowly, inexorably, began to freak out. I was sure I felt a not-too-friendly presence in the room with me, and wondered if I had been summoning Bloody Mary — or something equally unpleasant — with my fascination and dread.
I fought hard to dispel the fear. I saw nothing. But for the first time in over twenty-five years, I had to go to sleep with the lights on.