You’re ten years old. You’re at your best friend’s birthday party, a sleepover this year: An important rite of passage for any child. Even though you were all instructed by the parental units to go to bed no later than ten o’clock, you’ve stayed awake for hours afterwards, tucked into your sleeping bags and laughing with another in the dark. Out of the sea of pillows drifts a solitary whisper: “Let’s play Bloody Mary!” A hush falls over the group; one person scoffs, muttering, “That’s dumb,” but by and large, the idea appeals. “Who’s going to do it, then?” The group asks, struggling to keep their voices down in their excitement.
You lift your head from your pillow. “I will.”
A collection of hands pushes you softly yet firmly into the bathroom, shutting the door behind you and latching it tight. You turn on the flashlight clutched in your hand with a click. You turn towards the mirror. “Bloody Mary,” you begin. That’s one. “Bloody Mary.” Two. “Bloody Mary.” Three.
What will happen when you reach thirteen?
You’re 19 years old, and your parents have left you on your own for the weekend. You’re home from college for the summer, filling your days with a minimum wage job and your nights with whatever you can find to occupy yourself in a town that now seems far too small to you. What to do tonight? You’re not a party person, so the idea of calling everyone you know and having them get drunk and trash the house is out. But then, suddenly, you know exactly what to do. You call your best friend—the one who had that sleepover nearly a decade ago, with whom you’re still as close as can be. “Let’s play a game,” you say.
That night, you both arm yourselves with a piece of paper. You each write down your full names—first, middle, and last—before pricking your fingers with a pin and dotting the paper with a drop of blood. You go carefully around the house, turning out every light and switching off every appliance. Then, you stand before a closed wooden door, making sure to set your pieces of paper down in front of it. You each light a candle; once they’re lit, you stand them up on top of the papers. You knock on the door 22 times, with the final knock falling precisely at midnight. You open the door, blow out the candles, and close the door.
There. That should do it.
You both relight your candles and embark upon the strangest game of hide-and-seek you’ve ever played. If the stories are true, you know these two things for certain: Do not let your candle go out for longer than ten seconds, and do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to be caught.
The Midnight Man is not a forgiving opponent.
You’re older than you’d like to admit, but you’re still fascinated by all those games you really shouldn’t be playing. Maybe it has something to do with the ritualistic aspects of them; maybe you’re drawn to the warning labels that always seem to accompany them; maybe you just like a good old fashioned ghost story. Whatever the reason, you decide that when your best friend is in town visiting for the first time in ages this week is the perfect time to play another. You friend will be your failsafe; the game, as they say, is afoot.
You start by setting up the designated room at 11pm. One chair faces north, with two other chairs flanking it, facing each other, an arm’s length away. You set a mirror in each of the two side chairs, such that if you sit in the north-facing chair—your throne—you can just barely see yourself out of the corner of your eye. You show your best friend the bucket of water and the mug you’ve set in the room, and you place a fan on low power directly behind your throne. Then you exit the room, the door left open, the fan left on.
At 3:30 in the morning, gripping an object of sentimental value in one hand and a lit candle in the other, you approach the room. The door is still open; the fan is still on; you are seated in your throne by 3:33. Good. That’s how you know it’s safe to proceed. Keeping your eyes focused on the darkness in front of you, you begin asking questions. You aren’t certain whether you’ll receive any answers, but if you do, they’ll come from the mirrors. Who will be speaking? You don’t know. But whoever they are, you suspect they might be worth listening to.
The game is called Three Kings… but is it you who are the king? Or are you merely someone else’s queen or fool?
There are scads and scads of games like these floating around out there in the ether, and thanks to the Internet, they’re more accessible than ever. Bloody Mary, of course, has a long tradition of being passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth; she may be the angry spirit of Queen Mary I of England, or she may be a car crash victim who suffered from horrible disfiguration named Mary Worth. The Midnight Game and Three Kings, on the other hand, are more recent creations that fall under the “Ritual” genre of creepypasta. For those unfamiliar with the term, “creepypasta” describes all those spooky stories the Internet has collected over the years; it’s a bastardization of “copypasta,” which is turn a bastardization of “copy-paste”—the method by which huge blocks of text get shared from person to person in the digital age. Most versions of the Midnight Game allege that it was once an old pagan ritual used as a punishment for those who disobeyed the gods; this claim is, of course, unsubstantiated, so apologies to all the actual pagans out there who keep having to explain that no, it’s not—it’s just a story. Three Kings, on the other hand, first appeared on the nosleep subreddit—the same place Boothworld Industries came from—and got so popular that it spawned its very own subreddit, Three Kings Corner.
You’ll notice that many of the ritual-type games involve mirrors. The idea is usually that by peering into the depths of its reflective surface, the mirror will somehow become a window, promising to show us ghouls, ghosts, or sometimes even glimpses of the future. Here’s the crazy thing: It’s not total bullshit. We do see things in the mirror when we play these sorts of games… just maybe not for the reasons those games would like us to think. Stand back, everyone—I’m going to try science!
In 1804, a Swiss physician, politician, and philosopher by the name of Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler discovered that if you stare at a single point for even a short period of time, other stimuli within proximity to that point will look to you like they’ve disappeared. This phenomenon is called Troxler’s fading or the Troxler Effect, and it’s incredibly easy to see in action. Try this: Focus your gaze on the black cross in the middle of the GIF seen below and stare at it for about 30 seconds.
Did the purple circles around the edge vanish? Gasp! It must be witchcraft! Or, y’know, just an optical illusion called the “lilac chaser.” You might also have seen a greenish dot circling its way around the image in a clockwise direction. Neat-o, right?
But we’re not done yet. In 2010, Giovanni B. Caputo of the University of Urbino’s Department of Psychology published a paper in Perception that took Troxler’s fading to the next level. Caputo had 50 people between the ages of 21 and 29 stand in front of a mirror in a quiet, dimly lit room for ten minutes; then, at the end of those ten minutes, each participant was asked to write down what he or she saw in the mirror during that time. The results do not sound like it was a good time: 66 percent reported huge deformations of their own face; 18 percent saw the face of one of their parents, but with some wacky and disturbing changes; 28 percent saw someone they didn’t know; 28 percent saw some sort of archetypal face, like that of an old woman or a child; 18 percent saw an animal face; and a whopping 48 percent saw what are described as “fantastic and monstrous beings.” What essentially happened is that Troxler’s fading caused each person to perceive certain traits as having disappeared, after which the Caputo Effect, as it’s called, caused the brain to fill in the gaps with whatever other information floating around it that it could. The result? Monsters. Monsters in the mirror.
But although Troxler’s fading and the Caputo Effect explain what we see when we play these games we shouldn’t play, it doesn’t explain why we play them in the first place. Me? I suspect it has something to do with the idea of tempting fate.
In recent years, Jane Risen of the University of Chicago and Thomas Gilovish of Cornell University have done a lot of research into what goes on in our brains when we tempt fate. Apparently it’s a three-step mental process: First, some behaviors make specific outcomes seem even worse than usual due to the fact that they highlight the contrast between what almost happened and what actually didhappen. Second, our survival instincts cause negative scenarios to fire up our imaginations more than positive ones. Third, the more you think about something, the more likely it seems to be true. (This is why we do things like second-guess ourselves even when we know our initial reactions to certain stimuli were probably right.) So, when you put all three steps together, you get this: nNgative outcomes feel worse after tempting fate, which makes us focus more on them than on the good outcomes, which in turn makes them seem a lot more likely to happen. The craziest thing about this whole process? We do it automatically. We’re hard-wired to want to tempt fate.
Add to that the biological triggers that cause us to take risks, even in the face of dire consequences, and, well, you’ve got something pretty powerful. Recent research focusing on neurotransmitters in the human body has revealed that one of the biggest factors in the risk-taking equation is dopamine. Not only does it help control motor skills, but also—and even more importantly—it’s our motivation. It drives us to seek the unknown, and it helps us deal with emotions like anxiety and fear. It’s what has charged explorers and innovators for centuries—and it’s what still charges us today to do crazy things like climb mountains and ride roller coasters and play games that could put our immortal souls at risk.
So, then, knowing these several pieces of the puzzle, I think the big picture for why we’re drawn to playing games we shouldn’t play looks something like this: Rituals have been performed throughout history for a huge variety of reasons. One of those reasons is rebellion, and tempting fate is at its core an act of rebellion. If we can gamble by, oh, say, attempting to invoke the forces of darkness or what have you, and win—the winning is important—then somehow it’s a demonstration of our strength. It proves that we’re the highest-functioning power there is. We control our own fates—not some oogie-boogie creature we’ve been taught to fear by our elders and (so we’re told) betters.
After all, we don’t really believe that Bloody Mary will burst out of the mirror and drag us back in with her, or that the Midnight Man will catch us and do unspeakable things to us if we don’t relight our candles in enough time… right?
Better Safe Than Sorry: Why We Believe in Tempting Fate
Lucia Peters is endlessly fascinated by creepy things, both real and imagined; she writes about them regularly at The Ghost in My Machine. Her work has also appeared on TheGloss, Crushable, Bustle, and BettyConfidential