Posted on August 22, 2021

Unraveling The Green Ribbon In Horror Stories and Movies

Guest Post

Marriage and relationships have always been a major theme in horror. How much can you ever REALLY know about the person you share your life with. How long can you last until a person’s true self is revealed. Yes, marriage is a murky mess. Oftentimes there is a simple yet impactful folktale that gets to the heart of a theme like this. One such story, one that has quite the history in itself, is a tale often known as The Green Ribbon.

I made a documentary about the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, and so I’ve heard many people talk about the numerous folktales and urban legends in them. So many had a profound impact for children growing up, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. The Green Ribbon is one that isn’t technically in those books (though featured in the same author’s easy reader) but it was one that came up again and again as a story that resonated with many people as a truly scary story that one ought to read in the dark. Over time I found that The Green Ribbon has some unique themes that closely relate to other modern tales in books and film.

The Green Ribbon

It’s the story of a young couple. In the book In a Dark, Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz, their names are Jenny and Alfred. Jenny just happens to wear a green ribbon around her neck. Alfred asks why she always wears it, but she won’t tell. The couple fall in love, get married, and grow old together. All along, Jenny refuses to take off the green ribbon. Finally on her deathbed, Alfred asks if he can remove the ribbon, and Jenny says okay. When Alfred takes the green ribbon off her neck, her head falls off.

woman's head on the floor next to her body in a bed

Art by Dirk Zimmer

What’s notable about this story is not only how memorable it became for generations of kids, but that like many Grimm’s Fairy Tales and other dark children’s stories, it touches on fundamental fears that carry on to adulthood. The idea of having a long life with someone, only to discover that they have a secret… it means in some ways you never really knew them.

It also alludes to this idea that women must keep up appearances… that they and their bodies carry a morbid secret that men will never understand if they were given the truth. In time I think the green ribbon has become a powerful symbol. One that can be seen in other works of art.

The Husband Stitch

black book cover with red and green abstract designCarmen Maria Machado’s story The Husband Stitch is a short story in Her Body and Other Parties. It is a modern retelling of the story of the green ribbon, which also incorporates other tales told by Alvin Schwartz. In it, the green ribbon is a symbol for the cultural expectations that are put upon women… their bodies are meant to be kept together for men’s desires. They are put through hell as a vessel during childbirth, through the agony of everyday life as a woman, and all while keeping themselves socially and visually “together” in public and for their husbands… keeping their heads firmly in place while underneath a secret pain is kept under wraps.

The husband stitch refers to the extra stitch (an unneeded one) given after a vaginal birth that a doctor might give. With the idea that it gives additional pleasure for the husband. And it is very much a real thing. In Machado’s story, the husband stitch provides the same reassurances for the husband that the green ribbon provides. The woman is held together artificially, for the man and as a part of, in the case of the stitch, something that has become part of everyday life. The woman is bound in order to keep up cultural expectations. Ultimately, the woman has a secret underneath, a true self, that she does reveal to her husband. It’s a twist on horror’s normal trope of marital secrecy.

Gerald’s Game

In horror movies, it is the husband that is often the one with a secret. A dark self. In The Shining, it’s a theme that stems from alcoholism and the burdens of family life. We see a similar idea in Amityville Horror and the marriage that slowly falls apart. Rosemary’s Baby provides an example of depicting a similar theme from the perspective of the wife. There is something wrong with her marriage, and her baby. But she isn’t quite sure whether it is real, or whether SHE is going mad… is her husband the problem, or is it her?

What we see more and more is the idea that WOMEN can be the ones with a dark secret, a true self, that they can never reveal to their husband. They may have an idyllic life in some ways, but underneath is a secret that cannot be spoken of… and when it finally is, the truth is revealed, and that often means the horror is revealed as well.

woman handcuffed to a bed

In Gerald’s Game directed by Mike Flanagan, we find a premise from a book by Stephen King that previously was considered nearly unfilmable. The protagonist Jessie is handcuffed to a bed by her husband, who is enticed by the idea to spice up their sex life. Jessie goes along, somewhat hesitantly. When her husband dies of a heart attack, what follows is Jessie’s maddening attempts to survive the situation.

And here is where the story mostly takes place. On a bed, handcuffed. In her head. And her memories come flowing back to haunt her. Many of the conversations she has with her dead husband and ultimately herself are about the small ways in which she as a woman has navigated her life keeping her head attached, in place… protecting social conventions… don’t speak up. It often starts with a trauma at an early age. For Jessie, a solar eclipse that has the same shape as handcuffs… or a wedding band… or a ribbon around the neck.

Between The Green Ribbon, The Husband Stitch, and Gerald’s Game, we have a symbol of a woman being tied together with an object. And all of these things, whether it is a ribbon, a stitch, or a handcuff, conveniently represent a number of the same things.

  1. They are SEXUAL and/or DECORATIVE.
  2. It prevents DISORDER. Having a woman’s head fall, her sexual body parts “damaged” from childbirth, or having her able to do anything in the bed sexually (uncuffed) are all ways in which a woman might be considered uncanny and strange, and thus socially unacceptable.
  3. They are all about a PROMISE. Very similar to a wedding band. Marriage can be seen as a promise that a wife gives to a husband. In Gerald’s Game this new, kinkier, band around her wrists is a stand-in for that promise… In this story, her promise is to please her husband, play along with his game. And in all of these stories, the promise is to keep her true nature (or pain) underneath and unseen for the benefit of her man.
  4. Most importantly, these objects are all about CONTROL. They are a restraint. It is certainly true in Gerald’s Game and the Husband Stitch and even in the Green Ribbon story, a single object is meant to bind the woman together in a pretty package so that she is socially and sexually more palatable to her husband. It is a societal control.

In Gerald’s Game, Jessie must ultimately face the Moonlight Man. Is she facing all men in that moment? All of society? Or is the Moonlight Man death itself? After all, her husband’s handcuffs and the trauma from her father were things she needed to work through, societal and cultural fears, on her way to face the ultimate fear that we all must face. As with Jenny in The Green Ribbon, the true “gift” that must be unraveled by pulling the final ribbon in the end… is death itself.

Additional Reading

The Girl with the Green Ribbon – The Story Behind the Tale

A Wife Should Have No Secrets: Unthinking Privilege and Privacy in Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”

The Symbolism of a Ribbon in “The Husband Stitch”

The Deep Meaning Behind ‘Gerald’s Game’

Cody Meirick is a web producer, writer, and filmmaker. He produced and directed the 2019 documentary Scary Stories. He is also editor and founder of

You can find Scary Stories on Amazon (ad):

And here is In a Dark, Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz (ad):

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