Many remember reading a story called “The Green Ribbon” as a kid. It was in a collection of children's horror stories titled, In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. Featuring the characters of "Jenny and Alfred," it was written by Alvin Schwartz, the same mastermind behind the classic collection, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. His version of the tale, however, was just that, a version. Like most of the scariest urban legends, the story of the velvet ribbon is an old one that’s been modified and handed down for ages. Sometimes, it has been a green ribbon; other times, it’s been black; it’s even been a red ribbon in a version or two. Regardless, it’s always been maddening to the man who marries its wearer.
There are so many reasons why the velvet ribbon is scary, not least of which is that – like the creepy nursery rhymes that sometimes get told – this story is intended for children. In this eerie, memorable tale, a woman with a velvet ribbon around her neck will never take it off and is very mysterious about why. In the end, it’s revealed that the ribbon was the only thing keeping her head attached to her body. When the ribbon is removed, her cranium comes flopping off, and sometimes it's still talking from the floor in the moonlight. The tale is also incredibly spooky because of how consumed with removing the ribbon the husband becomes. It's a story of mania as well as the sometimes horrific consequences of the truth one seeks.
Historically, there is quite a bit of symbolism that goes along with chokers. They represented various things and were popular with upper class women in the 18th century. After the French Revolution, red chokers took on a more macabre symbolism, worn as a symbol of remembrance of and solidarity with those who lost their heads to the guillotine. In the mid to late 19th century, a black choker made of ribbon, however, had ties to prostitution.
In some versions of “The Velvet Ribbon,” the ribbon is red or black, and it always represents a secret the woman is keeping from her husband. The story ends with a mortified man uncovering a shocking secret about his wife that has loomed over their marriage the entire time. As a result, two related and not-so-far-fetched interpretations of this fairly overt symbolism are that: 1) a woman with secrets and a woman paid for sex are related entities; and 2) marrying a secretive woman or a prostitute won't end well for a man.
The ribbon clearly symbolizes a mysterious part of the woman's past and her husband’s inability to cope with not knowing about it. He lets this representation of her past (and his fantasies and fears of all it could symbolize) overshadow the present. In all the older versions (pre-Alfred and Jenny), the husband is extremely angry about this. He can’t even look at her in some cases, and it’s all because he doesn't know the story behind something of hers.
It shouldn't really matter why she wears it. He knew about the ribbon before he married her; he fell in love with her anyway. When there is no patience or acceptance left in him, the ribbon is his own "tell-tale heart," hounding him, driving him to go against her wishes and untie the ribbon anyway.
In the case of Alfred and Jenny’s version of the tale, “The Green Ribbon,” Jenny waits until she gets sick to not just tell Alfred what’s going on, but also to actually show him. Because she knows what’s going to happen, she waited until she was old and sick to take off the ribbon for a reason. Not only does Jenny basically commit suicide in front of her husband who loves her – even though she’s a weirdo who showers with a choker on – but she also makes him take it off her, effectively killing her at the moment of the big reveal.
Would it maybe not have been a slightly gentler blow to tell Alfred what he was getting into before you enlist him into assisted suicide? Except can Jenny really die given that her head isn't attached to her body in the first place?
In several of the other versions, the husband doesn't wait for his wife to be ready to remove the ribbon. Instead, he cuts it off while she’s sleeping – fully without consent. Her head rolls off and onto the floor – in a pretty sweet and vindictive move – bellowing “I told you, you’d be sorry.”
This is a huge violation! In those versions, the husband literally violates her trust and her body, (sort of) decapitating her as she sleeps. That’s pretty disturbing, and it makes you question whether you should even be sharing a bed with someone, ever. It also makes you seriously think about the latent sexual assault symbolism we allow children to be exposed to.