Halloween season is upon us. We’ve started wearing sweaters, delicious. My boyfriend loves nothing more than comfort food and scary movies, both of which he would consume every night in October if he didn’t cohabitate with a woman who is ambivalent about the former and opposed to the latter.
I used to like scary stories. As a child, I had an illustrated book called In A Dark, Dark Room. The book was meant, ostensibly, to help with developing reading skills. (Imagine sounding out sentences like “When I saw his teeth, I ran,” at four or five years old.) As the Harvey Weinstein scandal unfurled, I kept thinking about one story from In A Dark, Dark Room, titled “The Green Ribbon.” I couldn’t pinpoint why, because it’s hard to outline the perimeters of knowledge.
So I looked the book up. Digitally flipping through the first few pages, I had that queasy, memory-that-isn’t-memory sensation, the hallucinatory feeling of a thing fully remembering you even if you do not remember it.
I also found a BuzzFeed article from just a few months ago (March, 2017), titled “For Everyone Who’s Still Fucked Up Over That Story About the Girl With the Ribbon Around Her Neck.” Apparently, the haunting is endemic.
A brief recap: Jenny and Alfred are children together. Jenny always wears a green ribbon around her neck and Alfred, lanky and jovial, continues to question what purpose it serves. Jenny is pale and dejected, often looking down as she refuses to answer his persistent inquiries about the ribbon. (Also, it’s more of a swath than a ribbon. The thing is hand-thick.) Jenny and Alfred grow older and marry. She looks at the floor during their wedding ceremony while Alfred, oblivious, smiles at the pastor. The story jumps immediately from wedding to deathbed, where Alfred is tending Jenny as she withers. She tells him that, at last, she can reveal the secret of the green ribbon. Slowly Alfred unties it with his ghostly fingers and Jenny’s head comes tumbling off. A black cat looks quixotically at her bloodless decapitation in the last picture. No reaction shot of Alfred.
Horror always taps into a fear we live with every day. I don’t think many of us live with the daily anxiety that our heads will tumble off, but we do live with the fear that we don’t know our partners, that they harbor secrets, that our own traumas have damaged us irreversibly, and that people can tell.
Jenny haunts us, I believe, because she is emblematic of the secrets women lodge in their bodies beginning in childhood. Secrets we keep even from “good” men like Alfred. Jenny can live a life with Alfred, but he will never fully know her. She has to survive in a way Alfred does not. Someone cut Jenny’s head off and she can’t tell her husband for fear that she will be shamed, rejected, or – worse – maimed further. Jenny is zombie-us, she is the children’s book #MeToo, demurring from the truth because she knows the truth will kill her again.
All women have a green ribbon. The knife in the nightstand drawer, keychain-sized pepper spray, thirty extra pounds, four deadbolts, heroin, cocaine, enough alcohol in one night to damage the brain, a dog, two dogs. I once threw a red dress down a flight of stairs just to see it puddled at the bottom like my body had been the night I wore it.
This is not to say that the experience of assault or harassment is universal for women. It is to say that the fact of having that experience is. Any woman who says she has never sustained either has been convinced of that truth by a man. The room is dark, dark, and we are all in it. We are taught to fear because fear engenders self-protection. We are taught not to take off the green ribbon because nobody believes a dead girl, even if she is managing to keep her head on long after the massacre.
Art © 1984 by Dirk Zimmer.