Picture a girl with a green ribbon around her neck. She never removes it or explains why she won’t, despite frequent requests from her partner. Only after they’ve spent a lifetime together does the girl—now an old woman on her deathbed—finally let him untie the ribbon.
Then, her head falls off.
The story, colloquially known as “the girl with the green ribbon,” is a tentpole of Millennial folklore, passed from friend to friend at sleepovers and in schoolyards throughout the late 1980s and beyond. Though it’s often misremembered as an entry in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, it’s actually from a different collection by the same author: In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Stories, published in 1984 and meant for younger readers. (Technically, the title is just “The Green Ribbon,” and the girl is named Jenny.)
While Schwartz seemingly was the first to adorn his protagonist in green, he didn’t originate the concept of a woman who hides her headlessness behind an accessory. And compared to older tales of the sort—featuring necrophilia, madness, adultery, demons, and the guillotine—“The Green Ribbon” is pretty kid-friendly.
The Devil Wears Chokers
In 1824, four years after the release of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving published “The Adventure of the German Student” in a collection called Tales of a Traveller. The titular student, Gottfried Wolfgang, visits France in the hopes that a change of scenery will cure him of a mental breakdown essentially brought about by too much solitude and studying. Alas, Wolfgang continues that behavior in Paris—where, by the way, the French Revolution is in full swing—becoming “a literary [ghoul], feeding in the charnel-house of decayed literature” and retreating further and further into his own imagination.
One dark and stormy night, he comes upon a very pale, “ravishingly beautiful” woman huddled on the steps below the guillotine. She’s clad all in black with a “broad, black band round her neck, clasped by diamonds.” Wolfgang escorts her back to his apartment, where they spend the night after pledging themselves to each other for eternity. But when Wolfgang returns from a morning sojourn to look for a larger apartment, he finds his new soul mate dead—and the police inform him that she’d been guillotined the previous day.
“[The police officer] undid the black collar round the neck of the corpse, and the head rolled on the floor!” Irving wrote. “They tried to soothe [Wolfgang], but in vain. He was possessed with the frightful belief that an evil spirit had reanimated the dead body to ensnare him. He went distracted, and died in a madhouse.”
Irving’s yarn germinated from a story he’d heard in June 1824 from Irish writer Thomas Moore, who had heard it from an English contemporary named Horace Smith. Moore informed Irving that he “thought it would do well for his ghost stories, but mentioned H. Smith having told me he meant to make use of it himself,” adding that he “probably has done so” already.
Moore was right. In January 1823, Smith had published “Sir Guy Eveling’s Dream,” which follows a similar trajectory as Irving’s “Adventure” with a few key differences. It’s set in London, not Paris, and the main character isn’t a German student, but an English gentleman whose wild ways are bringing shame upon his family. He, too, meets a beautiful woman, who resists his attempts to remove the “ungainly ruff” (and the bejeweled velvet necklace beneath it) from her neck. He, too, finds her dead after running a morning errand.
Officials identify the woman as the lover of an Italian ambassador who was recently hanged for murdering him, and they unfasten her necklace to reveal her “discoloured” and “bruised” throat, “deep cut into by the cruel and despiteous rope.” Sir Guy, like Wolfgang, goes mad with the belief that a demon had reanimated the corpse and dies in a hospital shortly thereafter.
Smells Like Guillotine Spirit
Smith may have drawn inspiration for “Sir Guy Eveling’s Dream” from a 1613 French pamphlet that “recounts a rake’s moral reckoning after an act of inadvertent necrophilia with a recently executed woman, reanimated by the devil to trick him,” French-literature historian Maria Beliaeva Solomon wrote in a 2022 article published in French Forum. That woman had also been hanged.
But the Reign of Terror’s legacy hung heavy over the literary landscape of the 19th century, and Irving’s idea to center the story around the guillotine proved popular. Iterations of his tale appeared in France during the mid-1800s, most notably Alexandre Dumas’s novella La Femme au collier de velours, or The Woman With the Velvet Necklace, published in 1849.
Dumas grounded his version in history more than any previous author had, going so far as to base certain characters on (and name them after) real people. His German expat is Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, a Gothic horror writer perhaps best known for penning the story that inspired Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Though the guillotined woman, a ballerina named Arsène, is a fictional creation, Dumas imagines her as the lover of real-life revolutionary leader Georges Danton.
The general plot hews to Irving’s blueprint: A German man alights in Paris during the French Revolution, discovers an alluring woman below the guillotine, and learns after an impassioned night that her head is only attached by a black necklace. That said, Dumas’s version is less a religion-tinged ghost story and more a cross between a romantic period drama and a psychological thriller. For one thing, Hoffmann breaks some promises to his sweetheart back home; for another, Arsène’s rolling head isn’t the tale’s final twist. (We’ll leave this one unspoiled.)
Dumas wasn’t the last famous French writer to tackle the guillotined-woman trope. In 1924, Gaston Leroux—author of The Phantom of the Opera—borrowed Dumas’s exact title for his own story, in which a retired French sea captain recounts a harrowing local tale he heard while stationed in Corsica 30 years earlier.
In it, the mayor throws a French Revolution–themed costume ball; and his wife, the lovely and unfaithful Angeluccia, dresses up as Marie Antoinette for a staged demonstration of her husband’s newly restored Revolution-era guillotine. But the mayor is aware of her infidelity, and the blade that slices into her neck on the block is all too real.
Though Angeluccia survives the attempted murder, guests later swear they saw her head fully detach from her body—implying that perhaps the black velvet necklace she’s taken to wearing is doing more than just concealing a scar. Naturally, the fateful moment comes when Angeluccia’s necklace gets unfastened … but we’ll leave this one unspoiled, too.
Heads Still Roll
Schwartz’s tale of Jenny and her green ribbon is a far cry from the melodramatic adventures that predated it. But as Book Riot points out, there was precedent for his pared-down narrative: Ann McGovern’s “The Velvet Ribbon” from 1970’s Ghostly Fun, and Judith Bauer Stamper’s “The Black Velvet Ribbon” from 1977’s Tales for the Midnight Hour.
They’re both more or less the same story. A man marries a woman who resolutely refuses to untie the black velvet ribbon from her neck, telling him, “You’ll be sorry if I do.” Eventually, the ribbon so infuriates the man that he cuts it off while his wife is sleeping, and her head rolls right onto the floor.
The two works, published in the midst of the second wave of feminism, deal with themes germane to the time period: consent, bodily autonomy, and the danger of an angry man—even a husband—who won’t take no for an answer. There’s plenty of sociopolitical subtext in the stories set during the French Revolution, too; you could, for example, read them as cautionary tales against letting an idealism that only exists in the imagination obscure real-world atrocities.
By contrast, “The Green Ribbon” can easily be taken at face value; and it’s about as happy an ending as you can get with this type of tale. Jenny reveals her secret on her own terms, and only in her very last living moments. Moreover, the story begins from Jenny’s perspective, positioning her as our primary protagonist.
Its simplicity—in addition to the ubiquity of Schwartz’s books during the late 20th century—might help explain how the story, not even 200 words to begin with, became the most iconic example of its microgenre: You can retell it in just a few sentences. And while “The Green Ribbon” may lack its predecessors’ complexities, shades of them can still be found in today’s takes on the headless woman. Carmen Maria Machado, for example, fleshed out the issues that McGovern and Bauer Stamper touched on in “The Husband Stitch,” a story from her 2017 collection Her Body and Other Parties. And Emily Carroll’s “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold,” a story from her 2014 comics collection Through the Woods, has all the trappings of any top-notch Gothic horror.
Those and other published works aren’t the only evidence that the girl with the green ribbon has maintained her cultural relevance. Further proof is in the memes.
“Hot girl summer is over,” one Twitter user tweeted in September 2023, “it’s time for girl with the green ribbon fall.”