Before I bring out “The Green Ribbon” for a lesson, I always have to ask myself two questions, the first being “Are the student old enough for this story?” The second question is “Will the parents forgive me for potentially traumatizing their children?”
“The Green Ribbon,” originally published in Alvin Schwartz’s In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Stories, is the age-old horror myth of a harmlessly ordinary young girl with an extraordinarily bizarre quirk, an elegant velvet ribbon tied around her neck that she never takes off. The origin of “The Green Ribbon” stretches much farther past Schwartz’s collection of spooky folktales, but in his volume, she is at least given a name, Jenny.
If you’ve ever sat around a campfire with your friends as a child, or gone to a slumber party where the flashlight got passed around for ghost-story-swapping-time, you’re probably already familiar with this creepy piece of fiction’s infamous ending, and Jenny’s bloodcurdling, horrifying secret. I personally enjoy watching the looks on my students’ faces when I have them read the ending line aloud in class.
I love this ending. There’s no complication to it, no long-winded explanation for Jenny’s strangeness, and no warning whatsoever. Her husband just tugs off her ribbon and off comes her head, leaving behind in the reader’s mind the mental image of it rolling across the bedroom floor. My students’ reactions to this ending have been mixed. There were some whose hands shook as we drew nearer to this, forgive the pun, cut-throat final line. Some were upset by it, which is fair enough. Others were just plain baffled.
“Why did her head fall off?” they ask me, almost demand of me, as if Jenny’s head falling off was my fault. As if I’d pulled the ribbon myself.
Shrugging nonchalantly, I respond with, “Why not?”
When teaching the horror genre to my students, both privately or in groups, what I really try to communicate to them is that the horror genre is not subject to the same rules of logic and character/setting background as, say, fantasy and science-fiction. “The Green Ribbon” is not required to offer any backstory as to why Jenny needed a ribbon to keep her head attached to her body in the first place.
If it were a typical fairy tale, then yes, the writer would be expected to add an introduction at the beginning where Jenny gets cursed by a witch, attaching magical elements to both her ribbon and her unusual predicament. But the goal, with horror, is simply to get a response out of your readers. I’ve told my students, you don’t have to woo your readers with world-building when you’re writing horror. You just have to scare them.
Some of my students have found this concept difficult to grasp. Many of them are devouring fantasy and science fiction books series like Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and The Maze Runner where the allure is the imaginary world the author creates, not a one-time jump-scare thrill, which is what a quick scary story is meant to offer instead.
When criticizing my students’ horror fiction, I’ve had to suggest on several occasions that they spend less time developing the eerie setting and more time building suspense in their storyline. I remember writing once, in the comments section, “I want to meet the ghost, not get lost in the woods,” for a student who filled up too much of the homework word limit with lengthy descriptions of a haunted forest. Granted, they were impressively good descriptions, just better suited to a different genre, or a novel. Not a short story.
Another aspect of “The Green Ribbon” that makes it perfect for a horror genre lesson plan is that it’s an ideal way to introduce students to plot twists. A good plot twist, from both my teacher’s and voracious reader’s perspective, should have the physical and emotional impact of accidentally sitting on a pin, in that it makes you jump out of your chair and yell.
Sometimes the reader subtly expects it, in the back of their thoughts, especially if the writer decided to add foreshadowing, but ultimately it should be shocking. After reading “The Green Ribbon” I usually ask my students to write on the subject of plot twists, and to tell me whether or not this one shocked them the way it was meant to.
At least, I will jokingly remind them as they write, you weren’t nearly as shocked as Jenny’s husband.
Emily Zarevich lives in Burlington, Ontario. She attended Wilfrid Laurier University, where she studied English literature, and went on to Humber College where she studied TESL/TEFL (Teaching English as a Second Language). She's previously been published in Dreamers Creative Writing, Understorey Magazine, Living Education, and Quick Brown Fox.
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