Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stranger Nightmare IV: The Slit-Mouthed Woman

It might not be Friday, but it's still the thirteenth of October (incidentally, this is also exactly the thirteenth post of this blog) -- which means it's high time for another nightmare. Today's Stranger Nightmare is an urban legend hailing from scary story central, a.k.a. Japan.

Don't Talk to Strangers Wearing Masks: The Legend

Kuchisake-onna, or the Slit-Mouthed (or Split-Mouthed) Woman, is an evil spirit who, at first glance, appears to be a beautiful woman wearing a surgical mask. Here in America she'd stick out like a sore thumb -- random woman creeping around at night with a mask covering half her face? No thank you -- but in Japan wearing a surgical mask (especially during flu season) to prevent the spread of germs is an extremely common practice. This lady, however, isn't politely protecting you from disease; the mask covers up her hideously disfigured face, which has been split from the corners of her mouth to each ear in a terrible Cheshire grin.

Like any urban legend, there are numerous variations on what exactly happens during an encounter with the Slit-Mouthed Woman. One version casts her as an archetypal Hitchhiker of Death, garbed in long, flowing white robes (a funeral kimono, perhaps?) and with a simple white cloth in place of a surgical mask. (Check out this snopes thread and this obake wiki post for even more details and variations.) The most popular version, however, has her wandering the streets of Japan at night, specifically preying upon young children walking home from school.

In almost all versions, the encounter goes something like this. The hapless victim meets the woman, who for all accounts and purposes seems to be normal -- i.e. alive and human. The woman asks the victim, "Am I beautiful?" Regardless of the answer (or often, before one can be given) she rips off her mask, revealing her deformity.

At this point in the hitchhiker story, she starts repeating, "Am I beautiful?" over and over again as the driver screams (and, I assume, dies in either a panic-induced accident or by other, more supernatural, causes). In the street encounter, however, she asks, "How about now?" and waits for an answer. And, of course, there are a lot of wrong answers. If you tell her she is not beautiful, she kills you with an over-sized pair of scissors -- by beheading in some stories, by cutting you in half in others. If you try to get on her good side by insisting she is still beautiful, she carves an extra-wide smile just like hers into your face. Running doesn't help either; after all, she is a ghost. She will simply appear in front of you again and, probably, kill you.

Supposedly, there is only one right answer. The legend says that if you respond to her question by saying something like, "You're only average" or "so-so," she will be confused long enough for you to escape with your life (and your face) intact. A slightly sillier rumor also has it that you can throw fruit at her (or, if you're a child, your favorite brand of candy) to distract her and get away.

Of course, the ensuing nightmares would probably be a lot harder to get rid of.

Wanna Know How I Got These Scars?: The Origins

Like Heath Ledger's Joker, the Slit-Mouthed Woman has acquired numerous origin stories over the years, and of course no one knows which story, if any, is the true one. Some say she acquired her scars during a plastic surgery gone wrong; others say it was a car accident, or the result of an assault by a biker gang, and still others say she is an escaped mental patient who carved the smile herself. A much older and more elaborate take is that she was an adulteress whose samurai husband, upon discovering her infidelity, carved up her face and demanded, "Who will think you're beautiful now?" She eventually died, either from her wounds or by committing suicide, and became an onryƍ (a vengeful spirit).

The origins of the legend itself are likewise difficult to pinpoint. Though the version featuring the samurai's wife supposedly dates back to Japan's Heian period (794-1185), the tale of the Slit-Mouthed Woman seems to have stayed largely in the shadows until the late 20th century. Toward the end of the 70's, rumors of a mutilated woman stalking schoolchildren began to spread like wildfire, and in 1979, something of a panic broke out in the Nagasaki prefecture. Reported sightings grew so frequent that the local police began regular patrols, and schools assigned teachers to walk students home in groups after class for safety reasons. The woman, of course, was neither found nor arrested, and after a while the panic died down, ending as quietly and mysteriously as it began.

(An interesting side-note: it just so happens that around this time, between 1977 and 1983, at least seventeen Japanese citizens were reportedly abducted for spy-related purposes by the North Korean government, which so far admits to thirteen of the kidnappings. Though all except one of the officially recognized victims were adults at the time and don't exactly fit the profile for the legend, I find it interesting that these disappearances -- which may have unofficially numbered in the hundreds -- occurred around the same time that the "panic" in Nagasaki really took off. One wonders if perhaps the real danger of abduction somehow attributed to the legend's sudden popularity. It has also been speculated that the rumors sprang from some real-life incident of a woman attacking a child, though no specific incident has, as far as I can tell, been identified.)

In 2007, it is said (though I haven't found any real evidence yet to confirm this) that a coroner found some records dating back to the late 70's which discuss a woman with a history of violence towards small children; while chasing some kids, she was hit by a car and killed, and her mouth was -- you guessed it -- torn open from ear to ear.

While I have yet to dig up any actual news articles about the panic (please share if you find any!), pretty much every overview of the legend refers to it, and some blog posts (like this one) even share first-person accounts and relative's memories of what it was like going to school with the fear of the Slit-Mouthed Woman following them every step of the way.

How About Now?: The Modern (Slit-Mouthed) Woman

If you're not creeped out enough yet, feel free to go look up one (or all) of the many films portraying the gruesome legend. Since the release of Teruyoshi Ishii's Kuchisake-onna in 1996, at least seven live-action movies have been made featuring the Slit-Mouthed Woman, with the most recent one being Jun'ichi Yamamoto's Kuchisake-onna (2012). A few manga and anime adaptations also exist, and several others including Hell Teacher Nube, Hanako and the Terror of Allegory, Franken Fran, Occult Academy and Toshi Densetsu feature her briefly. In the original Ringu, one of the main characters refers to an urban legend about "The Ripped-Mouth Woman," explaining that the story began circulating following a car accident in the Gifu prefecture which left a local woman brutally disfigured. Earlier in the movie, one character theorizes on where such stories come from:

"This kind of thing -- it doesn't start by one person telling a story. It's more like everyone's fear just takes on a life of its own . . . Or, maybe it's not fear at all. Maybe it's what we were secretly hoping for all along."

In 2004, the legend spread from Japan to Korea, where sightings began popping up all over again (though, as far as I know, it never hit panic levels). Re-dubbed The Red Mask Ghost (or The Red Mask Girl), in Korea she wears a red surgical mask and is said (in one of the variations) to be a Japanese woman whose scars were caused by failed cosmetic surgery. Sometimes she is said to target children, other times it's men, and her weapon of choice may be either scissors or a scalpel. It is said that she may be scared away by tracing the Chinese character for dog on one's hand (though the legend generally makes no mention of a dog, or China) -- however, in some versions, there is no escape.

In every version, the single constant is her haunting question, to which, truthfully, there may be no right answer: "Am I beautiful?"

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