This happened to a friend of a friend. I swear to God it’s true. One night, he was riding on a subway in Seoul…or maybe it was Busan, I don’t exactly remember, but anyway, it was late, he was alone, and there weren’t many other people on the train. A woman got on, and took the seat next to him. He said she wore her hair long, down to the middle of her back, and it shone in the lights of the train. Her figure was good, and he couldn’t stop staring at her beautiful eyes. But she wore a red surgical mask. They rode for a few stops, he’d catch her looking at him, she’d catch him looking at her. Finally he smiled at her. He couldn’t tell, because of the red mask, but her eyes looked like she was smiling back. His stop was coming up, so it was now or never—he had to say something if he was going to.
But she spoke instead: “Am I pretty?”
What a stupid question! Of course she was pretty! So he said: “Yes.”
The girl reached up behind her head, her slender, white fingers untying the mask. She let it fall to her lap.
“How about now?” she asked.
The girl’s mouth was slit open from ear to ear. You could see her teeth, her gums, she looked like she was grinning! She started to scream at him, but, lucky boy, the subway stopped, the doors opened, and he ran, never looking back.
No, wait, that’s not how the story goes. The real story is that the girl had plastic surgery, but something went terribly wrong; she went insane, and now she wanders the streets, asking men whether they think she’s pretty. If they answer no, she holds them down, pulls out a surgical scalpel, and cuts their mouth to match hers. If they answer yes? Then she screams at them that they’re a liar, and uses her scalpel to cut their throats! Or…maybe that’s not it either? Maybe she cuts you based on your blood type? If you’re a type A, it’s just a little cut. Only a centimeter or so. Type B is a little longer, maybe two or three centimeters. But, oh man, type AB or O? She’ll cut all the way to your ears.
This story is an urban legend. It is called The Red Mask Girl, the Ripped Mouth or Slit Mouth Woman, or the Kuchisake-onna. Like any urban legend, there are a hundred variations, different twists that evolve in different regions. It seems to always be a woman, hiding her mouth with a surgical mask. Nothing odd there, we see it all the time on the streets of Korea. Sometimes she targets children, sometimes men. Sometimes she uses a scalpel, sometimes scissors. But she always asks some variation of “am I pretty?” or “am I beautiful?” Some stories say there is no right answer, some say that if you tell her she looks average or so-so she will let you go. As to how she became disfigured? It could have been plastic surgery gone wrong, perhaps it was a car crash. Or maybe she’s so crazy that she did this to herself, hoping for a more beautiful smile.
This legend originated in Japan, as far back as the Edo period. Legend has it that a jealous man accused his beautiful, vain wife of adultery, and slit her smile with his sword. “Who will think you are beautiful now?” he asked, assured of her faithfulness from then on.
The story resurfaced with a vengeance in 1970’s Japan. It is said—this is, remember, an urban legend, so any information can be passed along with a clear conscience—that in the late 70’s, a woman who attacked and killed children was hit by a car while chasing a child, and as a result, her face was split into a macabre grin. It is theorized that this real woman’s death was the catalyst for the story’s resurfacing and spreading.
Around 2004, the legend hopped to Korea, which added the detail of the red surgical mask. It seems to be more prevalent here these days than Japan, but these stories come in waves.
The facial deformity that the Red Mask Woman has is commonly called a Glasgow Grin, because the practice is said to have originated there (clearly not true, as they were doing it in the Edo period of Japan). In the much publicized murder of Elizabeth Short (the Black Dahlia) in America in 1947, her mouth was slit in a Glasgow Grin. Victor Hugo, in 1869 France, wrote The Man Who Laughs, a novel about a man whose mouth had been cut in a similar fashion. More recently, and perhaps most famously, Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight sported this mutilation. Clearly the idea, one of being hurt so much you’ll never frown again, rings true in cultures world-wide. The juxtaposition of pain and the image of a smile, of a smile made out of scars is a jarring one.
The moral of the story? If you’re riding the subway in Seoul and the pretty lady with the red masks asks if you think she’s pretty? Just run. There are no right answers to that question.