I don’t remember the first time I saw The Ring, but it was probably in college over ten years ago. Then there was a sequel that didn’t get much attention (I’ve never seen it). Since a more advertised, more acclaimed sequel, Rings, came out yesterday (I intend to see it tonight and write about it thereafter) I thought it would be appropriate to dive into the American original, which is based off the utterly eerie Japanese Ringu. Perhaps in part because its origin is Japanese – and thus beyond our cultural sphere – The Ring is a highly original horror and suspense classic, mixing an investigative mystery plot-line with sheer horror and eschewing a lot of horror film conventions for its own original storytelling. But I intend to do more than sing The Ring’s praises in this piece – although I will, assuredly, do that. I plan on looking at some binaries that construct the storytelling behind The Ring and examine what the film implies about our culture’s relationship to technology.
Although the plot of The Ring is nearly legendary by now (translate: a legend in its own right) I’ll summarize the events without revealing the very end of the film for those who haven’t seen it (although I might have to allude to some spoilers as analysis ensues.) Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) plays a more or less single mother to Aiden Keller (Dave Dorfman). She is also a clever, sassy, borderline-workaholic journalist who struggles to fit into “perfect mom” mold and maintain open lines of communication with her son. When her 16-year-old niece Katie’s heart stops unexpectedly, Rachel assures her sister that she’ll investigate the situation and try find an explanation for her niece’s death. Through Katie’s friends’ words of mouth, she hunts down a video tape reputed to kill you seven days after you watch it, and makes the possibly hubristic mistake of watching it herself. When she shows it to friend and father of her son, Noah Clay (Martin Henderson), and especially when Aiden stumbles upon the video, Rachel commits herself to investigating its origins so she can break the curse and save herself and her family. She traces the video back to the existence of an angry, tortured child, Samara (Daveigh Chase) and seeks to tell Samara’s story to break the curse. But, will that be enough?
As I watched the film, I became primarily interested in a few things: the relationship between evil and mental illness depicted in the film (if you’ve ever read my blog, you know this is a consistent interest), how binaries work together to create a story, what those binaries tell us about our own ideology, and what then-contemporary attitudes about technology the film embodies. I plan on touching on all these things, to some extent, though not necessarily in that order, to dig more deeply into this highly thought-provoking film.
The binaries really fascinated me. Now, to be clear, there is a literary analysis method called deconstruction; at its simplest, it embodies deconstructing binaries…I think. That’s really all I know. I haven’t read enough theory yet to apply formal methodology, but I think we can examine binaries – two linked but opposing concepts – in the film to pinpoint some assumptions and underlying mentalities that the film embodies. There are, of course, the obvious binaries: since Rachel has a semi-friendly but sometimes contentious relationship with Aiden’s father, the male-female, mother-father binary is important in the film. This male-female binary is also important since the seat of evil is a little girl named Samara, which invokes a childhood/adulthood binary and situates childhood as the state of being closest to forms of complete goodness (Aiden is a near-perfect child) or ultimate evil (Samara).
Not insignificantly, Samara lived on a rural island, an island marked as quintessentially rural by the presence of a lighthouse, a barn, and horses (the island’s general scenery, which we glimpse, also invokes this notion). Rachel visits this rural island though she lives in downtown Seattle, Washington – we glimpse many “city shots” – thus creating a tension between the urban and the rural, or even the modern, urbanized city-dwellers and the old-fashioned country “folk.” Multiple (female) characters succumb to mental illness in the film, or are suspected of mental illness, creating a binary between sanity and insanity, one that is sometimes conveniently juxtaposed with the binary between good and evil. Finally, human beings, in general, sit in binary opposition to two concepts: technology and the supernatural. There is also some distinction between land and water, or land and the subterranean.
So all of that’s great…but what does it tell us? Well, when we consider the relationship between sanity and insanity, three characters in the film are institutionalized. Katie’s friend Becca is admitted to a psychiatric ward when she witnesses Katie’s death, and she becomes a disheveled sort of walking dead character herself, although we know she’s a reasonably good person. When Rachel digs into the history of the people on the toxic tape, she finds out that Samara’s mother, Anna Morgan, was institutionalized because of Samara. Throughout parts of the film, we wonder how “good” or potentially malevolent Anna may have been. And then we have Samara, who was institutionalized because she never slept and because of her overtly stated desire to do harm to others (perhaps a concrete definition of evil). We note, then, that all of the institutionalized are female, though they inhabit different parts of the plot and are tenuously linked, in some ways, beyond that similarity. There is, then, at least the assumption that women are more prone to insanity, with “sanity” being the culturally preferred state in such a binary (maleness then becomes the preferred cultural state in the male-female binary)
While the institutionalized can be good people, it’s notable that Samara is institutionalized because she’s evil, suggesting, perhaps problematically, that mental illness and evil have overlapping characteristics. As someone who (I believe) is also adopted, Samara becomes the ultimate “girl on the margins”: through the binaries we’ve constructed, her adopted origins, her femininity, her presumed madness or institutionalization, and her “evilness,” she is the most marginalized character in the film, a character who reclaims the power that life denies her through the unusual combination of supernatural law and the proliferation of VHS technology. Hmmm…what a surprise. The quintessentially marginalized character of the film is also the seat of havoc and terror. That seems (surprisingly not) unusual. To emphasize Samara’s marginalization, note that she’s always crawling out of a well (below ground) and that Rachel discovers she was made to live in the barn, above the horses (out of the home, above ground). The only time Samara rests on land is when we see her, in old video tapes, sitting for examination in a mental institution. She is so marginalized that the film banishes her from land, making her subterranean or super-terranean (yes, I think I made up a word).
Even hair is inverted to scare us in this film. Long hair, traditionally a sign of femininity and beauty, is employed in The Ring to make our blood curl, making the feminine untrustworthy and unsettling. Those who see the film find themselves coloring hair with black pen over the faces of photographs, Rachel Keller has a dream about finding a wet hairball in her mouth, and in one of the film’s most terrifying scenes, Samara’s long, brown hair completely masks her face – the ultimate marker of her humanity – making her look more like a troublesome thing than a ghost girl. Faces are infinitely important in this film, too: those who die seven days after seeing the video die with hideously contorted faces (as if they have been blotted out of existence), all or most of Samara’s face is usually covered (as if she were evil and supernatural instead of human), and when someone sees the video, his or her face gets blurred in photographs as a supernatural (or supernaturally technological) indicator of near non-existence.
Let me be clear: I don’t mean to criticize the film, which I love, and which doesn’t do anything flagrantly disturbing with concepts like mental illness or femininity (Rachel, for example, is an excellent, even kick-ass feminine character). I’m just interested in some of the assumptions that form the film and some of the mentalities it proliferates. There seems, also (as mentioned), an odd fear of the folk, the past, or the rural. Samara’s parents are depicted as a bit folksy and out of date, and Samara herself comes from a rural island – and Katie and Rachel both find her tape in a mountain lodge – despite the fact that her tape ultimately kills so many city-dwellers. There is then, in this film, a geographical fear of the rural – or, folk tradition, or outdated culture – interfering, even overtaking the comfort and paradoxical seclusion of urban life. In this way, the film evokes a fear of “the folk” and a fear of the past, which is what Samara’s antiquated island home represents. The island Samara grows up on is isolated, surrounded by water and thus by “empty space” instead of “inviting, inhabited place” – another marker of her character and her marginalized status. This film rests on a fear, then, that the wrong boundaries will be transgressed.
The set of binary oppositions that I found most interesting were as follows: humanity and technology, and humanity and the supernatural. We’ll note here that both technology and the supernatural sit as opposite binaries to humanity; robots, VHS tapes, and ghosts are all placed, by us, in the “non-human” category, but, at least in The Ring, technology and ghosts are both forces to be reckoned with. To equate technology with the supernatural (which the aforementioned binary, and the whole film does) is to equate it with the powerful, the mysterious – that which is difficult to understand but can be infinitely dangerous to human beings. Such supposition is a telling indicator that even in the early 21st century when the film was made, we were more than wary about technological advances taking place, despite whatever simultaneous fear of the past we may have had. After all, before investigating the video tape, the tape – the technology – keeps Samara’s physical body relegated to the techno-supernatural realm (again, technology and the supernatural interact). In that way, technology is a barrier. At the same time, technology spreads her influence through the passed-around VHS tape, showing that technology can be that which saves us from evil and that which promulgates evil itself.
(SPOILER ALERT TO FOLLOW) While this ambivalence is present throughout most of the film, the terror of too powerful-technology is literally embodied in a dripping wet and beastly, partially decayed Samara when she emerges out of the well, crawls out the TV screen (again, that malicious hair is covering her eyes) and heads straight toward Noah to kill him, after Rachel has set her free by discovering her body in a well. In this scene, Samara becomes a glaring symbol of technology escaping beyond its originally-intended boundaries and catching us, unaware, to kill us, the way she did with Noah. This scene indicates our fear of technology’s agency the same way sci-fi films depict evil robots coming to life. The fact that Samara can’t be stopped – at least, not in the first The Ring – is also a telling symbol that along with technology, evil (embodied in Samara) can never be completely stopped. And in equating Samara with a circulating VHS tape, the film directly equates evil with technology. When Samara crawls out of the T.V. screen, we know that ultimately technology will be unbound. We can create technology, but whatever borders we create with it will be disrupted (a contention to which anyone who sends work e-mails from a smart phone can attest).
And then, there is the phenomena of the ugly, wet, decaying woman. But that was a weird sentence, so what the hell am I talking about? Well, I’ve stated on this blog that one of the first horror films I ever watched was Stanly Kubrick’s The Shining. In a canonical and infinitely terrifying scene in that film, the half-mad Jack Torrance enters room 231 only to glimpse a (naked, beautiful, ghost) woman standing by a bathtub that she’s presumably just stepped out of. Her hair is slicked back and wet and her body is shiny from water, but she is thin, sculpted, beautiful – the type of woman any man would want to kiss, and so the mad Jack begins to do that. But the music changes, and when he looks in the mirror, he sees a heavy, older body with bullet holes in the face and spots of decaying flesh. As this old, decayed hag is moaning and cackling and moving toward the shocked and shaken Jack, the film pans to footage of her mangled body rising out of the bathtub with hollow, empty eyes. The “shower woman” in The Shining thus embodies our society’s greatest fear – that there is a brutally ugly, evil hag beneath the perfect angel-woman. In fact, the hag, in this case, is associated with ugliness, a larger body, decayed flesh, and water.
I thought of this scene in one of the final scenes of The Ring, when Samara crawls out of the well. Though as a child, Samara is never as sexualized as the “shower woman” in The Shining, she is water-logged like her evil, shower-dwelling counterpart, and her skin bares the marks of decay that take her further from the realm of the living and closer to the realm of the walking dead. After this water-logged femme fatale kills Noah, she looks up, and her hair moves back a little, to reveal a beastly face. In this way, water, decomposition and femininity combine in the same way they do in The Shining to evoke our greatest fears: that there is a wet, evil, dead, decaying female under every dry, good, alive and beautiful girl or woman. The life/death, land/water binaries are employed, here and in The Shining to tap our discomfort with things that exist off land, beyond the traditionally-alive, and outside the traditionally beautiful.
Binaries aside, perhaps one of the greatest questions the film raises was: if you had a reasonable (albeit unwarranted) amount of skepticism about the practicality of a cursed video tape, would you have watched the tape? Rachel presents herself as a relatively unafraid character, and I didn’t find it hard to believe that she did watch the tape. She seemed, to me, a woman who becomes obsessed with that she is investigating and is equally compelled by the end-goal of finding out how her niece unexpectedly passed for the sake of her grieving sister. And yet, she knew that a group of local teens died on the same day and the same time (she finds out that some of Katie’s friends passed when she did), and that all of them watched the video tape. The thing about watching the video tape is that it’s an irrevocable act; like any visual display, it can’t be unseen. And while “gazing” (looking on) usually gives us power, this film suggests that at least when we gaze at technology, perhaps we’re losing power more than we gain from it. Rachel forfeits her power when she gazes at the mysterious tape, described as “somebody’s nightmare,” and counts down the days until her presumed death while she works to reverse the curse. Really, what a horrible way to go (even if she ultimately survives). Despite what we might say, nobody wants to know when they’re slated to die.
I’ve seen this movie probably about twenty times. In a recent article, I lament the formulaic nature of contemporary horror. The Ring pleasantly disrupts this bland formulaicness with engaging, eerie storytelling, good acting, and unexpected twists. I hope I can say the same about Rings when I see it tonight. Let me know what your thoughts on either film are in the comment section below!