How common horror tropes in The Ring reveal a battle for tech dominance and the fate of cinema.
What is The Ring about?
Journalist Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) starts asking questions when her niece dies in gruesome circumstances. The investigation leads to rumours of a video cassette that causes anyone who watches it to die exactly seven days later. Then Rachel watches the tape, and the countdown begins …
The Ring is a remake of Japanese horror Ringu (1998), which was based on Kôji Suzuki’s novel of the same name. The main plot points are broadly consistent between them.
What’s on the video tape?
The killer video cassette features a jarring sequence of images. While they don’t make much sense at first, the images come to represent several things over the course of the film.
Principally, they’re Samara Morgan’s psychic memories, burned onto tape as a result of her being locked up and murdered as a child (a kind of telekinetic rage – think Stephen King’s Carrie).
Like the mirror ritual in Candyman, the cassette keeps Samara’s memories alive, enabling the hauntings to continue long after her death. And like other urban legends, ordinary people keep the chain going by encouraging others to watch the tape. This proves very significant later on.
For Rachel, the images are also a prediction of the things that will happen to her. At the same time, they function as a map: each symbol in the real world is a sign she’s getting closer to solving the mystery.
Hence Rachel encounters ladders and horses in everyday life, while a circling fly confirms Noah is looking in the right place for Anna’s medical records (a discovery that leads them to Samara).
One image shows something being pulled out of someone’s throat, mirroring the medical flex Rachel later almost chokes on.
The tape’s symbols tell Samara’s story, and what happened to the Morgans in the 1970s; they also mirror Rachel’s present-day investigation.
As for the name of the film: the ring is the last thing Samara’s victims see. Later, it transpires it’s the last thing Samara saw before dying at the bottom of a well. Her adopted mother – tortured by thoughts Samara was putting in her head – pushed her in there.
However, Samara didn’t die immediately: it took her seven days. The mysterious video and its curse represents and recreates her last moments alive, then transfers the same images – and terrors – to those who watch it.
But why a video tape?
So, why are Samara’s memories captured on an analogue video cassette? After being institutionalised as a child – for wanting to hurt people via telepathic thoughts – Samara was under constant video surveillance. Her psychic ability caused her memories and emotions to be caught on camera.
The use of video cassettes is in keeping with the era, as Samara was institutionalised in the late 1970s, when video was a common / cutting edge technology.
But more than this, video dominated how we watched on-demand movies at the time and well into the 1990s. There was no streaming or no digital downloads; you rented or bought VHS (Video Home System) cassettes to play at home.
By the time The Ring was released the VHS era was over; viewers were turning to digital tech, such as DVDs, instead. What’s interesting about The Ring is that it captures this battle for tech dominance through a story about a haunting.
That’s not all the Ring captures. There are remnants of the “video nasty” phenomenon of the 1980s and 1990s, i.e., the fear of repercussions from violent and vile VHS movies. One such movie, Child’s Play 3, (1991) became linked to the James Bulger murder trial as a result.
Like Poltergeist, there’s also a whiff of industry tension about what the home movie market means for the future of the big screen. This is played out in the cheeky messaging that, where on-demand movies invite terrible things into the home, cinema is safer.
As for the plot, the video cassette is a vehicle for horror – it’s how Samara enters homes and impressionable minds long after her death. But it also works in tandem with a second bit of tech: the telephone.
The telephone call is a more obvious vehicle, because it doesn’t change anything about the video’s curse. It’s simply a way of letting the viewer – including us, the audience – know that watching the video comes with grim consequences … and that the countdown has begun.
Why doesn’t Rachel die?
Rachel watches the video but doesn’t die. In fact, while Samara seeks out her victims exactly seven days later, Rachel reverses this: she finds Samara, then lives to tell the tale.
The crucial difference is that Rachel makes a copy of the tape to show ex Noah (Martin Henderson). When she realises the significance of this, she helps Aidan (David Dorfman) do the same. The implication is that they’ll let someone else watch the film – and take the fall – to save Aidan’s life.
The film’s morally ambiguous ending recruits Rachel and Aidan into the urban legend. They opt to keep the curse alive rather than sacrifice themselves to it. To be fair, it’s hard to see what other choice they have.
However, Rachel has already sacrificed others to the curse. She makes Noah watch the tape, essentially sealing his death warrant. And later, her investigation drives Richard Morgan (Brian Cox) to kill himself rather than live with his terror and grief.
Motherhood overrules Rachel’s moral ties to these men. Making Aidan copy the tape demonstrates that no one means more to her than him. And yet – like many horror movie women – Rachel isn’t a particularly good parent.
- Oddly precocious Aidan mothers Rachel more than the other way round (even laying out her clothes for the funeral)
- She puts her job first, turning up at school swearing at her boss on the phone and brushing off the teacher’s fears for her son
- The cherry on the cake is that even Aidan calls her Rachel, not mom.
There are always consequences for women who don’t follow social expectations (see The Foreigner and, ooh, everything else ever).
Rachel’s punishment for second-rate motherhood means she risks losing her life and her family. However, she’s purified by her experiences, coming out of it a supposedly better mother, i.e., one who would do anything for her boy.
The Ring is a film about two unhappy families.
Obviously, there are the Morgans, a family torn apart after they adopt a disturbed little girl. Adoption is a common horror mechanism, incidentally; like the found footage VHS tape, it’s a way of inviting dark forces into the home – see also Brightburn.
Their fractured family unit is mirrored in Rachel, Noah and Aidan. Significantly, note that:
- Both families have ambiguous fathers. Noah is Aidan’s dad, but doesn’t want the responsibility. Morgan isn’t Samara’s real dad either, and hates her for what what she’s done
- Samara kills both fathers (directly / indirectly)
- Anna Morgan throws Samara in a well … Rachel brings her out
- Like Samara, Aidan draws creepy pictures to express his precocious feelings and emotions.
This last one is key to the doubling. Samara is a remote character, and just a rumour for much of the film. Aidan stands in for her as the creepy child who sees just a little too much of the world.
Later, his psychic ability / psychic connection with Samara explains the plot, for instance, by revealing that Rachel shouldn’t have released her from the well.
Like Samara, Aidan isn’t a happy child. He knows more about the world than is fair. He doesn’t have friends of his own age, and seems to be captive to his apartment in the same way that Samara is locked away from the world.
Finding the horror
The Ring overlays a number of elements to create its dread, jump scares and lingering terror. Yet you may recognise some of these horror tropes:
- Scary young girl with a creepy walk … (compare Regan’s crab walk in The Exorcist)
- Adoption, emotionless children – and their drawings of death and demonic figures
- The use of home media and TV static to spook audiences long after the movie ends
- The Morgans’ story begins in the 70s yet Anna and Samara dress like deranged Victorian heroines … presumably for extra creep.
Many horror films also consciously or subconsciously tug at larger, darker human themes such as death, grief and madness (i.e., The Exorcist, Poltergeist), and so does The Ring.
The bucket list is a common concept now – the idea that you can (should?) make the most of your remaining time on Earth. The Ring upends this optimism, showing a darker side to knowing the exact time of your death.
The Ring’s most memorable mechanism is its use of the video cassette. The video represents several things (see the top of this page). However, the film itself is an extension of the video’s universe.
You can see this in the similar use of juxtaposed and jarring images both within The Ring and its film-within-a film (i.e., the video).
Samara’s pyschic footage is a literal horror movie framed by a horror movie. The effect extends the horror beyond the screen, blurring the lines about whether this is just a clever concept … or if you’ve been duped into watching a cassette with a killer message.
The Ring (2002), directed by Gore Verbinski
What to read or watch next
- Ringu, The Ring Two etc, plus books, shorts and manga (franchise, horror)
- Poltergeist (tech and horror)
- The Shining (creepy kids, psychic ability)
- The Omen, Orphan, Brightburn (creepy kids, cuckoo children)
- The Others (horror, creepy kids)
- The Nanny, Rosemary’s Baby, Run (horror, motherhood)
- WarGames (tech dominance)
Picture credit: Drew Rae, Anete Lusina