JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

21: Something icky this way comes.

22: The VCR’s knowing accomplice

23: Rachel’s digital camera reveals the mark of Samara that the naked eye cannot see.

24: “Seven days.”

25: Samara says: Videophone can be lethal.

26: The most meaningful of meaningless blots.

27: “That’s impossible”: Nothing says unnatural like a video without a timecode.

28: The Ring demonstrates the uncanniess of video technology by exposing a VCR with its top off.

29: Samara’s hydropower.

30: Liquid horror, complements of the Shelter Mountain Inn.

31: Water is, in fact, Samara’s totem element, as this still from Rachel’s nightmare reveals.

32: When blood does appear — as when Richard Morgan (Brian Cox) commits suicide — it is surrounded by water...and video.

33: Rachel wonders at the marvels of video production.

34: “There’s more picture!”

35: For instance, in the P&S VHS edition of The Ring, the television frame must be cropped from this image — which removes the visual reminder that we are seeing Samara’s film from Rachel’s point of view and thus prevents our identification moments later with her curse.

36: A fly is born.

37: Aidan prods the VCR to show him the extra filmic image we believe should be ours.

38: Katy’s television screen bulges toward her.

39: The primal well from which Samara will push her way (back) to life.

40: The well and the television become synonymous in their mutual function as Samara’s gateway.

41: Samara (Daveigh Chase) emerges.

42: Samara reinforces The Ring’s natal theme through her childish crawl.

43: Rachel cracks the case of the lethal VHS cassette.

44: It keeps going...and going...

--

45: The visual doubling between Rachel, Aidan, and their respective television monitors schematizes the extent to which Samara’s tape has taken over their personalities.

---

46. The uncanniness of incomprehensible technological difficulties.

47: In Poltergeist, this vagina leads straight to hell.

48: The Anatomy of  a Videocassette.

49: Window on the movie-baby.

50: Samara’s tape calls out to Rachel from among its peers through its anonymous, naked malice.

 

Giving birth to new meaning

Nevertheless, the tape’s most eerie mechanical effects occur when a character attempts to investigate its video technology. When Rachel takes the tape to her A\V lab to make a copy for Noah, she notices that the master track’s timer displays not numbers, but random gibberish, a symptom that the copy deck’s timer soon picks up as well (Fig. 26). When Rachel gives Noah the copy to study in his video studio, these tiny digital blots immediately unsettle him:

NOAH: You sure this is a copy?

RACHEL: Yeah, why? The same problem got copied, I guess.

NOAH: That’s impossible. The numbers are the control track. They’re put on the tape whenever it's recorded. Which means, theoretically, that there shouldn’t be any images.

RACHEL: Noah, can you pretend for one minute that I don’t read Video Geek Magazine?

NOAH: When you record a tape, the makeup of the tracks is like a signature for whatever did the recording, like a camcorder, VCR, whatever. So the control track can tell us where it came from. But to not have one… I mean, that’s like being born without fingerprints.

In point of fact, a control track really just tells the VCR how fast to scan a videotape, but Noah’s mischaracterization of this technology actually tells the reader how The Ring reads its videotape.  According to Noah, Samara’s tape either has no origins (was never recorded, does not exist) or is capable of obscuring its origins (Fig. 27).

While careful study of The Ring will eventually reveal an answer,[1][open endnotes in new window] the effect of the paradox is simply uncanny. As Den Shewman notes in an interview with The Ring’s screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, “there’s some wonderfully spooky moments in the script about technical things — tracking and time codes and such,” to which Kruger replies, “the little things in normal life that are off get under your skin more than the big things. That was a very conscious decision” (55). [open bibliography in new window] While I question the “normality” of time codes for the average VHS viewer, Kruger’s point about technology and the uncanny emphasizes the mechanical nature of the uncanny that Sigmund Freud uncovers but never develops.

In his essay on the uncanny, Freud’s principle example of the phenomenon is a story by E. T. A. Hoffman, “The Sand-Man,” in which a young man is driven insane by his fear of a childhood boogie man whom he associates with an itinerant optician and a beautiful, life-like doll (227-230). Freud immediately turns to castration-anxiety to explain the story’s disturbing effect, yet that analysis forces him to ignore crucial elements of Hoffman’s story, such as the recurring anxiety that technology (particularly optometry and doll-making) creates in the young man. Focusing on this anxiety allows us to look past Freud’s oversimplification of Hoffman’s story and wonder why he chose that story in the first place, a story most obviously concerned with patriarchal control and technology out of control. While Freud sees a link between genitalia and the uncanny, his argument also points to a connection between genitalia and technology and technology and the uncanny, especially in the case of technology a person does not comprehend. The mechanics of VHS reproduction thus become an obvious opportunity to scare a Ring-viewer who, like Rachel, never cared about the technology behind copying videotapes and who really does not care for it now that it has gone awry (Fig. 28).

Yet in the case of Samara’s uncanny videotape, any thorough consideration of the tape’s uncanny reproduction must address all of its excess products, for this video’s images are accompanied by a number of other effluvia, including water, a fly, and eventually Samara herself. Of these, water composes the tape’s first and most copious nontraditional emission. When Katy returns to her room to die, for example, her doom is predicted by the large puddle of water underneath her bedroom door (see Fig. 8). Of course, the tape is not actually present at Katy’s death, but her demise and the events surrounding it are effects of the tape, and the final image on her television screen is from the tape. The tape is thus not so much not present as present despite its absence, and the water is yet another byproduct of its cursed omnipresence. Water also seeps from the phone during Rachel’s Samara-induced nightmare (Fig. 29) and pours from the nails, screws, and television of the Shelter Mountain Inn before the last knocks Rachel into Samara’s well (Fig. 30).

In this watery way, The Ring does participate in one tradition of its genre. As Barbara Creeds notes,

“the horror film abounds in images of abjection, foremost of which is the corpse, whole and mutilated, followed by an array of bodily wastes such as blood, vomit, saliva, sweat, tears and putrefying flesh” (10).

While the cursed videotape does engender other, more traditional manifestations of abjection (specifically nosebleeds, which, with their steady drip and combination of blood and nasal mucus, exemplify abjection), water still constitutes an important element of abjection in The Ring (Fig. 31). Water leaves the principal characters shivering, moaning, choking, and generally wallowing in their human condition. The sheer pervasiveness of this fluid also hints at its general substitution for other, more traditional liquids of abjection of which the viewer sees little in The Ring, such as blood (Fig. 32). Finally, water precedes the arrival of the film’s inhuman horror, Samara, in a way that cannot but remind the viewer of the American colloquialism “her water broke.” The Ring is thus awash in amniotic fluid, the abject byproduct of a pregnant videotape.

From amidst this amniotic morass emerges our videotape’s first “live birth,” the fly that crawls over the landscape shot of the sea cliff and later continues to twitch even after the tape (of which it is still part, meaning that the fly is still on the “other” side of the TV screen) has been paused. The fly is born during its third appearance, when Rachel watches the tape in the video restoration laboratory she took it to after discovering, “There’s more picture!” The fly’s emergence, its “crossing over” from image into reality, is thus doubly significant because it both marks Rachel’s discovery that there is more to the cursed tape than her screen will let her see and thereby represents the videocassette’s first excess in relationship to film theory (Fig. 33).

Rachel’s claim refers to the additional images she uncovers on Samara’s tape beyond the vertical edges of the television screen. Specifically, Rachel notices that one shot in Samara’s tape, of a beach littered with dead horses, extends to the right of the television screen and includes a previously unseen lighthouse that helps her identify the island on which Samara grew up (Fig. 34).

This discovery plays upon a common complaint in video spectatorship as well as a longstanding preoccupation of psychoanalytic film theory, namely the viewer’s suspicion that there might be more to an image than she can see. Lacanian film theorists, such as Slavoj Žižek, have often addressed this paranoia as a question of the “gaze,” the all-seeing look of the Other (always imagined) that pins the subject and pushes him to recognize his own mortality. According to Žižek, this gaze hides in that point in the picture that the viewer cannot see:

“This surplus that eludes the eye, the point in the image which eludes my eye’s grasp, is none other than the gaze itself: as Lacan put it, ‘you can never see me at the point from which I gaze at you’” (Enjoy 127).

While Žižek and Lacan intend this explanation to refer to a point in a picture that the viewer’s eye can literally see yet cannot take in, The Ring expands their theory by offering the gaze a new hiding place, namely the surplus image, or the difference between standard and widescreen aspect ratios.

To explain: after feature-film studios began to adopt Cinemascope and other widescreen aspect ratios in the 1950s, their films had to be cropped for projection on 16mm systems or television broadcasting. When these and other films made the jump to home video in the 1970s and 1980s, this horizontal cropping, known as P&S, or Pan & Scan editing, often came with them. As opposed to letterboxing, which shrinks the film image to preserve its aspect ratio, P&S allows films to appear “full screen” on television, yet it reframes many of film’s theory’s most foundational insights into spectatorship. For instance, in 1975, Christian Metz observed that

“everything out-of-frame [such as a character who is addressed off-screen] brings us closer to the spectator, since it is the peculiarity of the latter to be out of frame” (55).

While Metz’ analysis continues to explain certain preplanned framing effects, the instability P&S editing introduces to films’ borders opens a new chasm between the edge of the image and the spectator (Fig. 35). For although individual variations in projection conditions have ever ensured that a given film’s borders shifted with each screening, these shifts were never formalized or announced the way they have been on video (“This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your screen.”).

To return now to Rachel and her fly, the point we must remember is that since its inception as a home-theater format, VHS has always “contained” (made visual reference to) more than could meet the eye. Thus when Rachel first sees the fly twitch on the paused tape, and later pulls that fly off the television screen, the fly’s excessive existence feels possible (not not uncanny, but possible) because it plays upon two deeply held beliefs about VHS and television (Fig. 36). The first I have explained now at some length, that it is a precondition of VHS viewing to assume that there is more to the film than the tape lets its viewer see. The Ring’s only deviation is to imply that that extra bit of image could be accessible (Fig. 37). The second belief concerns the television screen itself and its reputation as a “window on the world.” According to Jeffrey Sconce, U.S. audiences collectively participate in a

“cultural mythology about the ‘living’ quality of such technologies, suggesting, in this case, that television is alive… living, real, not dead (even if it sometimes serves as a medium of the dead)” (2).

Andrew Ballantyne likewise argues that,

“despite the fact that the television screen is flat, we have a spatial sense of something going on beyond the screen, as if it is a window opening onto a view” (127).

As opposed to the cinema screen, upon which images are projected from a distance, the television produces its images internally and displays them through a glass screen, like a window — a metaphor that marks the screen as a boundary, and a permeable one at that. Furthermore, the traditional television screen is not flat, as Ballantyne suggests, but actually slightly bulbous, as if bulging some with the life underneath (Fig. 38).

So the fly comes through the window, followed eventually by Samara herself. The clever viewer may have guessed from Katy’s death scene that Samara does not simply hatch through the glass like the fly. Rather she must be delivered through both the television and the (now) empty well-cum-birth canal (Fig. 39).

Samara thus transforms the television screen from window into portal in her final, climatic attack on Noah. This assault begins the morning after Noah bravely rescues Rachel and helps exhume Samara. While examining prints in his film studio, Noah hears the television switch on behind him; he turns and recognizes the abandoned well from the final scene in Samara’s film (Fig. 40). Noah starts to investigate (the VCR, presumably) when Samara’s left hand and hair appear over the lip of the well. As he watches, Samara crawls out of the well and begins lumbering towards the bottom edge of the screen, battling small bursts of static as she advances, until she reaches the edge and simply steps forward and onto the floor (Fig. 41). Accompanied by a small flood of water (like any newborn), Samara crawls toward Noah while he retreats incredulously, until another burst of static delivers her just in front of him (Fig. 42). This advance can only be described as an extreme jump cut; Samara simply elides the rest of her pursuit, like any good horror director would, to deliver the action.

Samara’s editing skills reinforce the viewer’s belief that this ghost was born of a machine. The viewer need only look to the water that accompanies her arrival, the vaginal well she pops out of, and the bulging, empty belly of the television from which she delivers herself in order to recognize her arrival as a birth. Skeptics might argue that Samara cannot be the demonic spawn of an evil, pregnant videotape because said tape was not in Noah’s VCR at the time of her “birth.” However, the repetition of the well-shot from the tape (see Fig. 40), not to mention Samara’s pursuit, results from watching her film and so clearly establishes the black box as her point of origin. That Samara suffers the tracking problems of a poorly recorded videotape likewise confirms her video lineage.

Because Samara cursed her tape to give birth to not only herself but also itself (or rather its exact replica), we must redouble any analysis of the pregnant videotape to see it as not just a womb but a woman, a female capable of not merely giving birth to others but reproducing herself. Indeed, the tape’s ability to produce not only “children” but clones becomes the ultimate source of its horror, as the film’s two final sequences reveal. For after discovering Noah dead in his chair, surrounded by a pool of water, Rachel rushes home, destroys her cursed tape in a fit of anguish, and wails, “What did I do that he didn’t do?” (Fig. 43). Like the phone, which also “knows” what to do, the camera responds by guiding the spectator to the space beneath Rachel’s couch, where it reveals another videotape (Fig. 44). Rachel seizes the tape and, in case the viewer still does not understand, wonders aloud, “I made a copy!” which leads directly to Rachel and Aidan disappearing inside the Post-Intelligencer’s A/V lab to save little Aidan by teaching him how to reproduce videocassettes (Fig. 45).

Copying a videotape thus becomes quite the overdetermined activity in The Ring, for it unites the film’s fear of uncontrollable technology with its fear of feminine reproduction. Thus when Rachel first copies her tape for Noah, and it produces a series of meaningless blots on the master track display, those blots are in fact some of the most meaningful non-signifiers in the film, for they indicate both that the tape was not recorded by a normal recording device and that its ambiguous maternity ought to be a source of anxiety for the viewer (Fig. 46).

Thus the copy-talk scene between Noah and Rachel mystifies video reproduction in order to reinforce the fear of reproduction that dominates the rest of the film. Copying Samara’s film represents an audio-visual crisis, a breakdown in the technological order that was simply Order for Noah, the patriarch of this film. The uncanny loss of the father’s order prepares the viewer to believe that the only way to survive Samara’s curse is to go maternal, to copy her tape and create a fleet of murderous little demon-children, all carrying their own ghostly progeny — and their own capacity to reproduce ad infinitum — within them.[2]

Before you die, you see the real

The videocassette thus offers a new version of the generic “uterine threat” that Carol Clover observes stalking slasher films since their inception (49). Clover explains that horror often renders femaleness synonymous with the human capacity for evil: “Where Satan is, in the world of horror, female genitals are likely to be nearby” (49). Thus Poltergeist (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1982), one of Clover’s favorite filmic examples, depicts the portal into hell as a fleshy, pulsing vagina (Fig. 47). Barbara Creed reaffirms Clover’s interpretation and notes that the association of women’s reproductive organs with evil has a colorful history in Western culture:

“From classical to Renaissance times the uterus was frequently drawn with horns to demonstrate its supposed association with the devil” (43).

Women’s genitalia thus not only allow evil entry into the body but also possess the capacity to create evil or let evil out:

“What is common to all these images of horror is the voracious maw, the mysterious black hole that signifies female genitalia which threatens to give birth to equally horrific offspring as well as incorporate everything in its path” (Creed 27).

The Ring employs this theme of evil, wombs, and demonic pregnancies and encapsulates it in the videocassette, thereby neatly revitalizing an old metaphor in film theory of idealizing film viewing as birth. Take as an example Christian Metz, who reaches a most uncharacteristic rapture in his foundational study, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, when he imagines the cinematic experience as a delivery:

"Like a midwife attending a birth who, simply by her presence, assists the woman in labor, I am present for the film in a double capacity (though they are really one and the same) as a witness and an assistant: I watch, and I help. By watching the film, I help it be born, I help it to live, since only in me will it live, and since it is made for that purpose: to be watched, in other words to be brought into being by nothing other than the look." (93)

Listening to Metz revel in the birth of the theatrical movie-baby, I cannot help but wonder how excited he would be if he got to press "PLAY" himself. For despite his avowed disinterest in the mechanics of projection, Metz’s birth metaphor certainly complicates his supposed dismissal of the technology of image production. In addition, Metz’s metaphor begs the question, if Metz is the midwife, then who (or what) is the woman in labor? The Ring suggests that she may be the videocassette, which bears many structural similarities to the female body,

“the metaphoric architecture of which, with its enterable but unseen inner space, has for so long been a fixture in the production of the uncanny” (Clover 18).

Like the female reproductive organs, the videotape has an entrance, the front lid that flips back to expose the tape, but like the vagina, which ends at the cervix, this entrance also fails to lead to the inner chamber itself (Fig. 48). That chamber can be viewed only partially, through two windows that allow the spectator to observe the progress of her film, an opportunity that feels eerily reminiscent of a natal ultrasound (and offers perhaps a more literal conflation of film viewer and midwife) (Fig. 49). Thus, like the uterus, the videocassette chamber cannot be reached (without breaking open the cassette or the woman), yet it contains the movie-baby that for Metz resembles a new life form waiting to be born.

Unlike a uterus, however, the videotape’s cavity comes not in an attractive, fleshly body, but rather in a small and, with only a few, poorly conceived exceptions, black box. It does not require much free association to conflate these closed, black boxes with death, either with the black boxes on airplanes whose existence presupposes a tragedy worth recording (the proceedings from a lethal airplane crash or the cursed video-ramblings of a ghost) or with abstract, little coffins whose occupants, when brought back to life by Christian Metz, would then become the undead.[3]

In its capacity as a miniature coffin, the videocassette may also remind its viewer of her own mortality and thus operate as a quintessential death’s head. For Samara’s videocassette floats through The Ring like an impersonal interpellation to die, in that anyone who watches it must thereafter recognize (if not accept) its call to die in seven days. The videotape thus very nearly embodies Jacques Lacan’s theory of the death’s head or stain (Fig. 50). The stain appears to its viewer as an unexpected reminder of her own mortality, which means that, as an interpellation, it requires neither narrative nor logic to achieve its effect, since it is precisely the uncontextualizable finality of death the gives the stain its power. Thus Lacan finds an exemplum of the stain’s aggressively impersonal call in Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, which depicts two men standing beside a table overflowing with symbols of knowledge and worldly riches. The foreground of the painting is interrupted by an ominous gray smear that initially appears incomprehensible and yet nonetheless portends death:

"The two figures are frozen, stiffened in their shadowy adornments. Between them is a series of objects that represent in the painting of the period the symbols of vanitas…. What, then, before this display of the domain of appearance in all its most fascinating forms, is that object, which from some angles appears to be flying through the air, at others to be tilted? You cannot know — for you turn away, thus escaping the fascination of the picture.

"Begin by walking out of the room in which no doubt it has long held your attention. It is then that, turning round as you leave — as the author of the Anamorphoses describes it — you apprehend this form… What? A skull." (Lacan 88)

The Ambassadors thus reminds its viewer that despite all their earthly goods, its subjects are nonetheless marked for death. Yet the stain cannot operate as a signifier precisely, since it must represent what its viewer refuses to recognize (we are all going to die), what she literally turns away from in Lacan’s description of The Ambassadors. The viewer cannot or can no longer suppress the reality of her mortality (what Lacan calls the Real) and it

“returns in the guise of the traumatic object stain” (Žižek “In His Bold Gaze” 238-239).

The stain thus offers one possible explanation for those inexplicable horror movie horrors, like the origins of Samara’s evil or Aidan’s mysterious connection to the little dead girl (Fig. 51). These horrors are terrible precisely because they are inexplicable, because they are fears we cannot verbalize or recognize that have been shunted off into narratives either motiveless or indecipherable where we can look at them and experience their gazes as the horrors of the movie, not the horrors within us.

Žižek extends this reading of the inexplicable horror movie horror by calling it

“a psychotic stain… a representation which fills out a hole in the Symbolic, giving body to the ‘unspeakable’ — its inert presence testifies that we are in a domain where words fail” (“In His Bold Gaze” 239).

That “inert presence” could describe a videotape, a hollow black vessel containing images “where words fail,” and specifically Samara’s silent trauma tape. After all, words fail repeatedly in The Ring. First the talking cure fails to fix Samara, then Rachel’s explanation for Samara’s wrath, “she just wanted to be heard,” turns out to be lethally mistaken. Samara thus may be a better postmodern critic than I am; she knows that no amount of words can explain mortality or the stain. That sort of work can only be done by images, such as the image of a little dead girl, her face obscured by a blanket of sodden black hair, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a child’s version of Holbein’s gray blur and answers the call of your inquisitive look by crawling out of the image to literally annihilate you with her gaze (Fig. 52).[4]

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