1: Dreamworks reveals the importance of The Ring and VHS.

2: The peculiar sexual architecture of the videocassette.

3: The curse of the gaze.

4: David Dorfman as Aidan, bug-eyed with secrets.

5: Rie Inou as Ringu’s worst nightmare.

6: Dreamworks and The Ring not only address VHS but invoke it.

7: VHS as lethal living room detritus.

8: Max Renn (James Woods) takes in the video revolution.

9: Naomi Watts as Rachel Keller, the traditional horror movie Bad Mother.

10: Amber Tamblyn and Rachael Bella as Katy and Becca.

11: Ask not for whom the water seeps...

12: Katy, scared to death.

13: The titular Ring.

14: Even show horses get the blues.

15: Rachel believes that listening to Samara ought to be enough to comfort her.

16: Learning how to transmit evil.

17: The disturbing and unsettling chair.

18: Ashes to ashes...

19: maggots to humans...

20: I don’t know why she saw a fly; perhaps she’ll die.


“Before you die, you see The Ring.
Notes on the immanent obsolescence of VHS

by Caetlin Benson-Allott

As Ina Rae Hark observes,

“a generation of viewers now exists for whom consumption of movies at home on video has always been the norm” (72).
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Far from stating the obvious, Hark’s comment actually explains the need for a new domestication of film studies and spectatorship theory, which have until recently neglected to include home-viewing within their disciplines. This essay will attempt to outline some of the issues these disciplines should address by analyzing one recent film that echoes Hark’s implicit demands, namely Gore Verbinski’s 2002 thriller, The Ring (Fig. 1). The Ring takes as its bugaboo VHS, the home theater format that was the most popular method of film viewing in the US from 1986 until recently. By the end of 2005, annual VHS receipts came to less than 1/15 of those of its new digital rival, DVD ($1.5 billion to $22.8 billion). As of 2006, VHS occupied less than five percent of video shelf space in major retail outlets like Target (Digital Entertainment Group 1, Prange 1).

DVD's distributive coup both heralds a new generation of film viewers and renders Hark’s observation an auspicious entry into this essay. It suggests that film theory can no longer ignore home theater in any consideration of film spectatorship, production, or aesthetics. It also invites us to recall that video is no longer synonymous with VHS, so that any aesthetic consideration of home theater must pay attention to the viewer’s experience of the television screen and the mechanics of its image production, be they analog or digital. Furthermore, the issues attendant in such an academic inquiry, those that kept VHS on the outskirts of film studies thus far — such as its analog format, its reproducibility, and the peculiar sexual architecture of its cassette (Fig. 2) — are the same features that make it available as an object of horror for The Ring now that DVD has arrived to make all these worries go away.

The truth the dead know:
listening to The Ring

Carol Clover noted in 1992 that

“horror film characters are forever watching horror movies, either in the theater (e.g. Demons) or on television (e.g. Halloween), and not a few horror plots turn on the horrifying consequences of looking at horror (e.g. Demons, Terrorvision, Videodrome)” (167) (Fig. 3).

Within that tradition, Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake of the 1998 Japanese film Ringu (dir. Hideo Nakata) assaults its viewers with a new twist, a killer videotape, for which it won only a lukewarm critical response but considerable ticket sales, over $129 million in the U.S. alone (“Horror Remake”). The Ring thus capitalizes on a longstanding cultural association of communications technology with death (masterfully researched and catalogued by Jeffery Sconce in Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television), yet critics were mystified by its failure to conform to the conventions of the horror genre. As compared to its Japanese predecessor, The Ring does not engage the supernatural; it does not invoke any demons, nor does it concern itself with an involved contemplation of ESP (beyond the standard creepy, knowing child) (Fig. 4). Neither does it contain any of the bloody search-and-destroy sequences of the stalker films that it draws upon. The Ring further declines to keep its boogie woman off-screen, like The Blair Witch Project, or to limit iconicallyher exposure, like Ringu, which reveals nothing more of its little dead girl than long, black hair and one horrible, unblinking, inhuman eye (Fig. 5).

Film critics have tried to clarify The Ring’s appeal by observing that “horror films often work best when they target pervasive societal preoccupations… [like] the taboo of premarital sex, the evils of infanticide, and even the anti-tobacco campaign” (Stone 3), yet their theories demonstrate a telling inability to identify the societal preoccupations in this movie. Even the film’s director could only explain that

“horror movies work best when they deal with some kind of contemporary issue. The thing I responded to with this movie was [the] actual moral ambiguity of the film, which is this kind of transferable nature of hatred. That you can hurt me and then I can find it justifiable to hurt somebody else” (Verbinski 1).

With all due respect to Verbinski’s ethical reading of his film, this viewer has to wonder how pervasive The Ring’s horror must be to become this unnamable. For while Bruce Stone does eventually note, “the film’s primary target is of course technology,” neither he nor Verbinski ever mentions that this film is about a tape (3) (Fig. 6).

For The Ring would remind us that although it plays in our VCRs and gets scattered around our living rooms like so much flotsam, VHS has got a secret (Fig. 7). While we may effectively think of the videocassette as a solid form (like a film reel or a DVD) that just makes movies, it is in fact a vessel, a cavity few of us have ever opened, which could harbor any manner of unborn monster. To make matters worse, the videotape possesses the ability to reproduce — or to be reproduced, more specifically — at home, by anyone with a spare VCR. The Ring employs that fecundity, along with the cassette’s unseen inner cavity, to translate technophobia into a fear of reproduction and our fear of reproduction, femininity, and mortality into a fear of the supernatural. In so doing, The Ring makes manifest the gendered stakes in the technological difference between VHS and digital video media, a distinction that was unavailable to earlier horror films that concentrated on the phallic penetrations of cassettes into VCRs and human abdomens. Specifically, in 1983, at the height of another format war (between Betamax and VHS), David Cronenberg’s Videodrome demonstrated that the monstrous penetration of VCRs into domestic spaces could be understood as a sexual penetration of viewers’ lives and bodies (Fig. 8). As compared to Videodrome, The Ring was able showcase the videocassette as a malevolent, pregnant vessel only because it was finally poised to be overthrown by the impenetrable DVD, the wombless "bachelor machine" of image production (Penley 57).

The Ring tells the story of Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), a single mother and investigative reporter who lives in bleakest Seattle with her son, Aidan (David Dorfman), a typical horror movie child with creepy eyes and a bad bowl cut (Fig. 9). Before introducing Rachel and Aidan, however, the film begins with a homage to the Scream series’ opening executions of minor female characters, themselves homages to the horror genre’s slash-happy tendency to create characters only in order to kill them. High-school ingénues Katy and Becca therefore sit home alone watching TV when Becca introduces the legend of the killer videotape (Fig. 10):

"BECCA: Have you heard about this videotape that kills you when you watch it?

KATY: What kind of tape?

BECCA: A tape, a regular tape. People rent it, I don’t know. You start to play it, and it’s like somebody’s nightmare. Then suddenly, this woman comes on, smiling at you, seeing you through the screen. And as soon as it’s over, your phone rings. Someone knows you’ve watched it, and what they say is, 'You will die in seven days.' And exactly seven days later…"

Becca’s warning comes too late, however, for Katy already watched the tape exactly seven days earlier. Soon the TV is turning on by itself, and the house has become eerily silent. As Katy climbs the stairs to her bedroom, she observes a large pool of water seeping into the hallway, ominously illuminated by the flicker of a TV (Fig. 11). Katy throws open her door, takes one look at the television screen, and screams. Cut to Rachel and Aidan.

Rachel is evidently Katy’s aunt, and Katy’s mother implores Rachel to find out what produced this spontaneous heart attack (and extravagantly unbecoming death mask) in her daughter (Fig. 12). Rachel traces Katy’s secret (sex life) back to the Shelter Mountain Inn, where she discovers a sinister, unmarked videocassette. Rachel promptly views the tape, which contains a series of non-narrative images that begin and end with a ring of white light (Fig. 13), and immediately receives an anonymous phone call that forecasts, “seven days.” Suitably scared, Rachel begs the help of Noah (Martin Henderson), Aidan’s father and her ex-boyfriend, and his “video geek” skills to discover “who made it, where’s it from.”

Yet enlisting Noah’s help necessitates his watching the tape, and soon little Aidan sees it too, thus reuniting the fractured family in a quest to save their lives. Pursuing that quest leads Rachel and Noah to another family, the Morgans, whose adopted daughter turned out to be a little different. Proximity to Samara produced unfortunate side effects, like the horrific visions her mother suffered and the suicide of her father’s horses (Fig. 14). Mrs. Morgan was eventually driven mad by her daughter’s evil nature and dumped Samara down an old well, the same well over which was eventually built the Shelter Mountain Inn. Rachel ultimately exhumes Samara and reassembles her story on the assumption that the truth will set her family free; as Rachel opines, “All she wanted was to be heard” (Fig. 15).

This blind faith in language turns out to be misguided, however, since Samara scares Noah to death early the next morning. Consequently, Rachel realizes that her sentence was lifted not because she uncovered Samara (which Noah did as well), but because, unlike Noah, she copied the tape and played it for someone else. The film thus ends with Rachel ducking into her newspaper’s A\V lab to teach little Aidan how to copy videocassettes (Fig. 16).

As the failure of Samara’s exhumation reveals, the real horror of this movie is not the dead girl but her videotape. The tape, which is only ever referred to by its format (as “the tape,” never “the video” or “the movie”), features a series of enigmatic shots and sequences, the majority of which bear some informative relation to Samara's life story. As director of photography Bojan Bazelli explains,

“the images were supposed to be shocking, not [graphic], but disturbing and unsettling” (Holben 57).

In addition to its unsettling ring of light and characteristic static, the tape portrays

  • formerly mundane household items rendered ominous and otherworldly, such as a chair and a ladder (spinning upside down and falling, respectively) (Fig. 17);
  • insect life, like a writhing screenful of maggots that turns into a writhing screenful of human bodies (Figs. 18 and 19), a fly crawling over a landscape view of an ocean cliff (Fig. 20), and a giant centipede squirming out from under a doll’s table (Fig. 21);
  • and some uncanny autobiographical images: a woman brushing her hair in the mirror, a man looking down from a second story window, and the same woman jumping to her death.

Perhaps because these images merely “disturb and unsettle,” the video’s horror seems to emanate mainly from its anonymous origins and its insidious lack of motive — at least until the phone rings. For immediately after someone watches the tape, she receives a telephone call, and, since whether she chooses to answer the phone or not, “the letter always reaches its destination,” she becomes fated to die in seven days (Žižek Enjoy 12).

While Roger Ebert finds himself “wondering, hey, who was that on the phone?” perhaps a better question might be, how did the phone know to ring (1) (Fig. 22)? The Ring creates its malaise primarily through technology gone awry, through the tape’s ability to transform the telephone and other common household appliances into harbingers of doom. It would be inaccurate to say that these items malfunction, however, or that they submit to an outside consciousness. Rather they become gothic in the most literary sense; they know (Fig. 23).

Thus the first time the telephone rings, before the viewer is yet aware of Samara's or any other consciousness behind the tape, she feels encouraged to believe that the tape knows it was watched and has commandeered the telephone to deliver its final punch line. Of course, telephones have quite a history in horror films (Dial M for Murder and When a Stranger Calls, to name just two) as well as psychoanalytic theory (beginning with Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents), both of which emphasize the phone as the domestic death’s head par excellence. As Avital Ronnell points out in The Telephone Book, despite its gestures towards interpersonal connection, the telephone actually operates on the premise of distance, and thus death:

"In as much as it belongs, in its simplest register, to the order of the mechanical and technical, it is already on the side of death…. The telephone flirts with the opposition life/death by means of the same ruse through which it stretches apart receiver and transmitter or makes the infinite connection that touches the rim of finitude. Like transference, the telephone is given to us as effigy and as relation to absence." (84)

It is fitting, then, that The Ring’s lethal interpellation comes over the phone, a medium that the viewer may already associate with mortality (Fig. 24). Thus the telephone does not malfunction in The Ring. Rather it expresses its ultimate function. Instead of transmitting calls that remind their receivers of the beyond, the telephone now delivers the call from the beyond (Fig. 25).

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