2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007
“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).
[open bibliography in new window]
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 iconically her 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
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).
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,[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). 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.
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.
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).
The medium is the message:
from movie to cassette
Neither Samara nor her trauma tape truly embodies the “inert presence” that gives The Ring its psychotic stain, however; that honor belongs solely to the videocassettes. Like the birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the videocassette does not make sense as a direct metaphor for mortality or reproduction, nor even an embodiment of them. Rather, as Žižek explains,
“the birds do not ‘signify’ the maternal superego, they do not ‘symbolize’ blocked sexual relations, the ‘possessive’ mother and so on; they are, rather, the making present in the real, the objectivization, the incarnation of the fact that, on the symbolizing level, something ‘has not worked out’” (Looking 104).
The birds signify a refusal of the reductive. Their excessive existence is symptomatic of another excess or failure in the Symbolic, such that they point to something’s being off, but not to any one thing in particular (Fig. 53). The videocassette is likewise neither a clear-cut symbol for the uncanniness of reproduction nor a direct signifier of human mortality; rather it offers an opportunity to “make present” a previous repression to indicate that “something has not worked out.” Hence in keeping with its containing nature, the videotape holds a certain anxiety for us. It is pregnant with a reminder that, despite our cherished beliefs, we are all going to die someday.
Yet even if we are prepared to believe in this videotape as a psychotic stain, we may still wonder why Samara chooses to express her anger, and our mortality, through a videocassette. Psychoanalytic theory provides one explanation of how Samara’s medium of choice scares us but it cannot — and should not — tell us why her videocassette is uncanny to its audience:
"In order to avoid the danger of the so-called “psychoanalytic interpretation of art” which lurks here… one has to accomplish the properly dialectical reversal of the explanans into explanandum: [in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, for example,] the point is to not to interpret the unfathomable “acousmatique” voice as the maternal superego, but rather its opposite, i.e. to explain the very logic of the maternal superego by means of this vocal stain." (Žižek Looking 104)
So the real question is not why The Ring is about a videocassette or why that videocassette is uncanny, but rather what our reaction to the tape as an avatar of the uncanny tells us about home video.
Film and video theory seem obvious places to begin researching these formal/format concerns, yet even the briefest survey of the fields will show that they lack almost any coordinated investigation into video spectatorship, either in its rivalry with cinematic apparatus or its unique relationship to television and the domestic screening space. Psychoanalytic film theories routinely ground their accounts of viewers’ experiences in theatrical projection. Beginning with Christian Metz, spectatorship theorists have regularly assumed that films only appear (and can only be understood) through projectors and screens:
"I know that I am really perceiving, that my sense organs are physically affected, that I am not fantasizing, that the fourth wall of the auditorium (the screen) is really different from the other three, that there is a projector facing it (and thus it is not I who am projecting, or at least not all alone), and I also know that it is I who am perceiving all this, that this perceived-imaginary material is deposited in me as if on a second screen." (48)
This theatrical presupposition permeates Metz’ work and dominates his much-lauded theory of spectatorship and primary identification. Granted, Metz developed his theory of spectatorship in the early 1970s, long before the price war between BETA and VHS made VCRs affordable to the majority of French or U.S. households (Klopfenstein 24-25). We cannot condemn an otherwise inspired film critic for not being psychic — although cinema films did appear on television when Metz was writing and had ever since 1956 (“History of Television”). The problem is that in following in Metz’s tradition, contemporary spectatorship theorists often remain oblivious to the simple fact that the automatic equation of movies with theatrical projection was an historical phase, one that ended twenty years ago. While theatrical movie-going certainly has not stopped, it has ceased to define the average film-viewer’s average film-viewing experience (Wasser 4).
Sadly, psychoanalytic film criticism is not the only tradition to overlook this distributive development; feminist film theory also exhibits a frustrating insistence on cinema spectatorship. For example, many feminist film critics continue to locate their work in relationship to Laura Mulvey’s ground-breaking analysis of movie women’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” (19) which relies on a definition of voyeurism that presupposes theatrical viewing conditions:
"The extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation… Among other things, the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of their repressed desire onto the performer." (17)
Mulvey’s argument may hold true for video spectatorship, if one believes that home theater viewers also frequently turn out the lights (perhaps to facilitate their voyeuristic absorption into the film), but adopting the theory of one medium to cover another fails to address the exciting new challenge of defining spectatorship now that “film has lost medium specificity” (Wasser 198) (Fig. 54).
Some more recent theorists of video and televisuality have begun to address this challenge by arguing that VHS spectatorship possesses a unique relationship to fetishism that cannot simply incorporate old understandings of cinema or photography. Amelia Jones proposes that the specific version of distance contained in the television screen breaks down the viewer’s belief that she can control its images, or that the bodies contained therein were placed there for his enjoyment (84-86). Unfortunately, Jones limits her argument to video art, and her decision not to address commercially released televisual flesh (the most poignant example being perhaps Cronenberg’s Videodrome) leaves the reader to wonder how video formats intervene in theatrically released models of fetishism.
Anne Friedberg does study commercial video specifically, however, and within a psychoanalytic tradition, but her most sustained analysis focuses on the there-and-thenness (as opposed to television’s here-and-nowness) of the VCR:
“One can literally ‘rent’ another space and time when one borrows a videotape to watch on a VCR” (Window 141).
Friedberg draws this conclusion from the work of Paul Virilio, who argues,
“the machine, the VCR, allows man to organize a time which is not his own” (Friedberg Window 141).
However, in their emphasis on reading video through Barthes’ punctum and the historically-oriented or death-derived otherness of the recorded image causes Friedberg and Virilio to lose something of the viewer’s relationship to the format. Friedberg does note that “the videocassette transforms the size and accessibility of the film experience, markets it as a book-sized, readily available commodity,” but the astuteness of her observation nonetheless leaves the reader unsure what effect Friedberg thinks this fetishization has on the spectator, on her experience of the movie contained therein (Window 139).
Fortunately, Friedberg more than compensates for this oversight in her subsequent article, “The End of Cinema: Multimedia and Technological Change,” in which she initiates the first rigorous examination of video as a temporal condition:
“our assumptions about ‘spectatorship’ have lost their theoretical pinions as screens have changed, as have our relations to them” (450).
For example, Friedberg observes that time-shifting alters the viewer’s experience of lived time:
“Now that ‘time’ is so easily electronically ‘deferred’ or ‘shifted’ one can ask: has the VCR produced a new temporality, one that has dramatically affected our concept of history and our access to the past? The VCR treats films or videotapes as objects of knowledge to be explored, investigated, deconstructed as if they were events of the past to be studied.” (“End” 444)
Furthermore, Friedberg’s most recent work addresses screen or format fetishization directly and examines how “as screens have changed, so have our relationships to them” (Virtual 178). She finds the VCR to be the turning point in changes in spectatorship still too new to be diagnosed:
In addition to Friedberg, Charles Tashiro also stands out as one of the few film or video scholars specifically concerned with video spectatorship. Tashiro premises his studies on an observation that “an art form developed for the exhibition realities of the early twentieth century bears only partial relationship to the realities of consumption in the late twentieth century” (“Home Video” 63). Noting that even media education and film appreciation classes now commonly screen “video reproductions of film titles,” Tashiro challenges his colleagues to critique their own failure to observe their subject’s form by asking,
"The VCR, I argue, was the first technology to begin to erode the historical differences between television and film, altering as it did the terms of electronic and cinematic viewing. In addition, the technologies which transformed the media environment of the 1980s—the VCR, cable television and the television remote—not only changed our concept of film-going and television-viewing, but also prepared us for another ‘convergence’: the television and computer screen." (Friedberg “CD” 31)
“if film and video viewing are identical, if no reshaping of the text occurs, why does the latter medium exist?” (“Home Video” 58).
For as Tashiro goes on to demonstrate at length, video recordings cannot capture celluloid’s range of color saturation or brightness, not to mention the complexity of a theatrical sound mix, so if it is true that there is more to a film that its narrative, then it must also be true that video changes its films in ways that standard variations in film projection could not anticipate — it is no longer that the film might change, but that it must undergo translation.
Thus “you can wait for it on video, but ‘it,’ like Godot, will never arrive,” because the video you see will have been adjusted in frame size through either P&S editing or letterboxing and modified in its contrast, color density, and audio frequency to reflect differences in the technical abilities of movie theaters and TV-VCRs (“Videophilia” 16, 13-14, 8). Tashiro also reflects on how the video spectator’s very control of her VCR mediates her viewing experience: “This physical interaction involves the proletarianization of the video viewer, forcing him/her to become, in effect, a projectionist” (“Videophilia” 11). The spectator now has less reason to sit through boring, offensive, or otherwise challenging scenes in her videos given the “flexibility” of fast-forward control: “what we once might have endured, we now resent… whether we like it or not, home video turns us all into critics” and fundamentally alters our passive relationships to film (“Videophilia” 15).
Tashiro’s emphasis on the physical labor of home theater viewing deserves to be crucial to video spectatorship theory, because this push-button power changed how films were viewed and privileged in the United States after 1980:
"VCR and DVD technology spawned an entirely new way of viewing movies on prerecorded cassettes or discs that could be rented or purchased at video shops. Despite the fears of the motion-picture industry, the new technology did not contribute to a decline in movie theater attendance. Instead, it fostered a much wider experience of movies for viewers who sought entertainment more frequently at home than in public settings. The consequences were numerous: the history of motion pictures, in addition to recent films, became available to the home viewer; cassette and disc rental and sales earned new revenue for motion-picture companies — in some cases, more than the theatrical release; and advance sales of video rights enabled small production companies to finance the creation of low-budget films." (Sklar 1)
Today a film’s home theater gross may nearly triple its box office receipts, and yet there is still very little theoretically rigorous criticism of films on video, not to mention films about video (Lieberman 1). Criticism of The Ring has been minimal to date, with the exception of one article on Salon.com that failed to recognize video as the cursed technology in The Ring or to come up with the names of any of the postmodern philosophers the critic felt pretty sure the film was citing (Stone 3, 7).
Television studies has also declined to embrace any discussions of home theater (with the exception of recent interest in TV-DVD box sets) due to its effort to champion television as more than a domestic delivery system for theatrical films. Ruth Lorand thus introduces her book Television: Aesthetic Reflections in part by asking, “In what ways is TV more than a limited home cinema?” — the answer appears to be that it also features news, live broadcasting, and music videos (13). Television aesthetics has focused on programming, in other words, not technology, and so the field has yet to consider the umbilical cable cords trailing out of our TVs that transform them into so many little fetuses (Fig. 55).
Yet if television refuses to consider its formal relationship to video, and film theory likewise cannot bear to contemplate home theater, then one loses any chance to investigate the effects of medium on spectatorship now that the same film can be transmitted through the air (theater projectors, traditional broadcasting), fed via umbilical cord (cable television), or delivered in a small black box (videocassette — we’ll get to DVD soon). Without the ability to study a movie across its multiple media, it is no longer possible to fully theorize a viewer’s reaction to a given film.
For example, if a viewer were to watch George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in the theater, she might face the anxiety of leaving the voyeuristic control room of the auditorium to re-enter the outside world (perhaps even a mid-mall multiplex) that she has just been assured is over-run with the undead. Yet if our viewer were to watch Dawn of the Dead on television, she would presumably turn off the television after the film, and the “window” would close, thereby limiting her fear of future attacks either to the TV reconnecting with the television signal it previously channeled or to the zombies somehow wriggling through the umbilical-cable cord and back to her. Yet fortunately for her, and despite the extent to which Poltergeist troubles the notion of televisions ever being entirely open or closed, even the “TV people” never manage to turn the TV on or off by themselves; they merely change the channel.
Only The Ring shows its TVs opening the window by themselves, but by then Rachel and company have a bigger problem, namely the black box in the corner. For if our viewer were to watch Dawn of the Dead on VHS, she could either leave the tape in the VCR or rewind it and put it back in its box, but either way, the unseen inner cavity would still be in the room. That cavity contains zombies (as she very well knows — she just saw them on TV) and the zombies are still in there, waiting to come out the next time another viewer decides to play midwife and “help [the film] be born, help it to live” (Metz 93). Our viewer remains all too aware that she just saw the undead on television, and now here in the room lies a small casket, the same one out of which the undead so recently emerged, yet its inner cavity (like the uterus) cannot be opened. Even if our viewer could open it, it would not contain any answers, as Rachel learns when she breaks open her cursed cassette to reveal nothing but tape, which she destroys, only to immediately discover… another concealing videocassette (Fig. 56).
To the extent that the videocassette thus stands alone as the only container format of contemporary film viewing, and to the extent that its unenterable cavity is also the key source of the videocassette’s uncanniness in The Ring, a specific tendency in film theory to partition inside from outside in reference to film’s hermetic closure may explain why the cassette’s uncanniness remained unarticulatable before 2002. Christian Metz begins this metaphor by describing a movie’s self-sufficiency as a disavowal of its exhibitionism that has the effect of
“making [film] (at best) a beautiful closed object which must remain unaware of the pleasure it gives us (literally, over its dead body), an object whose contours remain intact and which cannot therefore be torn open into an inside and an outside” (94).
Metz’s descent into material language is both problematic and telling, because it creates a seamless equation between hermetic closure and physical insideness and outsideness — an analogy that, strictly speaking, does not apply to the film reel yet perfectly describes a videocassette. More recently, Barbara Creed has reinterpreted the physical inside/ outsideness of film as a question of psychic alienation, or abjection:
"The concept of inside/outside suggests two surfaces that fold in on each other; the task of separating inside from outside seems impossible as each surface constitutes the ‘other’ side of its opposite. The implication is that the abject can never be completely banished; if ‘inside,’ the abject substance forms a lining for the outside; if ‘outside,’ it forms a skin for the inside. The womb represents the utmost in abjection for it contains a new life form which will pass from inside to outside bringing with it traces of its contamination — blood, afterbirth, faeces" (49).
Returning to Metz’s birth metaphor for film projection, what I would like to suggest is that the videocassette always possessed this stain of potential abjection, the pregnant cavity that could contain who knows what, but that the abject horror of insideness/outsideness was never extended to the videotape before 2002 because the home-theater market had no other viable alternative to champion once its Pandora’s Box was identified as such. The Ring was therefore the first film to be able to reveal (revel in) the horror of the videocassette, because it was the first produced after the rise of DVD, the new, impotent way to bring movies home.
the future of DVD
DVD, or digital video disc, was not the first threat to VHS’s monopoly of the home-theater market, but unlike Laserdisc, VHS’s previous competitor, DVD actually appears to have conquered the North American market place, thanks in no small part to its considerable corporate backing. DVD players first went on sale in the U.S. in November, 1996, but as of 1997, only twenty-five percent of new VHS titles were simultaneously released on DVD (“DVD Technical Guide,” Equinox). In October, 1999, Blockbuster, the largest video rental chain in the U.S., announced that it would “introduce Digital Video Disc (DVD) to almost 3,800 of its U.S. corporate stores by year’s end,” which at that time constituted more than half of its 6,500 stores internationally (“Company Profile,” “Blockbuster® Announces”). In the accompanying press release, Blockbuster revealed that its support of DVD was based on analysts’ predictions that DVD
“should be in more than four million American households by the end of 1999 and in 50 million households by the year 2007” (“Blockbuster® Announces”).
Blockbuster also acknowledged that its reorientation to the DVD format was based on
“plans to capitalize on the long-term profitability associated with the high margin DVD rental market… due to the lower cost of DVDs” (“Blockbuster® Accelerates”).
By November 2001, Blockbuster officials announced,
“DVD is the fastest-adopted new consumer entertainment format in history and continues to gain popularity” (“Blockbuster® Rolls Out”).
And as of January, 2006, DVD was in over 80% of U.S. households, 82 million to be exact, which is over sixty percent more than Blockbuster predicted back in 1998.
The DVD format also possesses other, aesthetic advantages over VHS, namely “the use of MPEG-2 video compression [which] has been shown to give superlative results, far better than VHS and better than Laserdisc,” not to mention a variety of attractive in-disk bonuses, such as alternate endings, deleted scenes, bloopers, and director’s commentaries (“CD-ROM/DVD”). Furthermore, DVD brings with it a certain heterosexist simplicity, for although it may have a hole, DVD does not have a womb. As its relentlessly shiny surface demonstrates, the DVD is defined by its lack of interiority, its approximation of the two dimensional images it will create (Fig. 57).
In fact, DVD was designed to be non-reproductive:
“The stand-alone DVD player was introduced to the consumer market as a successor to the VCR, a smaller more efficient laser-disc player to play back pre-recorded films. In this regard, its playback features were developed well before its recording capacities, the reverse of VCR development” (Friedberg “CD” 35).
Thus the DVD, the phallus that has no interior, that wears its images on its sleeve, exposes the videocassette as uterine by contrast. Our current gender and sexuality vocabularies depend on binaries and pairs to create meaning — there is no feminine without masculine, there is no heterosexual without homosexual — and so we cannot alienate one technology without creating for it a supposed opposite. Perhaps the studios could not afford to admit how damned eerie the videocassette was until they possessed another way to sell old movies to home viewers. Yet as opposed to Ringu, which premiered in 1998, just as DVD began its climb, and was written and produced even earlier, The Ring was conceived during the ascendancy of the DVD, yet neither a single DVD nor reference to DVD-technology appears anywhere in the film: it is a VHS world, and VHS is dying (or killing, as the case may be). It is this cultural context, the immanent (economic) demise of the videocassette that allows it to be “elevated to the level of the Thing” in The Ring:
"This moment is the moment of death and sublimation: when the subject’s [i.e. the videocassette’s] presence is exposed outside the symbolic support, he “dies” as a member of the symbolic community, his being is no longer determined by a place in the symbolic network, it materializes the pure Nothingness of the hole, the void in the Other (the symbolic order), the void designated, in Lacan, by the German word das Ding, the Thing, the pure substance of enjoyment resisting symbolization." (Žižek Enjoy 75, 8)
Although the videocassette appears closely tied into the “symbolic network” of The Ring, it is precisely that connection that establishes The Ring as a fiction, since for today’s video viewer, the videocassette has in essence become a “dead man walking.” The “sublime object” (of horror) in The Ring therefore must be the videocassette, and not the ghost, because (the monopoly of) the videocassette is mortal, just as the viewer himself is mortal, whereas the whole premise of the ghost is that it never really died. A ghost cannot truly represent human mortality, in other words, because ghosts essentially argue for the other side: you may “die,” but you won’t have to leave (Fig. 58).
In recognizing the videocassette as the true object of horror in The Ring, moreover, we may have uncovered the reason for the film’s enormous popularity despite its generic nonconformity. The Ring constructs itself around a poor excuse for a ghost in order to expose that ghost as a screen for another anxiety-producer, the videocassette. Thus it is no accident that The Ring undermines Samara’s initial creepiness by allowing her to speak on screen and even to show the camera her whole face (Fig. 59):
"In both cases, unveiling either his voice, or his body and face, has the effect of breaking the spell, re-assigning the character to an ordinary fate, taking away his mythic powers… the unveiling of the voice bring a reversal and the character’s 'fall' to a common destiny." (Chion 100)
Samara is at her most terrifying, in other words, when she is silent and when the viewer cannot see inside her, past the black wall of hair that hangs over her face. This silence and its accompanying black veil — the same effects that offer Samara an uncanny resemblance to the blot from Holbein’s Ambassadors — also reveal the root of Samara’s horror, her videotape, by bringing her as close as a human being can get to the state of a videocassette: silent, shrouded in black, containing who knows what underneath or inside (see Fig. 52). Hence Samara’s most explicit incarnation of the video threat, her jerky, jump-cut pursuit of Noah, is also her coup de grâce.
If Samara is at her scariest when she most resembles a videocassette, and if the videocassette is in turn its scariest when it is most feminine, then the ultimate goal of The Ring’s matrilineal arrangement of horror may be to unveil the videocassette as the latest incarnation of “the monstrous feminine,” Barbara Creed’s phrase to designate how the female monster always “emphasizes the importance of gender in her monstrosity” (3). The videocassette thus becomes a technological means of metaphorizing a longstanding cultural preoccupation with the uncanny, inaccessible womb and the inexplicable power of reproduction it bestows upon women. This is not to say that we ought to read The Ring as a straight-forward allegory for either our fear of young girls and their reproductive potential (which we reaffirm by desiring them) or the rise of the DVD over the sexually ambiguous VHS cassette. The Ring cannot or will not bear out such readings, either in its plot or in its symbolism, for this film simply is not a metaphor any more than a stain is simply a signifier. Like Žižek’s psychotic Birds, it deserves to be read as a
“making present… of the fact that, on the symbolizing level, something ‘has not worked out’” (Looking 104).
In order to elevate its videocassette to the level of “das Ding, the Thing,” in other words, The Ring had to accept a certain elision of logic or causal reasoning from its horror narrative, for “the Thing, the pure substance of enjoyment resisting symbolization” — here understood as that certain pleasure masquerading as displeasure that keeps scary movies in production — cannot exist within an allegorical framework (Žižek Enjoy 8). This little dead girl and her videocassette do not make sense — where did she come from? why is she evil? why a videotape? — because it is precisely our heroines’ failure to articulate their meaning that allows The Ring to tell its viewers what it feels like to watch a tape. In short, the videocassette has finally reached its destination (Fig. 60).
1. If you really want to know, a folder in her mother’s file at Eola Psychiatric Hospital reveals that Samara is capable of an extreme form of “projected thermography,” or burning images directly from her mind onto film.
2. This reading of reproduction in The Ring is not a critique of maternity, motherhood, or womanhood but rather one attempt to unpack a peculiar thematic anxiety in one horror film that may elucidate a larger, cultural discomfort with VHS technology. I do not mean to imply that pregnancy is actually a monstrous condition, merely that culturally produced, patriarchal metaphors can and sometimes do influence our relationships with technology and film spectatorship.
3. Again, I do not mean to imply that real women give birth to real zombies, only that American horror films have made a habit of associating women’s genitals and pregnancy with evil and its production. The Ring is one film in this tradition that, through its videocassette, uncovers a cultural fear of reproduction that film and gender and technology studies need to unpack.
4. In both The Ring and Ringu, it is Samara’s look that frightens her victims to death, although Ringu wisely shows its viewers no more of that look than one inhuman eye, whereas The Ring unfortunately reveals Samara’s entire face during her final attack on Noah.
5. Poltergeist goes out of its way to establish that the Freelings keep their TVs on almost all the time (during breakfast, during foreplay, while drying their hair), and so it is through their lack of viewing control that little Carol Ann first meets the “TV people” (after her parents fall asleep in front of the TV).
6. This is not to say that videocassettes did not always have videodisc rivals; within a year of Sony’s initial VCR demonstration, Teldec introduced the first videodisc system (Klopfenstein 23). RCA began marketing a home videodisc player in 1981, but by 1983 it had sold only 300,000 units (as compared to over 3,000,00 VCRs), so RCA discontinued its production in 1984 (Klopfenstein 24, 26).
7. This prediction was no doubt bolstered by Blockbuster’s support of the new medium, since Blockbuster controls forty percent of the home video market and “about 60 percent of U.S. households live within a three-mile drive of a Blockbuster store” (“National Rollout”).
8. I realize that this metaphor does not offer any insight into recent digital distribution systems like Video on Demand, and so I refer instead to Vivian Sobchack’s reading of digital transmission as a disavowal of the film body:
"Digital electronic technologies atomize and abstractly schematize the analogic quality of the photographic and cinematic into discrete pixels and bits of information that are transmitted serially, each bit discontinuous, discontiguous, and absolute — each bit “being in itself” even as it is part of a system. As well, unlike the cinema, the electronic is phenomenologically experienced not as a discrete, centered, intentional projection but rather as a simultaneous, dispersive, and neural/ “neutral” transmission. Thus electronic “presence” as it is experienced by the spectator/user is one further remove from previous referential connections made between the body’s signification and the world’s concrete forms." (301-302)
While Sobchack does not base this reading on any specific electronic distribution system, her matrix nonetheless feels promising as one possible approach to an embodied understanding of digital downloading and its relationship to its viewer.
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