Unlike many horror fans, I was not too impressed with The Ring (2002). As the story of a possessed video that once watched curses the viewer to death by a demonic spirit, the film is more interested in conveying a sense of dread than it is in creating bloody spectacles. And while I’m not necessarily against that approach in horror, I just never found the essential horror being explored all that compelling. And so it was with very little expectation that I went into a viewing of Ringu (1998), the Japanese film that The Ring remade. What I discovered is that watching these two films as companion pieces instead of as individual films yields a much more interesting commentary on the connection between community and monstrosity.
In comparing the two versions of The Ring, I was interested in how motherhood was used to convey monstrosity. I disagree with reviewers who argue that, like Poltergeist, the demonic spirit in The Ring is given entry into the suburban home via the television. While it’s true that in each case the television is the mode of disseminating the evil, its actual point of entry is radically different. Unlike in Poltergeist where the evil is situated under the house, The Ring’s Rachel brings the VHS tape into the home. This is an important distinction for two reasons. First, it illustrates Rachel’s curiosity that is linked to pleasure. Samara’s horror is designed to be arbitrary which is why the initial victims stumble upon the tape. Yet, Rachel’s driven curiosity upsets the random order of the victims and brings those closest to her in contact with a tape they otherwise would have likely avoided. Second, it underscores Rachel’s culpability in Aiden’s predicament. As an investigative journalist trying to determine what happened to her niece, the VHS tape represents the work product of a working mother. Aiden’s exposure to the tape in the domestic home is a direct result of his mother’s work.
In the case of Rachel, we are given a truly accessible monster. She is neither maniacal nor psychotic. Rather, she is just a mother who is placed in an absolutely unwinnable situation. Her decision at the end of the film to have her son duplicate the tape even though she knows an innocent will die as a result is both monstrous and understandable. Similarly, Anna Morgan’s murder of Samara, too, is somewhat sympathetic, as the audience understands that by killing Samara, Anna is killing herself as well. Interestingly, the motives of the two mothers vary wildly. Whereas Rachel’s actions are fueled by the very selfish desire to keep her son alive, Anna’s motivation is to protect the community that has been suffering as a result of Samara’s presence. It is essentially a struggle between individualism and collectivism.
This struggle also plays out in the genesis of the horror in the two films. Traditionally, Japanese culture is more based in collectivism, or what’s best for the community as a whole. In Ringu, the film concludes with Reiko phoning her father and telling him she needs his help for his grandson who has seen the tape. The implication is that Reiko will ask her father to view the copy of the tape made by her son in order to save her son’s life. It is the ultimate moment of paternalism in that it isn’t Reiko who will ultimately save her son but his grandfather. The moment also suggests it will be the elders of the community to pay the ultimate price. Conversely, the notion of individualism is so prevalent in United States mythology that the ending of The Ring conveys a totally different sentiment. When Aiden asks what will happen to the next person who sees the tape, Rachel remains silent indicating that the answer to that question is less important than Rachel and Aiden saving themselves.
Considering these two films on a continuum doesn’t increase the terror Samara represents but it does allow for a broader consideration for the ways in which depictions of monstrosity are contingent upon the gender and familial expectations of a culture.