Gore Verbinski’s The Ring centers on an infamous videotape and was released, ironically, at the very moment in time (2002) that VHS was becoming obsolete, replaced by digital recording technologies. I recently taught the film, wondering if it still has anything to say, thirteen years later, now videotape truly is obsolete. I’m convinced, after another round of watching it, that The Ring is still very relevant. In fact, the film’s fundamental message—that the media are taking “us” over, replacing “brain cells” with images—is more true today than it was at the beginning of the millennium.
Whatever else Samara is (and she is many things), she embodies the power of the image—and its desire, its driving instinct—to reproduce itself. What Samara wants is to get people to make copies of her tape. She may kill people (four teenagers and the protagonist’s ex-lover), but she doesn’t want to kill them. She ends up killing them merely because they don’t do what she does want. They don’t make a copy of her tape. Rachel and Aidan survive only because they do make a copy (the ethical costs of passing on the “curse” be damned).
People may debate whether Samara is “evil” or not (and the much inferior Ring 2 suggests she might be), but in The Ring all Samara wants is “to be heard”—to pass her message on. Besides the infamous tape, she also makes people around her “see things.” And, as Richard Morgan says: She won’t stop.” Aidan similarly warns: “She never sleeps.” She is an inexorable force of dissemination and duplication. When asked by the psychiatrist of the institute in which she’s temporarily confined why she makes the pictures (in people’s heads, as thermographic photographs), Samara disavows creation, answering: “I don’t make them. I see them. Then they just are.” And, she says “It won’t stop.”
Samara’s response encapsulates perfectly how images are disseminated by media: the images “just are.” We see them. And we pass them on. This dynamic captures what the film is really about—the power of memes.
I heard Susan Blackwell give a talk about memes here at Lehigh University several years ago—and it was one of the most powerful talks I’ve ever attended, one of those talks that profoundly changes how you think. Blackwell’s book, The Meme Machine (Oxford University Press, 1999), which I immediately went out and bought, is perhaps the best introduction to the science of memetics. A meme, Blackwell writes, is “a unit of imitation.” It’s an idea, a message, an image, any element of culture. It is, Blackwell adds, “stored in human brains (or books or inventions) and passed on by imitation.” As Richard Dawkins wrote when he coined the term “meme” in 1976, memes are “selfish” in that, like genes, they care nothing for their hosts (that would be us) but want only to be transmitted, spread far and wide.[i] Memes want to be talked about; they want to be copied. Like Samara. So that’s why Samara doesn’t actually want to kill anyone. Like viruses and genes (entities to which memes are often compared), memes have no interest in killing their hosts.
Samara, then, is a meme incarnate: she represents the blind and amoral drive of images and ideas to spread themselves. And the film shows how successfully “memes” can spread, shows how they take over our brains. One of the most crucial moments in the film, for me, is when Rachel is looking at Katie’s notebook (her niece and one of the teens killed by the tape because she didn’t make a copy). Rachel sees a drawing Katie made of a horse (one of the images from Samara’s tape) and then sees what Katie wrote underneath: “Why is this in my head?” Well, the picture is in Katie’s head because that’s how it stays “alive,” that’s how it gets passed on, that’s how it achieves immortality. This particular host (Katie) may have died in the end, but the meme got itself copied (in the notebook) and it survives.
Like Samara’s tape, media images (and videos, phrases, and songs) get in our heads. We don’t know why and we can’t get them out. The Ring suggests they may literally be colonizing our brain cells. We can think back to the very first scene of the film, in which Becca and Katie are mindlessly watching TV. “I hate television,” Katie says, “I heard there’s so many magnetic waves travelling through the air because of TV and telephones that we’re losing ten times as many brain cells as we’re supposed to.” The Ring tells us that we’re losing those brain cells, “our” organic matter, to media images: we are less body and more “meme.” The brief glimpse of the commercial playing on the TV that Katie and Becca are absorbing (despite themselves) thus takes on a different meaning. Memes, media images, are accruing more body, “extra body,” and we are losing OUR body.
The constant shots of TVs in The Ring—all with humans circling round them, like they are in charge—become much more sinister when we recognize that the images those TVs disseminate (and disseminate highly effectively) are literally imperiling our bodies and our lives, our very humanity. Just as Rachel realizes at the end of the film, you have to make a copy to stay alive, but those copies, those images, are at the same time making, and re-making us—into something quite different than we once were. Frighteningly, The Ring was made, moreover, before digital technology and smart phones really took off—before everyone was on the internet all the time. How many of our brain cells have we lost to “memes” now?
[i] Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in The Selfish Gene (1976, republished by Oxford University Press, 2006). Two other illuminating books about the science of memes are Kate Distin’s The Selfish Meme (Cambridge University Press, 2004) and Robert Aunger’s The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think (Free Press, 2010).