This story was originally published on March 31, 2016.
The 2002 horror film The Ring — a remake of the 1998 Japanese film Ringu — has one very important central premise. It's explained during the opening scene of the movie, in which two plaid-skirt-clad teens (because aren't teenaged females always wearing school-girl uniforms in these movies?) sit in one of their bedrooms, debating what to watch on TV. Katie (Amber Tamblyn) goes on a rant about the futility of television, calling it a "big conspiracy" that involves companies sending magnetic waves through the air and into our brains. "We're losing like, 10 times as many brain cells as we're supposed to...because of TV and telephones." I mean, just wait until you hear about smartphones and the internet, girl.
Her friend Becca (Rachael Bella) isn't here for Katie's rambling about "electro-rays that are traveling through our head every second," so they turn off the TV.
"I got a better one," Becca says. "Have you heard about this videotape that kills you when you watch it?"
"What kind of tape?" Katie asks.
"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, right? 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 recounts.
Rather than laughing off Becca's story as an urban legend, Katie responds with a look of horror. "I've watched it," she whispers. Last weekend, she went to a cabin in the mountains with her boyfriend and his friends. They wanted to record a football game on what appeared to be a blank tape they found at the lodge, but the reception in the cabin was so bad that they watched what was on the tape instead.
"We thought it was some kind of sick joke...and then the phone rang. It was a week ago. A week ago tonight," Katie finishes.
Katie doesn't die immediately after she finishes the story, but she does die that night at 10 p.m. After getting some lemonade in the kitchen, she goes upstairs to her bedroom. When she reaches the upstairs hallway, she sees water slowly seeping out from under her door. She thinks it's Becca, playing a prank of some kind.
Katie slowly opens her door and sees that the TV is on. There's a scene from the video on the screen; it's the now-iconic shot of the well that Samara climbs out of as she moves from the video, out of the television, and into her victims' homes. We see a flash of images, a look of frozen horror on Katie's now-petrified face, and the whole thing ends in the type of fuzzy snow one saw on television sets in the days of yore. You know, back when your antenna was having trouble picking up a broadcast signal. Anyone? Bueller?
At Katie's funeral, her mother (Lindsay Frost) asks her sister Rachel (Naomi Watts), a journalist, to investigate her niece's mysterious death. The coroner's report says that Katie died of heart failure, but her mom says, "I spent four hours on the internet, and I couldn't find one single case of a 16-year-old girl's heart just stopping." Then, she utters the line that conjures up a thousand nightmares, and the kind of shock value only a few horrors truly manage to achieve. "I saw her face."
The movie cuts for just a few seconds to an indelible image: Katie, crouched in the corner of her closet, her face completely frozen like Edvard Munch's "The Scream." It's not something you ever forget, and I'm sure that you're picturing it right now if you've seen The Ring. I'm sorry; it had to be mentioned. I'll move on.
Rachel decides to start investigating her niece's mysterious death right there at her funeral. She asks a bunch of teens she finds smoking outside what happened to Becca. She's now in a mental hospital. Rachel asks if Katie was into drugs, but Kellan (Adam freaking Brody, who we did not remember was in this) interjects.
"It's not about that. It's about the tape...the one that kills you when you watch it...I haven't seen it, obviously," he says.
The girls to whom Rachel is talking know about the tape, too, but they heard about it from Katie's boyfriend. Rachel asks where Josh is.
"Josh is dead," Kellan says. "Supposedly he killed himself. The same night that Katie died."
Rachel moves her investigation to Katie's room. There's a ticket for a photo-developing place, because remember when we had to get physical copies of photos made?
Rachel heads to the shop to pick up Katie's photos, in which her friends' faces are all blurred, despite the rest of the image being perfectly clear. She learns that they spent the weekend at the Shelter Mountain Inn. Rachel also starts investigating the deaths of the other teens in the pictures. They all died at 10 p.m. It's suspicious, so she heads to Shelter Mountain Inn.
While she's asking the clerk (Richard Lineback) about where Katie and the rest of the group stayed that weekend, she notices a shelf full of videotapes. The clerk says that the cabins are so remote that they get poor TV reception, so he put in VCRs and offers various tapes to keep the guests entertained. All of the tapes are labeled, the way that most VHS movies were back in the day, but one of them is totally blank. Rachel just knows that that's the tape. She puts it in her bag and takes it to cabin 12, which is where the group stayed that fateful weekend.
Then, of course, Rachel watches the tape, which means that you, the viewer, have to watch the tape. That right there adds in an additional element of fear because the entire premise of the movie is that seven days after you watch the tape, you die. Even though you know it's only a movie, there's still a part of your mind that won't shut down as the tape starts playing on the TV set in The Ring. It happened to me as I rewatched the movie for this story. "What are you doing? That's the tape everyone is warning Rachel not to watch!," the irrational part of my brain was screaming in this weird fight-or-flight moment. I almost wanted to cover my eyes, but I also remembered from my original viewing of the movie in 2002 that the rest of the film would be spent analyzing the video frame by frame, so there really isn't a way to avoid seeing it. Plus, I'm an adult (I told myself repeatedly) who knows that this is just a movie (again, this was said on repeat).
Also: There are no VHS tapes and VCRs anymore. I mean, there are, but who has one? I certainly don't. I have a DVD player, and I feel like even that puts me on the dinosaur end of the millennial spectrum. Most members of my generation are cord-cutters. They stream movies and TV shows on their phones, tablets, and computers. The idea of a horror movie that hinges on having to put a physical videotape in a VCR is so quaint at this point that I couldn't believe it was still scaring me after all these years. If someone gave me a video and said I would die seven days after watching it, I'd reply, "Great, because I have absolutely no way to view this tape. Perhaps I'll use it as a coaster." I would also never speak to that person again, because fuck your creepy tape gift.
I doubt The Ring would scare kids currently growing up without any knowledge of VCRs, VHS tapes, or even needing physical devices to play videos at all. Rachel spends the entire movie trying to figure out how the mysterious video, with all its haunting images, came to exist. She enlists the help of several professionals who work with physical video tape. One of them (Martin Henderson) explains things like time signatures and control tracks. "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 could tell us where it came from. But if it didn't have one, I mean, that's like being born without fingerprints," he says dramatically.
I mean, let's just consider that explanation. "Camcorder." "VCR." "Control track." Those aren't words you'd hear these days. Plus, the way in which those lines are delivered, you'd think this guy was announcing that they'd just discovered proof of alien life on Earth. No; he's merely explaining that it's very weird how they can't tell where this tape came from. The funny part is, that's the one thing that's never actually explained in the movie — how exactly a 9-year-old girl who's been dead for decades made a videotape that kills the people who watch it. See also: How she knows their phone numbers and calls them to let them know they have a week to live. I guess she has a phone book in the hellish limbo in which she's wandering.
In the end, the only thing that saves Rachel and her son Aidan (David Dorfman) is the fact that Rachel makes a copy of the tape and has Aidan make one as well. Although her son has been having dream-like encounters with Samara and warns Rachel not to help her, Rachel realizes that in making the copy, she's done exactly that. She thinks that finding Samara's body at the bottom of the well in the tape is what will finally set her soul at rest and stop the deaths, but no, Samara does actually want to hurt people. By making copies of the tape, Rachel and Aidan are indirectly going to be responsible for more deaths, but they're saving their own lives.
Other movies do exist with the premise of watching a piece of recorded material and dying afterword. Last year's Unfriended is one example. In that film, however, a group of friends realizes that a heinous act they'd committed had been captured and posted on YouTube, and it led to another friend's suicide. Now, the YouTube video is being used to torture them.
There's just something missing in the scare-video movies that have come out after The Ring that don't have the physical element of the videotape, though. Having to possess the tape, put it in a VCR, and watch it on the TV (which Samara later climbs out of to scare her victims to death), is part of the ritual that makes the movie so frightening and also voyeuristic. You're watching a movie about people who watch a movie that makes them die. It's uncanny.
The third movie in The Ring saga (well, fourth if we're being technical — a short film called Rings came out between The Ring and The Ring Two) comes out this year. Director F. Javier Gutierrez confirmed on Twitter in March 2015 that Rings is not a prequel, and that "the story takes place 13 years after The Ring." Samara will be back, but will she have her signature video tape? Will the characters — who, based on the actors listed on IMDb, are in their twenties — even know what to do with it?
In the world of streaming and smartphones, has Samara Morgan lost her ability to scare us?