The above text is an unused opening to a version of Ehren Kruger's script for The Ring (2002)¹
The inclusion of the record icon may suggest the scene functions as a foreshadowing or allusion to the film's final scene where Aiden creates a copy of the cursed videotape with the help of his mother, Rachel. What it certainly does is introduce the audience the antagonist (and in certain contexts victim) of the text – the VCR. But we are not only seeing this familiar device from a new perspective, it's interior or a fictional imagining of it's interior - we are being prompted to recognise this as a place of deeper, meta textual purpose.
In the final paragraph and it's follow up line the scene description appears to posit the VCR's interior architecture as an urban landscape surrounded by dark woodlands. The presentation of this strange world, illuminated by a record icon sun – serves as an establishing shot of what could easily be understood to be the epitome of small town America. A place so often the site for disruption and fear in the horror genre and surrounded by the dimly lit American wilderness; a place within the horror genre, that has never been entirely tamed.
A new day is dawning on this place, a town or city whose relationship to electronic media is, we feel, somehow not as it should be.
This inverted micro to macro visual scenario, where an establishing aerial shot of the wider location is positioned within the cramped interior of the films key prop and 'player' may further prompt our genre expectations. Surely, somewhere along the dimly lit streets of this town there must exist the another component in a supernatural horror – the haunted house.
But that house is never located, not along the streets nor at the edge of the tangled wood and the reason for that is that we are already within it. That is to say that the depicted VCR itself is serves as the Haunted House.²
The VCR, as depicted above and elsewhere within The Ring operates as Haunted House on several levels.
Haunted Media. In Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film³, Barry Curtis asserts the haunted house functions as a 'a trans-dimensional archetype' that it's varying material shape often incorporates elements of the 'feudal castle, the ruined monastery, and the remote cottage' locations stained by 'memories, by the history of their sites, by their owners fantasies and projections'.
'The idea that objects and places can retain memories of traumatic events is an old one.' states Curtis. By these standards we could assert that the VCR relates to the haunted house via concepts of Haunted Media. This idea, best illuminated in Jeffery Sconce's Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television⁴ observes a tradition of crossover between the technologies and beliefs of sound and image media and the supernatural. The ability of location and often specifically a house to be supernaturally encoded with paleomagnetic traces of the past is best exemplified by Stone Tape theory, named after the much discussed TV play by Nigel Kneale.⁵
Like Sconce's many examples the VCR is a site where transient disembodied entities pass through. They materialise ephemerally, before vanishing back into their place of confinement, the black shiny ribbon tape as described in the screenplay. The medium's conspicuous lack of the material indexicality, so prominent in analogue film where each frame will reveal itself by merely being held up to the light might further suggests video a likely candidate to be charged with such ideas. The tapes surface is, until treated to the rigidly specific protocol of the VCR drum head, as impenetrable and abstruse as the rock walls in Kneale's play. If recorded images are burnt onto and embodied by the film frame then the same images might be said more to 'haunt' videotape. They are both there and not there. They are charged into their medium, existing only as magnetic disturbances.
The spectral, illusory nature of the analogue video image, as experienced on the CRTs of The Ring, is enhanced when we consider that it never truly existed as a complete image in anyplace other than our own cognition. The electron beam that draws the image, line by line, across the screen, would illuminate a portion of line on an ordinary family sized CRT television no wider than a few centimetres at any given moment. That is to say the images, though viewed, are never truly present.
The Ring, Videodrome (1983) Lost Highway (1997) and of course The Stone Tape (1972) are all charged with the uncanniness of the electronic recording media. Dealing with both anxieties of hidden or subliminal content and content that has been recorded by means that defy quotidian comprehension.
In The Ring where a ghost materialises via a videotape we could say that she not only haunts the tape but that her ghostly ontology is reliant on the structure which it occupies.
The Fun Fair or Carnival Haunted House. The description of the VCR's interior is reminiscent of another haunted house experience that has less to do with the supernatural, at least authentically. It's evocation of trapdoors and moving parts within a pitch black environment conjure more the fun fair or carnival haunted house.
My experience of these attractions was in 1970s and early 80s British traveling fun fairs. The promise was an encounter with the supernatural but these were places where technology, took the place of supernatural forces to thrill, disorientate and shock the visitor.
In the absence of the means to furnish these houses with startling apparitions or any other type of spectacular effects (these places lacked the budget of Disney's Haunted Mansion) they relied instead on the generation of other sensations and anxieties to create the state of unease needed to keep the punters and rubes coming back for more or at the very least not demanding their money back.
The fun fair or carnival haunted house would disorientate in near total darkness with sliding walls, conveyor belt floors, trapdoors and automata that swing to and fro in the dark. The architecture was one of legerdemain, concealed mechanics of pulleys and hinges – a place that seeks to literally pull the wool over your eyes and rug out from underneath the feet. The skeletons were clearly plastic and far from convincing but the closets in which they resided were numerous and always where you least expected them.
To enter into such a place was to mix the fear of the supernatural unknown with that of the technological in a corporeal experience where the only certainty was that the house, it's mechanical haunting, was running rings about you. Darkness was it's ally, as was the scent of axle grease, ozone from over clocked starter motors repurposed as servos and flashing incandescent bulbs sprayed with orange cellulose car paint. The tremors around you were beyond comprehension. Among the sounds of repurposed army surplus klaxons and clips from the BBC's Sounds of Death and Horror⁶ were the sounds of the house working. Perhaps these unknown creaks, rumbles and judders were as disconcerting as the screaming skulls and siren blasts because the house did not give away it's secrets. The mystery of origin of these devices, their designers and builders were as beguiling as any of the horrors and thrills they had on offer at 30 pence for four minutes.
These effects contain a sort of technological uncanny themselves. Like the SFX and genre techniques employed in horror film, those technologically complex depictions of the fantastic, abject and grotesque whose spectacular attractions are compounded and amplified by a lack of understanding of how such artifacts are generated. In both cases the process of production itself is an asset of the unknown.
Again there is a parallel to the VCR here, a media device quickly came to represent an odd combination of the alien and the mundane. The inner workings of these machines that resided in our homes for so many years were rarely observed and even more rarely understood. The VCR's cassette snatching trap doors, darkened interiors, strange mechanical clicking and whirring were in certain senses as mysterious and perplexing and any of the content played and presented on screen.
The Gothic. The Haunted House is a place charged with Gothic familial anxieties, framed by architraves skewed by structural decay, uncanny disconnects, troubling ruptures in the classification of interior and exterior, deathly silent rooms where faces of the long since passed stare down from the walls.
In a haunted house, according to Barry Curtis, 'what haunts is the symptom of loss -something excessive and unresolved in the past that requires an intervention in the present' ⁷
The actions and the offenses of the past reoccur and play out in the present here, a location discovered through and driven by fate. A place of vengeance that refuses to forget or be forgotten.
Just as Rachael and Noah's problematic parenting is reflected in the heightened stakes of Samara's familial catastrophe, the mistakes are repeated, echoed. Despite their presence becoming residual, disturbances caused by invoked guilt and panic become ever stronger with each generation.
The guilt with which the Gothic edifice of the VCR is charged is that borne by it's adopters, users who later and at the time of the making of The Ring it's betrayers and deserters. For this is a place troubled by the collective anxiety of millions of VCR owners aiming their machines and tapes at the rubbish bin. A not quite dead media but certainly an abandoned media.
Samara, suggests Jessica Belanzategul, is a proxy for the VCR .
Samara, 'embodies both the vengeance and rapid disintegration of a long dominant audio-visual format.'⁸
Samara was cast away, abandoned, left for dead – she came back. Her wrongdoings included projecting imagery in the minds of her family and neighbours.
...the things she'd show you... solemnly recalls her father (before becoming horse in his bathtub)
VCRs take the fall for DVD... abject soon to be obsolete. ⁹
In Retrotechnophobia, Caetlin Benson-Allott posits the VHS within The Ring as a patsy, a stand in for an emergent DVD in an anti piracy narrative. A parallel reading (that the author does not ignore) locates a masked anxiety regarding imminent abandonment of the VCR - the dumping of a once prized item and with it shared associations and memories, the (at the time) scarcely addressed environmental impact, the unknowns of the accelerated move towards the digital as the driving forces of The Ring.
As every haunted house movie confirms, ghosts and their domains can be abandoned but they rarely go away. Instead they become further embittered and locked into the walls and floors of the haunted edifice.
In The Ring this Gothic architecture is located in the dark chambers of the VCR itself, before and after it was erased from our collective cultural behaviors if not our memories.¹⁰
'the House of Usher is no more – the place whereon it stood is as if - it had never been' ¹¹
(2) The released version opens with a shot of a more conventional spooky looking house. This isn't the only use of location and architecture to elicit unease in The Ring. The images of the face at the window within the montage, the Morgan house itself, the motel site - even the cold industrialism of the lift and stairwell in Noah's bachelor pad studio, these elements of mise en scene all play an active part within the texts genre objectives. But there is no haunted house in the conventional sense. That is, a site that both central to and an active antagonistic force within the narrative. Only the VCR might be said to fulfill these criteria.
(3) Curtis, Barry, Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film,
REAKTION BOOKS; Illustrated edition (1 Sept. 2008)
(4)Sconce, Jeffrey, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television,
Duke University Press, 2000.
(5) Kneale, Nigel, The Stone Tape, BBC 2, 1972.
(6) Sound Effects No. 13 – Death & Horror, BBC Radiophonic Workshop, 1977.
(7) Curtis, ibid.
(8) Balanzategui, J. (2016), ‘Haunted nostalgia and the aesthetics of technological decay: Hauntology and Super 8 in Sinister ’,Horror Studies, 7: 2, pp. 235–51, doi: 10.1386/host.7.2.235_1
(9) Retrotechnophobia: Putting an End to Analog Abjection with The Ring, published in Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens, 2013, Caetlin Benson-Allott, University of California Press. p113
(10)The videocassette might, with it's own curious magnetically charged, mechanical, sealed ontology, be said to function as the VCR's uncanny reduced familiar, itself invoking a sense of the haunted house.
this off the cover of a videotape! E. A. Poe via Corman via 1989 Video
Collection International VHS release cover tagline. Fall of the House
of Usher, AIP, 1960.