‘The Ring’: The Birth of Tech-Horror That Made Me Fear My TV
by Erin Whitney
This is the first article in Moviefone’s Ultimate Horror Experience series, where the Moviefone staff looks back on scary movies that impacted us the most. Stay tuned for a different movie each week in October.
The early 2000s were the beginning of a horror subgenre, one that used the emblems of the millennium to explore ghosts and demons. I’ve come to dub this period as tech-horror. Tired of trite stories about haunted houses, demonic possession, and ancient fatal curses, filmmakers began using technology to spook us; at the time, there was nothing scarier.
One of these films was “The Ring,” which came out when I was 11 years old. This was a time when digital technology was slowly infiltrating our daily lives and online communication was on the verge of expanding. At that age, I was still using MySpace and AOL instant messenger, and had just gotten my first cell phone (in retrospect, 11 was a horrifyingly young age for such a gadget). DVD players had just recently become available at reasonable prices so nearly every household would soon own one. But this was still a transitional period, where we weren’t quite ready to step into the unknown of digital technology and still held on to our VHS collections.
Thus “The Ring,” an exploration of horror and death through human interaction with technology. Although it borrowed concepts from ’80s indie films “The Video Dead” and “TerrorVision,” Gore Verbinski’s remake of the Japanese original “Ringu” was one of the first mainstream American films to explore the new frontier of tech-horror. “The Ring” sparked a new subgenre that visualized a cultural anxiety towards budding technology, with films like “One Missed Call,” “FeardotCom,” “Pulse,” and eventually the “Paranormal Activity” series. Yet what exactly was so damn frightening about “The Ring”?
According to the movie, death by VHS could happen to anyone. A videotape was floating around somewhere in the universe that could kill those who watched it. No one knew what video it was, but once they hit play they were doomed. So, as a proficient lover of films, wasn’t it more likely to happen to me?
Of course this was just a movie, but to an 11-year-old in 2002 this was a pretty scary concept, especially for one who did so much home-movie watching and visited Blockbuster as often as the grocery store. The scariest films I’d seen up to that point were “The Sixth Sense” and “The Others,” both of which involved supernatural hauntings, things I shook off as fantastical stories. But death by video? An evil girl crawling out of the screen into your living room to kill you? The television screen, the safety zone which divided the film world from the real world, felt like it had been penetrated and I was no longer a spectator. These devices had just been fully introduced to my pre-teen life and now they could kill me?
In retrospect, my fear makes sense. I grew up in an age of blooming ubiquitous technology, a time where my middle school identity was defined by my MySpace profile, where my cell phone became my third arm, where Blockbuster and Netflix home-video watching was constant and instigated my dream of becoming a film critic. Technology was everywhere in the household and now movies were coming out that revealed the many ways it could make us susceptible to ghostly attacks. Maybe this is the underlying reason I’m not necessarily a fan of horror — maybe it simply became too real for me at too young an age.
I thought perhaps the gripping fear from scary movies I’d seen in my childhood had faded with time. I recently rewatched “The Sixth Sense,” which was just as great of a film but failed to have the same intensity of paralyzing fear it had on me at age eight. But last year, when I was working in a West Village public school, I suddenly stopped short in the hallway. Brian Cox was standing a few feet away from me, peering at a wall display of classroom work. I couldn’t help but feel incredibly uncomfortable and scared. Of course this wasn’t Samara’s father, only the actor who played him, but I immediately realized “The Ring” still had a hold on me, technology driven or not.
This article was originally featured on Moviefone on October 9, 2013.