The 2002 horror film The Ring can be summarized in a delightfully analog fashion: After finding a VHS tape and receiving a phone call, a local newspaper reporter searches library archives to solve a mystery. As John Mulaney would say, that is a very old-fashioned sentence.
But while audiences today have little to fear from a ghost that travels by VHS and kills by landline, the terrors in Gore Verbinski's modern classic are oddly resonant. The threat at the center of the movie isn't the technology; it's the spread of a story. And whether an urban legend whispered at a '90s slumber party or a viral anecdote shared and reshared online, alluring half-truths present a certain danger when circulated.
The Ring was a phenomenon when it came out 19 years ago. It set off a wave of J-horror remakes, rekindled the supernatural monster movie, and gave audiences one of the best shock endings of all time. But in the "prestige horror" era, it offers a warning about the temptations and responsibilities of sharing.
And so, in the spirit of the Halloween season, Atlantic staffers revisited The Ring for an episode of our culture podcast, The Review. Listen to Sophie Gilbert, David Sims, and Lenika Cruz here:
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers.
Sophie Gilbert: It was Halloween this weekend, so we decided to step away from new releases and watch what I think all of us consider a classic horror movie: Gore Verbinski's 2002 movie, The Ring, which, of course, is the remake of the Japanese horror movie released in North America in 1998 as Ringu. In the almost-20 years since it came out, it has had a vast influence on horror movies, and we wanted to rewatch and see if it holds up as a modern horror classic. David, are you a Ring fan?
David Sims: I certainly am. I had not seen this film in quite a long time. I saw it in theaters and I remember it scaring the sillies out of me. I had seen Ringu, the original film, and it had quite a profound effect on me because I rented that when I was 13 or 14 from the video store, knowing very little but being a pretentious little proto film-boy.
Sims: So I thought, I'll just watch this Japanese horror movie ... and I didn't know that she was going to come out of that dang television! And I have really never forgotten it. It's such an effective scare. So I've always had a fondness for the original, and when I saw the remake at 16, I thought it would be watered down, [but] I remember liking it at the time. And watching it now, I was sort of astonished at how well-made it is compared with a lot of horror of my youth--2000s horror. It has held up quite well, in my opinion.
Gilbert: Lenika, how about you?
Lenika Cruz: I saw the American remake first when it came out, also in theaters. I was 12 and did not have much of a tolerance for scary things. I don't think I really knew what the movie was about. One of my friends had told me that it's about a girl climbing out of a well. And from the first jump scare, when the mom opens the closet door and sees her daughter, I thought, Oh, no, I'm screwed. I have, like, ruined my whole life. I probably should have left the theater, but I sat there and I watched the rest of it. And for the next two years, I basically had nightmares about The Ring.
But weirdly enough, I have rewatched it a lot over the years, almost as if to exorcise it from my mind. And rewatching it as an adult, I'm surprised by how the things that terrified me are still scary, but I can appreciate some of the other elements of the movie now. I think Ringu is maybe scarier in some ways, but honestly, the American remake does hold its own.
Gilbert: I want to have words with the friend who told you that this was a movie about a girl coming out of a well. David, for those people who haven't seen The Ring in 19 years since it came out, can you give us a quick catch-up on the premise of the movie?
Sims: So it starts with a little preview of how everything works: There's this videotape. It's cursed. If you watch it, you will get a weird phone call and then die seven days later of basically being scared to death.
Cruz: I love the way the two girls in that preview talk about the video. It does feel like the sort of urban legend that you would share at a sleepover. It's the exact kind of night that you would be talking about this thing.
Sims: And so one of the teenagers in that intro scene dies. And her aunt, a reporter named Rachel, played by Naomi Watts, tries to dig into the tape and uncovers this weird, ghostly folktale: a remote island in Washington state, a girl named Samara who had strange powers and vanished, a creepy story of these horses dying ...
The whole thing is basically a folktale that could exist at any time. But then it has this modern technological layer on top of it, of this tape that is passed around and has this physical presence beyond the frightening phenomenon that's going on. It's mostly a mystery film about Naomi Watts trying to figure out what's behind this story. And it's just the right blend of techno-horror about modern, futuristic fears along with a classic vengeful-ghost story.
Gilbert: The virality is so interesting. Because now, the nature of our lives is so different. Now it'd be like, "Oh, watch this cursed TikTok." "Click on this link." We'd all be dead.
Sims: In Rings, the video is uploaded to YouTube, right? And it eventually does go viral like you're saying.
Cruz: Yeah, I reviewed it for The Atlantic once upon a time.
Sims: The other thing about this movie that is so funny to me is that it is extremely old-fashioned now. It's sort of a last cry of analog media. The videotape is scary, but a videotape is so quaint--the idea that something would have to be spread by people copying VHS tapes. You needed two players for that, whereas now, like you say, Sophie, it would be boring. The world would be dead in a week.
Gilbert: Or we'd be saved because everyone in the world would see it and then show friends, and have copies, and Samara would be happy.
Cruz: If this movie is a critique of something, what is it a critique of? A lot of scenes from the movie support this interpretation that it's about our addiction to watching things and screens. There's a scene where Naomi Watts is standing on her balcony while her ex-boyfriend is watching the tape inside. She looks into these other apartment buildings and everyone has a TV, and she's like, Oh my gosh, people are just addicted to their TVs.
But you don't die by watching the tape; you die by not sharing it. And I think that is what is so resonant today. A movie scolding you for watching TV is boring. Television's been around for such a long time. But The Ring does seem to be tapping into this metaphor of the virus now, when it's so easy to share. You don't have to go and have these two players and press the buttons to copy anything now; you literally just have to click. I don't think this movie is really a critique of TV watching. I think it is very interested in the question of how stories get spread, the responsibility of the people who spread those stories in misinterpreting them, and really considering the weight of that responsibility.
Gilbert: Let's talk about the Samara character a bit. Ringu is based on a book, and in it, she's institutionalized and becomes evil after being sexually assaulted by a doctor. It's a manifestation of rage and wanting to take revenge. Sexual violence is one of the most potent forces for that emotion, and often used in terrible ways in film and television. But I found that so fascinating, where in The Ring and in Ringu, Samara, as it turns out, by the end, is just inherently evil.
You are led to believe that she was just treated cruelly by her adoptive parents. They preferred horses. They institutionalized Samara. And they threw her in a well and left her to die for seven days. And Naomi Watts's character thinks that if she can just put Samara's body to rest, the spirit of Samara will be at peace. But it turns out that's not how it goes.
Cruz: I love that it wasn't just that simple. Because I think both of those things are true: that she was mistreated and also that there was nothing to be done anymore. She doesn't actually want to be placated. She's dead. She can't have her life back. She can't have a family again. So she's going to take it away from everybody else.
Sims: I do love the fakeout in this movie. Naomi Watts has uncovered the mystery, learned everything you're talking about, and found Samara's corpse. So she's like, Great, I know how ghost stories work. I have freed the wayward spirit! The handprint on my arm is gone. I'm going to survive. The curse is over.
Instead, is Samara just malicious? To me, it's more that we just never knew how to deal with this, and just acknowledging the wrong is not enough to prevent her [vengeance]. Every horror movie, of course, has to end with the villain being like, "I'm not dead. You're not rid of me." And The Ring's way of doing it is so good, rather than the classic, "Well, they're still alive and maybe we'll see him next time. Roll credits."
Cruz: Do you think of Samara as this evil spirit ... maybe we don't even know where she came from?
Sims: I mean the much-maligned and fairly awful The Ring Two clarifies that she might be the product of, like, a water demon?
Gilbert: Yeah, J-horror, draws on motifs from Noh theater and Kabuki theater. And evil spirits exist within those traditions. They're as much a force as light and air. And the movie tricks you into thinking that Samara is a product of nurture--a product of abuse and horrific mistreatment--and you're compelled as the viewer to feel sympathy for her, as Rachel does. And then it turns out that actually, she really is evil too. It's such a good trick.
Cruz: You want there to be a reason for her to be doing this. And that's what Rachel gets so tied up in as a journalist looking for some sort of narrative that she can write her story around.
Gilbert: David, what do you make of Samara?
Sims: Um, I like her. She's cool.
Sims: No, to me she's not, like, some inherently evil being, in terms of, like, a demon seed. I like to think about her as more the product of various evils that have compounded and not been helped, and so by the time she's institutionalized, the impression I always get from the clip that Naomi Watts watches of her in the mental hospital, is that she kills her interrogator. And of course, she drives the horses to madness when she's locked up in the barn.
It's this ongoing tale where we just don't know how to confront something supernatural. And so we just lock it away over and over again. And that's why I love the image of the ring as the well closing on her. That's our only recourse: Bury it, lock it away, throw away the key over and over again. And that's why it's such a cool idea to merge that kind of a ghost story with a tape that's viral. That's out of control. That can't be buried. That can't be destroyed. That entered the cultural ether.
Cruz: The film uses this motif of virality, of a sickness spreading, that was very explicit in the novel, where Sadako, the Japanese version of the Samara character, basically has an illness that she spreads.
Gilbert: Isn't it smallpox?
Cruz: It's like smallpox, but then combined with her, like, psychic powers. So there are two different sicknesses that are created, one of which causes ring-shaped lesions. And that's where the original title for The Ring comes from. Watching Ringu, the phone ringing is not as much of a thing. And the shape of the well is also not really discussed.
That's something the American remake had to make clear: What is the titular Ring? And I guess it's the phone ringing, and then the well, but it's interesting how this story has mutated and transformed from the novel to the Japanese adaptation to the American remake. Stories get retold. Parts are kept and transformed for future audiences.
Gilbert: What kind of influence did The Ring have on movies and horror movies that came after it?
Sims: You just see this intense wave of J-horror adaptations for the next five years: The Grudge, Dark Water, The Eye, Pulse ... There was just this sort of swerve toward horror being very atmospheric. Less gore. Not so jumpy. And then like almost any horror trend, it's out after a few years, because audiences get a little inured to it and they sort of want something new. Saw comes out in 2004 and that jump-starts the next thing: these visceral, edited-to-bits, gory, torture-y horror.
And the current horror trends are the Blumhouse movies, which I love a lot of, and then there's the A24 "elevated" arty horror that's hot these days as well. But I do miss this specific techno-horror mixed with old, folky ghost story.
Cruz: One that comes to mind is It Follows.
Sims: Oh, I love that movie. Not so much with the techno-horror, but in the sense of needing to spread something and low on the jump scares. It's a creeping dread. The antagonist is invisible and just anonymously takes the form of the people around you.
Gilbert: There was a movie called Share that came out on HBO a couple of years ago. It's not, strictly speaking, a horror movie. It's a day in the life of a teenage girl who finds out from the beginning of the day that her sexual assault has gone viral. And over the course of the day, her phone pings with the reactions of her friends, and there's this increasing horror as she realizes that everyone has seen it. It's strikingly well-done. Every time her phone goes off, you tense up. It's similar to It Follows in that sense, although without the supernatural element.
Sims: Share is a good movie. A lot of the sort of post-Get Out Blumhouse horror movies are more blunt-force and direct in their social commentary, which is an interesting and exciting trend. It Follows is more of this great blend where it feels like an '80s teen horror movie you'd watch on a VHS back in the day, but then has these more ponderous, interesting elements as well.
It is tougher when horror movies are about upsetting real issues. It's very powerful, but obviously it makes it a little less of a, like, entertaining thrill ride. A reason I salute The Ring is that it's so entertaining. It's a gripping two-hour movie. It moves really well. It looks great. It looks slick. It's got a movie star giving a good performance. But it's not entirely stupid either. That's a hard balance to strike.