August 7 2013
In my review of The Ring (RoMMer Reviews), I expressed concern that the agency of the evil video that kills was not entirely worked out. Perhaps it is not necessary to work out every element of an agent of evil in a movie, but it is instructive to try to do so, as an exercise. So, let me attempt to find out how it might be possible that a video could kill. First of all, it is conveyed by TV, that is, the medium is not just video, but TV. Moreover, it is a TV that has gone to static
This static is rather interesting. It has roots in Poltergeist, where static indicated interference, and a wiping clean of its role as medium of broadcast TV, to its use as something else, as an empty medium for conveyance of messages from the supernatural. An interesting thing about static is that in the pre-cable days it was not uncommon to come in contact with static. It often happened that, late at night, a station would just go off the air: the star spangled banner would be played, and then it would break to a flashcard symbol, usually of an Indian, and stay that way overnight. Or a more modern version is the color bar formation. But some stations just went to static. Static, then, meant, off the air. Once cable arrived, static was less easy to find on TV. Or rather, where it was located changed. Static was found whenever you went off channel 3, that hosted your cable, and went back to regular TV. You would immediately feel like your whole umbilical cord connecting you to reality was cut off. But that could be easily fixed. But then there was the deeper, more profound static of a loss of service, either because of a blackout, or because of nonpayment of bills. In which case one would get the static. But here in this shot it is late at night so this TV gets off the air static, symbol of the horror movie moment after the end of things, when bad things happen.
Anyways, this only serves to communicate that the TV can be taken over by outside forces, and used to communicate messages coming from sources other than local cable of TV. It signifies the late at night phase of medium, when it is open.
But then the intermedial relations here are complicated by the fact that once the kids watch the video, the reception of them in reality, by other media, is distorted. When pictures are taken of them, and when the boyfriend sees himself distorted on a shop surveillance camera, their faces are twisted.
This is not an entirely satisfactory effect, and is never completely explained. The technical idea would have to be that they have been distorted as signals, and cannot be sent without distortion, because they are marked. As a photographic distortion this has roots in the slashing line pointing to victims in the photographs taken by the paparazzi in The Omen (1976), and is cousin to many other horror movies in which darkroom surprises (even in the late Amityville movies) indicate haunting. In some way, they have been marked. Marking is a territorial thing, the force behind the video has claimed them. For that reason, they become its acolytes, and sacrificial victims. So, in a set up, in the condition of static, normal functions undermined by disturbance, and with reach, the video has this power not usually assigned to videos.
This is the clearest example in modern horror of a medium being looked upon in a primitive superstitious way. Usually, the work of art is its own agent, and the viewer looks upon it as a work of art, without reference to what it refers to. Sometimes, in haunted portraits, and in other cases, the power of the prototype is so great that the work of art, even if by a famous artist, cannot wrest to itself full power of movement, and only ever refers to the original. The reality of the medium is then drained away, back to the original to which it refers. It becomes a mere portal to the original, a reflection of the original, a medium in a more magic sense, simply conveying news from the original. This is not the condition of modern art, and is not the condition of the student arty video, which represents the creativity of its maker, the artist. But in this case, something else is happening. The prototype rules, the work of art is not a work of art, but simply a representation of the original. And in this relation, we see what the video actually is. At one point, in the movie, we see Samara sitting aloof and contained in a chair in the middle of a clinical room. She is asked, where do the images come from? She explains that they just come to her, and then they are there, as if by magic. That is, she thinks them, and they do it all by themselves. This echoes on Coleridge’s remarks on how Xanadu came to him, it was just there. As such, then, it is an image inside her head, and then it imprints itself, of its own volition, onto a medium, a sheet of paper. But perhaps as an expression of inside-of-headedness paper is too material, therefore tape is better, as it is fluid, brainlike in a waviness, and the images on it are immaterial, just impressions on a reel. They are a more accurate extrusion of the actual thoughts in her mind, made partly material in video format. It is not explained how exactly this happened: the doctor holds up what looks like transparencies, asking that question. This suggests that they exist as kind of sungrams related to the heat of her psycho visions, which are instantly photographed as if by magic on the plastic sheet. By further concentration, these sheets could be fused into a reel, and then, further imitating how images move through the hypnagogic realm of floaters and Purkinjee trees, spit out in a sweat or precipitate of sticky image, on film, and so like a web spun from a spider the film is emitted from the pours of Samara’s head. And it in trying to figure out the agency of how this literally happens, as science, that the long hair has a purpose. She is effaced by the long hair, signifying that she is not seeking face in the world, this is not external saying to be polite, this is direct transmission of what is behind the veil of her mind, inside her head, without an interlocutor. So, the effaced face indicates mind, the hair suggests free flowing out of controlness, and the hair also serves as the medium by which the spiel fugue of imagery inside the head is translated out into skeins which then become film and in the end produce the video tape. Hair is how the thoughts get out of her head and onto a tape. And then once that miasmatic composition on film exists it must be set somewhere.
The tape was generated by the girl as she lay for seven days alive in the bottom of the well where she was thrown. We find out that the well is located on Shelter Mountain in a clearing just under where cabin 12 of the lodge was built over it. So it exists under the floor, in the cellar, but closed off, of one of the cabins, and the cabin the kids stayed in. The tape was conveyed to them by the fact that a business was set up over the site of the killing. The tape existed as a kind of scum on the site. When the proprietor found that reception was not good there, and the TVs often went static, he began to provide his guests a selection of VHS tapes. Again, the receptive unreceptive TV set, the reversion to tape. In this way, the girl spirit latched onto one of the boxes of the library of tapes provided, spun the tape she played out of her brain onto it, and offered it as a selection. It was then taken into the cabin and played, at which point a direct transcript of the thoughts expressing rage and revenge of her spirit against the world which let this happen to her, is transferred directly into the brains of the viewers, who then experience the same effect, and, to give physical expression to it, suffer a decomposition to waterlogged twistedness and corrosion not unlike the girl did in the well.
What this means is that the tape is not a tape, but a real transcript of her evil thoughts, a kind of curse, not unlike one from ancient Egypt, or a work of witchcraft. Like any curse, it is sequentially spelled out, it is a spell, and, then, surprisingly, when it kills, it reverses itself, and when it reverses itself (we only see this twice, once at the end, infecting all of us viewers) it serves as a portral by which the spirit of the girl is released, and can attack, and come out of the TV into the real space of the victim and mark them with her fate, corroded and twisted. The video can be viewed, then, as a magic sequence, a series of triggers, each one of which, recited in sequence, with repetition, make the spell work. It can take a litany form, of blaming. You who locked me up, up that ladder,
you who gave me nothing to look at but that tree, that tree burned on my mind,
you who looked at me with such hate,
you who killed yourself, you now will be put up that ladder,
you will be locked away, you will see the tree burn, you will commit suicide,
you will drown, you will die like a horse in the water,
you will shrivel up to nothing, you will suffer the well
etc. Whether or not it is worked out in precise detail seems less important than the fact that it was a curse, in sequence (I tried to imitate the rambling spaceyness of Egyptian spells). Sequenced, as viewed, it draws you in, and, then, as happens with Naomi, you begin to see things connected with it, for seven days, which was the time Samara spent alive at the bottom of that well, it will haunt you, and, then, at the end, the
spring will be sprung, like a mousetrap, it will weaponize, and zero in on you,
bullseye, eclipse of the sun, pow
Death, end of movie, end of life. Again, it is very rare, in modern horror, where the work of art is subsumed entirely in the prototype, where the prototype is given ultimate reality, and the medium vanishes, and is just an expression of the original (the only other example I can think of right now is the archetypal moment in Rosemary’s Baby when Rosemary realizes that this is not a dream, this is really happening; that is, what she might have passed off as a mere psychological state, in her subjective world, had become a real nightmare, in the real, actual world of the original). And, then, even rarer, the instrument of approach of the original, the entry into her sacred, but sacred-evil space, is forged into a weapon, and, when reversed, zaps back at the adorant, or captured soul, and kills it (well, this would be comparable to the weapons borne by the statue of Isis in The Mummy, which zaps the offending Adeth Bey, so there is precedent).
It is not so interesting that it turns out that the backstory for the creation of this girlmonster is an adoption that failed, and parental murder; or that country style Anglo parental child abuse was the cause of pain. But it is intriguing that the video reflects many of the elements of their dissatisfied torture of the girl, including the fact that she was hid up a ladder,
Then, had to live within sound of the horses, upset by that, possibly leading her, it is suggested, to mysteriously kill them off, in revenge (it is of course interesting, and archetypal, that, in American horror, a livestock kill off is directly linked to evil, so often by rural legend the cause of devils).
It is also of interest, and this is a wonderful property, that is suggested that in her bored terror she saw too much of a tree at sunset, and etched its burning image, by woodburn, into her wall, but, somehow, like a scar, under the wallpaper that tried to pathetically give a girls bedroom quality to her prison, into (It is not clear why it would be under the wallpaper, or who made it; but etched on wood, in that way, it feels like a witches circle, a kind of curse)
This idea that torture victims psychologize into emblems of their madness the things they see most immediately out the window of their prison is an old idea, played with, for example, in Silence of the Lambs. Something beautiful, that she only saw as deadly, red leaves at sunset as blood leaves, burning’
This restriction of her lead to her severe introversion, a turning away from her parents in hatred. And here again the long hair comes into play, related here to blacking out her mother’s face (a scratching out that also occurs in The Grudge),
And then her own, refusing to communicate with others, or look them in the eye, a veil of her psychosis, as any shy teen knows (Ally Sheedy before her makeover in the Breakfast Club)
It is also meaningful that what Naomi finds in the water, having come loose from the decomposing body, is just hair, like weed, like knotted weeds, catching one, related, then, to an ur inland lake mythos of evil (the association between hair and weeds linked to haunted inland lake lore, see What Lies Beneath, Lets Scare Jessica to Death, The Nesting, Zombie Lake, Mama, where dead bodies are thought to lurk, and the weeds are so thick that you can catch a boat in them)
All of this then is compressed into the video, and, when played backwards, it becomes the zap of a psycho mind, making one mad too, killing one, after one has suffered what she did. So, in the end, the video as gateway into sacred-evil space converts back into apotropaic device, but in this case weaponized to make the evil attack.
But at this point, the method is still indirect. The viewer watches the video. It must have a trigger in the ozone or programmed into the last shot of the well that then zeroes in on the viewers phone line and hooks up the final segment of the video, which is only sound, and it says seven days, and then seven days later, the having watched the video, times seven days of decay in well water, turns the victim, instantly, into the twisted decayed zombie form. End of story.
But, as noted by the son, Naomi made a mistake by thinking that all that was needed to placate this evil spirit was some good old Christian redemption. Tell her story, find out the truth, dig up her lost body, still her wandering, nagging soul, bury her, to rest in peace, and all will be OK, it will be redeemed, she can move on then to heaven, end of haunting. But this is not a spirit that will respond to Christian therapy, played out in so many horror movies. Helping her, only gives her more power. So, now that she has been removed from the well, she has new power, she can zap on the TV without the viewers help, she can zap the video into the tv without even the cassette being used, she can be shown, as video reverts to live action haunted camera, crawling out of the well, a scene that was not in the video, and she can then come at you, close up, scaring you, in the video, but then, freaking you out, as she crawls out of the video
This is deeply ancient in its instrument. The spirit now occupies the fetish item, the tape, for real, it is in it, and now it can come out and live in the world around the video. It is like an Egyptian spirit free now through the agency of the statue to come out and move about in the tomb. The spirit has been released from its temporary tomb in the well, from which it could only communicate indirectly, through the tape, and now can take over for the video, and freely attack on its own, as a mediated ghost, an image become its own medium, a phantom of medium,
This is a truly retrogressive formation, banishing all media in favor of the immediate; erasing all mediated veiling between us and it, and stepping out into the real. I have long since been interested in horror movies that do exactly this. You are watching a movie, then, something about it, overtops the movie itself, and the TV set, and spills or brims out as I say over the edge into the space you are in, and spooks you in that space. It is the most common effect of successful (or failed) horror. It comes out at you in real life. And here it is, figured into the formulation of the agency of this horror. Here, we are back in ancient times, modern media is moot, we are face to face with a believed in demon, we are possessed, and we will die.
This brief impromptu essay, then, has documented that while in the watching the instrumentation of the The Ring is somewhat uncertain, figured out, it comes out to be an impressive display of authentic retrogression of culture from mediated to immediate reality, from a haunting to a presence, from a Christian formula for its redemption to a foreign formula that refuses it, to the physical manifestation of an ancient curse, in new physical image-in-medium form. The Ring, then, is an impressive exercise in possession (indeed, the last time I watched it, I did so in a limbic state, excited by the depression of a recent impasse in making a life decision, as part of an escapist movie marathon (following The Grudge and What Lies Beneath), and past my bedtime. I half wondered if having watched the movie at all, I might now receive a call on my cellphone, and a voice on the other end (and this an urban legend that even the Paul is Dead mythology become involved in) would say, seven days.