Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Brian Jarvis: Anamorphic allegory in The Ring, or, seven ways of looking at a horror video

Anamorphic allegory in The Ring, or, seven ways of looking at a horror video
by Brian Jarvis
Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002) begins in media res. In a suburban bedroom, two teenage girls discuss a cursed video tape:

‘Becca: Have you heard about this videotape that kills you when you watch it? You start to play it and it's like somebody's nightmare… 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...

Katy: Who told you that? I’ve watched it! (2)

In terms of Genette’s narratology, this exposition offers both a completing analepsis (a flashback that tells us what has just happened) and a repeating prolepsis (advance notice of what is just about to happen). (3) It is not certain how many victims the video has already claimed, but shortly after her confession Katy is murdered and ‘Becca severely traumatized. The video kills again at the film’s climax and denouement is deferred by a proleptic promise that it will kill again (a pledge delivered in the sequel, The Ring Two (2005)). The opening point of The Ring simultaneously narrates what has happened and what will happen and is thus both before and after. Whilst recycling the mise-en-scène of teen horror, the prologue also permits a fast-forward subliminal glimpse of key images from the cursed video (a well, a barn, a horse’s eye, a burning tree) that will be replayed and reviewed repeatedly in the scenes that follow. And where do these rotary movements begin? The genealogy of the tape is traced to an originary trauma. Anna Morgan pushes her eleven-year old daughter, Samara, into a well which she then covers. The young girl survives the fall and spends seven days looking up at a ring of light before dying. After her death, Samara’s spirit is transferred to video tape. Should someone watch this video they will receive a telephone call and the cryptic message ‘seven days’. Exactly seven days later Samara returns as an electric ghost that emerges first from the image of the well onscreen and then from the television itself. Samara’s victims are petrified. The shock of seeing this spectre is so intense that the spectator’s face is transfigured into its own grisly death mask.(4)

In ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), Walter Benjamin contended that film, by virtue of its continual and sudden changes, produced a ‘physical shock effect’ in the spectator.(5) For Benjamin, cinema was a privileged medium that crystallized the phenomenology of a traumatic modernity. Whilst cinema constituted a key component in the technological infrastructure, allegory embodied the aesthetic logic of modernity. Benjamin intuited a deep structural affinity between film, allegory and the historical crises of modernity. In The Arcades Project he asserted that ‘allegories stand for that which the commodity makes of the experiences people have in this century’.(6) The allegorical mode appeared to mirror the fragmentation and fetishisation promoted both by commodity capitalism and cinema. However, in a deft dialectical manoeuvre, Benjamin insisted that allegory’s flaws might themselves be redemptive. As a discontinuous montage of historical fragments torn from their normal setting and thrust into violent collisions, allegory might spark defamiliarising jolts that illuminated social and spiritual relations. Rather than simply reflecting alienated experience, allegory possessed the potential for critique by forging, in a flash, previously unseen and unsuspected connections. In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, writing in that characteristically condensed and evocative style which Susan Sontag described as ‘freeze-frame baroque’, Benjamin juxtaposed the illusory unities and transcendence of the romantic symbol and the transparent failings of allegories which are enmeshed, eternally, in the contingencies of history and ruin:

whereas in the Symbol destruction is idealized and the transfigured face of nature is fleetingly revealed in the light of redemption, in allegory the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica [death mask] of history, as a petrified, primordial landscape.(7)

The observer of The Ring is confronted with death masks, petrification and primordial landscapes. Might these be seen, in Benjaminian terms, as dialectical images haunted by historical allegory? This essay will suggest they can. The Ring will be read as an anamorphic allegory which manufactures a charged circuit of connections between ghosts, young women and numinous optical technologies. Rather than being petrified by the image of an image crawling from underground and across the screen, the observer can unearth the death masks of history here: the history of a necrophile genre, the history of ghosts emerging from various machines, the post-war history of technological exchange between the US and Japan and at ground zero in The Ring, the tale of a little girl and Little Boy.


Perhaps the least speculative but most circular allegorical interpretation of Verbinski’s The Ring would read it as a horror film that encompasses the history of horror film itself. Since it revolves around a scary video, The Ring is an auto-reflexive text which is haunted by its own ghost. In this regard the content is an allegory of the form, or, to be more exact, the content is an allegory of the viewer’s consumption of the film. This qualification seems necessary since the production of images in The Ring is purely of secondary significance. Although Samara is clearly the source of the video, the means of its manufacture is shrouded in mystery and this ellipsis is itself allegorical of a postindustrial age in which, for some, production has become an increasingly remote, invisible and even spectral activity. Whilst the means of the video’s production are vague, the consequences of visual consumption are clear and devastating. Here, looks really can kill. Since its birth, horror film has been the subject of urban legends and conservative censure insisting on the moral, psychological and on occasion physical threats posed by the genre. Screenings of The Blair Witch Project (1999), for example, were allegedly attended by nausea, vomiting and fainting. Sanchez and Myrick’s cult film, like The Ring, circles around mysterious video footage, a young woman and televisual technology whilst threatening to confuse the borders between image and reality. Reports of the damage caused by The Blair Witch themselves replayed folklore surrounding an earlier film that also centred on a young woman: The Exorcist (1973). Even before it reached the cinema, William Friedkin’s film was associated with supernatural violence that included set fires and the deaths of nine members of the cast, crew and production team. Once it was released at the cinema, according to media mythology, The Exorcist elicited so many instances of retching, hysteria and heart attacks that paramedics were routinely stationed in cinemas. A San Francisco newspaper headline proclaimed: ‘The Exorcist nearly killed me!’ In accidental anticipation of The Ring, the evangelist Billy Graham proposed that a demon had entered the very film stock of The Exorcist. The British Board of Film Censors may not have been persuaded that the film was cursed or possessed, but it refused to grant a certificate thus effectively banning the video version of The Exorcist from circulation for seventeen years (from 1981 to 1998).

Horror videos have also habitually been linked to violent crime. In the UK, for example, Child’s Play 3 (1991) was cited by the media as the inspiration for the murder of a three-year old boy, Jamie Bulger. Between 1996 and 2001 there were over twenty cases of murder and serious assault involving the iconic mask from the Scream trilogy.(9) The horror genre, of course, has been plagued by allegations of malign influence since long before films about copycat murder were being blamed for copycat murder. In the late eighteenth century an explosive proliferation in gothic novels, ‘bluebooks’, ‘chapbooks’ and ‘shilling shockers’ was met by accusations of threats to the social, political and religious order. Gothic fiction was charged with promoting superstition and Satanism, heresy and revolution. Young women were considered especially vulnerable to the threats posed by this deviant genre. Self-appointed guardians of female virtue warned that this imperilled cohort might swoon in terror, or, worse still, experience dangerous arousal. The critique of gothic literature and horror film, as has often been noted, typically indulges in hysterical tropes that are pivotal to the genre itself. These tropes can be found dead centre in The Ring: possession, infection, curse and the crossing of boundaries between fantasy and reality.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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