Horror Week 2011: A Feminist Reading of The Ring

“Before you die … “


Note: This article contains spoilers for the Japanese novel and movie Ringu that “The Ring” gets its story and concept from.

Infection in the sentence breeds
We may inhale Despair
At distances of Centuries

–Emily Dickinson

By some stroke of fate, right around the time I had gotten over my fear of Samara enough to want to rewatch “The Ring” multiple times in order to analyze it, I happened to be taking a feminist lit class whose major concern was how patriarchal narrative patterns and male-centered heroic stories where women are often silenced or marginalized influence women to reproduce those stories. The theories we studied were built around Gilbert and Gubar’s “Infection in the Sentence,” which explores how these harmful fictional patterns spread like a sickness and infect unsuspecting minds with their problematic views of women. This is a metaphor that has stayed with me, and it’s something “The Ring” seems to play into, so my reading of this movie may be more feminist than was the intention of the people involved. I won’t try to decipher what the writers/directors meant to do with this movie except to say that they are definitely interested in how stories spread, evolve, and infect people who consume them. I will primarily attempt to deconstruct the aspects of the movie that speak to the feminist themes touched upon by Gilbert and Gubar’s analysis of women’s literature.

“The Ring” opens with two young girls flipping through the channels as they discuss how the energy waves of the television influence people’s minds. As they do this, Becca tells Katie about the rumors she’s heard about a video tape that kills, elaborating on the elements of the tape. As we later find out, this story holds only bits of truth and seems to have gained some elements in its retelling. Already the movie is exploring evolution of stories through word of mouth. The end of the teaser sees the death of Katie, who has seen the tape, setting up the first mystery of the movie.

Rachel Keller, Katie’s aunt, happens to be an investigative reporter and, perhaps more importantly, a writer. She’s asked by her sister Ruth to look into the death of Katie, leading her to discover the stories about a tape that kills. She’s rightly skeptic until she herself watches the tape, which in Becca’s words is like watching “sombody’s nightmare.” Rachel sets out to deconstruct this nightmare and its originator, and the movie’s metaphors take a turn towards a feminist gothic discovery.

At the center of the mystery are Samara and her mother, Anna, both women whose sanity is questioned by the narrative. At first glance, the movie seems to be Anna’s creation, and it’s her face that we see in the images on the tape. Anna is implied to have been driven to the brink of insanity and eventually to suicide by Samara, who somehow creates images that burn themselves into the minds of those around her. Samara herself is an ambivalent figure that the movie does not seem to be sure about, which leaves her open to interpretation. While I was convinced of her pure evilness initially, subsequent viewings have made her emerge as a less sinister figure, especially given her portrayal in the Japanese version of the story. I believe that Samara retains the echoes of that positivity even in this version, particularly in the light of some of the gothic themes the movie is playing with.
“And it’s, like, somebody’s nightmare.”

“The things she’d show you,” exclaims Richard Morgan, Samara’s father right before committing suicide, and we’re told by Dr. Grasnik that Anna needed psychiatric help because of Samara. Given the gothic themes the movie seems to be playing with, I have to wonder about the exact nature of Anna’s sickness. Certainly, the movie implies that Samara was the root of the problem, but is the movie also implying that Anna is somehow responsible for Samara’s condition? The initial description of Anna’s visits seems to imply some sort of post-partum depression, but we’re also led to believe that there was something wrong with Samara. Particularly noteworthy is the scene where Rachel talks with Dr. Grasnik about the two women. Dr. Graskin says, “When Darby there was born, we knew something wasn’t right with him. But we loved him anyway. Takes work, you know. Some people have limits.” The last bit seems to imply that whatever was wrong with Samara tested the Morgans’ limits rather than implying that whatever was wrong with Samara would’ve gotten any parent to reject her.

At this point, Rachel beings to question the treatment of Samara as well, despite suspecting that something was wrong with her. As it happens, Rachel also has a child who could be called a little out of the ordinary, so it makes sense for Rachel to cast Samara in a more positive light than she’s been given reason to. These suspicions reach their peak when Rachel discovers the barn room where Samara was kept in isolation. While the movie’s treatment of Samara is ambivalent (possibly to add to the shocking ending), the use of yellow wallpaper inside Samara’s attic-like isolation room seems to be deliberate.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a short feminist story by Charlotte Gilman that explores the narrator’s slow descent into madness brought on by the isolation imposed on her by her husband, who is also her doctor, in order to cure her of her post-partum depression. The woman, trapped in a room where the most stimulating thing is its strangely patterned yellow wallpaper, is forbidden from engaging in most socially and/or mentally engaging tasks. She becomes obsessed with discovering the secrets of the wallpaper and convinces herself that there’s a woman trapped inside the wallpaper who crawls inside the walls at night and creeps by the windows during daytime. The narrator, in time, becomes obsessed with the need to tear off the wallpaper and free this creeping, crawling woman from her prison.

It’s hard not to see Samara as the creeping, crawling woman trapped inside the wallpaper, while Rachel as the protagonist bent on freeing her. Given this, perhaps it’s no coincidence that Rachel’s final discovery of Samara’s resting place comes through her own tearing away of the yellow wallpaper. However, before she tears away the wallpaper, she expresses concern over the isolation of Samara, and Noah points out that Samara had the company of a television set.

The TV, and not the yellow wallpaper, then, is Samara’s lone stimulant in this confinement, so she uses that as her medium of communication with the outside world, just as the crawling woman uses the wallpaper as her way of letting people know that she’s trapped inside. Initially, the movie seems to warn against spreading people’s tragedies “like a sickness.” However, it should be noted that Richard Morgan is perhaps our most sinister character, given the control he exerted over Samara’s life and how he used it to isolate her and how our protagonist views him.

Gilbert and Gubar note that women’s fiction is filled with themes of weakness and silence, a reflection of how their stories have been repressed in the male-authored texts they see themselves reflected in. They suggest that the only way to overcome these themes would be to create a model of writing/story-telling that empowers, “To heal herself, the woman writer must exorcise the sentences which bred her infection in the first place; she must overtly or covertly free herself of the despair she inhaled.” As much as Rachel is a writer, Samara, too, can be read as a sort of artist.
“Anna and Samara.”

Given that the opening scene plays with the idea of evolution of stories, it’s useful to examine the evolution of “The Ring” story itself. While the American version de-ages Samara to a child and makes her more overtly sinister, her Japanese precursor, Sadako, is initially a much more sympathetic figure who is a victim of male perpetrated violence in both versions. In the “Ringu” novel, Sadako is a 19-year-old actress who has inherited her mother’s supernatural abilities. In the course of the story, she’s raped by a doctor who then murders her and throws her down the well. In the movie version, her father kills her after her powers begin to emerge. For the original Sadako, the creation of the tape is really the only way to get her story out and she views it as a form of revenge.

“She just wanted to be heard,” Rachel says about Samara, after discovering her fate. And Rachel inadvertently heals herself by giving Samara more power (something that unsettles both Richard Morgan and Aiden), ensuring that her story is heard. Taking into account the long literary and historical tradition of suppressing and erasing women’s histories, stories, and the violence perpetrated against them, “The Ring” really seems to be endorsing the passing on of Samara’s story. It helps that the narrative rewards the people who agree to pass the story on. Certainly, there are more sinister ways to read the ending. However, let’s see the two possible life trajectories of those who view the tape: Watching the movie and remaining silent about Samara’s story would lead to death. However, if the person agrees to make a copy and passes it on with the cure, what’s the worst that’ll come out of that cycle? Some creepy nightmares and a look inside Samara’s head that lasts for seven days. Really, given the usual fate of people in horror movies, Samara at least gives her victims a clear and relatively easy way out, but perhaps, it’s a cure that could only have been discovered by someone who cared to deconstruct Samara’s elusive nightmare.

Given all of these themes, the origins of Samara’s story, and the ominous use of the yellow wallpaper in Samara’s prison, I can’t help but read this movie as a warning against suppressing women’s stories and silencing women’s voices. It deals with the infection of ideas that comes from consuming media, and at its heart is a woman searching for and trying to free another woman who seems to have been abused. Now, it’s entirely possible to read Samara as a completely evil figure, and really, the movie is scarier that way. However, a lot of feminist and race-conscious readings of texts emphasize reading these narratives from the point of view of the Other because history is written by the winners and women, people of color, and other minorities are continually being silenced. So yeah, Samara’s story isn’t pretty, and it comes with its own dangers, but the consequences of suppressing that story and of remaining silent about what happened are much, much worse. 
Sobia spends her free time consuming media and thinking a lot. She uses her English lit degree for little else than critiquing media’s portrayal of gender and race, which is possibly just another excuse to consume more media with awesome women.


  • Posted March 27, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    I was looking for this sort of reading of the Ring. Great contribution :)

  • Ian Uniacke
    Posted November 11, 2014 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    I know this is kind of an old article, but that’s part of what’s awesome about the internet. :)

    This article is brilliant. I think you have nailed the interpretation. I was never aware of The Yellow Wallpaper, but even on my first viewing of this movie I definitely interpreted it the way you do here, albeit probably without so much knowledge of feminine theory at the time I watched it.

    I have been a fan of horror since university where I contributed to the newspaper writing reviews of b grade horror movies. I have a hypothesis about the impact between narrative and fear, and I think this movie is a great example of it. My hypothesis is essentially that the things in horror that we find the most scary are the metaphorical equivalent of our deepest fears. For instance, we are afraid of zombies not just because they kill people, but because they represent the absolute lack of individuality that we are constantly afraid of becoming. So too, here, I think after reading your interpretation, is the reason that we find the final scene so scary, the idea that a WOMAN (oh my god) will come out of the television to tell us her story? Also, is it the thought of a powerful woman, a KILLER, that scares us? I interpreted something similar in the character of Ender Wiggin from Ender’s Game recently, that what makes us disturbed is not his killing instinct, but that in fact he is an intellectual with a killing instinct. That may be getting off the point but I do think it’s a particularly effective horror tactic, the idea that a character we have been conditioned by society to see as harmless (eg a woman, a nerd) has the reality flipped diametrically.

    In case you’re wondering I found this article because I am planning a critical review of the video game F.E.A.R that was inspired by this movie (The Ring) and started to think about the feminist themes in both. Thanks for the article. :)