‘The Ring’ Cross-Cultural and Religious Horror Films Studies

Seung Hong
Seung Hong

The common synopsis of the original ‘Ringu’ and its remakes can be summarized briefly. A female journalist finds and watches a videotape that is cursed by a girl who was killed unjustly. Before she was killed, the girl, with her grudge against the world, has used her supernatural psychic power to cast a curse upon a videotape so that anyone who watches it will die in seven days. The journalist’s child accidentally watches the tape too, so she tries to save her child with the help of her ex-husband (the child’s father), who also watches the tape. As it turns out, the curse cannot be stopped. The father is in his room on the seventh day since he watched the tape, and the television suddenly gets turned on automatically, and he sees a well in the middle of the screen. A girl crawls out of the well and then crawls out of the television. Encountered by the ghost who stares at him with rage, the father dies, like all other previous victims, by extreme terror and heart attack.

The journalist learns that, in order to cheat the curse, whoever watches the tape must make a copy of it and show it to someone else so that the curse can be “passed over” to the one who watches the copy.

Despite the common plotline, there are notable differences between the three versions. First of all, the Korean version ‘The Ring Virus’ tries to be more faithful to the original novel by emphasizing the investigative efforts of the journalist and her ex-husband for discovering the cause of the curse. While the child is a son of the Japanese Ringu, the Korean and Hollywood versions replaced him with a daughter (in the Japanese novel, it is a daughter). And, unlike the East Asian versions in which the ex-husband takes charge of the investigative process, Hollywood’s ‘The Ring’ lets the female journalist (played by Naomi Watts) take the leading role in discovering the story behind the curse (in the novel, the journalist is actually a male, and his wife and his child are the ones who accidentally watch the cursed videotape).

It is hard to deny that this switching of gender role was deliberate. But why the change? Did the producing agents of ‘The Ring’ think that leaving the gender of the leading character as it is in the original would not be as appealing to the American audiences as changing it into a female? There are more than enough Hollywood films (horror and other genres) in which male characters play the leading roles, so it cannot be that North American audiences are generally more fascinated by a female protagonist. Perhaps a key aspect in understanding the gender choice in ‘The Ring’ is the fact that it is the child who must be saved from the curse. In other words, it is the parent who is expected to protect and save the kid.

While overgeneralization must be avoided, the heroine-like nature of motherhood has been highlighted more in North American culture than in Japan or Korea. Traditionally, women in East Asia were not given much voice in the home or the public sphere. Of course, modernization did take place in Japan and Korea (particularly with much speed in Korea), and the notion of gender equality is not new nowadays. Likewise, North America is not without a cultural history of males holding dominant positions over females; otherwise, there would not have been feminist movements. Nonetheless, the points are that 1) traditional cultures can linger on in some forms even in modern societies, and that 2) there is still a difference in the degree of emphasis on female roles in today’s East Asian cultures and North America culture. This is to say that, while most Korean and Japanese audiences would not feel awkward to see the mother’s heroic role in Hollywood’s ‘The Ring’, it would be equally natural for them to watch the male protagonists’ leading roles in ‘The Ring Virus’ or ‘Ringu’. However, if the North American audiences would see a mother being helpless in saving her child from a curse while the father, who is not even raising the child, takes care of everything, I think it is doubtful that most viewers would be satisfied.

While this difference can be significant for other academic purposes (such as gender studies), I suggest that the more meaningful differences between the three versions of the movie for the purpose of this article have to do with aesthetics; i.e. how the terrifying figure is expressed.

In order to resonate with the audiences’ imagination of what is frightful, the producing agents of the films had to adjust the visual representation of the terrifying ghost in the highlight scene of the movie, which is the ghost crawling out of the television set. Both in the Japanese original and the Korean remake, the dress that the ghost is wearing is pure white without a single blemish, and her pale face — which is equally spotless — is mostly covered by her long black hair until only one eye gets revealed. In the same scene of Hollywood’s ‘The Ring’, on the other hand, the ghost is wearing a very dirty and wet dress (probably to indicate that she just crawled out of a well) and has a zombie-like monstrous face that is covered by her hair at first but then gets fully revealed. Why this radically different aesthetic choice for the North American audiences? Perhaps it can be partially explained by the dominance of monstrous figures as the terrifying objects in Western horror stories1 and East Asia’s traditional featuring of the ghosts of wronged — and thus innocent — females as the vengeful spirits.2 The pure white dress without a single blemish as well as the pale face that is equally clean without a single scar can represent the innocence of the little girl. If a little girl with such an appearance was not a ghost, there would be nothing that is frightful, but the fact that she is the vengeful spirit is what causes the fear. The more innocent she looks, the more punishment the world that wronged her deserves.

Both in Korea and Japan, allaying the grudge of the spirit of the marginalized and wronged (mostly females) plays a key role in ghost stories.3 Of course, East Asian cultures are not without tales of monstrous creatures, but such creatures are not as popular as in Western myths, and, in Korea and Japan, such creatures are separate entities; they are not “the return of the dead.”4 In Western religious cultures, on the other hand, Christianity does not have much affinity with the notion of the spirits of the dead returning to curse the material world, although there are notions of the saints briefly manifesting themselves in front of a human eye (e.g. Moses and Elijah in Matt 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9 or Samuel in 1 Sam 28). The dominant fearful and supernatural entities are rather beasts and dragons (as in the Book of Revelation) or human bodies possessed by demons. Likewise, supernatural fear-inflicting creatures in the West — although not always originating from the West — are zombies, vampires, and werewolves.

When the dead return, they tend to do so in the form of (e.g.) a mummy rather than in a spotless feminine appearance.

Nowadays, however, Hollywood horror films do feature the spirits of wronged innocent girls (though most of them are remakes of Japanese horror films such as ‘Under the Dark Water’), and East Asian horror films also show monstrous appearances of the terror inflicting entities. Still, the dominant aesthetic practice is still present, and, interestingly, most monster movies in Japan or Korea are rather science fiction than horror. But this leads us to ask further: are the Western audiences today more scared by the monstrous look in ‘The Ring’, or is the globalization of popular culture as well as the cultural elites’ tastes as “omnivores” enabling the East Asian taste to get more easily translated for the Western audiences?

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