The Ring: Real Reason The American Remake Is More Effective

Why cultural perspective matters.

Dreamworks Pictures

While the original Japanese production of The Ring (Ringu) from 1998 was extremely successful, there's no doubt its cultural impact in the west changed the horror genre as we know it. It even went so far as kicking off a new sub-genre referred to as "J-horror" (Japanese horror) adaptations for western audiences to consume. But why must it always take a westernized adaptation of another culture's art for western audiences to appreciate it?

The cynical answer would be that western audiences are generally uncultured and can't be bothered to read subtitles, but in the case of The Ring (2002) it may be that our cultural perspective helped lure the audience into a false state of safety that the film was able to take advantage of...

Most western horror films involving ghosts and ghouls are based on western concepts of hauntings, and almost always are at least indirectly associated with Judeo-Christian beliefs on the existence of the soul. After all, if a house is haunted by a ghost then surely that ghost is someone's soul that has been trapped in our realm due to some unfortunate circumstances? Perhaps the deceased has some unfinished business associated with how they died, and perhaps it's up to the protagonist to solve the mystery and bring them justice. We've seen this time and time again. Either the protagonist must discover who killed the ghost or find their remains and lay them to rest. It's a tale as old as the concept of the soul itself.

However, The Ring wasn't written with western concepts of the soul in mind. In traditional Japanese Shintoism the soul doesn't not stick around after death and torment the living. Hauntings are caused by moments of extreme trauma and emotional anguish which have stained a certain location or object, and the so-called "ghost" is merely a manifestation of this stain. It may look and act like a person similar to ghosts in western fiction, but it cannot be reasoned with. It acts like a computer program constantly performing its task over and over in accordance with its programming. The program cannot be altered and the cycle cannot be stopped.

Seeing as the American adaptation of The Ring was set in the Pacific Northwest and shown to western audiences, it stands to reason that most audience members bought their tickets expecting all the same tropes and clichés of a western horror film. So when the phone rings and tells the protagonist she has 7 days left to live, and we see her racing against time to uncover the mystery of the video and its creator, we assume her end goal is to bring justice to bear and rid herself of the curse. Once the mystery is solved and Samara's bones are laid to rest, we see that the protagonist has survived her final night, so the western haunting tropes must have been right.

That's when the audience learns that all the lessons we've learned from western hauntings have led us to ruin. Discovering the truth about Samara and how she died was all for nothing. The ghost cannot be reasoned with, it cannot be bargained with, it does not want anything from you. It's not a person, it's an entity enacting a program of pure murderous intent on those who encounter it.

In the end our protagonist was saved not by fulfilling some semblance of justice for the deceased, but by engaging in an annoying activity which anyone would be acquainted with had they been on the internet in the late 90s or early 2000s... Chain mail. Send the curse along to the next person, and the cycle continues.

Watching the original Ringu in Japan as a person versed in Japanese cultural norms would be interesting, but having the rug pulled out from under you by watching the remake as a westerner in the west... That's something truly unexpected for 2002.

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Alexander Haile has contributed 1 post since joining in August 2019.