When videotapes were sinister – 20 years of J-horror classic Ring

Analogue anxiety… With J-horror milestone Ring turning 20, we press rewind to the era when filmmakers from David Lynch to Michael Haneke found everyday terror in the humble VHS.

Stephen Puddicombe

Ring (1998)

Ring (1998)

Hideo Nakata’s 1998 J-horror Ring terrified audiences through the ingenious conceit of a mysterious videotape that, upon being watched by a character, somehow causes them to die a week later.

Revisiting the film 20 years later, it’s striking just how archaic the now virtually defunct technology videotape already looks to a contemporary audience, and this sense of remoteness brings into focus its distinct properties that tap into certain innate fears of ours.

There’s something about the physical characteristics of a VHS, for instance, that are tactile in a way that the technologies that superseded it aren’t. Whereas formats like DVD (which was on its way to superseding its analogue rival as the new market leader when Ring was released in 1998) and streaming operate in the more ethereal realm of digital data, the bulky shape of the VHS, and the coiled, fragile tape visible within, all ground it as a more tangible part of the material world.

That’s why the signature moment in Ring, when the long-haired girl literally breaks the fourth wall by stepping out from the television, is so terrifying. The analogue physicality of videotape makes the fear that its contents could slip into the material world feel all the more potent.

Ring is far from being the only film to cast videotape as a menacing object. It features regularly in the films of Michael Haneke, as a morbid preoccupation in Benny’s Video (1992), the very form of Funny Games (2007) (in which the antagonists have the power to ‘rewind’ the film with a remote control) and as a source of harassment in Hidden (2005).

Hidden (2005)

Hidden (2005)

This latter example ties videotape with another of Haneke’s recurring themes, the fear of home invasion, as a couple’s comfortable bourgeois existence is disrupted by a series of tapes left on their doorstep containing nondescript yet disquieting footage of their home’s exterior. He was presumably influenced by David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), in which another couple receive anonymous videotapes, only this time featuring footage harrowingly filmed from within their house.

Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway (1997)

Both these films express an anxiety about the presence of video inside the domestic space, perhaps relating to how, as a medium that transposes the mystical experience of film viewership away from the public sphere of the cinema into the more mundane realm of our own homes, it threatens to bring something unnatural and potentially dangerous into our private lives.

Still more fearful than receiving and watching certain videotapes is the act of being recorded onto one. It’s well known how some cultures believe that being photographed results in the theft of one’s soul, and there is indeed something discomfitingly violating about being recorded on camera.

The advent of accessible and affordable camcorders (like the one used in Lost Highway) brought such technology into our homes, providing another way in which intimacy can be intruded upon, as in sex, lies, and videotape (1989), where James Spader’s character records home videos of him interviewing women about their sex lives. 

In that film, something about the presence of a video camera draws out candid responses from the characters being recorded. Although videotapes are, curiously, rarely used as a means to expose the truth in crime thrillers and whodunits (villains are instead far more likely to be caught out by incriminating audio recordings), the prying eye of the video recorder instead elicits emotional truths, whether that be a character’s sexuality in sex, lies, and videotape, or deeply repressed guilt in Hidden and Lost Highway.

sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

Above all, what makes videotape such an evocative subject is its association with the taboo. As reflected in films fondly depicting video store culture – such as Scream (1996), where characters stockpile R-rated horror flicks, and Clerks (1994), where a shop assistant jokes about the ubiquity of pornography – VHS tapes were often equated to obscene content, to the extent that a moral panic followed the rise of the new technology in the 1980s.

Debate broke out in Britain regarding whether particularly lurid ‘video nasties’ were corrupting the public and ought to be more strictly censored. And anxious Hollywood figures further muddied the technology’s reputation by arguing that using VCRs to record film footage onto videotape was tantamount to theft, with MPAA president Jack Valenti notoriously going so far as to liken its threat to the movie industry to that of “the Boston strangler… to the woman home alone”.

Leave it to the visionary David Cronenberg to conjure what is perhaps the definitive study of a technology that both attracts and repels us. Released in 1983, his masterpiece Videodrome tapped into topical anxieties about the dangers of consuming videotape footage, through a story about a man whose sense of reality disintegrates when he is brainwashed by mysterious television signals and videotapes broadcasting particularly violent and sexually explicit material.

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

The film dares to indulge in disturbing imagery while simultaneously pondering whether such material can be harmful, capturing what makes it fearful while at the same time exhibiting its attraction, even fetishising the videotape itself as an erotic object. It may strike fear into us in so many ways, but there’s no denying the transgressive allure of videotape.

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