Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old.
You either have a strong, frightening memory of watching The Ring, or you are a liar.
In the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Japanese Horror boomed across the world thanks to Hideo Nakata’s Ring, a global smash hit based on Koji Suzuki’s novel of the same name about a cursed VHS tape and the deaths that follow for whoever watches it. As is the custom with any international success, it was remade in the US four years later as The Ring, directed by Gore Verbinski. It sent shockwaves through western audiences and cemented the horror icon status of the vengeful spirit Sadako, renamed Samara for the American release.
Much like The Exorcist before it, The Ring struck a nerve with audiences by telling a horror story that took us exactly where horror should: the unknown. While the idea of cursed objects and the spirits attached to them aren’t new (just ask all those straight-to-video Amityville movies!), it’s hard to deny how fresh and effective the oppressively dour story of The Ring feels, especially once you’re hit with that absolute shocker of a finale.
Both the original and the remake have the same ending, but they take different paths to get there. In Ring, journalist Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) and her ex-husband Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada) discover that the cursed tape was created by Sadako (Rie Inō), a young girl who possesses nensha, which is an ability she inherited from her mother, Shizuko, to psychically “burn” images onto objects with her mind. At a demonstration of Shizuko’s thoughtography by renowned ESP researcher Dr. Heihachiro Ikuma (Daisuke Ban), Sadako psychokinetically murders a man who claimed her mother was a fraud, leading her mother to commit suicide. Afraid of her powers, Dr. Ikuma then killed Sadako by pushing her into a well, the very same one that Reiko sees in the final ominous image of the cursed tape.
In the American version, journalist Rachel (Naomi Watts) and her ex-boyfriend Noah (Martin Henderson) discover that the cursed tape was created by Samara (Daveigh Chase), also a young girl with nensha who can psychically “burn” images onto objects with her mind. But Samara never knew her mother. She was adopted by Anna and Richard Morgan (Shannon Cochran and Brian Cox), who loved their prize-winning horses more than their new daughter. Driven mad by her psychic images, the Morgans sequestered Samara in their stables, only for her to will their beloved horses to kill themselves. Devastated by the loss, Anna suffocated Samara and pushed her down a well before committing suicide herself. Again, the well matches the same one that Rachel sees in the video.
After racing against the clock to understand the curse, Reiko and Rachel are both led back to the cabin where they first watched the tape. Each character realizes the well is under the floorboards, and by unearthing the corpse of Sadako/Samara, the curse may be lifted, saving not only herself and her ex-lover but her son who also watched the video. As Reiko/Rachel lifts Sadako/Samara’s body out of the soupy well, she passes the seven day mark. She’s alive because she helped bring the spirit of a tragically murdered child to rest.
But as Rachel’s son Aiden (David Dorfman) says in the remake, “You weren’t supposed to help her.”
You see, neither Sadako nor Samara died when they were bludgeoned and suffocated, respectively. They survived at the bottom of the well, their anger and resentment transforming them into a Yūrei. As we learn in Koji Suzuki’s novel, years later a cabin was built over the well, and in that cabin, a young boy carelessly left behind a VHS tape on which he meant to record a baseball game. Sadako/Samara was able to psychically imprint her rage onto its magnetic tape, the horrifying images cursing anyone unfortunate enough to watch it. And while there is a way to save yourself, that too is all part of Sadako/Samara’s master plan.
Reiko/Rachel discovers too late that the curse hasn’t been broken when Ryuji/Noah is visited by Sadako/Samara, emerging from a TV set. Her mental rage causes his heart to stop, and in Noah’s case, it also severely disfigures his face. There was only one thing that Reiko/Rachel did that Ryuji/Noah did not do: make a copy of the tape and show it to someone else.
Hurriedly, Reiko/Rachel helps her son make a copy, but in the remake, Rachel has no answer when Aiden asks, “What about the person we show it to? What happens to them?” Reiko realizes exactly what she must do. She begins to drive to her parents’ house with the intent to pass the curse onto them, and they will then have to pass it along to someone else, and they will have to continue passing it, ad infinitum. You see, the tape isn’t just a curse: it’s a virus. And Sadako/Samara want to infect the entire world.
The virus element of the film’s ending is the major connecting thread back to Koji Suzuki’s original novel. On the page, the tape isn’t a curse. It’s a mutated version of smallpox that Sadako can psychically pass to the viewer. This causes a tumor to grow in the person’s heart that, upon the seventh day, becomes large enough to kill them. In the sequel novel, Spiral, the virus mutates even further, infecting not only the tape but also written accounts and diaries about the tape. It gets wilder: Sadako even uses the tape to psychically impregnate a woman so she can then give birth – or, I should say rebirth – to herself. While the first Ring film sequel, 1998’s Rasen, remains faithful to the novels, Hideo Nakata’s follow-up franchise installments and the American series favor the more conventional spooky-ghost-girl-haunts-VCR premise.
The final shot of Nakata’s original Ring always fills me with fatalistic dread as we watch Reiko’s car disappear into the horizon as a thunderhead looms in the sky. But I’m also left with a shred of optimism. Not only did seven days of abject terror drive an estranged mother closer to her neglected son, but we’re left with a sense of hope for their future. If this is a supernatural virus, they have the cure. We’re left assuming the spread of the curse can, and will, be stopped.
But even with that hope, especially in the remake’s final moments, we’re still left with a lingering nihilistic feeling that nothing is ever truly over. Even if our characters have won this battle, it doesn’t mean that they’ve won the war. The Ring reminds us all that we cannot escape death. We can only prolong life. Death will always be right around the corner, waiting for us, whether we’re ready for it or not.