In fall of 2002, I joined a big crowd of moviegoers in the old Varsity Cinema in downtown Toronto, to watch a horror movie about home video that was outmoded even then.
Gore Verbinski’s American remake of the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu is about a cursed VHS videotape, made by a psychically powerful and profoundly angry girl, Sadako Yamamura. If you watch it all the way through – and it’s not long, so once you start it you’ll probably finish it – you get a mumbly phone call, which will start a seven day count-down to your really awful demise at the clawed hands of a Sadako’s vengeful spirit.
Looked at another way – and this is a bit of a spoiler, the first of many – you’ve got seven days to find it within yourself to make a copy of that videotape, and pass it on to someone else. If you do this, the spirit passes you by and the whole thing becomes the next person’s problem.
Those were the rules.
Here in the late summer of 2020, nine months in to a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, there are different rules. Among them: If you know what’s good for you, no big crowds, and no movie theatres. So my wife and I spent a couple of movie-nights at home, rewatching not Verbinski’s Seattle-set The Ring, but Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Japan-set original and its continuation-sequel, Ringu 2.
We watched them through the 2020 version of the VHS format: an online streaming service, Shudder TV in this case, that distributed its grindhouse-and-horror catalogue as far as its subscriber-list would take it. And in these pandemic times, it got us thinking and talking about the central metaphor of the story – the wilful and amoral spread contageon to survive-if-not-break a mortal curse – in a bit more immediate way than we had before.
The cursed videotape in Ringu is an obvious stand-in for a disease vector. Koji Suzuki’s original 1991 novel on which the films were based made it even more literal. His Sadakovirus combined the girl’s fantastical psychic powers with the mundane horror of smallpox and her own deep-seated anger to propagate itself.
But to use the parlance of these pandemic-literate times, the Sadakovirus is one with a relatively low reproduction factor. That is to say, it would only hit a factor of one (one viewer sends one copy to one recipient) in a world where everyone knew what they needed to do to survive after the seven-day countdown, and everyone had access to two VCRs to do that thing. And in that perfect world, symptoms – i.e. Sadako showing up with her uncut bangs and and deadly touch – would only manifest at the end, when everyone had seen her short film. Then the factor would be closer to ∞.
In even a hypothetical reality, most people who watched the tape – even those teenagers who’d heard the first part of the urban legend – would simply suffer six sleepless nights and seven twitchy days, only to be blindsided by a terrifying and terrible death. That group of people would include the ignorant, and also the altruistic. Because of course the right thing to do after watching that video would be to suck it up, take six days to settle affairs, burn the tape then wait for the monster on the seventh, in the knowledge that the reproduction factor will henceforth stay at a tidy zero.
As described the book and the films, the Sadakovirus is spread by our enlightened selfishness. The vector has a moral component, and it is the good who die young from it. The clever, wicked ones prevail.
For the past year, we’ve been wrestling with the moral componenet of the Coronavirus’ spread too – although it might be better to say that where the Sadokavirus relies on enlightened selfishness to move it through its hosts, the Coronavirus does its best work in unenlightened selfishness. Wilfully unenlightened selfishness.
You don’t want to wear a stuffy old mask? It’s so nice out, the kids are bored and you want to go to the beach for the day? You’re lonely and you want to hit a bar to meet some people, maybe get laid? Not a problem. Facebook and Twitter put a pair of VHS machines in the hands of everybody with a smart-phone to make copies of the misinformation of their choice, to justify all of those indulgences.
Of course, the individual moral component of COVID-19 is but one piece of the vector-puzzle – there is a much larger societal moral component .
Front-line workers and low-income people have no choice but to expose themselves and their family to the disease, in order they might eat and pay rent – and the vulnerable elderly and disabled in long-term care rely on the willingness of government to part with the money and resources to fund their survival.
Even when people in this situation are informed, they lack the resources… that pair of conjoined VCRs if you will… to make a choice one way or another about their survival. Sadakovirus visits at her pleasure and she is subject only to the altruism of those in greater power, who may sacrifice wealth but not life in its exercise.
Over the past few years, Ringu and the Japanese horror cinema that it accompanied, have fallen somewhat out of fashion. Such is the way of it with horror-movie trends – the popular tropes become too familiar and the once-apt subtext, less relevant.
One of those tropes was a sense of grand futility. The malevolent supernatural incursions at its core were not subject to easy banishment, and to survive them, one had to learn to live by their rules. The truth, in other words, does not free us but constrains us, for our own protection.
The may not be as fashionable in 2020 as it was a couple of decades ago. But the subtext seems to me to be chillingly relevant.