Horror Movies: What Makes “The Ring” So Scary?

Upon recommendation by many, including some on this list, I went – yesterday – to go see, The Conjuring. The movie really is pretty damn scary. In fact, I give it an easy 4 rings. That is to say, I measure all horror movies on what I call, the Ring Scale – how scary a movie is, relative to The Ring. Out of a possible 5 rings, I give this one 4. That’s pretty good. 


But, what makes The Ring so scary? The plot’s really kind of dumb. A haunted videotape that kills teenagers in 7 days. In order to discover what makes The Ring work as a masterpiece in the horror genre, one needs to obtain the DVD and frame by frame analyze it. What you will discover is it’s not the movie; it’s the technology of the production.

1)    Subconscious imagery.

a)    Throughout the film, images are presented that have little or nothing to do with the actual plot, but are some of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen on film. A nail bursting through a fingertip, a beachfront covered with dead horses, a solitary chair spinning in mid-air, a woman committing suicide, worms eating rotten meat and a dozen or so more.

2)    The use of subliminals and micro-edits.

a)    Immediately after the most shocking scenes, the image of the ring, itself, is flashed on the screen in a single frame – 1/35 of a second. Watching the film in real-time, you’ll never catch this image, but if you frame by frame it, you will be able to count the ring image appearing no less than 10 times in the film.

b)    Those shots where you see Samara – the evil demon child behind the videotape – are extremely fast cuts – lasting no longer than 1 second. The same holds true with the cuts of her victims, who die with their faces horribly contorted. But, it’s not just the speed of these cuts that make them so horrific. These shots are each broken up into 3 micro-edits – distance, a steadycam moving edit, and finally a close up. The resulting effect is one of unnatural movement and a sense of being pushed at that which we find repulsive.

In one scene for example, a horse jumps off a ferry, crashing to its death. The shot would certainly be painful to watch, if filmed normally – and since we don’t expect it, it catches us even more, off guard. But, take an analytical look at that shot, and you’ll find some fascinating trickery going on. Verbinski shifts the lighting palate back and forth between different grayscale shades, altering the background but not the foreground. He freeze-frames the horse’s fall at 3 points during the movement. He inserts the dead horses on the beach subliminal, and of course ends the shot with the ring image. That shot, by the way, is the climax to an entire scene, rife with similar techniques. You find yourself not only scared to death, but with a strange sense of inability to define exactly what it is, you’re scared of.

3)    c) Throughout the film, Verbinski uses a video effect, where he skews the onscreen image, mimicking an analog video tracking error, and at the same time, forces unnatural movements to occur. So, in other words, we’re looking at a normal film image, we suddenly see this skewing and distortion of the image – but then the image jumps awkwardly to one side of the screen. This jarring effect, coupled with the timing of it – it happens during lulls in the action – result in a constant sense of tension throughout the film.

4)    Lastly, he marries all this visual tech to a really fascinating psychoacoustic soundtrack. In fact, noticeable in its absence, is any type of standard music score. There is no soundtrack – in the normal sense of the word – in The Ring. What there is however, is a constant low frequency rumble – about 30Hz, punctuated by white noise, and this really eerie tritone – 3 high frequency notes – repeated throughout the piece. Careful attention to the audio portion of the film also reveals a crunching sound, like a tree about to fall over, and a shrill high frequency sound not unlike nails on a chalkboard.

I have watched this movie a dozen times, and gone through it in the above manner an equal number of times. Although I know everything that’s going on, the movie still leaves me with a feeling of dread and disquiet. It’s truly a brilliant example of the use of psychoactive technology to obtain a desired emotional manipulation of the audience. And no other horror film, before or since, uses these techniques.

I have several interesting stories involving times I’ve had people watch the film, but here’s my favorite. I showed it to a friend, whom afterward said it had no real effect on him. 2 weeks later, he called me up and blamed me for a sleepless night. He said he had nightmares all the previous night, and it was my fault – for showing him that stupid movie. 

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Posted by on July 29, 2013. Filed under COMMENTARY/OPINION. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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24 Responses to Horror Movies: What Makes “The Ring” So Scary?

  1. gregory b. gonzalez

    July 29, 2013 at 2:17 am

    THE GRUDGE was a better film, and it made more sense. A cursed videotape? PLEASE. A friend of mine had a copy of the video from THE RING before the movie came out and showed it to me and my ex. We were both like, “WTF is this?!” And then my friend was all, “You’re going to die now.” I shot back, “Have you seen this?” He said, “Of course!” I told him, “Then why are YOU still alive, Dumbass?”

    End of story.

    • bitcodavid

      July 29, 2013 at 7:26 am

      Agreed. The plot isn’t what I’m talking about. The tech doesn’t appear to work on everybody. My brother for example, loved it where my cousin hated it. Same DNA – two different responses. The Grudge is an OK flick, but it too, didn’t make use of the tech. Neither for that matter did the sequel, which stunk.

  2. Linh

    July 29, 2013 at 2:31 am

    I’ve always liked Japanese horror films (The Ring and The Grudge were based on Ringu and Ju-on, respectively). Their sense of what’s disturbing is just slightly different than Western horror, just slightly enough to give an alien feeling, so a lot of Western film makers try to copy that feel now days with varying success.

    I personally didn’t like the American version of Ringu, but I can understand why those who aren’t used to Japanese horror would.

    • bitcodavid

      July 29, 2013 at 7:38 am

      I too, am a fan of Japanese horror, but only their newer stuff. The Japanese movies we had growing up – Godzilla, Gamera, etc. were laughable. The worst movie I have ever seen – in any language – is a stink-bomb called Prince of Space. This movie was Japanese – and so bad, MST3K couldn’t make it watchable.

      But both Ringu – a very good movie in its own right – and Ju-on, equally good – fail to make use of the subliminal technology, and don’t have that same palpable feeling of subconscious manipulation that the American Ring has.

      This is my point. I’m not writing a review of The Ring and how it stands up to movies like Alien, for content. I’m talking about certain production values that nobody else is taking advantage of. An exploration of Brain Science that appears to work on about 70+ % of the population. With these effects, it may be possible to make your summer-camp-super8s into nightmare inducing horror flicks.

      • Linh

        July 29, 2013 at 1:52 pm

        Yeah, it might just be some part of my mind that whines that “subliminal messaging is cheating!” and other such things, but my favorite way to experience the horror genre (video games actually) uses all these things and more.

  3. Norman Rampart

    July 29, 2013 at 6:42 am

    Good grief! How did they get a picture of the wifey first thing in the morning? She won’t be happy about this you know….

    Watched it then switched to a Disney half way through. Too scary for me!

    • bitcodavid

      July 29, 2013 at 7:40 am

      Better get off the Computer. I hear her calling you. Yes, I’ve had numerous “victims” tell me they wanted to stop watching, early in the movie.

  4. James Smith

    July 29, 2013 at 7:03 am

    I few years ago, I made a video of an innocuous subject, I forget what. Somewhere along the way, I decided to experiment with a subliminal thing. I inserted a 1.10 of a second shot of a naked woman at random intervals about three or four times.

    Many people saw this video but only one had any comment relevant to the subliminal inserts. Oddly, it was a woman who admitted it made her horny. As nothing else in the video was even remotely related to sex, (I think it was one made with my flight simulator of a carried landing of a WWII fighter) It was interesting that only this woman admitted to noticing anything. Of course, maybe the men simply declined to tell me?

    I haven’t seen any of the films you mentioned but I’ll look for them now.

  5. bitcodavid

    July 29, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Who cares about the men? If it made 1 woman horny, then your experiment was a complete success. I’d take the win!

    • James Smith

      July 29, 2013 at 8:33 am

      But it was a naked woman that made her horny! That didn’t bode well for me. Unless it was the sight of Corsairs and Hellcats making spooky carrier landings that turned her on. Those might be a bit difficult to duplicate in real life anyway. When the the last time a WWII aircraft made a carrier landing? 1956?

      • bitcodavid

        July 29, 2013 at 8:41 am

        Point taken. 🙂

      • bitcodavid

        July 29, 2013 at 8:51 am

        During the 50s and 60s, cars started taking on the appearance of aircraft. Motivational researchers had discovered that aircraft had a certain erotic appeal. Maybe your answer lies in there, somewhere. Like Trains going through tunnels, or waves crashing on a beach.

        • James Smith

          July 29, 2013 at 10:10 am

          Hmm, I understand. I think perhaps I missed an opportunity. Oh well, what’s one more or less in a lifetime?

          It’s one more, dammit!

      • Jess

        July 29, 2013 at 6:18 pm

        You know there are some naked women make other women horny. Nothing wrong with that at all. More to the point, why am I just now seeing this when I replied to this post this morning, I would have said this earlier.

        • James Smith

          July 29, 2013 at 7:34 pm

          I understand, but even subliminally? I guess so. It’s true, you’re never too old to learn something new.

          As far as not seeing this earlier, I decline to take responsibility for the eccentricities of the internet or other people. I have quite enough of my own, thank you. 😉

          • Jess

            July 29, 2013 at 8:35 pm

            I think I was rushing through posts, to get to a few appts today and just glossed over some things.

  6. Michael John Scott

    July 29, 2013 at 10:25 am

    I enjoyed The Ring, but it’s just too far fetched for me. I prefer stories about demons possessing people, and exorcisms, and the like. You know, believable stuff 🙂

    • bitcodavid

      July 29, 2013 at 12:08 pm

      Before I went to the Conjuring, I had to go get some ASL books at Barnes and Noble. As I was in line, waiting to pay, I mentioned to the cashier that I was going. She seemed nonplussed, but the guy behind me started in with the old it’s a true story canard.

      It never ceases to amaze me, how many people willingly accept stuff like that as true. Hey, if you wanna go get the bejezus scared out of you – great, but let’s get off the it’s a true story b.s. I mean, really…

      • Michael John Scott

        July 29, 2013 at 12:42 pm

        What you don’t believe the “based on true story” canard? For shame when demonic possession seems so common these days. Just ask the Vatican. They recently trained a bunch of new exorcists.

  7. Jess

    July 29, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    I loved both Rings. Also too if you want some good horror… Marebito and Audition, Japanese again. First one, dude is a cameraman that goes to investigate some demon urban legends and well… I shall say no more. Second one is a little different type of horror that does not involve ghosty, demony stuff. I don’t know if I am going to go see this Conjuring, I might after this review.

    • Michael John Scott

      July 29, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      You will love The Conjuring. Trust me. I was a cop 🙂

      • Jess

        July 29, 2013 at 1:32 pm

        Last time I heard trust me, I woke up with shit all over my face from some friends of mine after a drinking game deciding I needed some colorful things drawn with highlighter pens:)

    • bitcodavid

      July 29, 2013 at 12:48 pm

      I saw Marebito! Great flick! I don’t think I’ve seen Audition. I’ll try and find it.