Every Mountain Made Low’s Alex White on his favourite ghost story

Author Alex White writes about the ghost story that really scared him

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My Favorite Ghost Story: The Ring

By Alex White (@alexrwhite)

Every Mountain Made Low is, at its core, a ghost story. Loxley Fiddleback, the main character, is psychic sensitive, and she can see the spirits of the dead. They chase and harrow her, grasping after her with longing fingers, leaving horrible bruises in their wake. There is knowledge to be gleaned from them, but they aren’t exactly Hamlet’s dad; they don’t talk and they’re not helpful.

That’s the way I like my ghosts: total bastards. And that’s why I love The Ring. Yes, the American version. Ringu is good, too, but I have some stylistic stuff I prefer about the remake.

For those who haven’t seen the film, the plot is pretty straightforward. You find a tape, you watch the tape, it tells you you’re going to die in seven days. Then a ghost comes and kills you. It’s basic stuff in the horror world, not even remotely compelling, until you see it in action.

IT HAS AN UNORTHODOX VISUAL STYLE

The best part is that the movie starts with a trick. Arguably, the whole movie is a trick, but we’ll get to that.

The movie opens with two teenaged girls, having a sleepover, talking about the central conceit of the film: the killer tape. The color palette here, as well as camera angles and sound, are all ripped straight out of a Wes Craven film. It’s carbon-copy suburbia. The second we’ve come to accept that we’ve paid the ticket price to see more horror schlock, it turns on its head and starts in with the new visual style I find completely arresting.

The Ring was my first exposure to the direction of Gore Verbinski and the stunning cinematography of Bojan Bazelli (they wouldn’t team up again until the flop-fated Lone Ranger of 2013). The film is set in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, whose trees also happened to be the most evocative actors of the Twilight films. I dare anyone to watch The Ring and not want to visit those places, captured in sweeping glory to the tense stylings of Hans Zimmer music. (That’s a gorgeous album, by the way. Buy it.)

The film vacillates between the safe cleanliness of Naomi Watts’s newspaper office and the rugged countryside, but it never strays into the ugly slaughterhouse territory of most horror movies. At its most gory moments, the movie doesn’t rely upon blood, but water, hair and mildew. The colors are vivid blues, oranges and reds, washed against misty gray and oily black. The palette conjures the work of artists like Henri Fuseli: a beautiful dream you somehow understand to be a nightmare. And like Fuseli, The Ring teaches you to be afraid of horses.

IT FUNCTIONS ON PERVASIVE TECHNOLOGY

As a child, television was my best friend. If you think that makes it sound like I was a lonely little loser, you’re correct! The thing is, TV and I had a bond. It would provide me with a window on the world, and I would provide it with hours of slavish devotion.

To see a television attack someone like that… I can only imagine it was the same feeling audiences got in the late 50s when Old Yeller went rabid.

In the early 2000s, the dot com bubble had burst and we were finally coming to terms with the real Information Age. Screens had gotten bigger and cheaper, and many households were becoming multi-screen (in 2000, more than 40% of American households had 3 televisions, and 99% of houses have 1). No matter how far you run, no matter where you turn, there will be a screen waiting to kill you. The movie might as well have been a chilling tale where McDonalds is a gate to Hell or ghosts come pouring out of every cup of Starbucks.

Furthermore, it’s a literal ghost story for a medium. In the age of the DVD, the VHS has come back from the grave to kill us all. It’s a love letter to magnetism, complete with all the color diffraction and noise of tape referenced throughout the film. Honestly, that’s the part of the movie I had the most trouble believing: that the characters could find a working tape deck in 2002. And how was that tape encoded, anyway? PAL or NTSC?

IT’S BASED ON YOUR ASSUMPTIONS

This is the spoilery part. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t read past here.

We good? Are they gone?

The Ring doesn’t function unless you have a strong working knowledge of haunting tropes. For the first two acts of the film, it’s about trying to help a restless spirit find peace. They go and meet the dead girl’s dad, the ultra-talented Brian Cox, they hit up the sanitarium where the girl stayed, they uncover the pyrokinetic burn marks in her childhood room, they find the well where she was buried. It’s a mystery, and we must help the characters solve it.

And at the turning point of to the third act, they lay this little girl to rest with a magical shot and poignant music. And they, like us, assume that’s the point of the story. After all, there was an adventure, right? There was suffering right? Surely that was enough.

Nope.

The outcome of Naomi Watts’s adventure doesn’t change the end of the story one whit. She could’ve sat on her couch in Seattle, sipping on a Starbucks for all it mattered. And in the end, when the ghost comes to kill Martin Henderson, Gore Verbinski puts her center-frame, looking straight at us. Do you know why?

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Because we failed to figure it out. Because she would be there to kill us, were we in that room. That’s what makes The Ring such a masterpiece: it transforms from classic camp horror, to an art film, to a meta-textual analysis of our own anchoring bias.

We took the first hook they gave us and ran with it, and boy did we screw up and die.

Every Mountain Made Low by Alex White is available from 3 November from Solaris Publishing. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.