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20 Years After ‘The Ring’: How Watching Horror Movies and Escaping Purity Culture Taught Me Agency

At the twentieth anniversary of ‘The Ring,’ I reflect on how I overcame overprotectiveness toward movies the same way I overcame purity culture: by making my own decisions.

When I first discovered The Horror Virgin podcast in my mid-thirties, I didn’t love the name. I don’t love perpetuating the idea of virginity in general, and I personally was more than a little harmed by evangelical Christianity’s purity culture era circa Y2K. So even casual uses of the word still bother me sometimes, despite my having moved on from my bad experiences surrounding it.

Thankfully, I listened long enough not only to find out the hosts are sex positive, but that they’re such caring, supportive, and hilarious people overall that their podcasts have become my all-time faves.

But to lean into the metaphor for just a moment, if there were a turning point when I was no longer a horror virgin, it was a fateful night 20 years ago this month.

Not Ready for ‘the Real Thing’

My first real horror movie was The Ring, starring Naomi Watts.

It was October 19, 2002, the day after it hit wide release in the U.S.; I still have the ticket stub in a magnetic-page photo album I started when I was 15. It was fall of my senior year of high school, and I was on a double date.

My date and the other guy were two of my good guy friends throughout most of junior high and high school. We attended a small private Christian school in western Ohio, and we were actually pretty good little Christian kids; no sex, no drugs, nothing even remotely rebellious for the most part. The other guy’s date was his public-school girlfriend, a girl who even then I assumed was a lot less naive and sheltered than I was, even though she was a few years younger than the rest of us that night.

These guys were two of the group of boys who had introduced me to The Lord of the Rings when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring had come out in theaters a year earlier. So when a few of us ended up at the movies on a double date nine months later, I kind of trusted them. Not quite enough to want to go see a horror movie — which I very much told them I was hesitant about at the time. But they assured me it wouldn’t be as bad as I thought it would be, despite my extremely sheltered upbringing. Both of my parents were overprotective when it came to me spending too much alone time with any boys, but my mom had also banned any and all scary or inappropriate movie watching if she had anything to do with it.

And here I was, at least on a harmless double date in public, but about to lose my horror movie virginity.

And I was drastically unprepared.

Do Final Girls Really Have to be so Virginal?

My mom has more than once told me the story of how she and my dad went on a double date with some friends to see Friday the 13th Part 2, and how she hated every second of it. The other couple had talked them into it, and she caved. But she had been right — the slasher was just as awful and gory as she expected, and it freaked her out for ages afterward. She was barely a couple years older than I was when that movie came out, so her overprotectiveness came in earnest, regardless of the seemingly irrational, overly-religious evangelicals she and my dad turned out to be by the time I existed.

Don’t get me wrong; my mom was no Mama from Carrie or anything. But that doesn’t mean my impressionable, melodramatic, sheltered teen brain didn’t sometimes feel like Carrie did anyway.

A few scary movies had slipped through the cracks occasionally. Somehow we had a VHS copy of 1979’s The Black Hole, which I have to assume is only because it was technically a Disney movie, despite being one of those weird Disney forays into something that wasn’t adorably animated. It resides solidly in a genre I’d call “sci-fi horror lite.” (This movie wants to be Event Horizon when it grows up; you can’t convince me otherwise.)

Once when I was probably 10 or 12, my mom got home from the grocery on a weekend afternoon to find my dad watching the OG Jurassic Park and incidentally letting my brothers and me watch it with him; he caught hell for letting us watch something that could — I guess give us nightmares about dinosaur attacks? I was just old enough to mentally roll my eyes at the idea and be disappointed we didn’t get to finish watching it.

Another time, during my junior year of high school, one of my classmates had invited our entire class (of less than 50) to a teacher-chaperoned overnighter at her house. Regardless of that whole “If they’re here with us at church, they’re not out sinning” mentality that so many of our school teachers and the scads of youth group pastors between us all had, it still blows my mind that our school (and churches) allowed as many overnight lock-ins as it did. Because we didn’t just get abstinence-only sex ed class once during high school — sometimes we also got abstincence-only special speaker presentations, and abstinence-only preachers at our weekly chapel service, and yes, even abstinence-only reminders occasionally peppered in during daily Bible class, which was a required class slotted in between other fundamentals like Algebra II and Honors English. (Maybe don’t let fundamentalists choose your kids’ educational fundamentals; they might end up with science textbooks published by Bob Jones University, which are … not as science-y as they should be.)

This was the late ’90s and early 2000s: Purity culture was having A Moment.™ Many Christian millennial teens like myself were psychologically terrorized into believing physical purity metaphors that would end up scaring me more than Freddy Kruger or Ghostface ever would. I never had a purity ring, but I definitely wasn’t going to have sex before I had a wedding ring on my finger.

So since most of us were too scared of disappointing God and our future spouses to do much of anything physical anyway, supervised group overnighters where they could doubly ensure none of us inappropriately came in contact with each other were totally fine, apparently.

One of the first things a bunch of us did that night at the junior class lock-in was to watch What Lies Beneath in the dark. Most of the guys hung out shooting pool or bullshitting in the next room, but 20 or so of the rest of us crowded onto the floor and one couch to watch Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford have a scandalously steamy marriage until Pfeiffer starts either seeing ghosts or losing her mind. Classic.

But for some reason, even though What Lies Beneath is a much spookier movie than any others I had seen before, it still didn’t “count” as horror to me — probably because I was in a huge group, with constant talking and comedic, Todd-Schlosser-like jump-screams from one of the girls, who managed to get absorbed in the movie despite the chaotic and giggly environment. Plus the scaries in that movie are pretty mild until the third act anyway.

But peer-pressure me into a movie theater with a two-story screen, surround sound, no ability to laugh or make jokes or grab another donut whenever, and that freaking creepy-faced head-drop in the closet before we’d even hit the 16-minute mark?

The Ring counted.

Like… really counted.

What Traumatizes Us — and What Doesn’t

Maybe part of my being so terrorized by The Ring was that I got pressured into doing something I felt unprepared for and was therefore pretty scared of even in theory, let alone in practice.

It’s almost shocking that I managed to have the opposite experience the first time I had sex. Even after all the fearmongering, and after so many embarrassing experiences when I managed to out myself as the most naive person in the room by asking impossibly naive questions for someone my age — my first real sexual experience wasn’t traumatic. It wasn’t even meh. It was really nice, and I didn’t feel bad about it whatsoever, then or now. I was 19 and fully capable of making my own decisions, with agency. My boyfriend at the time and I were in a committed relationship, and he took care to ensure I had a really positive experience, despite the horror stories I had heard from religious leaders for years, and despite the fact that I was 19 and had literally never even seen a condom — not in person, and not even in a movie.

Conversely, my first true horror movie experience stuck with me in all the wrong ways.

I don’t blame my friends who talked me into seeing The Ring that night; they were kids too, and they didn’t really understand how few movies like that I had seen. They thought it would be fun and probably thought I was exaggerating my concerns. If I was mad at them then, I can’t remember it now.

But she stuck with me. Samara stuck with me as if I had watched that damned VHS tape myself.

Katie’s face melting seven and a half minutes in? It was scary, but kind of quick. It was just enough jumpscare to make me question if I had seen what I thought I had seen, and then prime me for the next one.

That head drop in the closet eight minutes later? There was no mistaking that; there’s a longer shot of it, and combined with the blip we got earlier when Katie’s face first goes, my brain was able to contextualize the image faster and really see what I was supposed to see.

But Samara …

By the time Samara came for Martin Henderson by jerkily, drippingly crawling out of his TV, her image was burned into my retinas like a cursed movie encoded onto magnetic film.

I was almost 18 when I saw The Ring, and yet for weeks afterward, I saw Samara standing next to my bed in all her scraggly-haired, pale-clothed anti-glory if I took my head out from under the covers. Little Aidan handled being actually haunted by her in the movie better that I could in real life.

I felt so … Immature. Caught off guard. Childish, and weak, and stupid. They were the same feelings I often felt from my myriad weird or bad experiences regarding sex as I approached and entered adulthood wholly unprepared for reality. Unprepared to have a body I was actually allowed to make decisions for. Unprepared by an environment that had sheltered and manipulated me in the name of “protecting me.”

Even now, I remember how I couldn’t make that image go away simply by hating that I was seeing it. I just had to let it wear off slowly over time, getting further behind me as time simply passed — like so many other negative or even traumatic experiences we sometimes have to recover from.

Deciding to Fight and Survive

It would be years before I’d willingly watch a horror movie again. But sometime while I was in college, I decided it was time to try again. Maybe I had matured in other ways that could support me as I dove into watching The Ring a second time, by myself.

For … science.

And, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, there were things about it I found fascinating.

I’ve been appreciative of cinema since I was a kid, and I was raised on a lot of classics. Almost no one in my family even likes scary movies, aside from a great-grandma I never knew who watched old classics with my aunt back in the ’60s and ’70s. TCM was a favorite whenever I had access to cable at my grandparents’ house, and our family VHS collection was filled with ’50s and ’60s musicals. (Amber Tamblyn — who plays melty-faced head-dropping Katie at the beginning of “The Ring” — was more significant to me as Russ Tamblyn’s daughter because of the musicals I grew up watching.) I discovered Hitchcock via TCM’s Hitchcock events, even though I didn’t consider any of his horror movies to be that horrific in any way. What classics I wasn’t raised on, I sought out as a young adult, thinking that if a piece of literature had made some sort of best-of list at some point, I probably had something to learn from it and should therefore watch it. Casablanca, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot — I devoured them all.

By the time I felt brave enough to watch The Ring again, I had become better at appreciating many of the facets of a movie. Learning why it was compelling, or how I was able to get lost in it. Evaluating practical versus digital effects. Scouring iMDB pages for trivia and cast info at a compulsive clip. Researching contextual background around the era or the filming technology that led the movie to turn out the way it did. Learning of the Hitchcock quote, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” These things began to inform my attitude toward and my consumption of scary movies.

Ergo, my second viewing of The Ring was a little more scientific. I knew where I’d be scared since I’d seen it already, and I got to revisit some things I’d forgotten. I knew to look away when Naomi Watts found a hair in her mouth, because hell no I didn’t want to see how that scene developed. I wondered how they’d pulled off the effect with the fly. And I was able to consider watching the sequel, something I never could have imagined doing when I was 17.

From there, I eased into more horror films with sometimes-cheesy 1960s gothic horror a la Vincent Price or Barbara Steele. (Have you seen pre-Chinatown baby Jack Nicholson in any of those? He was in two of them in 1963, both with Boris Karloff; although to be fair, The Raven is a satire.) September and October became scary movie months for me every year, and I loved having a reason to dump spiced rum into hot apple cider and stay in on Saturday nights.

And then, scary movies started bleeding into other months. Curiosity and a youth spent missing out made me wonder what I was missing. I moved from badly dubbed Italian-to-English black-and-whites to the classics of the late ’70s and early ’80s — Halloween and Alien and The Amityville Horror and The Thing — which became my new favorite horror era. I had a favorite horror era. I bought horror movies on DVD. I relished the opportunity to write a college term paper on Vertigo through the lens of Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” diving into the details of what made elements of the film particularly creepy. (That project still informs my understanding of whether I’m actually scared by a horror movie or merely grossed out by certain scenes; there is a huge difference.)

I eventually got around to watching The Ring Two, and The Grudge, and a handful of other Y2K-era classics. Somehow I came across the original Swedish movie Let the Right One In, and I found it totally captivating. An intimate friend of mine talked me into watching the first season of American Horror Story, and I binged a few seasons of it on my own long after he lost interest. I even ventured back to theaters to see Jennifer’s Body (although I would have seen any movie that the girl I went with asked me to) and Orphan. (Have you ever farted in a packed theater during the part of a scary movie when the sound system goes dead silent to simulate the audio a deaf girl can [not] hear when she doesn’t have her cochlear implants in? No? Just me ? … Just me. Really takes the edge off the terror when you and your friend are desperately trying to stifle giggles, lemme tell ya.)

Between the building ubiquity of streaming services and the reclusiveness caused by the pandemic, I’ve had plenty of time over the last few years to ease into stronger and stronger hits of horror. It’s now been two whole decades since I first suffered my way through The Ring, and I’ve since voluntarily and without company consumed a vast array of “legit” horror movies, from The Exorcist to Hereditary — without losing my lunch or my head about it.

Just like I had done with purity culture, I started taking control of my experiences and beliefs by learning as much as I could and then doing what I wanted, by exposing myself to lots of other experiences and beliefs, until I had formed my own opinions and felt capable of acting on them. Did I learn some things the hard way, through trial and error? Of course. But they were my errors to make if I wanted to. I “exposure-therapy’d” myself out of being terrified of sex, capital-H Hell, and a creepy ghost girl crawling out of a well.

More Than Just Surviving

Now in my late 30s, and now that I’ve been through scads of types of actual therapies, I might better describe choosing to get into horror movies as taking opposite action, a skill I learned during dialectical behavior therapy group sessions, although I didn’t consciously know that’s what I was doing back then as I willfully increased my exposure to horror.

But I do know watching horror films is what I want to do, and that I really enjoy doing it. Just like I know that I can live and sleep in the same bed with my life partner without the fear of separation from God — or my parents — hanging over me. Because my parents also have learned a lot over the last few decades, including that it’s so much better to see your kid happy and loved than it is to see her alone and having mental breakdowns about sin and disappointing those who love her. (My horror movie interests, my mom may never understand, but we can agree to disagree on that one.)

I still have enough imposter syndrome in most areas of my life to not feel like a true connoisseur of horror films, and yet I’ve seen a lot of them. I can list off a surprising amount of subgenres, and I know the best way to get my partner to watch a horror movie with me is to offer him horror comedies. I know who Ari Aster, Mike Flanagan, and Jordan Peele (outside of comedy) are, and I’m curious to hear what their next projects are. I know what a Final Girl is (and Laurie is the best one don’t even argue with me on this you are wrong).

Gate-keeping connoisseurs of horror would say those are all entry-level tickets, but I still know very few people in my now diverse group of friends who know any of those things. Like having a healthy sex life and an open-minded attitude toward sex, scary movies and the culture surrounding them are something I’ve managed to bring myself into with agency. And now, seeing a classic jack-o-lantern on screen and hearing the accompanying driving piano music sends me into an autumn-nostalgic visceral response almost as thrilling as the touch of my partner’s skin against mine.

Ring or no. ●

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