Before widespread Internet access, television was a primary source of entertainment and information, giving the TV set a strange psychological significance in the home. It was a familiar object that brought in foreign ideas. Commanding attention from its place of prominence, poised to deliver images and ideas from around the world into the intimacy of a household, the television became a symbol of anxiety over the insidious reach of outside influences into the domestic sphere.
Three iconic horror films of the 1980s and 1990s express that contemporary unease with television’s pervasive presence. In Poltergeist, Videodrome, and Ringu, television becomes a medium for psychic pollution, physical corruption, and deadly trespass. The television set first manipulates the viewer with treacherous images, sounds, and ideas, then allows unwholesome intrusions into the home through the permeable membrane of its screen.
In Poltergeist, TV’s influence permeates the Freeling household. Their bird, Tweety, is named after a cartoon character, and their dog, E. Buzz, after a Saturday Night Live skit. Mom sings a beer jingle as she tidies the kids’ room, while Dad seduces his wife with quacked come-ons in a Donald Duck voice. Even in the midst of tragedy, the Freelings imagine their story on 60 Minutes or That’s Incredible. The language of television creeps into every corner of their home, and the things are almost always on—in the living room, kitchen, and master bedroom—playing unnoticed in the background. That is, until spirits reach out to 5-year-old Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) through the white noise of an unwatched television set, delighting her with games and questions before snatching her away.
It’s not just television’s ubiquitousness that poses a threat, but the vacuum it fills. Poltergeist also tacitly indicts the cultural preoccupation with youth, implying that parents’ reluctance to assume adult responsibilities weakens the family, leaving it susceptible to evil intrusion. Steven Freeling’s (Craig T. Nelson) initial distance is subtle but pronounced. He’s introduced sleeping in a living room chair, isolated from his family, as the television blares and his daughter speaks to voices only she can hear. Later, when Carol Anne’s single daytime communion with “the TV people” occurs, Steven, unaware something is even happening, announces “I’m outta here” and 8-year-old Robbie (Oliver Robins) parrots him. And in the first scene with his wife, Diane (JoBeth Williams), there’s an inversion of authority, with them giggling, getting high, and clowning around in a master bedroom littered with toys while Carol Anne and Robbie lie restless and fearful in another room. Only his daughter’s disappearance alerts Steven to any issues and persuades the patriarch to take some time off from work in an attempt “to hold the family together.”
In Poltergeist, television represents the power of outside influences upon children in the absence of strong parental guidance. Parents chase after their vanished youth, leaving the family vulnerable to outside influences. And once TV contamination takes hold, the parents must suffer through grueling ordeals to reclaim their child.
Though they’re still at the mercy of one medium—Carol Anne is reachable from the beyond through television static—it’s another that helps them. Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein), a powerful spiritual medium, explains that the Freelings are not alone in their preoccupation with the amusements and comforts of a life left behind. The deceased feel this pull too, and Carol Anne, with her unusually strong life force, which gives off a bright spiritual light, distracts them from their true destination. For these beings, Carol Anne’s radiance evokes memories of “love and home and earthly pleasures, something they desperately desire but can’t have any more.” Idling between death and what lies beyond, the spirits divert and comfort themselves with the beautiful, empty pleasures of Carol Anne’s light just as Steven and Diane Freeling beguile themselves with the glowing television and their bright memories of youth.
When the Freelings recover their daughter from the forces that captivated and captured her through their television sets, they escape their doomed home and retreat to a hotel. Steven ushers the whole family into their single room, then reopens the door to trundle the TV set outside. Taking one last look around, Steven Freeling shuts himself and his family into their room, cloistered together from the polluting influences of the outside world.
In Poltergeist, the television set provides a channel for unwelcome influences to enter the home, but Videodrome presents TV itself as a corrupting medium. Television executive Max Renn (James Woods) feeds his viewers’ appetite for sensation with ever-escalating spectacle. Talk show host Rena King (Lally Cadeau) characterizes his Channel 83 as showing “everything from softcore pornography to hardcore violence,” “contribut[ing] to a social climate of violence and sexual malaise.” Accepting her glib assessment, Max says he offers viewers “a harmless outlet for their fantasies and their frustrations. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a socially positive act.”
Max underestimates the power of television to transform the individual. When he’s given a taste of Videodrome, a plotless, characterless pirate broadcast showcasing torture and snuff footage, Max becomes obsessed, instructing his agents and assistants to track it to its source. As his obsession grows, the terrors on the screen intrude into his imagination, his home, and his flesh as he suffers horrific transformations of body and mind that finally reduce him to a tool for the corporate and governmental complex behind Videodrome.
Even as he warns Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), his lover, to stay away from Videodrome, Max pursues it despite repeated warnings. Harlan (Peter Dvorsky), who originally unscrambles Videodrome’s signal, describes it as “torture, murder, mutilation. It’s a real sicko, for perverts only”; Max responds, “Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.” Old-fashioned agent Masha (Lynne Gorman) warns him, “Videodrome is something for you to leave alone. It is definitely not for public consumption.” Speaking to him by video, Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) warns Max, “Your reality is already half hallucination.” Finally, one of Videodrome’s covert producers confronts Max, asking, “Why would anyone watch a scum show like Videodrome? Why did you watch it, Max?”
On some level, Max hungers for Videodrome’s power. Even before he sees the program, he’s seeking something with its potent ability to transcend and transgress. Watching elegant imported pornography with his partners, Max ruminates that it’s “too soft” for their market. “I’m looking for something that’ll break through.”
Videodrome does break through. It violates the boundaries between screen and self intensely, addictively. The effect is both immediate and cumulative. Jaded though he is, Max is hooked within seconds. By the end of the 53-second clip, he’s transfixed, excited, and—above all—stimulated. He screens Videodrome for Nicki, and during their resulting sadomasochistic sex, he looks up to find them in the show’s torture chamber.
Max’s visions become intense and corporeal. He sees his belly split open to swallow his pistol; later, a Videodrome agent inserts a video cassette into the same slit. Max’s gun reappears, melded with the flesh of his hand, to allow him to assassinate his partners and deliver Channel 83 to the shadowy forces behind Videodrome. The gun emerges from a television screen, stretching through the screen’s black-and-white static to fire at him, and his wounded chest appears on the screen.
Surrendering to the temptations of Videodrome’s thrills, Max also yields to the demands of its creators. He becomes an instrument of their clandestine political agenda, playing out their recorded commands as faithfully as a VCR plays a tape. Ultimately, Max Renn’s appetite for grotesque violence (and his willingness to disseminate it) opens him up to manipulation, leaving him a tool susceptible to programming and reprogramming.
While Videodrome’s horror lies in television’s power to reduce viewers to passive objects, Ringu (and its English-language remake, The Ring) makes the television viewer’s agency part of the terror. Reporter Asakawa Reiko (Matsushima Nanako) is researching an urban legend about a cursed video that kills its viewers when she learns that her own niece, and three of her niece’s friends, have died in mysterious circumstances, leaving behind rumors of a lone survivor who was driven insane by fear—and who “never goes anywhere there’s a TV.”
Determined to uncover the truth behind the legend, Reiko visits the cabin where the four students spent an illicit night, and there she watches a bizarre video. Further research suggests the video was created by Sadako, the spirit of a murdered child, who imprinted images on videotape using only the power of her terrible mind. Fearing she’s brought the curse upon herself, Reiko calls upon her ex-husband, Ryūji (Sanada Hiroyuki), an academic and psychic, who watches the video for himself—and for the first time in years, he meets their young son, Yôichi (Ôtaka Rikiya).
At first, Sadako’s cursed broadcast seems to reunite the shattered family. The estranged father reacquaints himself with child and ex-wife. Reiko gives up her accustomed late work nights to spend her remaining time with Yôichi. Even their dwindling time links Reiko and Ryūji: “I only have three days left!” she cries out. “I know,” he answers. “And I have four.” Ringu’s false resolution deliberately milks the illusion of family unity. Reiko discovers Sadako’s corpse and cradles its ghastly skull to her bosom in the moment when the curse should kill her, cementing the notion of maternal love and familial connection as solace and salvation.
Under their superficial unity, tragedy further alienates the already splintered family. When her relatives gather to mourn, Reiko acts as reporter, not grieving aunt, sister, or daughter. She avoids her family, instead eavesdropping on Tomoko’s friends. She ignores her son’s questions about his dead cousin (and, by implication, about his own mortality). Reiko offers neither support nor sympathy to her sister, but slips away to pilfer clues from Tomoko’s room. After one night with Yôichi and her father, Reiko discovers Yôichi watching Sadako’s video, and she leaves him again in search of a loophole to save them both.
Seeking the source of Sadako’s power, Ryūji and Reiko achieve an uneasy affinity, but as soon as they believe themselves safe, they split up again. When Ryūji secludes himself to finish an overdue chapter for his publisher, his television set turns on, playing the cursed video. Each time Ringu shows Sadako’s video, it lasts a moment longer, giving a better glimpse of the figure in the well. Sadako climbs from her watery grave and for a moment her image splits, offering a clue to Reiko’s reprieve: One girl becomes three.
As Ryūji watches, Sadako shambles closer. Breaching the physical barrier of the television screen, she emerges from the video into his living room. He dies, petrified in fright, when the girl fixes him with one wide eye. The family unit, once disjointed, then briefly reunited, is now irreparably broken; the newly returned father is dead.
Sadako’s vengeance engenders greater disruption, even treachery, within the family. To save her son, Reiko sacrifices her father. In the wake of Ryūj’s death, Reiko understands why she was spared. “Something I did that you didn’t, to lift the curse. I copied it… and I showed it to you.” She coolly assembles the tools to copy the cursed video, then calls her father, who has offered nothing but comfort and care, and extracts a blind promise to do her “a favor. It’s for Yôichi.” Exploiting a grandfather’s love, she enables a curse upon her own father, burdening him as Sadako burdened her. He must perpetuate the curse or die in terror.
Sadako’s transgressive wrath allows her to violate the boundaries of physical space, of time, of life and death, and gives her the power to poison the bonds of love and kinship. Her victims become willing agents of doom, spreading her cursed message—and the terrible choice it entails—to their families. Sadako creates the video with the force of her unnatural fury, but the ordinary people who copy and share it increase her scope and power, spreading the curse far beyond her original reach.
Television expanded horizons, but it also challenged the supposed certainty and peace of the home, delivering everything from the carnage of war to tense political or economic disturbances to the most outré sexual mores a soap opera can dish up. Depicting television as a channel for capturing a child, as a corrupter of the unwary adult, and as an enticement to turn against family, Poltergeist, Videodrome, and Ringu convey a progression of social anxieties about television’s persuasive, intrusive power over the individual, the family, and the home.