The Iconic Final Scare In 'The Ring' Demonstrated How To Deliver A Satisfying Horror Movie Payoff

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: The Ring violated the viewer's expectations and sense of security with this iconic scene.)Much of horror's effectiveness stems from its ability to elicit a visceral response from suspense and anticipation; the viewer knows something terrible is going to happen, but it's the when of it that creates a feeling of unease and dread. The best horror instills a foreboding sense of anticipation through a variety of tactics and then shocks with a violation and subversion of audience expectations. It's the latter that proves the trickiest; building suspense is far easier than delivering a satisfying payoff. Just ask Stephen King; the prolific horror author has developed a reputation for scaring the pants off of readers only to fail to stick the landing in the story's conclusion. So much so that It: Chapter Two poked fun at the "bad Stephen King ending" cliché in a scene that featured King himself in a cameo.This is what makes one of the most iconic scenes in modern horror stand out. The Ring stretched out anticipation to its fullest and lulled viewers into thinking they'd already witnessed the terrifying conclusion. When other horror movies would be winding down with a happily-ever-after epilogue, The Ring unleashed one final, memorable scare that served as a traumatic sucker punch that violently ripped away all sense of security.  

The Setup

An American remake of the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu, which in turn was based on Koji Suzuki's novel of the same name. Directed by Gore Verbinski, The Ring stars Naomi Watts as Rachel, a journalist who embarks on an investigation into the mysterious death of her sixteen-year-old niece. She enlists the aid of her ex Noah (Martin Henderson), who is also the father of her son Aiden (David Dorfman), after she stumbles across a mysterious videotape that curses those who watch it with death precisely seven days later.

The Story So Far

After watching the videotape that Rachel finds at a cabin where her niece stayed one week before her untimely death, she's plagued by nightmares and supernatural symptoms that increase as the days pass. The stakes skyrocket even higher when Rachel's son Aiden finds the tape and watches it in the middle of the night. Digging into the horrific imagery on the tape, and with the help of Noah, Rachel's investigation leads her to the tape's origins on Moesko Island. There, she learns that horse breeder Anna Morgan and her husband adopted a daughter, Samara, who could psychically etch mental images onto objects and minds. Samara wasn't able to control her ability and drove her parents mad.With time nearly up for Rachel, she and Noah return to the cabin where it all began. There they discover a hidden well underneath the floorboards. After being knocked into the well, Rachel experiences a vision of the truth; Anna choked Samara and threw her down the well, where she finally drowned after seven days of struggle. One frightening encounter with Samara's corpse later, Rachel and Noah alert the authorities and finally put Samara's body to rest. Rachel effectively survived her curse, and the mystery of the evil spirit and her cursed tape has been solved. Cue the uplifting mood and music as Rachel, Noah, and Aiden are free to get their lives back on track. Or can they?

The Scene

The sun shines as Rachel wakes up from rejuvenating slumber next to her young son. She smiles with the realization that their nightmare in the rearview mirror. Aiden's mom reassures him that she's helped Samara find peace, and he recoils in horror. She notices bruises peeking out from under Aiden's pajama sleeves. The same handprint bruises that afflicted her while cursed. With dawning horror, Rachel realizes she misinterpreted events and scrambles to call Noah, the next in line for the curse. This intercuts with Noah working alone in his studio. The TV's power flicks on, an image of Samara's well frozen on the screen. An image that the power button can't stop. While the phone rings incessantly, Noah's captivated by the figure emerging from the well. Samara, disheveled hair obscuring her face, slowly edges closer to the screen until she's able to crawl out of the TV and into his studio. An unnerving and inhuman crawl. Her decayed and waterlogged body stalks closer and finally reveals her hideous, monstrous face.This iconic scare brings the narrative full circle. The cold open that features the death of Rachel's niece serves as the inciting event of the story, but it also triggers a spine-tingling scare that sets the overall eerie tone of the film. The more the viewer is pulled into the frightening details of the curse, the easier it becomes to forget that we never saw what it was that caused a sixteen-year-old's heart to stop cold.Rachel's bone-chilling encounter at the depths of the well in the final act – the putrefying corpse in her arms or the grisly remnants of a little girl's struggle to survive over seven days – made for a convincing act that this was the climactic, showstopping finish to Rachel's journey. Her confrontation with the ghost made rotted flesh felt like a satisfying conclusion. So did the moments of catharsis after, made all the more considerable by the uplifting score and rays of sun beaming through the sickly green hues. Both the film's leads and the viewer feel safe from danger, which is when Verbinski pulls the rug out from under us all.With the opening scare, Verbinski created anticipation for the truth behind what killed the teenager in peak health. What could be so petrifying to leave behind a corpse frozen in absolute fear? He stretched that anticipation to peak levels, parceling out morsels of information piecemeal until a gruesome showdown between an angry ghost and our heroine. Verbinski waited until viewers were satisfied with the payoff of this anticipation to deliver one final blow, the real reveal of the curse's final devastation in the form of a grotesque and deadly entity. Gone is any semblance of the unassuming Samara, replaced instead by a wrathful monstrosity. The Ring subverted expectations by lulling audiences with a false payoff to deliver a far more terrifying truth; there's no happy ending here. Just a lingering doom and a bleak outlook heralded in by one skin-crawling harbinger of death.