The Ring is probably one of the scariest movies of the past years, but have you ever wondered where the idea of the spirit coming out of a well comes from?
I’m probably not alone when I say that one of the movies that traumatized me the most was The Ring (2002). I’m sure the original Japanese version is way better than the Hollywood version, but this was the first version I watched and the one that became a recurrent theme in my nightmares. So, in case you don’t know what this is about, let me tell you that I might spoil it for you. The film tells the story of a journalist who decides to investigate the mysterious death of her niece. This leads her to a cabin where the teenager and a group of friends (who died the same day but in different circumstances) watched a mysterious tape. Long story short, she watches it and receives a strange call from an unknown number that just whispers, “Seven days.” She takes a copy of the tape and gives it to her ex, who happens to be a video analyst. After some research, they discover that the figure appearing in the tape is a girl named Samara (Sadako in the Japanese film), who was thrown into a well by her mother, only surviving for seven days. Now, her spirit haunts people who watch the tape and kills them after that time.
As it happens with horror movies, many are based on so-called real stories, a book, or popular legends, and The Ring isn't the exception. It actually comes from a very old Japanese folktale of a young woman named Okiku. No one’s really sure about when or how the story originated. However, the first written evidence of the tale comes from an early eighteenth-century play called Bancho Sarayashiki or Bancho Sarayashi that literally means "The House of Plates at Bancho."
The play centers on Okiku, a servant girl at the Himeji Castle (in some of the versions she was working for a samurai called Aoyama Tessen). When the Shogun (ruler of the castle) became very ill, his heirs started competing to secure their father’s place. The obvious and natural heir, Tomonosuke, decided to honor his father with a set of ten porcelain dishes to show his affection. Tetsuzan, who wanted the position for himself, decided to take advantage of his brother’s gift and forced Okiku, the young servant, to steal one of the precious dishes. Once it was done, Tetsuzan saw that the young servant was indeed beautiful and started making advances on her, which she rejected because she was engaged with another of the servants.
As proud and decisive as he was, he would not allow a young woman to reject him like that, so he decided to accuse her of stealing the plates, a crime that was punishable by death. Horrible people have always existed, and using all the power he had, he gave her a “solution”: she could either become his mistress so he could spare her life, or die. Still, she refused the offer. Furious, he grabbed his wooden sword and smashed it into the poor girl’s head. Afterwards, he took her to a well in the premises of the castle and drowned her.
When she died, he just threw her body into the well, believing he had gotten away with his crime. However, soon he started hearing a voice coming from inside. When he approached the place, he noticed it was Okiku’s voice counting up to nine, the number of the remaining plates his brother had given to the Shogun. Every night, Okiku’s ghost would appear before him to count the plates that started the last tormenting days of her life. Of course, beyond the play and the different written adaptations, the core of the story has passed through oral tradition, and for such a long time, it was believed that every time the spirit reached number nine you could listen her desperate screams. If you happen to encounter her, the legend says you can get rid of her by saying the number ten right after she says nine, so that she believes all the plates are complete.
Since the written play was most likely inspired by the oral folk tradition, there’s one story that’s quite similar and (a bit creepier if you ask me) than the one we talked about. In this one Aoyama Harima, a wealthy vassal of the Shogun, falls in love with one of the young servants at his household, Okiku. Infatuated with her looks and spirits, in an impulse he asks her to marry her. Right after he proposed, he’s told he was to marry one of his wealthy relatives, a proposal he refuses out of his love and marriage promise to young Okiku. Even when Aoyama rejected a very good proposal, Okiku started to feel insecure about his love so she decided to test him. She takes one of the most precious porcelain plates of the family and breaks it. Because the family, who really liked her and cared about her, thought it had been a terrible accident, they decided to forgive her.
However, she admits she did it on purpose to test Aoyama’s love. Feeling tricked, the young man in an outburst of anger, kills her by throwing her into a well. The story goes as the previous one: Okiku’s ghost appears before him counting the nine remaining porcelain dishes. However, the ending is quite different; seeing that her countenance was calmed and not at all vengeful, together with the terrible regret he felt, he decided to kill himself through seppuku (it consisted on disemboweling themselves with a sword) to erase his shame.
Now, you might be wondering when did the spirit become so vengeful and deadly. Well, naturally, the novel that led to the 1998 Japanese movie only took some of the elements of this ancient folktale and reimagined it to make it scarier. Okiku’s story is ingrained in most Japanese minds, and it's been a source of inspiration for many novels, movies, plays, and art. So, perhaps it isn’t as scary as the films, but I bet that if you were to see her counting her plates in the middle of the night, you wouldn’t be thinking the same.
If you want to have a glimpse of the movie or remember the thrills, here’s the trailer:
For more stories like these, keep on reading: