The story begins with two teenage girls discussing the events of the previous weekend, during which one of them, Katie Embry (played by Amber Tamblyn), went to a cabin in the mountains to spend time with some friends. While talking, the subject of a supposedly cursed videotape is brought up. The other girl, Rebecca 'Becca' Kotler (played by Rachael Bella), states that anyone who watches this video receives a phone call, in which a voice says, "seven days." Then, exactly seven days after viewing the tape, the viewer dies. Katie reveals in horror that she had watched that video at the cabin last weekend, exactly seven days earlier. After a series of unexplainable occurrences, involving televisions in the house turning themselves on and unexplained pools of water, Katie is mysteriously killed, while Becca goes insane.
The film then introduces Katie's aunt, Rachel, a journalist living in Seattle. Her son, Aiden, was not only Katie's cousin but also a good friend, and seems to be sensitive to psychic occurrences. At Katie's funeral Rachel begins investigating Katie's death and learns of the videotape. Her investigation leads her to the same cabin in the mountains where the teenagers had watched the tape. There, she finds the tape and eventually watches it. She makes a copy for Aiden's father Noah, and Aiden himself watches it a few days later.
Rachel's investigation then turns to the tape itself, which contains a seemingly random series of disturbing, grainy black and white images. Investigating those images leads Rachel to learn of a girl, Samara, who had been adopted and then murdered by those parents. They had killed Samara when they believed she had caused her mother to go insane as well as causing the deaths of several horses. Rachel is eventually led to where the girl was killed; a watery grave at the bottom of a well. Rachel notifies the authorities, and Samara is given a proper burial, presumably putting her spirit to rest.
However, just as it seems that everything is well again, Rachel informs Aiden that they will no longer be troubled by Samara. But Aiden quickly corrects her and says that Samara's spirit has been released, evident by the bruises on his arm. In the film's most unsettling and memorable scene, Noah is going over some film prints in his apartment when his TV turns on to static, in the same fashion that Rachel's niece, Katie experienced before her death. Noah turns it off casually before the TV turns itself on again, which alerts Noah. He is then treated to an image of a well, a recurring image of which a long haired female figure crawls out of the well and slowly walks toward the screen. It only intensifies as Noah quickly backs away when the figure literally crawls out of the television set. Noah knocks over a shelf in fear and crawls away before turning around, only to have the figure stare directly at him, causing his inevitable death which Rachel discovers after racing to his apartment. Rachel and Aiden realize that the only way to escape Samara after watching the video is to make a copy of the tape and show it to someone else, thus continuing the cycle.
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