The Phone Lightning of 'Stranger Things' and 'Rings' Exists

Paramount Pictures

The scariest part about the new Rings trailer isn’t the return of Samara, the tangle-haired creep from inside your TV. It’s the white-hot flash of electricity that sears your phone after watching her demonic video. While the well-dweller’s curse may be the stuff of horror movie fiction, electricity’s ability to travel through phone lines and zap listeners is a real and terrifying thing.

In the trailer, the doomed Julia (Matilda Lutz), hears her phone’s fateful ring immediately after the cursed video ends. As she picks up the receiver — she is, crucially and anachronistically, using a landline — the voice on the other line whispers, “Seven days.” Suddenly, there’s a zapping sound as she gasps and drops the phone to the ground, where it lies blackened, emanating smoke. On her burned hand, a rash of blisters begins to form. Scary stuff.

The scene calls to mind Stranger Things star Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), another sci-fi heroine of late who struggles with her phone’s ability to conduct electricity. In the Netflix series, she loses not one but two landlines to unexpected jolts of current. Both Rings and Stranger Things chalk the sudden electric charge up to paranormal means, but when it happens in real life — and it does surprisingly often — the explanation is entirely, and terrifyingly, natural.

According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, some 4-5 percent of people struck by lightning are struck while talking on a landline. By Mythbusters’s count, two people die as a result of this phenomenon each year.

Here’s how it happens: If a bolt of lightning strikes your home or neighboring power lines, the surge of electricity can actually travel through your home’s phone lines, plumbing, or electrical wiring and jump out of the other end, burning your hand. During a lightning storm, NOAA considers the use of any electrical appliance or plumbing fixture — toilets included — a risky choice.

Don't pick up that phone, Joyce!


The good news is that there are far fewer lightning-related deaths these days, partially because fewer people use corded phones.

Are you planning on watching Samara’s tape of death or attempting to contact your lost child in a different dimension any time soon? It wouldn’t hurt to ditch your landline and use a cell phone, instead.

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