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Monday, October 27, 2014

October 27, 2014: AmericanSpooking: The Saw Series

[For each of the last couple years, I’ve featured a Halloween-inspired series. It’s been spoooooky fun, so I figured I’d continue the tradition this year, focusing specifically on scary movies. Share your thoughts, on these or other AmericanSpookings, and I promise not to say boo!]
On different visions of morality in horror films, and whether they matter.
There’s an easy and somewhat stereotypical, although certainly not inaccurate, way to read the morality or lessons of horror films: to emphasize how they seem consistently to punish characters, and especially female characters, who are too sexually promiscuous, drink or do drugs, or otherwise act in immoral ways; and how they seem to reward characters, especially the “final girl,” who are not only tough and resourceful but also virgins and otherwise resistant to such immoral temptations. Film scholar Carol Clover reiterates but also to a degree challenges those interpretations in her seminal Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992); Clover agrees with arguments about the “final girl,” but makes the case that by asking viewers to identify with this female character, the films are indeed pushing our communal perspectives on gender in provocative new directions.
It’s important to add, however, that whether conventional slasher films are reiterating or challenging traditional moralities, they’re certainly not prioritizing those moral purposes—jump scares and gory deaths are much higher on the list of priorities. On the other hand, one of the most successful and influential horror series of the last decade, the Saw films (which began with 2004’s Saw and continued annually through the 7th and supposedly final installment, 2010’s Saw 3D), has made its world’s and killer’s moral philosophy and objectives central to the series’ purposes. The films’ villain, John Kramer, generally known only as Jigsaw, has been called a “deranged philanthropist,” as his puzzles and tortures are generally designed to test, alter, and ultimately strengthen his victims’ identities and beliefs (if they survive, of course). That is, not only is it possible to find moral messages in both the films and which characters do and do not survive in them, but deciphering and living up to that morality becomes the means by which those characters can survive their tortures.
That’s the films and the characters—but what about the audience? It’s long been assumed (and I would generally agree) that audiences look to horror films not only to be scared (a universal human desire) but also to enjoy the unique and gory deaths (a more troubling argument, but again one I would generally support). So it’d be fair, and important, to ask whether that remains the case for Saw’s audiences—whether, that is, they’re in fact rooting not for characters to survive and grow, but instead to fail and be killed in Jigsaw’s inventive ways. And if most or even many of them are, whether that response—and its contribution to the series’ popularity and box office success and thus its ability to continue across seven years and movies—renders the films’ sense of morality irrelevant (it would certainly make it ironic at the very least). To put it bluntly: it seems to make a big difference whether we see the Saw films as distinct in the inventiveness of their tortures/deaths or the morality of their killer. As with any post and topic, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Next AmericanSpooking tomorrow,
PS. So what do you think? Other spooky films (or scary texts in other genres) you'd highlight?


  1. Serious horror film scholar Lito Velasco posted this extended thought on Facebook, so I wanted to share it here (in a couple chunks!):

    "SAW was one of the most enjoyable horror films of the last decade. The concept was unique, the horror felt gritty and real, and the twist ending was shocking. The sequels did their best to live up to the legacy and precedent and pattern set by the original- some of them more successfully than the others -and I always eagerly anticipated each film.

    When I sit back and think about WHY...I realize it's a combination of things that Ben touched upon. I love the message John Kramer tries to convey: to appreciate life and live to our fullest potential. I may not like the way he's delivering the message, but I appreciate that there's something there of a method to his madness, sort of like the killer in SEVEN (although even Kramer held onto more hope than Kevin Spacey's character).

    Yes, the gruesome puzzles were an attraction for horror fans like myself. But I always found myself rooting desperately for the lead character in each film: whoever was the focal target of each elaborate scheme laid out by Kramer and his minions. I hoped that they would find a way out, live to see and cherish another day, and not have to suffer too greatly along the way to that freedom and love.

    Of course, I also knew better. Oh yes, there was always blood.

    The lead target would find themselves having to make a horrible choice in order to survive: their life...or someone else's. Or, even worse, they would have to choose to end the life of one of two people: forced to play surrogate judge regarding the lives of people who quite often were not reprehensible or vile and whose worst offenses were understandable and mostly forgivable. One of them would have to die for merely being human and in the wrong place at the wrong time."

  2. More Lito:

    "The most enjoyable entries revolved around a plot that questioned our society in general: our values, status quo, and system. My favorite entry after the original is SAW VI because of the plot that revolves around the supposed broken American health care system. I was instantly hooked because the plot examined a subject every adult can relate to and a headline that was, especially at that time, an everyday occurrence. The plot told me that these films weren't written "just for" teens. The series wanted to aspire to more than that: to be for viewers of all ages (17 and up, anyway), more clever, and to engage as well as gross out and entertain.

    Finally, I have to sit back and think very carefully about the idea of the audience rooting for the villain mastermind, John Kramer.

    Did I empathize with Kramer? Of course. He was, at one point, a successful, brilliant married man with a family on the way. Then fate struck him a cruel blow and his life dissolved as quickly as his health deteriorated. He lost it all. And because he was unable to cope...he lost so much more than just his money and health. He lost his family, his wife, and love. So he began to lose hope.

    But not entirely.

    It's easy to empathize with John Kramer. But it's difficult to side with Jigsaw, his alter ego. I never wanted to see the people trapped in his schemes suffer. I wanted them to find a way out, redemption and, possibly through their actions, help Jigsaw escape his own personal trap so he could find John Kramer again.

    But it was not to be. The finale showed us that from John had been working with Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes). And while I was thrilled to learn that Gordon survived, part of me was sad to learn that he had become an accomplice to Jigsaw. Until, of course, I discovered that Gordon was protecting Kramer's former wife, Jill, from the loathsome Hoffman, Kramer's former protégé.

    But even then, despite Gordon's efforts to do good, he lost most of his humanity in the same way Kramer did. He was reborn with malice in his appreciation. He, like Kramer, became a darker version of himself who, while trying to teach others, lost sight of the purity of the message he wanted to teach. If their actions conveyed their understanding of their message, then perhaps Kramer and Gordon never understood the message to begin with."