SAW and the spectre of 9/11 in contemporary horror

Hello, America, I want to play a game.

                                                                                     -Tagline, SAW III

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

                                                                                  H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature


If we examine American horror films from the 1950s leading up to the present day, we can see that, broadly speaking, decade by decade the fears which they exploit in their audiences have an undeniable root in the contemporary socio-political fears of the American populous at large. The 1950s saw a spate of so-called B-grade horror films which terrified people with their strong undercurrents of Cold War paranoia (with a particular focus on invasion by ‘the other’), such as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Donovan’s Brain (1953) and, most notably, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

The 1960s, on the other hand, saw a transition of focus from the Cold War to the more domestic issues of distrust of the establishment, the changing face of the American way of life and a condemnation of the Vietnam War with City of the Dead (1960), The Birds (1963) and Night of the Living Dead (1969).

The 1970s saw the Vietnam conflict taking a back seat to its indirect consequences for a broken, confused America, and growing recognition of the disintegration of the American family unit, typified by Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). Fears of moral bankruptcy, increasingly obvious examples of corporate greed and the AIDS epidemic heralded the arrival of the 1980s, and saw the releases of fantastical body-horror flicks like The Fly (1986), A Nightmare on Elm St (1984) and The Thing (1982).

These fears of ‘the enemy within’ reached a fever pitch in the mid-‘90s with a spate of films dealing with the threat of the enemy within, many of which have a clear resonance with domestic terrorism (both the Unabomber, who maimed and murdered fellow Americans from 1978 up until his arrest in early 1996, and Timothy McVeigh, whose attack in Oklahoma City took place in 1995, being prime examples) and the apparently rising incidence and reportage of attacks by pedophiles and serial killers: Se7en (1995), The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Urban Legend (1998), at a glance. The question posed by this essay is, in fact, what are the definitive American fears for this decade that horror films either are, or should be, exploiting? It is the contention of this essay that this decade’s primal moment of fear, ingrained in the American (and Western) consciousness, was and remains the destruction of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. This essay will examine the SAW franchise and go on to propose that it is clearly the best example of post-9/11 horror.

Invariably, the question when examining the subtext of horror films and fiction (or any creative work for that matter) is one of whether we can reliably know if such subtext was deliberate or even present at all. In his lengthy critique of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Steven King notes that within society, at any given time, there exist “phobic pressure points” which tap into the collective fears of the society (19). As we can see from the cases above, while we cannot say with certainty that each of the writers and directors involved in the above films made a conscious effort to exploit these “phobic pressure points” deliberately, they are not separate from or invulnerable to these fears themselves.

Furthermore, there are many other films which do not have any resonance with these “phobic pressure points”, but it can easily be argued that those which are commercially successful are those which exploit these “phobic pressure points” and thus, in the case of horror, scare their audience more effectively (which seems to be what horror fans look for in a film). It is the secondary contention then of this essay that it is irrelevant whether it was the intention of the creators of the SAW franchise to create a series which had a strong resonance with 9/11 and the war on terror, because (like their audience) they’re every bit as fearful of the dangers of domestic and international terrorism. We must understand that the people who make these films are just that: people. They’re not directly in control of everything that manifests itself in their work because they are every bit the victims of their secretive and subversive subconsciouses as the rest of us. Because these are the predominant fears of our time it is inevitable that the films that we find the most frightening will tap into those fears.

To understand the link between America’s pervasive fears of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and the SAW franchise, we must understand that for Jigsaw/John, his work is purely ideological. We discover in SAW (2004) that John (John and Jigsaw will be used interchangeably from this point on), is a terminal cancer patient. In SAW IV (2007) we learn that John attempted to commit suicide by driving his car into a tree. He is not killed instantly, but is impaled on wicked spike of metal. John knows that if he does not remove the spike and get help he will die. As far as John is concerned, the universe is giving him a choice between slow but certain death or a new, empowered existence in which he has met and conquered his demons, in effect; God has put John in a trap room and given him an ultimatum. Surviving the car crash is a rebirth for John who discovers a newfound lust for life and, with this newfound enthusiasm, he wishes to bring this path of enlightenment to members of the general public. In SAW IV (2007) John explains to his wife that “You can’t help people, they have to help themselves” and in SAW V (2008) John tells Detective Hoffman “I abhor violence” and “I’ve never killed anybody”.

For John, the rooms which he places people in are not execution chambers, they are an opportunity for “rehabilitation” (SAW V, 2008), to fix a fundamental flaw in his victims’ thinking and lifestyles.  This explicitly mirrors the rift between American culture and Islamic fundamentalism (or any fundamentalism, for that matter) and the manner in which Islamic fundamentalist terrorism seeks to make its point. There is an ideological objection to a person (or people’s) way of life.

The terrorist agenda and Jigsaw’s agenda share the basic tenet that the people of the world have got it wrong. The atrocities carried out are enacted because the victims didn’t live up to the unrealistic standards held by the perpetrators of such atrocities. The victims are not bad people; they’re just different from an ideal set out by their attackers, and difference is unacceptable. This is at the core of what we find so terrifying about both Islamic terrorism and the SAW franchise. The people at stake in these conflicts are not professional soldiers, they’re private citizens. Both are terrors which can strike from nowhere and attack our friends, families and other members of our community.  In effect, any one of us could be a victim.

This is most explicitly explored in SAW IV (2007), in which Rigg, a SWAT team lieutenant, is forced to play a game, not in a room, but in the real world. His game takes him across the entire city, and he is forced to participate in the torture (or ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘conversion’ if we take the view of Jigsaw) of six private citizens. This is one of the elements in the series in which the potent parallels with terrorism are painfully clear. We are told that, now that this threat has been unleashed on the world, any one of us could be victims. This is emphasized in the opening sequence of SAW IV (2007), featuring the two men chained together in a room. We know nothing about these two characters from the beginning of this scene. We have no idea what they did to get there and there’s no reason to believe that it couldn’t be us in that room, because we’ve seen no evidence to suggest that these two men have done anything wrong. This notion that this terror could visit and happen to any of us is a pervasive theme in SAW IV, much of which focuses on Rigg playing out his game, not in a hermetically sealed torture room, but in the outside world. In effect, by the fourth installment of the series the terror, too, is out, in the real world, and any of us could be a potential target.

This fear of an invisible, pervasive threat is mirrored by the fear that any person could be a potential recruit or member of Jigsaw’s cause. Jigsaw’s trap rooms are always accompanied with veiled (or, sometimes, quite blunt) messages, encouraging people to join him. In SAW (2004), Amanda’s trap room has the words “If you try to keep your life for yourself you will lose it. But if you give up your life to me you will find true life” are scrawled on the wall. This is a direct Bible quote from Matthew 16:25 and further cements the ideological link between the conversion techniques shared between Jigsaw and fundamentalism. SAW IV (2007), which entirely concerns itself with recruitment, features Jigsaw imploring Rigg, his recruit, to “see what I see”, “feel what I feel”, “judge as I judge” and “save as I save”. This has a twofold significance for our purposes.

First of all, every victim is a potential recruit and, those who survive their encounters with Jigsaw are always converted to his philosophy, those who cannot see Jigsaw’s point of view invariably die and thus, a form of natural selection occurs amongst Jigsaw’s recruits. Those receptive to his message survive and join him, those who are not simply die. Secondly, the victims of violence in these films become perpetrators of violence. Sometimes, it’s not even necessary that Jigsaw convert his victims to make them perpetrators of violence, often he simply makes it one of the conditions of their ‘game’.  In SAW IV (2007), for instance, Brenda is trapped in a room in which she is instructed that if a man comes to help her, she must kill him (which is in turn a part of Rigg’s game which is attempting to teach him not to help people, and rather to let people help themselves).

The ultimate message here is that the only outcome we can expect from such ideological battles is perpetual violence and destruction. John himself holds a perverted set of Christian notions of redemption. Rather than actually offering people redemption through counseling and prayer, he simply uses notions of wickedness and redemption as a further justification of his desire to make people suffer. In SAW III (2006) we are shown, through Amanda, that even by the second generation of Jigsaw’s recruits his perverted ideology has devolved into one of personal revenge and vendetta. Amanda begins to create trap-rooms from which there is no escape or redemption. She has no real understanding of Jigsaw’s ideology and merely uses it as an excuse to settle personal scores. For Amanda, Jigsaw presents an opportunity to punish the world, not save it. In an exchange with John in SAW IV (2007) Amanda counters John’s philosophy by announcing that “no one ever changes” as a justification for her inescapable traps. This is truly one of the most insightful statements that the series has to offer on the darker side of fundamentalism: so often it can devolve from salvation to simple murder.

This is explicitly reinforced in SAW IV (2007) when detectives are examining the grisly classroom in which Morgan and her abusive husband, Rex, were skewered together with sharpened spikes. A crime scene photographer is skewered (and apparently killed) by a flying stave set loose from the apparatus that was presumably used by Jigsaw to bind Morgan and Rex together. This crime scene photographer is a complete innocent, entirely separate from Rigg, Morgan and Rex but who is nonetheless killed as a result of simply being in the vicinity of Jigsaw’s work. This collateral damage that occurs as a byproduct of Jigsaw’s attempts at salvation is pragmatically no different from the collateral damage incurred as a result of a suicide bomber walking into a café on the Gaza strip. Once the threat is invisible but nonetheless present in the real world, innocents die.

In conclusion, we can see from these examples that, like with each previous decade, our society has evolved its own set of highly specific fears, insecurities and phobic pressure points. As a result, the filmmakers of this generation are exploiting and directly tackling these fears, as historically is their role. Whether this is a conscious effort or not is irrelevant, the simple fact is that the fear of an invisible potential for violence has ingrained itself in the public consciousness ever since the 9/11 attacks. The SAW franchise, like many horror films before it, succeeds because it recognizes and exploits the fears which have been generated by these attacks. Combining notions of powerlessness, invisible foes, ideological war and bodily apocalypse these films attack us where we live, much like the terrorism that we have come to fear.

Works Cited

The Birds. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren. DVD. 2000.

The Blair Witch Project. Dir. Eduardo Sánchez (II) and Daniel Myrick. Perf. Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard. DVD. 1999.

City of the Dead. Dir. John L. Moxey. Perf. Dennis Lotis and Christopher Lee. DVD. 2001.

Dawn of the Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Ted Bank and Tony Buba. DVD. 2004.

Donovan’s Brain. Dir. Felix E. Fiest. Perf. Lew Ayres and Gene Evans. DVD. 2001.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Dir. Fred F. Sears. Perf. Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor. DVD. 2002.

The Fly. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perf. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. DVD. 2005.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dir. Don Seigal. Perf. Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. DVD. 1998.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dir. Don Seigal. Perf. Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. DVD. 2008.

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Warner Books, 1993.

Last House on the Left. Dir. Wes Craven. Perf. Sandra Cassel and Lucy Grantham. DVD. 2002.

Lovecraft, H. P. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature. Ed. S. T. Joshi. New York: Hippocampus P, 2000.

Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Bill ‘Chilly Billy’ Cardille and Charles Craig (II). DVD. 1999.

A Nightmare on Elm Street. Dir. Wes Craven. Perf. John Saxon and Ronee Blakley. DVD. 2006.

SAW. Dir. James Wan. Perf. Leigh Whannell and Cary Elwes. DVD. 2005.

SAW II. Dir. Darren L. Bousman. Perf. Donnie Wahlberg and Beverley Mitchell. DVD. 2006.

SAW III. Dir. Darren L. Bousman. Perf. Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith. DVD. 2007.

SAW IV. Dir. Darren L. Bousman. Perf. Tobin Bell and Costas Mandylor. DVD. 2008.

SAW V. Dir. David Hackl. Perf. Tobin Bell and Costas Mandylor. Film. 2008.

Se7en. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. DVD. 2000.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Dir. Tobe Hooper. Perf. Marilyn Burns and Allen Danziger. DVD. 2003.

The Thing. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley. DVD. 2004.

Urban Legend. Dir. Jamie Blanks. Perf. Jared Leto and Alicia Witt. DVD. 1999. 


~ by Morgan on November 6, 2008.

2 Responses to “SAW and the spectre of 9/11 in contemporary horror”

  1. heya morgan,
    nice paper, have watched the saw chronology since your recommendation and I think you’re right, super intricate psychological dimensions and cultural implications.
    still hanging for the dark city graphic-novel details.
    hope the holidays are serving you well, keep the essays coming
    dig it

  2. Hey, excellent article, though Saw 3 is the best of the group 😛

    Your writing style is exactly what I’m looking for for a website I’m attempting to get off the ground. Drop me a line at if interested.

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