The Philosophy of Saw – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Saw!
Written by: Amanda Scherker
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Robert Tiemstra
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Saw – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared again. Today, we’re talking about an insanely popular Halloween horror series guaranteed to make you barf up all your candy corn. No, not “The Emoji Movie.” We’re talking “Saw.” Since 2004, the torture-porny franchise has been locking up morally-dubious characters in all kinds of gruesome, steel contraptions and inventing creative, new places to hide the keys. “It’s right before your eyes.”
The creepy puppet-master of the Saw franchise is Jigsaw, and boy, does he loves playing games! And by playing games, we mean locking unconscious people inside dank warehouses and giving them 60 seconds to choose between certain death, self-mutilation, or, if they’re lucky, disemboweling a stranger.
When people talk about “Saw,” they tend to focus on Jigsaw’s impressive body count. But just as you can pick through a pit of heroin syringes to find the hidden key, you can sift through this villain’s deadly traps to find the grander meaning of his games. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Saw. And, as always: spoilers ahead
The Philosophy of Saw all comes down to Jigsaw’s motivation: his torturous games are opportunities for his victims to repent for their sins and ostensibly, to transform into better human beings. If they survive his tests, (and the odds are not quite ever in their favor), he believes that they’ll emerge with a newfound ability to appreciate life. “Most people are so ungrateful to be alive. But not you.” So basically, if Tony Robbins had a baby with Satan.
In a sense, Jigsaw embodies a kind of extremist Christian morality, but before we get there, we first need to get in the headspace of John Kramer, alias, the Jigsaw Killer. Once upon a time, John was a perfectly nice civil engineer who loved hanging out with his pregnant wife, Jill, who owned a drug rehab clinic.
Then, one of Jill’s tweaked-out patients, Cecil Adams, robs her clinic, accidentally injuring Jill in the process. She suffers a miscarriage, and John falls into a deep depression. A short while after, he’s diagnosed with a brain tumor and terminal cancer. He plummets further into depression, and his relationship with Jill quickly deteriorates. “Let’s review. Girl loves boy, boy loves girl. Boy gets girl pregnant, girl loses baby… Boy turns into a serial killer.” And instead of joining Tinder or something, Jill continues to entangle herself in her boo’s drama.
After an all-around sh*t year, John tries to kill himself by driving off a cliff. Miraculously, he survives the crash and emerges, totally sure of his new calling: dispensing morality, one torture device at a time. “It was the moment I decided to end my life that started me in my work and brought meaning to it. And I was determined to spend the rest of my days testing the fabric of human nature.”
As John cooked up a fresh code of morality to match his new mission in life, he seems to have been inspired by an unlikely source: early Christian philosophy. Specifically, its views on suffering. According to Early Christian tradition, God is good, and everything he created is good. And nobody really questioned that until one day, an Early Christian stubbed his toe and discovered suffering and was like, “This sucks! WTF, GOD!”
Once a bunch of Christian theologians started stubbing their toes, they realized that they needed to rationalize how an all-good God could have created such suffering. They theorized that suffering had to be the fault of no-good, lousy humans. Here’s what they figured: When Adam ate that apple from the Tree of Knowledge, thus committing the Original Sin, he separated dumb, evil humans from the pure, perfect God, who apparently doesn’t like it when humans eat a fresh, healthy snack. From then on, sinful humans would need to suffer and repent if they wanted to be reunited with God. Suffering then, is the result of our own sins, and an expression of the pain we feel over our separation from God. In this way, traditional Christianity justified suffering as the fault of the sinner, not of God. Crisis averted!
Similarly, Jigsaw thinks his victims deserve the suffering that they endure in his traps. He helpfully reminds each victim of the sins they’ve committed to get there, and he doesn’t hold back. “For years you have burned those around you with your lies, cons, and deceits.” As Jigsaw sees it, his victims are enslaved by their past immorality, not his industrial-strength torture devices — much like theologians believed humanity has been trapped by Adam and Eve’s original sin.
Fittingly, the Saw series has a few Adams of its own: In Saw IV, we learn that drug addict Cecil Adams is responsible for Jill’s miscarriage. His original sin is a catalyst for John’s transformation into Jigsaw. Additionally, in the first film, Adam Stanheight, a photographer who spends his days spying on people, becomes one of Jigsaw’s targets. His professional quest for seedy “knowledge” mirrors that of Adam’s desire to eat from the Tree.
So Kramer’s view on human suffering shares a similar origin story to that of Early Christians, which, hey, could mean that watching a “Saw” movie qualifies as attending church. However, John Kramer also shares a common thread with Christian theorist and father of Existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, who sees suffering as a critical part of personal and spiritual growth.
For context: much like Kramer, Kierkegaard had his share of sh*tty luck. He had a lifelong physical deformity, watched his mother, brothers and sisters die at a young age, and became totally convinced that he was going to die at age 33. Like Kramer he also broke up with the love of his life, his then-fiancee Regine, yet continued to pine after her for the rest of his days.
Basically, the two of them could have shared stories over whiskey.
They also both believed that suffering purifies the sufferer, teaches them to appreciate life, and forces them to take responsibility for their actions.
You might prefer your life without a generous dose of suffering, but hear the guy out: Kierkegaard believed that an individual must pass through three distinct phases to become his or her “true self:” First: ”The aesthetic,” driven by sensual pleasures and lacking any morality; Second; “the ethical,” driven by morality and belief in individual responsibility, and third; “the religious,” driven by faith in God.
So, how do you go from being a lowly drunk “aesthete,” to an upstanding, “ethical” guy? You could always try out one of Jigsaw’s torture machines! That’s right: according to Kierkegaard, suffering is key to moving up to the next stage of human development. Kierkegaard was mostly talking about spiritual and existential suffering, not being caught in a torture device, or worse, having people spoil “Game of Thrones.” Still, Jigsaw’s machines can be understood as a test for each of his victims, who are typically aesthetes driven by desires for sex, drugs, or money. His tests present his victims, with an ethical quandary that usually forces them to make a painful decision. This matches the way Kierkegaard explains the journey from aesthetic to ethical being: “First . . . the [ethical life] makes the sufferer suffer even more than before . . . [drawing him] out of the frying pan and into the fire so that he really has something to scream about—and only then does it help him.”
But how exactly does suffering help you become more ethical? According to Kierkegaard, suffering forces a human to reflect on their situation, if only to think, “Oh, f**k this sucks.” That moment of reflection summons “the first doubt,” which Kierkegaard describes as the thought, “Why is this happening to me; can it not be otherwise?” Or to put it more simply: “What the f**k is going on? Where am I?” “What is this?” “What is this?” “What the f**k?!” That little WTF? moment generates the immediate desire to change your circumstance. “Help!” “Help!” “Help!” This desire opens a person up to what Kierkegaard calls “ethical self-understanding.” Suffering is growth-inducing because it “turn[s] the single individual over to himself completely.” At its most successful, this suffering can force a person to repent for past sins, take responsibility for his guilt, and choose to seek his own survival. But more on that later.
As you progress up the ladder of development, a piece of your old, “false self,” dies, much like the old Taylor Swift. “The old Taylor can’t come to phone right now… ‘Cause she’s dead!” Judging from his own interpretation of his car crash, John Kramer agrees: “A different person crawled out through the wreckage.”
For Kierkegaard, the ultimate goal of spiritual suffering is to completely kill off your flawed, false self in order to make room for your recreation into a better, truer self. Kramer demands this of his most fervent follower, Amanda, when she agrees to live by his ethical code. “You will give everything to me. Every cell in your body. Is that understood?” “Yes.” “You leave that life behind. When you go down that corridor, there is no turning back, do you understand that?” Amanda sits in a prayer-like position, listening deeply. Die-hard Saw fans call this scene “Amanda’s baptism,” which is fitting when you consider how baptism relates to suffering.
Just as Jesus rose from the dead to redeem humanity, human beings are baptised and reborn, “spiritually cleansed.” Christian tradition also see suffering as a mechanism for “spiritual cleansing.” Jigsaw frequently references this concept of rebirth, whether he’s chatting with his favorite disciple — “Do not be afraid. Your life has just begun.” – or welcoming a new victim into one of his traps — “Welcome to your rebirth. Tonight, I give you the opportunity to face your obsession.” Jigsaw even loses his “kidnapping” virginity during a literal celebration of rebirth: The Chinese New Year celebration. Because it’s the year of the Pig, Kramer even picks up his sweet trademark pig mask at the event.
Kierkegaard and Jigsaw have a few other important ideas in common. Specifically, they both value personal responsibility. Kierkegaard writes that the first indispensable step of becoming “a real man” isn’t getting strange new body hair, but by becoming a “responsible individual before God.” Kramer demands the same from his victims: “You can’t help them. They have to help themselves.”
And what’s the key to taking responsibility? Making a choice. Kramer spurs his victims into life-affirming action. “Seems to me that the knowledge of your son’s impending death is causing you to act, to forgive all his sins, to wipe the slate clean. Why is it that we’re only willing to do that when a life is at stake?” In the moment of making a choice, Kierkegaard believed, a man “becomes himself.” Similarly, Kramer is adamant that his victims “choose” their actions, even ending each of his games with this yoda-like refrain: “Live or die. Make your choice. Live or die. Make your choice.” “The choice is yours!” He also maintains that the individual is responsible for the outcome of their decision within the confines of his game. “I’ve never murdered anyone in my life. The decisions are up to them.”
While many horror films offer an ultimate salvation — “You’re dead, Krueger!” — Saw does not offer any kind of hope for a better tomorrow. Instead, it seems to critique this extreme version of traditional Christian morality. Throughout the series, Kramer is positioned as a god-like figure, monk, or even martyr. He dresses in a long, black hooded cape, acquires flocks of disciples, performs “baptisms.” He also maintains a quality of omniscience — he’s always watching his victims through camera monitors or peepholes. So, Jigsaw may be a God-like figure, but he’s a seriously failed one — his attempt to establish a moral order does not bring about the meaningful change that Kramer professes it will. For starters, most of his victims fail their tests — they crumble under pressure, or can’t withstand the pain. Those who do pass are frequently traumatized. “Bunch of bullsh*t! You wanna know the best thing that happened to me after having to cut off my own arm? It’s handicapped parking at the damn mall!”
Further revealing the full extent of Jigsaw’s failure is his ill-fated quest for the right apprentice. Each of his contenders twist his philosophy. While Jigsaw creates games that are truly winnable — if you follow the rules, you can choose to preserve your life — as long as you’re willing to part with, say, your left arm. His mentees, on the other hand, create rigged games that are unwinnable death traps. “If the aim of Jigsaw’s game was to get out before the bomb went off, then why was the door welded shut?” His disciples just use the games to get revenge on people they don’t like. Eventually, they all end up trapping and killing one another out of jealousy. To them, the point of the games is punishment, rather than renewal. So much for Jigsaw’s legacy.
The characters in the Saw films frequently remind the audience that this is a seriously flawed moral code. “You said you wanted to talk. Then, you said you wanted to play a game. You’re talking, but it means nothing!” Just before her death, Amanda denounces him: “Nobody f**king changes. Nobody is reborn. It’s all bullsh*t.”
Lastly, because Jigsaw is presented as a God-like figure, you would expect that his justice be dispensed fairly – but it’s not. He’s the villain of the series, and his morality lessons frequently sacrifice innocent human lives. Similarly, you’d expect his death to result in salvation or redemption, but instead, he dies after offering one of his victims, Jeff, the opportunity to forgive him. Instead, Jeff violently kills Kramer. Even Kramer’s own death is the result of one of his test’s ultimate failures. And he didn’t even get to eat a tasty, delicious apple.
So much for finding spiritual rebirth in a reverse bear trap! Still, plenty of us seem to find value in less intensive experiences of suffering — just look at marathon runners or competitive hot dog eaters! So when it comes to self-improvement, is it “no pain, no gain”? Or will human suffering be eliminated once we invent the perfect, dual-purpose food delivery and TV-streaming app? Let us know what you think in the comments! Thanks for watching, guys. Peace.