In the first installment of The Horror Essay Series, I will focus on Saw I. I will warn you, there may be spoilers, so you might want to watch the movie first! If not, read at your own peril.
If I do decide to add/edit these essays for print publication, I will add more references and footnotes. But the information in this essay is the compilation of my observation/knowledge of the movie and what I've learned about myth, psychology, archetypes, and symbols over the course of my life. This is my own thoughts and feelings. If you would like to share it, great! But please give credit where it is due. And now to the essay...
There are many themes running through Saw I, but I think there are two main themes: life and sacrifice. They figure into every "game" and every character encounters them in some form. It is that bond that links their games together into one complete story.
Sacrifice is an ancient idea. It comes from the Latin words sacer and facere. Sacer means to set apart something from the secular. Facere means to make. So, the ancient definition of sacrifice is an action makes something holy by setting it apart. A more modern and appropriate definition is this - a sacrifice is when we give away something valuable, so that something even more valuable may be gained. It is gesture that usually requires a part of ourselves. In the games, Jigsaw requires the players to sacrifice something important and necessary (usually flesh and blood) in order to save their life (the most valuable prize of all).
Jigsaw chooses his victims from the people he knows and observes. He is the omnipotent watcher, who can see into the minds and hearts of others. He is knowledgeable about human nature. Jigsaw, as a detached party, sees how and where his victims have gone wrong in their lives. He is Judgment personified. Judgment is different than just being a judge, jury, and executioner. Judgment is a force, that holds all people must be held accountable for their lives. They then reap the benefits of their actions or be tested in order to prove they deserve their life. The games/punishments that Jigsaw meters out as Judgment are often related to the player's sins and crimes. However, they are not always fair and widely vary in their severity. It is important to note that Jigsaw doesn't see the players as victims, but rather participants. The rules are often wide enough to allow people to make their own decisions regarding their behaviors and reactions to the games.
In the main game of Saw I, the Bathroom Trap, we find that Jigsaw has found that both Adam and Dr Gordon need to be tested. Adam is found to be guilty of “simply (sitting) in the shadows, watching others live out their lives." Jigsaw asks: "But what do voyeurs see when they look into the mirror? Now, I see you as a strange mix of someone angry and yet apathetic. But mostly just pathetic.” Adam isn't truly alive to Jigsaw because rather than actually living, experiencing, and enjoying his life, he watches others. Adam must survive and through that learn to appreciate his life and opportunities he has. Dr. Gordon's flaws are just as repelent to Jigsaw. In various scenes and montages, we see Lawrence being cold and clinical with patients, rude and dismissive of co-workers who he thinks are beneath him, choosing work over his daughter, and cheating on his wife. Lawrence must sacrifice his moral, ethical, and professional ethics and identity to kill Adam. The act of murder is the opposite of what he has sworn to do as a doctor. But he must do it or else lose his family. Here, the goal is to not only win the game, but also find a way out, since they are both locked in place by thick chains which they do not have the keys to.
For another example, in the Razor Wire Trap, we discover that Paul, the player, was recently hospitalized for attempting to commit suicide by cutting his wrists. Jigsaw sees him as unworthy of the full life that he has. So, as Judgment, he challenges Paul to show him that is he worthy and grateful for the blessings of this life. He requests Paul to cut himself over and over, giving a sacrifice of blood, to escape the maze set in front of him and to stay alive. Jigsaw comments on the tape for this trap: “Hello Paul. You are a perfectly, healthy, sane, middle-class male. Yet last month, you ran a straight razor across your wrists. Did you cut yourself because you truly wanted to die, or did you just want some attention? Tonight, you’ll show me. The irony is that if you want to die, you just have to stay where you are. But if you want to live, you’ll have to cut yourself again. Find the path through the razor wire to the door. But hurry. At 3:00 that door will lock and then this room becomes your tomb. How much blood will you shed to stay alive, Paul?” However, Paul is unable to make it through the maze in time and dies. He is cut so deeply that stomach acid is found mixed with the blood, but this is not enough. He dies by blood loss.
Interestingly, the real survivors of Jigsaw's games are all women. Amanda, Alison Gordon, and Diana Gordon win their games by fighting and making the necessary sacrifices to appease Judgment/Jigsaw. They prove that the games are winnable. The main male characters are killed or left to die: Zep, Dr. Gordon, Adam, Tapp, Sing, Paul, and Mark because they can't, don't, or won't make the proper sacrifices in time. However, the women all do and survive. I think this comments on how women are seen as more likely to give a sacrifice than men are.
It's almost as if the female characters are more willing and better able to survive adversity. The women survivors are fighters and rebel against the men who victimize them. Allison and Diana fight back against Zep, so they can escape. They sacrifice safety and possibly their lives, by challenging their armed kidnapper. They could have waited and hoped to be saved, but rather showed that they value their lives by becoming their own saviors. Amanda kills the man in the room in order to get the key that frees her from the trap that would have torn apart mouth/head and killed her. She doesn't want to kill someone else, but realizes that she has no choice and must do it. As a drug addict, she spends most of her time in a daze or looking for a fix, avoiding problems and strife. But in order to survive her game, she must give ignorance and passivity away and act. She does take control and in turn, saves her own life.
Saw I is a modern morality play and cautionary tale. The lessons we are supposed to learn from it center around its two major themes - life and sacrifice. We learn that if we don't cherish our lives or honor our blessings, we will be brought to Judgment and tested in order to prove our worth. We must face the reality of our actions and their consequences, and try to make amends. The price we will pay is high. And in Saw, the thing we must sacrifice is often a literal a piece of ourselves, namely our own flesh and blood.
Some symbolism in Saw:
The players are chained to pipes on opposite walls, with no apparent way to get free in a grimy, dirty bathroom (most Jigsaw game locations are like this). Bathrooms are places where we get rid of things, like dirt and human waste. This a clue that a sacrifice is going to be necessary to live. Most bathrooms are clean, but this one is not. So, it signals a perversion of that the meaning. So, we know the sacrifice is going to be a terrible one.
The only thing clean and new in the bathroom is a clock high on the wall. The fact that the clock is new and clean highlights the lack of power that we have over it. It is untainted and above our understanding. Time factors in most of Jigsaw's games and this game is no different. The players are given very little time to react to their situations, most likely to force them into making choices. By shocking their consciousness, they are forced to make brutal sacrifices in the blink of an eye or else pay the ultimate price, death.
Also, pitting Adam against Dr Gordon is a sort of reenactment of the battle between age and experience and light against dark. Not only is it mirrored in their ages, education, and life experience, but also in their appearances, one has dark brown hair and eyes, the other light blond hair and blue eyes.
Another note about the survivor women. They are silenced until they fight back. Amanda's trap fits over the head and to her jaws, so she can't move them. Alison and Diana are gagged and while they are removed temporarily to talk with Lawrence on the phone, they are replaced. The gags are only fully removed when they fight back and escape. Interesting commentary on how women find their voices.
The cut jigsaw piece taken from each loser is like a brand, tattoo, or a scarlet letter. It marks those who fail to give the appropriate sacrifice and are missing, in Jigsaw's mind, the will and desire to live. It is a way to make internal flaws visible on the outside.
While Saw is the modern morality play, Saw III is the story of the hero's journey as put forth by Joseph Campbell and stands as a warning against the destructive power of vengeance.