A Lust for Vengeance

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or, the God of the Old Testament is Making Movies

I don’t think you’ll find a lot of evangelical Christians at the new horror hit Saw, but they’d love the film’s morality.

The moral message of the movie is that through suffering, vengeance, torture, and murder, society’s wayward and immoral can be redeemed and once again made members of a more wholesome community.

It’s like the Old Testament God, or his self-appointed agents here on Earth, is making horror movies.

Saw puts forward a story in which a madman kidnaps people with “moral failings” (drug addicts, adulterers, potential suicides, liars) and causes them to torture and kill each other to cleanse themselves of their sins.

The madman, nicknamed The Jigsaw, does these things to the morally lost in order to shock them into realizing the value of their lives, to give them a sense of the true preciousness of the things they have. Of course, he does this in the most medieval, horrific ways possible: a contraption attached to a drug addict’s jaw that will tear her head apart unless she disembowels a man and frees herself with a key locked away in his stomach; a would-be adulterer who has lost emotional touch with his family is chained in a room and psychologically destroyed until he is willing to cut off his own foot in order to return to his family.

And each tortured soul, the movie shows us, is better for this barbarism.

The drug addict, the first abductee who we see survive, is grateful to the Jigsaw, says that he helped her.

The would-be adulterer, at the end of his ordeal, realizes that his family means more to him than anything else and acts to save them.

Getting an addict off drugs and returning an emotionally estranged man to a tight connection with his family are certainly goals most any of us can endorse. It’s just the methods, harsh and barbaric, that seem questionable.

Not that the movie actually questions the Jigsaw’s methods.

Instead, we’re treated to his ingenious schemes, his rapier intellect, his macabre life lessons. And, true to the form of many of these boogeyman films (think anything starring a Freddy, a Jason, a Michael, a Chucky), the Jigsaw is the true hero of the film, the Jigsaw is the character that a large part of the audience is meant to identify with (even if it’s a secret, perhaps guilty, identification). After all, it’s the killers from these movies who get action figures, posters, Halloween costumes. We don’t see the ostensible heroes of these films anywhere after their blood is spilled.

Saw is a film possessed of the notion of righteous vengeance, of the idea that suffering, even the most barbaric, senseless violence enacted on “deserving” victims by an unseen hand, is morally useful and redemptive.

Sounds like the God of the Old Testament to me. The God that sent the flood to destroy a mankind that no longer pleased him. The God that tortured Job to test his faith. This is not the New Testament God of unconditional forgiveness and everlasting love. The Old Testament God, and the God who animates Saw, is a God of vengeance.

(And if the Jigsaw isn’t a stand-in for God in this film, what is he? He is an unseen hand orchestrating the action, an incomprehensible force that is remote to all but a handful of characters. He is the animating force, the wind that tosses the characters across the sea of their lives. He is God.)

It’s no accident that we’re seeing, and will continue to see, more films like this. I don’t mean to say that the filmmakers subscribe to this version of morality, but it’s in the zeitgeist and it’s coming out in our movies.

America is becoming less tolerant, not moreso, more concerned with punishment than rehabilitation. We are more interested as a country with imposing morality than we have been in many decades. And it’s only getting worse.

We can expect more movies with this unloving, judgmental, illiberal (and that’s not politics, that’s the classical, Enlightenment-based liberal tradition on which our country, and all democracies, was founded), angry morality.

And though they won’t be in the theaters, and will perhaps decry the violence and bloodshed of these movies, those who wish to see the “wicked” punished and the “impious” get what they think they have coming, will be thrilled.

Is it any wonder why people say horror is a conservative genre?

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