Why do people enjoy the Saw movies?
June 20, 2014 2:05 PM   Subscribe

As a horror fan, I've never understood the appeal of the Saw movies. Can someone explain the psychology involved with liking that series and similar types of movies?

Blood and gore don't scare me, although realistic torture scenes do. I like horror. Gore is just human anatomy, nothing scary about that. I read autopsy reports. I've considered becoming a mortician. I used to study torture methods out of morbid curiosity and a lifelong hatred of man's inhumanity to man. Torture scenes, however, set me on edge. It's mostly the audio. The agonized screaming is too much. I've literally walked out of high school classes that forced us to watch religious videos involving graphic torture.

I used to have friends who practically worshipped the Saw series. The crueler the scenes, the better. There's a local horror film club who I abhor because 90% of their viewings are all pointless gorefests and/or clips like Io Sono Morta (I'm Dead) (Warning: Graphic torture scenes). In that clip you see a woman get her face bashed in with a brick, and that's not the most disturbing scene. When I went to their club, there'd be a scene of someone getting their fingernails pulled out and then their hands sawed off with a knife and when I looked around, everyone except me was watching raptly. I think I was the only one who couldn't watch. Again, the agonized screams set my teeth on edge. I asked a friend how he can watch that material and he said "It doesn't bother me." He had to explain that those movies are not, in fact, arousing to him, despite the fact that not even the Saw films would disturb him in the slightest.

So. Why do people enjoy the Saw movies, or any other films that have only enough plot to sustain creative (sometimes) torture and rape scenes? To me, the alleged cleverness of the traps in the movie isn't enough to overcome the disturbing similarities to watching a snuff film. The agony the actors are in is too realistic to the agony that actual murder victims and torture victims probably really do experience. I'd call it "torture porn", but maybe that's just me being cynical.

Any thoughts on why these films have a cult following?
posted by quiet earth to Grab Bag (40 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'd call it "torture porn", but maybe that's just me being cynical.

I'm not sure if everyone accepts it, but that's basically the semi-official term for the genre. I've read interviews with people involved in the Saw films -- they fascinate me, but I can't do torture porn on a gut level -- and I don't recall which sequel it was for, but the writer and/or director sent the producers some ideas he had for torture scenes that disgusted them so badly they knew the movie would be a hit.

Everything you describe in your last paragraph is exactly why people want to see these movies. I mean, it might not be to your taste, but you seem to have a very firm grasp as to why these particular kinds of horror movie are popular. They're transgressive, brutal, disgusting and all sorts of adjectives that are not as objective as you may think they are. People want to see these movies because, oftentimes, they want to see a fictionalized snuff film (or an expressionistic torture scenario or whatever).

And this sort of horror may be a genre that might be at a technical apex now, but it's been around longer than film itself, and a popular one at that: Grand Guignol theater was, oftentimes, a play of little to not redeeming merit that existed solely to showcase grotesque violence as realistically as possible.
posted by griphus at 2:22 PM on June 20, 2014 [10 favorites]

And as to the deeper "why": it's a question of individual psychology with no one answer. Five people sitting rapt watching a Saw film could be experiencing a gamut of emotions from purely intellectual fascination, to giddy delight, to (welcome) visceral disgust, to sexual arousal.
posted by griphus at 2:28 PM on June 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

I cannot even with those films, but I have a friend who loves them - to the point of being able to discuss them in depth from several critical perspectives - and true crime books/stories, and for her there's just a real satisfying adrenaline high in being frightened or made tense like that.

It's pretty much like rollercoasters as far as I can tell. Or jumping out of perfectly good airplanes.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:39 PM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't enjoy gory movies so I don't know if this is true, but I imagine it's the same thing as any desire to do something extreme -- drink a super-hoppy beer, eat a ghost pepper, bungee jump. It's a challenge. But in this case, it's a much safer one -- it's a way to test your limits without actually experiencing any pain actual physical pain. I think people like showing they're tough.

I also wonder if it's a matter of empathy vs. sympathy -- me, I can't handle that stuff because I can "feel" it way too much and internalize it. Others, they can see it and think "I'm glad that's not me." I'm not saying either is better than the other -- just different approaches to life.
posted by darksong at 2:40 PM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't watch these either but thought that this article about the morality of the Saw series was interesting, perhaps this explains it?
posted by Middlemarch at 2:41 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Like you, I can't abide torture porn. But of the friends I've discussed it with over the years, they find pleasure in disgust. Saw and sequels in particular have a better story than most to wrap around the torture and make it more captivating to watch.

I also wouldn't overlook the film geek fan service aspect of the torture in Saw et al: The scenes are as protracted and horrible as they are to keep that segment of cinematic technique / effects technique geeks watching and talking. There's a segment of horror fandom that obsesses about this in the same way there is a segment of anime fans that obsess about the giant-robot-preparing-for-battle sequences.

Like griphus says, you'll find many motivations among many people.
posted by ardgedee at 2:46 PM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I liked Saw for the plot. *shrug* I saw the gore as creative and part of the psychosis of the bad guy. It did not feel to me like someone wrote a script as an excuse to show gore- more that they wrote a script about creepy psychology that required gore. Everyone I know who liked Saw liked it for the same reason- the psychological aspect, the plot.

I didn't, and don't enjoy watching gore itself, in Saw or any other film. You could say I liked Saw despite the gore. I have seen c-grade zombie flicks that really did feel like plotless excuses to show gross gore. I personally would not include Saw in that category.
posted by quincunx at 2:53 PM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

We are confined to a physical existence. Beyond its edge is death. Some people are interested in exploring the edges, limits and frontiers of that existence, for a variety of reasons that also motivate more traditional forms of exploration and obsession with any frontier. Including the banal: simply because it's there to be explored, experienced and known.

Space is not, actually, the final frontier.
posted by beanie at 2:54 PM on June 20, 2014 [10 favorites]

The metaphor of this genre as an exploration of death and pain is made absolutely explicit in the controversial French film Martyrs. I do not recommend people who are bothered by Saw ever watch that film as it's on a different level but, yeah, that's the association it is making.
posted by Justinian at 2:58 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia has a plot summary if you're interested.
posted by Justinian at 2:59 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

It looks like I am the first commenter who actually likes this type of movie. Hello! I used to be a pretty squeamish kid, but I generally enjoy this sort of movie. I call them "torture porn" since that seems to be the term that has stuck.

I think the first Saw stands on its own as a pretty good movie. The film-making is quite good despite its very limited budget and it is a smart movie. From the second movie onward, it was all about Jigsaw (and his increasingly complex and weird back story) and the various nature of the traps. A lot of times, they don't even make sense even within the film's own universe. For example, it doesn't make sense in Saw III that Jigsaw would care about some guy whose son died in a car crash and that it would somehow motivate Jigsaw to run the guy through a gamut of traps. I think the series became self-aware from Saw III onward, though - the "sawed in half in a department store window" opener of Saw 3D (the final installment) actually felt like it was played for laughs. But, your question isn't really about these sorts of movies as films.

I like these sorts of movies and the scenes generally don't disturb me, although it can depend on the context. For example, I found some scenes of Martyrs disturbing, as well as the main torture scene in Miike Takashi's "Imprint" episode of "Masters of Horror". How I feel about scenes tends to depend on how I feel about the victim. The victims in Martyrs and "Imprint" were quite sympathetic, while I can't get very worked up about a lot of the backpacking chuckleheads who are the victims in the Hostel films. (Martyrs is excellent, btw - it is not a torture porn film but there are some intense and graphic scenes. I will probably watch it again.)

Related to that, very often, the victims are either non-characters that the audience never gets to know or are actually dislikeable. The protagonist generally only endures some sort of torment in order to set up some good revenge gore in the final act, like in I Spit On Your Grave, The Last House On The Left, or You're Next. (I actually recommend You're Next - it is a good movie) It is hard to get upset when the victims are the "bad guys" or other characters that we don't care about either way.

I probably can't tell you why I enjoy these movies any more than I can tell you why I like eating ice cream cones beyond "they taste good to me". I just do. I think some of it is technical appreciation for the special effects. But like your friend, it is neither disturbing nor arousing. Although, there is also the sense of making the ascent on a roller coaster as I wonder what's going to happen and how far the filmmakers will go. But, it only works the first time. To test myself, I just watched the opening of Saw VI on YouTube, where of two people trapped in a room, the person who cuts off more of their own flesh gets to survive. I felt no reaction.

I like this kind of movie and you don't. That's okay. I do not think that it is a sign of any pathology for a person to like this kind of film and there is nothing wrong with your friends for liking these movies.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:00 PM on June 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

I thought the original Hostel was quite good but the sequels were disastrous and should be ignored. You don't agree, Tanizaki? To me they turned what was deeper symbolism in the first film and turned it into nothing but, indeed, torture porn.
posted by Justinian at 3:04 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with Tanizaki, though, I find it hard to exactly describe why I like good examples of this genre. If it matters I am repulsed by the bad examples in probably exactly the same way many people are. They lack something that animates the better examples.
posted by Justinian at 3:05 PM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

The controversy surrounding the Guinea Pig film series is also some fascinating reading on the nature and appeal of torture porn.
posted by griphus at 3:06 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have not seen the Saw movies. I don't very often watch horror movies and am not fond of gore. But, for some reason, I read through the Wikipedia entry on the first movie not terribly long ago. My impression was that the horrific double binds would be, for some people, a good metaphor for the kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't social traps that bureaucracies and modern life generally can subject people to. And some of those double binds are truly horrifying.

As just one example of "which arm would you like to cut off?" type experiences IRL: In the US, women who do the full time mom thing get treated like leaches. But, then, women with kids, especially young kids, who work get treated like they are neglectful, bad parents. A lot of women wish they could stay home with their kids, especially when the kids are small, but our current culture is not very supportive of that (literally or figuratively) and our federal tax code actively rewards working moms with tax breaks for daycare while doing little or nothing for SAHMs. If you are female and don't have kids, someone is likely to accuse you of being selfish. If you do reproduce and anything goes wrong financially (divorce, dad deserts you, whatever) you will also get accused of being selfish. Etc. Ad nauseum. There is no answer here that does not get you horrible negative feedback of some type.

For other people, horror movies offer intellectual stimulation that is superior to what you find in many other genres. Romantic comedy? That is usually pretty light fare, intellectually speaking. But something like X Files or Saw offer the chance to exercise your brain. If you are not too squeamish, that aspect can have appeal. It is mostly for that aspect that I have enjoyed things like X Files and Wolfen, in spite of tending to be squeamish myself. Some people have trouble getting their intellectual needs met and will take whatever they can get to do so and not be too picky about morality/content/the approval of other people as long as it keeps them from feeling like they are mentally starving to death/dying of boredom.

So I think there can be different reasons but I would suggest that those are the top two positive ones that come to mind. There are, no doubt, people with an unhealthy psychology who are drawn to things like this because of that unhealthy psychology. But I certainly don't think there is any reason to believe that is the biggest, best, most common, most influential reason. In other words, I see no reason to jump to knee jerk judgments about their character or psychology.
posted by Michele in California at 3:17 PM on June 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm happy to continue over MeMail (or email) so we don't derail with a side discussion, but I liked Hostel I and II. I liked Hostel II because it showed how the Elite Hunting Club worked and more especially, the point of view of the paying clients and their respective character developments. The arc of the paying clients was novel because we generally do not see much from the point of view of the "bad guys" in these movies. Hostel III was a straight-up torture porn movie with zero plot in my view, though. I'll watch Hostels I and II again but probably never III.

I was glad that Justinian mentioned Martyrs. I definitely want to emphasize that I consider Martyrs to be a serious film as opposed to just about all the other movies I mentioned, which I would consider popcorn movies. It is a very good movie.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:17 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to love torture films, a lot, I watched martyrs twice... I was obsessed with finding the most infamous and horrifying films known to man!

I think I enjoyed the adrenaline. But over the last couple of years they just stopped appealing to me.
posted by misspony at 3:18 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've given a lot of thought to the market for horror movies over the years, and this is what I've come up with:

* They're omnipresent in theaters and are the perfect choice for when you're excited to finally be old enough to get into a rated R movie.

* It's specifically fun to go see horror movies in the theater as opposed to other viewing options.

* They do well internationally, probably because scary is scary without a lot of specific cultural stuff. (International sales are the new DVD in terms of how to get your movie to turn a profit.)

* They probably still do OK in terms of the rental market because teens like them, and, again, watching a horror movie is an Event, not something you put on while you fold laundry. So people hitting up Redbox are probably more likely to pick whatever bottom of the barrel horror flick than something else.

* Cross-demographic appeal. They make a good date movie, young kids like them because OOOOH SCARY, older people probably also like them because they feel youthful and nostalgic.

* They're very cheap to make and typically are not star vehicles. Ultimately people go see these based on word of mouth/hearing that they're scary, not for a particular actor or director or because it won awards.
posted by Sara C. at 3:56 PM on June 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

I guess I should have prefaced that by saying that I'm not sure why people think they like horror movies, and frankly I'm not convinced that people like horror movies more than other genres, but the reality is that they sell a lot of tickets. Which is a different thing from people actually enjoying them.

I mean I fucking love me some Melissa McCarthy/Sandra Bullock buddy comedy, but I waited to catch The Heat till it was on HBO. Meanwhile some 16 year old is frothing at the mouth to see the latest torture porn thing in the cinema, tonight. And will probably go again next weekend.
posted by Sara C. at 4:01 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think that the first Saw movie as a genre-establishing film was pretty clever. The gore was nowhere near as explicit as it could have been, and the movie came across as new and different. But after I saw it, I thought to myself, "ok, I get it" and didn't have a desire to watch any more.

I think part of the appeal is that we know, in the abstract, that torture exists and existed in many gruesome forms particularly in the past, but it is only distant hearsay, and people have a morbid curiosity about it. And then film geeks tend to get off on the artifice and creativity of the special effects in torture scenes. Plus, it is forbidden and transgressive.

I was never a fan of the teen-slasher flicks of the 80s, but for my teenage classmates, the interest was always about the creativity with which the characters were dispatched. Killing-via-torture implements rather than via a crazy guy with a machete is just a variation on that.
posted by deanc at 4:13 PM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Horror films are a fascinating indicator of what's troubling a society at any given time. The popularity of the torture porn genre in the US over previous decade is almost certainly down to the anxiety produced by widespread knowledge and discussion of the actual torture, interrogation and extraordinary rendition that occurred after September 11. The Hostel films are probably the purest expression of this (young Americans go out into the world and get captured and tortured by evil foreigners), while the Saw films are perhaps more influenced by grand guignol and Italian giallo films, particular those of Dario Argento and his imitators, but are still very much a part of the whole.

Martyrs on the other hand is slightly different, being a French production (I think). It's more concerned with why, culturally, we are so fascinated by female suffering, especially on the screen. It's also one of the most brutal and disturbing films that I've ever seen, and I've sat through Cannibal Holocaust, Salo and the incomparable Tras en Crystal/In a Glass Cage. I would recommend it to pretty much no-one that I didn't already know really, really well.

Not sure if this really answers why people like these sort of films, but it's why they exist in the first place, I reckon.
posted by permafrost at 4:33 PM on June 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

I've never seen the Saw films. Never seen any horror film outside of The Shining. One thing that has struck me, as someone who's only absorbed the plots from popular culture references, is that the violence in these films is overwhelmingly inflicted on women by men. I've never heard of a popular, mainstream horror film where it's predominantly man-on-man murder. And, to me, therein lies the key.
posted by vivzan at 4:51 PM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

You should probably watch the films in question if you're going to theorize about them, really. Many of the films we're talking about feature primarily men-on-men violence. Saw, Hostel, etc.
posted by Justinian at 5:00 PM on June 20, 2014 [15 favorites]

FWIW the type of horror which is most associated with the kind of thing you're talking about are slasher flicks. Which are a related but distinct type of movie.
posted by Justinian at 5:06 PM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's a lot of "glad it's not me" tied into horror movie watching, coupled with the feeling of relief that comes with not actually dying. The Saw movies, more than most, invite active speculation regarding what you would do personally if caught in the same no-win situations. It's the rush of the danger without the actual consequence.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:42 PM on June 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

As much as I love it on its own merits, the BBC series "Sherlock" has basically been a gore-free version of "Saw" in several episodes, most notably the first episode of the first season. When you take the gore away, you have a story in which one person (the villain) is forcing various people to choose between two options that are both awful.

The first "Saw" film is pretty good, and smart, and is not really "torture porn." I think that particular genre came from people seeing how much money that movie made, then running with it without really understanding the moral puzzle at the center of it.

(That's my reading of it, at any rate, as someone who likes the stories and thrills and puzzles and structure of horror movies but looks away during the gory stuff. But I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who, to answer your question, enjoy the Saw movies because of the creativity of the gore.)
posted by jbickers at 5:55 PM on June 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sometimes it's kind of a badass, self-testing sort of thing-- I'm not a big fan of gore but I've watched a few of such films just to see if I could make it through. Which is kind of dumb when you think about it, but it is one of many reasons to watch horror.
posted by noxperpetua at 6:04 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

young Americans go out into the world and get captured and tortured by evil foreigners

While I agree they get captured by "evil foreigners" from what I remember seeing the torturing was done by evil rich people, and at least one of them was American. Which doesn't really go against your argument, I just wanted to clarify.
posted by Green With You at 8:55 PM on June 20, 2014

Help me appreciate horror movies.
posted by Lucinda at 9:03 PM on June 20, 2014

I despise horror. Never watch it intentionally. (Well, okay, Cabin in the Woods). But I caught Saw on TV and the whole "better mousetrap" aspect of it fascinates me. I like the contraptions, mystery and gotcha moments of the series. Stupid don't think about it too hard fun.

But only on TV and edited. I dislike the gore immensely, I would prefer a Se7en type movie where the aftermath is shown without actually hearing the screams of the characters. It's pretty much the only movies that I would prefer a pg-13 version of.
posted by M Edward at 9:41 PM on June 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I take it you also saw se7en on TV? Because it is quite gruesome.
posted by Justinian at 10:03 PM on June 20, 2014

Though I suppose it could be that Fincher is so good at implying without depicting that I'm remembering it as more gruesome than it was.
posted by Justinian at 10:04 PM on June 20, 2014

It sounds to me like you're having a strong stress reaction to the sounds of screaming and sights of suffering. I don't think this is anything you need to apologize for or overcome. I think it's pretty normal. People experience these reactions in a variety of stimuli and degrees. People have different means of coping with them. The easiest is to just avoid them. How many people have you talked to about a horror movie you did like, who shuddered and said, "It's not for me" ?

I don't know if there's anything more to understand about the people who do enjoy those movies. I get stressed out watching anything embarrassing for a character. I would have to stand up and pace around or just stop watching so many episodes of The Office because I couldn't take it. But it was an extremely popular show.

I've become a lot more sensitive as I get older too. A couple years ago I noticed I was having trouble taking action movies unless they were pretty cartoonish. Now I find it difficult to sit still for an intense scene regardless. It's like some kind of PTSD. It kinda sucks. There's a couple horror movies I'd like to watch, but I know I couldn't do it. As much as I would like to see them, I'd like to enjoy my life.

So enjoy life.
posted by wobh at 10:30 PM on June 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

It is odd. I don't have much tolerance for the torture porn genre myself, because, well, it's just not scary to me. Or, more to the point, the filmmaker is trying to fuck with me in a way that I'm just not interested in.

Of modern horror flicks, I found The Descent to be much more interesting. Scary. Doesn't give everything away. Brilliant usage of claustrophobia.

Beyond that, I love the kind of horror where you basically do not know what the fuck is really going on, or at least the protagonists don't. e.g. The Shining. Gimme some suspense. Mess with my head. Make me care about what's happening.

Or at least if you can't manage that, make it a good laugh like Evil Dead or Hellraiser.
posted by ephemerae at 11:19 PM on June 20, 2014

When I was a kid, horror movies would be slasher flicks. There would be "a baddie" whose motivation would be that they were crazy and the baddie would kill some people and then the baddie would chase the protagonist and then the protagonist would defeat the baddie. End of movie.

There were jumps and scares, which still provided an emotional return on a very basic "make me feel adrenaline" level, but I found them pretty unsatisfactory.

Then Scream happened and for a while horror went all self-referential comedy, turning a lot of the tropes I'd grown up with on their head while still maintaining the jumps and scares. I enjoyed Scream a lot.

And then the next big shift was to movies which seemed to be created primarily to showcase creative death sequences, like Saw and Final Destination. They're totally different to Scream, but again the thing that made them interesting to me was the way they changed the structure from the slasher flicks. The baddie in Saw had a plan. Escape didn't just mean running and screaming anymore. There's always an out, which the protagonists need to be smart enough to spot and brave enough to take. Final Destination didn't have a baddie at all. The characters die of bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, a water bottle that falls into the footwell and wedges under the brake pedal, a failure to look both ways before crossing the street. The characters can't prevent death, the best they can do is put it off for a while by exercising caution. Just like in real life!

I haven't watched all the films in those franchises and I won't say that they always hew closely to their premise. (There are some traps in Saw which don't provide a fair "out". There are some deaths in Final Destination where the means appears to be supernatural rather than sheer misfortune.) In general, however, the skills necessary to survive in those films are "pay attention", "think things through" and "show fortitude". All of which make them more interesting to me than the films I grew up with where the necessary skill for survival was "run faster than the guy with the knife."
posted by the latin mouse at 12:43 AM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

The answer is the same as to the question of why people pay good money to ride roller coasters: to experience fear in a controlled setting.
posted by fairmettle at 5:45 AM on June 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

"Torture porn" may be a relatively recent genre term but this is a very old function of art: we've always enjoyed watching people suffer as we learn a moral lesson. Think martyr portraits or passion plays.

The thing about the SAW movies is that they are very, very open about the fact that they are meant to teach the viewer about the value of human life. The message may be completely facile, as I think it is, and just a hook for the story (no pun intended), but it is that strange combination of gore and moralizing (goralizing?) that accounts for the appeal.

The victims in the films are always people who have sinned in some way—sinned against life, by taking theirs for granted. The "jigsaw killer"'s mission is always to enable them, through pain, to recognize its value.
posted by saltykmurks at 7:27 AM on June 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Like fairmettle said: Experience fear and adrenaline in a controlled, safe setting. It's also much cheaper & safer than skydiving, bungee jumping, etc.
Why those movies and not some other horror genre? Beats me. Whatever works to get that adrenal response going, I guess.
posted by Neekee at 9:06 AM on June 21, 2014

I enjoyed the first Saw movie for the psychological tension, and "what the fuck is going on?" feelings, I didn't enjoy the actual torture scenes. So not everyone is watching for that.
posted by catatethebird at 9:24 AM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not a big fan of Saws, but I'm not sure they should be held as the exemplar of "torture porn" as a lot of people who haven't really watched them seem to assume they are. They have some of that, but also focus heavily on the ridiculously convoluted plot/mystery and the... not quite "Rube Goldberg" but creative death/trap aspect that's been popular in horror for a while, the Final Destination series being the truest (and fully Rube Goldbergian) expression.
posted by atoxyl at 3:23 AM on June 23, 2014

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