Penance to the State: Saw and the Abu Ghraib Legacy
by Joshua Christianson — Cornerstone University
December 19, 2012 – 00:00
The first film in the Saw franchise was widely released on October 29th of 2004, kicking off an annual tradition lasting for six more years, producing seven films in total, and introducing the term/concept of "torture porn" into the public consciousness. On its own merits, the success of the franchise is understandable. Saw represented an insidiously clever twist on the slasher genre: The Jigsaw Killer was not actually a serial killer, but an engineer who dealt in the production of potentially lethal, but ultimately survivable scenarios designed to test the survival instinct of a given subject. Naturally, this resulted in, in several instances, the grisly spectacle of the human body in states of suffering and destruction, but also instances of characters claiming that Jigsaw changed their life for the better. Given the novelty of the scenarios presented in Saw, and it’s relative narrative depth, how exactly can it be counted as an exploitation film?
An often overlooked/uncorrelated fact: a mere six months prior to Saw’s debut, the infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos were unveiled to the public. While many acts depicted in those photos were egregious derelictions of duty on the part of military personnel, they effectively blew the lid off of the United States’ torture regime, leading to public knowledge of the institutional use of waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques". Though there was widespread resistance and discomfort concerning torture at the time, this poll conducted by Foreign Policy magazine suggests that the American people have become more comfortable with the use of torture since the Bush administration.
Part of the acceptance could be attributed to a sort of "only Nixon could go to China" logic, but how does the explosion in popularity of Saw and other films in the years following Abu Ghraib bear on the situation? Is torture-porn to blame, or is Saw’s theme of suffering as potential good simply an avenue for mitigating the complex feelings surrounding the use of torture in the ongoing War on Terror?