Oct 19, 2023
The philosophy of the Saw franchise and its iconic serial killer mastermind John Kramer cuts deep beneath the surface into the realm of Nietzschean nihilism.
In 2004, Director James Wan introduced us to a new kind of horror icon with the release of Saw: John Kramer, aka Jigsaw. In case you haven’t seen Saw, here’s what you should know: It’s one of the best and highest-grossing horror franchises of all time, having become a pop culture phenom that expanded into various other films, video games, comic books, theme park attractions, music, and tons of merch … and there’s even a Saw television series rumored to be in development at Lionsgate Television.
The Saw series revolves around serial killer mastermind John “Jigsaw” Kramer and his apprentices, who are actually victims he traps in life-threatening scenarios that he refers to as tests or games. It’s up to the victim to decide what their scenario will be. What makes Jigsaw different from other horror icons like Freddy, Michael, Jason, and Pinhead is that John doesn’t kill for the thrill. in fact, he claims he’s never killed anyone at all. He simply gives people a choice. “Live or die. Make your choice,” is uttered more than once from him through the Saw franchise.
As the storyline progresses, we find out more about what makes Jigsaw tick and why he does what he does in capturing people and putting them in traps. Immediately, Saw’s storyline taps into our empathy, and in a weird, way we understand where he is coming from. Franchise creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell humanize Jigsaw and make us sympathetic to his plight, and they do so well with tapping into our psyche, that while watching the movies, we actually cheer for John Kramer at times.
Saw features excellent storytelling, great tension, and creates so many moral gray areas, you can’t help but walk away from these movies thinking deeply about ethics, philosophy, and morality. This is because John Kramer thinks he has found the way to rehabilitate people and that is by placing them in traps that, if they survive, will help them walk away with a new appreciation for life.
So, this topic will be a four-part series, but with this first part, I’m going to do something vastly different from the other film reviews to which you guys have become so accustomed. You’re used to seeing the snarky, sarcastic Zeke who enjoys making you laugh by subjecting myself to some terrible B movies. But behind the smart-mouthed persona, I have a deep intellectual and philosophical bent consisting of three degrees in theology, and with those degrees came lots of courses in philosophy. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I would take a special interest in the Saw franchise. Besides The Evil Dead, Phantasm, and The Conjuring universe, the Saw movies are by far my favorites in the horror genre.
Cracking the Philosophical Code of Saw and John Kramer
I’m so taken by the Saw movies that I have spent years watching and rewatching them, meticulously taking notes and trying to figure out where John Kramer falls on the philosophical spectrum. After years of research and comparing Jigsaw to numerous philosophical thoughts, I believe I have cracked the code.
Now, I don’t know if Wan and Whannell ever had this in mind when they thought up Kramer’s character, so I cannot speak to their intent. All I have to go with is how John Kramer is portrayed in the movies. That being said, I believe that John Kramer’s philosophy fits squarely within the realm of Nietzsche's nihilism. Let’s unpack this theory and compare Kramer to Nietzsche, shall we?
Over the years, I have read numerous articles arguing how the Saw franchise is ethically convoluted. On the surface it can seem this way, and I will be the first to admit it. However, instead of just making a broad, sweeping statement, I believe once we take a deeper look, it all begins to make sense, especially once we look at it through the eyes of Nietzschean nihilism, which can be subdivided into two categories: passive nihilism and radical nihilism. The complexity surrounding John Kramer exists because, ironically, he falls into both categories.
This would explain why, on a cursory viewing, the Saw franchise’s ethics seem to be disjointed. Indeed, what comes out of Jigsaw’s mouth at times is hypocritical, but when seen in this new light, they are not confused.
Before we jump neck-deep into the world of philosophy, I want to assure my readers of something. I know not everyone has a philosophy background, and I know as soon as someone mentions the word “philosophy” it can be intimidating. Though I have all these theological degrees, I assure you I’m just a blue-collar redneck at heart. I promise to make this understandable and not use lofty jargon, and for the times I have to, I will define the words.
Feel better? Good! Let’s continue.
First, let’s define nihilism: It basically summarizes a family of thought that says life is meaningless. It rejects all religious and moral principles, including the fundamental aspects of human existence. It is skeptical of all human knowledge, morals, and religious ideologies.
Nietzsche, the father of modern nihilistic thought, took this category and divided it into two parts: passive and radical. In talking about nihilism in his book "The Will to Power" (1967), Nietzsche defines a nihilist as someone “who judges of the world as it is that it ought not be and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist.” To put it in blue-collar terms, all he is saying is that because purpose and meaning in life is unknowable, the nihilist cannot accept the world as it is.
Understanding nihilism is extremely important if we are going to make sense of Jigsaw's morality, since it is his morality that drives the Saw franchise. In fact, when we view his morality through this lens, it shows us how coherent Jigsaw’s moral mission is in his own mind and to those of us watching the franchise unfold. I have read other critics who call John Kramer a monster and comment how the film does damage to viewers because it promotes a mindset that is against modern ethics. Sure, I can see how and why the critics would say this, but their criticism doesn’t hold up once we firmly place Kramer in the camp of nihilism.
As I will unpack in this series, Kramer’s moral quest is not to save other people and leave behind some immortal legacy; rather, what Jigsaw wants to do is more destructive. His aim is to destroy the world as is by changing the world around him. This, my friends, is nihilism.
Viewing Jigsaw through nihilist eyes shows us that following the loss of his unborn son and a failed suicide attempt, he seeks to destroy himself. How so? Go back and watch the Saw franchise. Have you ever noticed that Jigsaw’s victims MIRROR his own obsessive traits? This is what I am going to break down for you moving forward. We’ll look at passive and radical nihilism, their differences, their similarities, and how Jigsaw fits within both these paradigms. My goal is not to categorize John Kramer but to give us a lens to view the movies through to make sense of his morals and mission.
So, for the next few articles, sit back, get your Saw movies queued up, and let good ole Uncle Zeke take you on a magic philosophical carpet ride.
Stay tuned as we cut deeper beneath the surface in Part 2 of The Philosophy of John Kramer.
Ezekiel Kincaid lives for horror and loves to watch it, write about, and talk about it, whether that be in his own horror novels or in reviews. His experience as a pastor and paranormal investigator brings everything he writes to life.