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The Saw franchise and the representation of terror in post-9/11 American film

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According to Stephen Prince in his 2009 book, Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism, 'For filmmakers concerned about any aspect of 9/11 or its aftermath, the attacks and their legacy offer a tremendously rich and challenging body of material'. It is very difficult to generalize about the response to 9/11 in American film, ranging as it does from its egregious use as a plot twist at the conclusion of the recent romantic drama Remember Me (Allen Coulter, 2010) to more substantive examinations such as In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis, 2007) or Jarhead (Sam Mendes, 2005). One might think, however, despite this range, that the most effective way of anatomizing how American film has responded to 9/11, and especially the issue of whether the medium has turned inward in a gesture of self-absorption or outward to engage the world outside the United States, would be to study films that engage directly and explicitly with the events of September 11, 2001. This article takes a different tack by arguing that the most symptomatic American films of the post-9/11 era are the Saw series (beginning with Saw, directed by James Wan in 2004), some of the most financially successful films of recent years, and films that nowhere reference the events of 9/11 explicitly. The article analyses the reasons for the popularity of the Saw films in a post-9/11 context, concentrating in particular on the perverse pleasure American audiences derive from the franchise's suggestion that terror is a self-imposed punishment that takes place in highly scripted situations designed to reveal moral strength, rather than a threatening force imposed from the outside, seemingly at random and with no warning. This emphasis reveals that post-9/11 American film prefers to focus on threats regarded as internal to the United States than to engage with an outside world that is seen in terms of an otherness perceived as more threatening and destabilizing than ever.
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Keywords: 9/11; film; horror; serial murder; terror; violence; war

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University at Buffalo

Publication date: 2011-11-11

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  • The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture is a peer-reviewed journal devoted to the scholarly understanding of everyday cultures. It is concerned with the study of the social practices and the cultural meanings that are produced and are circulated through the processes and practices of everyday life. As a product of consumption, an intellectual object of inquiry, and as an integral component of the dynamic forces that shape societies. The journal will be receptive to articles which focus on Australasian examples, or broader comparative and theoretical questions viewed through an Australasian lens.
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