For the past seven years Saw has been a Halloween ritual. Though the quality of the series declined as it went on (and eventually petered out on a lame 3D outing), I still enjoyed each new installment and I’m sad I didn’t get my fix this year.
There is a benefit of finality, though: I can now look back on the series and judge it as a complete work. The films tell the story of a misguided psychopath called “The Jigsaw Killer”, his victims, his various underlings and accomplices, and the hapless police force trying to stop him. It’s actually a fairly compelling narrative.
Analysis of that narrative is a worthy task (a future project, maybe), but the most famous aspect of the Saw films are the death traps. You see, Jigsaw doesn’t merely murder his victims. Instead, he kidnaps them and forces them to play twisted games. The victim is lashed to a fiendish device, hears a recorded message, and then must commit some heinous act in order to escape. These games are messy, brutal, and often psychologically horrifying. And from the point of view of a popcorn-munching spectator they are always entertaining.
The Jigsaw traps most fascinating to me are the ones which are plausible in a non-Hollywood sense. The ones which you could actually implement, if you had a decent budget and the stomach to commit atrocities. By that I mean, nobody’s ever died by having their ribcage torn out by a machine that could only exist in a cartoon. But a rusty cage filled with razor wire? That’s something different entirely. That’s a waking nightmare.
My original thought was to pick the best trap from each movie, but some of the movies didn’t have any good traps, so I decided to go with the seven best overall. I judged each trap on the three criteria I imagined would be most important to Jigsaw himself: practicality, effectiveness and fairness.
A trap is practical if it is something that could reasonably be constructed and implemented by just a few dedicated people. Jigsaw is independently wealthy and owns lots of abandoned real estate, so money and space are no object to him. However, some of the devices presented in the movies are extremely complicated examples of technical engineering. Others, such as the aformentioned ribcage trap, require extensive medical training — up to and including invasive surgery! Jigsaw can’t exactly outsource these tasks, no matter how rich he is. The better the odds of building a trap with a blank check and a trip to Home Depot, the more practical I judged it to be.
To be effective, a trap first has to be able to kill the victim. Every Jigsaw trap is capable of this. However, it must also be escapable if and only if the victim follows Jigsaw’s rules. If a trap is fatal, but leaves the victim some way to wriggle free, it doesn’t make for a very effective game. A good example of an ineffective trap is the one where the victim’s head is affixed inside of a glass box, which then fills with water. Without going into detail, the victim escaped this trap even though it was designed to be inescapable! Shoddy, shoddy workmanship.
Finally, Jigsaw demands that his traps are fair. Jigsaw’s goal is for his victims to learn from their experience; by surviving his games, he hopes his “students” emerge with an appreciation for life they did not possess before. To his credit, the traps built by Jigsaw himself all adhere to this principle; it’s only when his underlings start to go rogue that traps designed to murder rather than test begin to emerge. Such “tests” all failed the fairness criteria.
Most victims are responsible for escaping their own games, but sometimes their lives are left in the hands of other players. These tests are inherently less fair from the perspective of the victim, who has no control over his own fate. Still other games are designed as competitions; one player wins and the other one dies. These games were judged based on how evenly matched the victims appeared to be. Sometimes these competitions are woefully mismatched. Sometimes, that’s the point.
Some games are simply more brutal than others. Games requiring players to mutilate themselves must be a crapshoot from Jigsaw’s perspective. Injuring oneself is always dicey. Nick an artery, or go into shock, and the game is over before it begins. That’s hardly fair, and none of the self-mutilation traps made the list.
I rated each of these three aspects from one to five, but I didn’t rate every game in the series. Some games aren’t traps, you see. The now-legendary bathroom from the first movie is a spectacular example of psychological torture, but it lacks the simplicity of the classic “do this to live” death trap.
And so, being the internet’s foremost authority on the inner workings of the minds of fictional serial killers, I present Jigsaw’s seven best death traps.
#7: The Mausoleum
The best Jigsaw traps are the simple ones, and this trap from the opening of Saw IV is the simplest example of Jigsaw’s competitions. Games that pit one victim against another tend to be overly-elaborate, but the Mausoleum is as straightforward as it is gruesome.
The Setup: Two men are clapped in iron collars and placed at opposite ends of an abandoned mausoleum. Each collar is connected to a chain, which is connected to a rotating drum in the center of the room. The drum works as a kind of winch; it turns relentlessly, spooling up the chain and drawing the two men in towards the device. On the back of each man’s neck is a key that will unlock the other man’s collar. In order to ensure the two men cannot communicate, Jigsaw as sewn shut the eyes of one man, and the mouth of the other.
Practicality: Most of the competition traps are complicated devices which, to put it mildly, would test the construction capabilities even of a wealthy man. Not this one, though; it’s just a winch. Heck, a body could probably buy a pre-built industrial winch that would serve this purpose beautifully. More difficult would be stitching up the eyes and mouth of the respective victims. Not impossible, though, especially considering Jigsaw has a doctor on staff. 4/5
Effectiveness: It is trivially easy to design a winch to pull a chain with more force than a grown man could exert. Indeed, that’s why we have winches. I am also quite confident that the chains and collars placed on the two men are quite solid. I therefore conclude that, barring some sort of intervention, both men would be dragged until their heads come in contact with the machine, where some sort of trauma seems inevitable. (Snapped necks, crushed skulls, what have you.)
No, I think the trap’s weak point is in the stitching, so to speak; the trap only works if the two men cannot communicate, yes? The blind man can’t see his own key, and the mute man has no way of reassuring the blind man there is a way out. After freeing himself from the trap, though, the mute man actually tears open his stitches in order to let out a bloody scream. The gory image is perfect for the opening scene of Saw IV, but it undermines the integrity of the trap! If he had ripped through his stitches three minutes earlier, he might have have been able to burble something useful to his blind aggressor. Or, I suppose, he might have passed out from the pain, thereby dooming the both of them to broken necks. Entertaining, but anticlimactic. 3/5
Fairness: I think it’s quite clear that one of the victims in the Mausoleum is supposed to die. The question is, do they each have an equal chance of success? The blind man is at a pretty hefty disadvantage, of course, but he’s also twice the size of the mute man. The mute man can see what he’s doing, but closing the distance on a crazed axe-weilding maniac is not a pleasant task. If we take the resulting melee for granted, anyone would call it a coin flip.
The other question is whether or not the blind man could have removed his collar in time. It comes down to luck, of course; he would probably have to feel around his own collar first, discover he had a key, discover it was the wrong key, then reason that the other man must be wearing a key, too. I don’t think the luck involved would be greater than spotting the key from across the room by eyesight, though, which is exactly what the mute man did. I believe whichever man struck the killing blow had a better-than-even chance of unlocking his collar and escaping the trap. 4/5
#6: The Freezer
Saw III introduced a new style of death trap: tests of mercy. In these games the victim isn’t a player at all; she is totally helpless and will only live if the player chooses to free her. This opens up some new methods of torture for exploration, and Saw III is happy to oblige.
The Setup: A woman is stripped and dangled by the wrists in a spacious walk-in freezer. That alone would kill her eventually, but Jigsaw goes the extra mile and rigs up a sprinkler system to douse her with water every minute or so. The key to her manacles is nearby, but she cannot reach it herself. For that she must rely on a man who has spent the last several years wishing her dead.
Practicality: At first, I had some trouble believing Jigsaw could arrange for a functional freezer to be installed in one of his abandoned delapidated death mazes. Surely the transport and installation involved would require outside contractors or delivery men, right? But then I saw full-size industrial walk-ins for sale on eBay, and that made the whole business seem more likely. And hey, for all we know, the freezer already existed on site and all Jigsaw had to do was get it running again. Maybe it was a meat locker or something.
The next step would be hooking up the water. This would require a modification to whatever pipes already existed in the building, but it’s not rocket science. The water need not even be particularly cold, since “room temperature” in this environment is already fatal. It certainly seems like a lot of trouble for a single kill, costing thousands of dollars and requiring weeks of transport, installation, construction and testing. This trap is near the far end of what I figure might be plausible in the real world. 3/5
Effectiveness: Dangling naked and wet in a blast freezer is a very quick way to die, but with proper treatment there’s no reason to believe the victim wouldn’t have recovered once she was warmed back up. The Freezer fulfills both qualities of an effective Jigsaw trap: it is 100% fatal as long as the victim is left chained up, but rescue is as easy as unlocking her. 5/5
Fairness: The one and only hitch in this trap seems to be the old-fashioned padlock employed on the woman’s chains. Once it gets wet enough the keyhole would ice over, rendering the locking mechanism inaccessible. And, indeed, this is what happens in Saw III; by the time the player retrieves the key and tries to use it, there is ice blocking up the keyhole.
What went wrong wasn’t the water, though; it was the hesitation. The player had to be talked into rescuing the victim. Over a minute was lost as the victim pleaded and bargained with her reluctant savior, being hosed down all the while. If he’d gone straight for the key and then offered her his jacket, chances are excellent she could have been saved.4/5
#5: The Razor Wire Cage
Normal applications of razor wire are already terrifying enough. An entire cage full of it would give anyone nightmares. From a purely psychological standpoint this is one of Jigsaw’s cruellest traps. It’s hard to look at it without getting the shivers.
The Setup: An obese man wakes up inside a cage in a small underground room. The door to the room, he is told, will slam shut in two hours. Between him and the door is a tangled mess of razor wire, filling up the cage. Crossing the room means enduring many deep lacerations, but staying still means an agonizing death by thirst or starvation in a pitch black tomb.
Practicality: You could construct this trap in your basement for maybe a couple hundred bucks. The concept is so accessible and so inexpensive that I’d honestly be surprised if nobody had done it before. (And won’t that thought keep you up nights?) 5/5
Effectiveness: People have died from injuries sustained trying to climb over razor wire fences. It stands to reason that navigating a jungle of it would, at best, be exceedingly painful and dangerous. In Saw, the victim is described as having cut himself so deeply that traces of stomach acid were found on the floor. I don’t know about that, but the razors are numerous and dense enough that death from blood loss would be a very real danger. 5/5
Fairness: I often try to think of Jigsaw’s traps in terms of how I would escape them. In the Razor Wire Cage I envisoned getting as close to the floor as possible and scooching forward an inch at a time, using my arms to carefully maneuver the wire so as to keep contact to a minimum. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I think I could make it out. Two hours is a generous time limit by Jigsaw’s standards.
However, I’m somewhat smaller than the victim Jigsaw picked. While it’s true the man tackled the cage in the worst possible way — by barrelling straight down the middle — I’m not sure he would have been better served by a more methodical approach to the problem. It just doesn’t look like there was enough physical space for him to get through. Indeed, the man bled out having only made it a few steps. 3/5
#4: The Bomb Shelter
Explosions are usually the bottom of the barrel in slasher flicks; they’re what the writers resort to when they run out of interesting ideas. And besides, a quick blast doesn’t have the same sense of lingering gore as a drawn-out torture sequence. This trap would have been really boring, if not for the psychological element behind it.
The Setup: Five people walk into a stone room. The room is rigged with nail bombs set to a timer. Along the walls are small cubby holes fitted with iron bars, big enough for someone to crawl inside. After one minute the bombs go off, killing anyone left out in the open.
Practicality: This trap is actually part of a larger complex that comprises the main sequence of Saw V‘s plot. In that sense it’s pretty implausible, since constructing the entire place would require time and resources far in excess even of Jigsaw. Taken by itself, though, this one room is believable. It is simply an underground chamber with three little hidey-holes carved into the walls.
As for the nail bombs, well, surely there’s a how-to book for sale on Amazon. The deadly component of this trap is so pedestrian it’s almost beneath Jigsaw to have constructed it. 5/5
Effectiveness: The trap’s effectiveness seems to be a function of whether shrapnel from a nail bomb can shred human flesh, and whether the cubbies would offer sufficient protection. Being caught in the explosion would kill you, no doubt. But surviving is as easy as finding sufficient cover. Indeed, that’s the entire point of the trap. 5/5
Fairness: The premise of the trap is quite simple: four people walk into the room, but there are only three places to take cover. Each of the traps in Saw V is designed to eliminate one (and only one) of the victims, leading up to the big reveal at the end: they could have all survived, if they had simply worked together.
All four of them could have survived the Bomb Shelter, if two of them had simply shared a cubby. They were quite spacious. Of course, with your adrenaline pumping, a huge timer ticking down on the wall, and one of your party laying headless in a previous room… well, it’s easy to see why nobody considered the possibility. 5/5
A brief note…
You may have noticed the Bomb Shelter scored 5/5 in all three categories. The remaining three traps each got perfect scores as well. I’ve therefore finished ranking them by a more subjective element: how much they horrified me. (The heebie-jeebie factor, you could call it.)
#3: The Reverse Bear Trap
(Saw, Saw VI, Saw 3D)
Freddy’s got his knives, Jason his hockey mask, and Jigsaw has the Reverse Bear Trap. This device is famous for being one of the few traps that has been escaped, and may well be the single purest example of Jigsaw’s “live or die, make your choice” philosophy.
The Setup: The device works on the same principle as a regular bear trap. Where a bear trap slams shut with violent force, the Reverse Bear Trap instead snaps open. The device is part of a harness that slips over the victim’s head, and looks like a rusty, ghoulish mask. The two halves of the trap are slipped into the victim’s mouth, and the locking mechanism is rigged to release after a set amount of time. Once the clock reaches zero the trap comes undone, taking the victim’s face with it.
Practicality: The Reverse Beartrap is Jigsaw’s most iconic death trap for a reason. The machine itself is simple, and based on readily-available materials. The physics behind it are sound. The device could be designed and built by a single person, even out of salvaged materials. In a former life Jigsaw was a toymaker, and the Reverse Bear Trap is in essence a twisted sort of toy. 5/5
Effectiveness: In the videotape describing the game, Jigsaw kindly demonstrates what happens when the Reverse Bear Trap snaps open by affixing it to a mannequin’s head. There is no doubt in my mind that, with sufficient force, the sort of trauma inflicted by the device would be mortal. That said, escaping the trap is as simple as removing it before the timer runs down. The thing can’t hurt you if it’s on the other side of the room when it goes off. 5/5
Fairness: The game is simple: get the key and open the trap before the timer runs out. How fair the trap is depends entirely on how much time the victim is given.
The Reverse Bear Trap has been implemented three times, but only oncee was it a fair game. In that game the victim had to hack the key out of a human body before the time limit ran out. Here’s the kicker: the victim doesn’t know long she was given. Jigsaw didn’t mention the time limit in his video, and the timer itself is fixed in a place where the victim couldn’t see it.
That’s the genius of the trap, really. We know Jigsaw allowed enough time for the victim to complete her task, because she did complete it. We know the machine is live for at least 84 seconds (yes, I’ve timed it), but from the victim’s perspective it could have gone off at any moment. Sometimes it’s not the device, but the rules that determine a trap’s fairness. 5/5
#2: The Razor Box
Most of Jigsaw’s traps are complicated, but some of the best ones are stunningly simple. After all, you don’t have to go through the spectacle of tearing off a person’s limbs or splitting their face in half if you’re just looking to kill them. Opening the right vein is all it really takes to get the job done.
The Setup: The victims in Saw II were exposed to some manner of deadly toxin and then locked inside an evil house. Vials full of antidote were strewn throughout the house, ripe for the taking — you just had to solve one of Jigsaw’s death traps to get them.
One such vial was placed inside of a glass box suspended from the ceiling with two conveniently hand-sized holes in the bottom. The holes were lined with overlapping metal blades. It’s easy enough to slip your hands inside, but any attempt to pull them back out will result in deep cuts on your wrists.
Practicality: Neither the glass box nor the bladed entry holes are exactly stunning feats of engineering. Seventh graders construct more elaborate devices for science projects every year. The genius behind this trap is in how it uses a few simple ideas to create an inescapable and deadly situation. 5/5
Effectiveness: Truth is, wrist-slitting is such an unreliable way to commit suicide that it’s been officially demoted to “cry for help” status, and nowadays it’s only taken seriously by 14-year-olds on LiveJournal. (Remember, it’s down the highway, not across the street!) There’s a reason it’s such an inefficient way to die though: it takes longer than a few minutes to bleed out, and medical attention usually arrives long before then.
Not so with this trap. Once the victim’s hands go in the box, they don’t come back out again. The more she struggles, the deeper she is cut, and there is no help forthcoming. The sight of this woman staring up at her mutilated wrists, watching the glass box slowly fill up with her own blood is one of the most bone-chilling visuals in the entire Saw series. 5/5
Fairness: The death traps in Saw II were not among Jigsaw’s most insidious designs. Remember, the victims were already caught in a death trap as a function of having been poisoned. This condenses the victim’s timetable quite a bit, so the actual traps were often constructed to be circumvented entirely if approached with sufficient caution.
In the case of the Razor Box, there was apparently a way to open the contraption from the top and reach the antidote from above. This would have required viewing the contraption from above, though, and the box is specifically constructed so the antidote and two arm holes are the first things you see.
Moreover, it might have been possible (although difficult and painful) to extract one’s hands by carefully manipulating the blades from the bottom. The trapped woman was too hysterical to attempt this, though, and nobody else in the house was in much of a position to help her out. Still, the game was just about as fair as can be. 5/5
#1: The Furnace
I can’t wrap my head around a more horrific nightmare than being trapped in a confined space and burned alive. I know the Saw writers got paid big bucks to continuously top themselves with elaborate death traps, but nothing they came up with got to me as much as when they simply locked a dude in an oven.
The Setup: As mentioned above, the goal of the traps in Saw II was to collect vials of antidote. Two of these vials were placed inside of a large, industrial oven. Attempting to pull one of the vials free causes the oven door to slam shut and the pilots to light, cooking whomever happens to be inside.
Practicality: I have no trouble whatsoever believing Jigsaw could get his hands on a crematory, perhaps by trawling the mortuary antiques market for a while. Failing that, constructing a metal box and running a gas line underneath it would merely be a weekend project for someone of Jigsaw’s skill and resources. 5/5
Effectiveness: There are few truisms in this big, zany world of ours, but here’s one you can rely on: fire burns. Fire is such an enormous threat to human life that we have a public institution in place to extinguish it. Lighting a bound man on fire is so reliably deadly that it was a favorite method of execution for hundreds of years. The art of deathtrappery simply does not get more elemental than this. 5/5
Fairness: The tape accompanying the Furnace declares, “Once you are in Hell, only the Devil can help you out.” This turns out to be the literal truth: inside the oven is a knob, labeled with a little cartoon devil and the word “twist”. Presumably, twisting this knob would turn off the gas and stop the flames. Of course, matters in Saw II being as urgent as they are, there wasn’t time to conduct a thorough examination of every little death trap the victims came across. The burning man could have possibly reached the knob from inside the oven, but that would have meant passing through the flames, and he was too paralyzed by fear.
There was a second, more subtle escape from this trap: only one of the antidotes was connected to the oven door. The tape was very clear on this; one vial was for the victim, the other was his to donate. Had he not gotten greedy, and only taken the one vial, he may well have escaped his fate. Or, at least, this particular fate. 5/5
That’s my final list, and it wasn’t easy to construct. There were a lot of honorable mentions, such as Saw VI‘s shotgun carousel or Saw IV‘s scalping mechine. But as entertaining as cartoonish schluck like Saw 3D‘s junkyard monstrosity can be, I feel like to really sell a Jigsaw trap you need that element of, “you know, someone could actually make that. Freddy is fun, but he’s not scary because he’s a dream demon from beyond the gates of hell. Jigsaw’s philosophy is one a dedicated person could actually implement, if they were rich and clever enough.
Farewell, Saw. You were my Halloween companion for seven straight years, and I am happy to have your confusing, unlabeled DVD boxes clogging up my shelves. I look forward to the inevitable remake!