Baptism Of Blood: How The SAW Franchise Recruits The Cult Of Jigsaw

Play Jigsaw's game and unlock... a new lease on life?

By Samantha McLaren · @themeatispeople · November 21, 2023, 8:00 PM EST

"You've got quite an army working for you here, don't you? Must be spreading a pretty good word," Jigsaw himself, John Kramer (Tobin Bell), remarks to Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery) in the much-maligned Saw: The Final Chapter. Claiming (falsely) to have survived a Jigsaw trap, Dagen has carved out a lucrative niche as a self-help guru ready to teach others to cherish their lives, the same message that Jigsaw instills through lost limbs and significant blood loss. "Well, we try to reach as many people as possible," Dagen replies, unaware that he, the false prophet, is staring the messiah in the face.

It was rewatching this exchange (and the franchise as a whole) in anticipation of Saw X that first made me realize I wasn't watching a serial killer at work—at least, not exactly. John Kramer would agree with me on this point. As he explains to Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) in Saw V, "I've never killed anyone." Why? Because "killing is distasteful." That we can agree on, too.

What Kramer and I might argue about, however, is whether or not he's leading a cult.

Cults are insidious. They promise answers to the difficult questions in life in return for unquestioning loyalty to the person handing them out. Dissent is not tolerated, and external scrutiny is met with aggression. Members are frequently coerced into cruel, sometimes criminal, behavior. In benign cases, lives are ruined. When things spiral out of control, people die, often en masse.

The Cult of Jigsaw is no different. It's just a touch gorier in its techniques. With Saw X now available to stream, we felt inspired to dive into the enigmatic recruitment methods of the Saw franchise.

Cherish your life, a "manic torture mantra" for the modern age

SAW X (2023)

Let's start with the basics. John Kramer is a charismatic cult leader with a message for the world: cherish your life. It's the salve to whatever hollowness exists inside a person's soul, whether that's driving them to steal, self-harm, smoke, or con cancer patients out of their life savings. To Kramer, those things are morally equivalent. They all represent an uncherished life, the ultimate transgression in his eyes.

The only cure? "Rebirth" (Saw IV, Saw: The Final Chapter), a second chance at living life right. "Most people are so ungrateful to be alive," Jigsaw explains to Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) via creepy puppet after she survives her test in the original film. "But not you. Not anymore."

Unlike Dagen's watered-down version of this message, bought into for the price of a hardback book, the Cult of Jigsaw demands a blood sacrifice for members to consider themselves reborn. A limb must be severed, or an eye gouged out—only then can a person experience true gratitude for life. Kramer's own rebirth occurred after a failed attempt at suicide following his cancer diagnosis. "A different person climbed out of the wreckage," his ex-wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), tells us in Saw IV. "Someone else survived." Dagen's crime is not merely lying about being a trap survivor. It's his audacity in spreading Jigsaw's doctrine without any real appreciation for what it means.

Not everyone survives their rebirth. But those who do often come around to Kramer's way of thinking. "He helped me," Young tearfully admits to the police in Saw as Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) looks on in horror, little realizing that he will soon follow in her footsteps. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me," another survivor (Oluniké Adeliyi) tells her support group in Saw: The Final Chapter with something close to elation in her voice.

This change of heart—from fear and anger to gratitude, even euphoria—is a common response to cult indoctrination tactics. As the late Dr. John G. Clark Jr., a psychiatrist specializing in cult manipulation, explains in a 1982 New York Times article on "The Psychology of the Cult Experience," cults recruit by isolating their targets, placing them in highly controlled situations where they can be broken down and kept in a debilitated state, then manufacturing an emotional crisis. Some deprive their marks of sleep, or play their leader's sermons over loudspeakers every hour of the day. Kramer expedites the process by strapping his subjects to metal devices and tricking them into starting a countdown clock.

Dr. Clark explains that one response to the emotional crisis triggered is to "adapt to the situation, and accept the 'answer' or 'solution' to the crisis that the cult furnishes [the recruit] with. To survive, they reidentify with their surroundings, and accept the dogma of the group.'"

In other words, cherish your life. Then put on the pig mask and robes and help others do the same.

Jigsaw is dead, long live Jigsaw

Saw II (2005)

If the Saw franchise is good at one thing above all else, it's playing the "they were an accomplice the whole time!" card repeatedly without it ever getting stale. (Well, maybe a little in Jigsaw, but Jigsaw is its own can of worms.)

Young and Dr. Gordon both survive their metaphorical rebirths and begin helping Kramer to deliver his mission, with the ending of Saw: The Final Chapter confirming that there are at least two more active members in the cult. Saw IV even documents the attempted recruitment of Daniel Rigg (Lyriq Bent), who fails his initiation because he can't accept another of Jigsaw's core teachings: that you can't save everyone because they have to save themselves (through torture, duh).

The franchise doesn't just document a cult's attempts at growing its ranks, however. It also explores the power vacuum left behind when the cult leader dies.

As early as Saw II, we learn that death isn't the end for the Cult of Jigsaw, with Young declaring that "it is I who will carry on John's work after he dies." Since she survived her initial test, escaping the iconic "Reverse Bear Trap" with a little help from her former cellmate's stomach, Kramer has been grooming Young to take over the cult after his inevitable death by cancer, cop, or power saw. Whichever comes first.


But Young struggles to accept Kramer's black-or-white view of a cherished life—a major no-no in a cult where the leader's word is law. A recovering addict, she recognizes the systemic inequalities and mitigating factors that make it harder for some to live lives they can cherish. Sure, Kramer lost his unborn child and was diagnosed with terminal cancer, which was a bummer, but he seemed to enjoy a relatively privileged life before this. He was educated, had a lucrative career in engineering, and was, you know, a straight white American man. "We all have free will," he says in Saw X, cutting off Amanda's pleas to show mercy to Gabriela (Renata Vaca), a Latina woman addicted to drugs and manipulated by a wealthy white woman. "Gabriella has her own free will. And if you can't handle this, how will you handle the rest of our work?"

The price of free will is a little steeper for someone like Gabriela than it is for, say, Dr. Gordon, a rich white doctor who cheated on his wife and showed little compassion for his dying patients. But Kramer doesn't see it that way. In his eyes, both are equally deserving of being tested, and both would be welcomed into the cult with open arms upon passing their respective tests.

This is another aspect of the cult's doctrine that Young struggles with, leading her to create unwinnable traps. And it's one of the reasons that Kramer builds a further test for her into his succession plan.

Enter Saw X. Taking place between the first two entries in the franchise, X sees Kramer, believing himself to be cured, scrapping the designs for one of the traps that later plays out in Saw III. (Confused by the timeline yet? Stay with me here). While Saw III's game initially seems focused on Jeff Denlon (Angus Macfadyen), the climax reveals it to all be part of a broader test of Young's readiness. A test she ultimately fails.

If the miracle treatment had been real and Kramer's death had been postponed, perhaps Denlon and his family would have avoided becoming collateral damage in this messy handing over of the reins. Of course, we know it was a scam; we've already seen Kramer die in Saw III. The torch needs to be passed after all, but Young's hand keeps wavering.

This may be what leads Kramer to work a test of Young's commitment—a literal baptism of blood—into the "reawakening" he's planned for the scam artists who wronged him in Saw X. When this doesn't play out as he intended, he proceeds with his original plan in Saw III (sorry, Jeff).

Unfortunately, another of Kramer's recruits puts his thumb on the scale.

You're not Jigsaw (bitch)

Saw II Wahlberg

After Young reveals her intention to replace Kramer as the head of the cult, Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), her first victim, screams "You're not Jigsaw, bitch!" The audience may feel inclined to shout something similar at Hoffman when he positions himself as the new figurehead instead.

Hoffman is a character we love to hate. While the initial crime (a Jigsaw copycat killing) committed out of love for his late sister lands him in Kramer's crosshairs, he gradually reveals himself to be cold, calculating, and incredibly brutal, especially when cornered. He blackmails Young into failing her final test, seeing an opportunity to seize control of the cult if she's removed from the succession plan. Plus, he's got a very punchable face (no offense, Costas).

Most egregiously, at least as far as Kramer is concerned, Hoffman isn't a born-again believer. He's a convenience recruit, brought on board to streamline Kramer's work because it's so much easier to run a cult with a plant in the police force. Dr. Gordon may have been targeted for similar reasons; for all of Kramer's engineering prowess, many of his more elaborate tests would not have been possible without Dr. Gordon's surgical know-how.

But Dr. Gordon cut off his foot with a rusty hacksaw. Hoffman's tootsies are very much intact.


In many ways, Hoffman is a parallel to Bobby Dagen. Both insert themselves into Jigsaw lore. They pretend to buy into his teachings, one for money and the other for power, but neither truly believes. Saw: The Final Chapter even hints that Hoffman may have been abusing the power bought by his badge long before he met Kramer; in a flashback, he shoots an unarmed suspect in the back with a smile. After taking over the cult, he can kill under the guise of continuing Jigsaw's legacy, though he has no qualms about slaughtering his colleagues in cold blood when they get too close. Killing might have been distasteful to Kramer, but to Hoffman, it's convenient. Stimulating, even.

But Kramer wasn't stupid. He saw the power struggle unfolding in the final days of his life, and he refused to let his cult be taken over by anyone who would diverge from the strict doctrine he laid out. "You feel you now have control, don't you?" he taunts Hoffman on a tape retrieved from his tummy after death. "You think that you will walk away untested. You think it's over just because I am dead. It's not over. The games have just begun."

saw x john kramer

If you're a cult leader as controlling as Jigsaw, you don't keep a dangerous, manipulative man like Hoffman around without putting multiple contingency plans in place. The first is Jill Tuck, who attempts to kill Hoffman with a modified Reverse Bear Trap before winding up in the OG herself (ouchie). The second is Dr. Gordon, who chains Hoffman up in the same bathroom where he was reborn before tossing the hacksaw away. Hoffman has already failed his test; he did so when he rejected Jigsaw's teachings in favor of his self-interests. He's had enough second chances already. Game over.

Perhaps a future sequel will reveal what became of Hoffman after the end credits of The Final Chapter rolled. Perhaps he found his way out of the bathroom sans hacksaw (he wouldn't be the first) and attempted to reassert control. Or perhaps Dr. Gordon and his pig-masked companions returned the cult to its roots, bringing Jigsaw's "manic torture mantra" to the masses.

I can't say for sure—the writers won't return my calls. All I know is that the cult remains active as of Saw: The Final Chapter. Spin-off Spiral: From the Book of Saw implies it may even be developing offshoots. Growing.

So, be sure to cherish your life. Because the Cult of Jigsaw could always do with new members, and you won't like what the initiation entails.

Saw X is now available on Digital and Bluray. Go behind the scenes of the bloodboarding scene in this exclusive clip.