Se7en: The Gothic Return of Medieval Justice

Director David Fincher had not read a script in nearly a year in a half before picking up the screenplay for Se7en (1995). Following the disaster that was Alien 3 (1992), he was quoted in Sight and Sound by critic Amy Taubin stating that he would “rather die of colon cancer than do another movie ". Fincher agreed to sign onto Se7en after reading the screenplay because it was, as he described it, a "connect-the-dots movie that delivers about inhumanity. It's psychologically violent. It implies so much, not about why you did it but how you did it." More succinctly put, Fincher saw the film as a “meditation on evil .” The source of evil in Se7en is personified in the character of John Doe (Kevin Spacey), a religious psychopath who believes he has been chosen by God to administer medieval Christian punishment upon sinners. Se7en fits itself into the contemporary American gothic oeuvre through its surface imagery, but primarily through its process of bringing to light aspects of American culture that, much like the gore of the crime scenes, are difficult to look at, such as the violent roots of Christianity; and compounding the audiences’ discomfort are Fincher’s consistent, unnerving reminders that the horror exists on the other side of the fourth wall.


The film quite obviously fits the visual characteristics of gothic imagery. The narrative exists within a gloomy city in which it seems to be perpetually raining. Even when indoors, the rooms are extremely dimly lit, and nothing looks new, everything holds a sense of decay. The landscape of the city is emblematic of an oppressive “space of gloom and ambient violence,” a “nightmarish vision of the American urban landscape ”. Critic Steve Macek argues that the urban setting of Se7en is fantastic and surreal, which tricks the audience into lowering their guard just enough to give voice to their quotidian fears and anxieties .
One such anxiety in cities like New York, LA, and Chicago, which are the locations Se7en draws heavy inspiration from, is violence and murder. The general public prefers to imagine that murderers and killers are outward psychos who are easy to spot and stay away from; the type of people you would cross the street to avoid when seen coming your way. Se7en reaches into the deeper pits of this phobia by exhibiting to the audience that this psychotic, remorseless killer can be (and in this case is) a completely unassuming, mild-mannered, middle-aged, white, Christian man who could be living in your own apartment building. This fits into Robin Wood’s basic description of horror; your “safe” place may not be so safe, normality is not so normal, the societal outcast “Other” is out there, and the repressed is coming back to bite society . 
Narratively, the film follows two, somewhat stereotypical, homicide detectives; the young bold one, Mills (Brad Pitt), and the seasoned veteran who’s close to retirement, Somerset (Morgan Freeman). They end up on a case in which a serial killer is gruesomely murdering one person for each of the seven deadly sins, beginning with gluttony, and ending with wrath, in manners fitting for each sin. For example, the mysterious murderer punishes an overweight man for gluttony by binding his hands and feet and force feeds him spaghetti until he dies. The serial killer remains unknown to the detectives and the audience until the killer, by his own accord, shows up to the detective’s precinct. The killer identifies as John Doe, who has skinned his finger tips to prevent identification, agrees to confess to all of the murders as long as he is allowed to guide the detectives to the final two bodies. 


Pure evil is realized once the audience learns more about John Doe, as he sits calmly in the back of the detectives’ squad car explaining his motivation behind each murder. Doe calmly explains his desire to punish the sinners, the wicked, and that he believes that he will be admired for what he has done. The film up until this point has been unnerving due to the fact that Doe has been so successful at committing such twistedly brutal violence while also maintaining the capacity to exist seamlessly and undetected within the bounds of normative society. John Doe’s string of murders has established him as the Other, therefore the Other has secretly been among society the entire time. Once in the back of the detectives’ squad car, the audience is offered a dialogue between Doe and Mills which forces them to confront their own repressed anxieties. 


Detective Mills asks Doe, “Do you know that you’re insane? Maybe you're just sitting around, reading "Guns and Ammo", masturbating in your own feces, do you just stop and go, "Wow! It is amazing how fucking crazy I really am!"? Yeah. Do you guys do that?” Mills is clearly expressing the popular idea that anybody who can commit such gruesome acts of violence must be extremely far removed from societal norms, which is a view that is likely shared by most of the audience. However, Doe’s response to Mills’ question forces the unwanted reality of the situation into the audiences’ faces. “It’s more comfortable for you to label me insane. It’s not something I would expect you to accept,” Doe states, as though addressing the audience. It becomes plain as day to the audience now that what they fear is much harder to avoid than they would like to believe, since the monster is closer to sanity than it is comfortable to accept.
Valerie Allen examines perhaps the most gothic element of the film overall: John Doe’s religious basis of his so-called “justice.” Early in the film, Detective Somerset can be seen photocopying pages from Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, which is the basis on which John Doe builds his twisted judicial system. In Dante’s moral landscape, all actions carried out by humans can be attributed to reason, and all such actions bear “global repercussions .” This was the basis of the judicial systems in the medieval period, the period which of course is the historical root of gothicism, as it is represented in early gothic literature .


John Doe’s actual decision to execute the sinners in manners that are fitting to their sins was evidently drawn from Dante’s ‘Inferno’. In ‘Inferno’, this method of poetic justice is referred to as contrapasso, which roughly describes “the state of having experienced, felt, or suffered in return, in exchange .” Returning to the visual characteristics of the film, illustrations of nineteenth-century of ‘Divine Comedy’ also find their way into Fincher’s frame, all of which relate to the poetic retributive method outlined in Dante’s ‘Inferno’. On top of this, Macek points out that the city’s New York-esque setting acts as an allegorical Hell, “full of suffering and anguish as the ‘Inferno’ of Dante on which it appears to have been modeled .”
This places John Doe in the “malicious priest” trope of gothic texts.  While his actual occupation is never revealed, John Doe clearly is attempting to spread his gospel through his killings. He believes that God has specifically chosen him to act on His behalf, as established repeatedly as Doe states this as one of the primary reasons he began killing. This is summarized nicely by Mills and Somerset in a brief dialogue as they pour over evidence, in which Mills comments, “He’s preaching,” and Somerset replies, “Yeah, these murders are his sermons to us.” Later in the film, Doe would explain that he hopes and expects that others would agree with the message he left behind in the form of corpses and would continue to spread his gospel. 


Doe’s explanation of his gospel elaborates upon his use of medieval justice as a method of creating a better world, and in explaining the film is once again forcing the audience to confront an unsettling idea; the idea “there is a sinner on every street corner,” and at one point in history most members of the audience would have been executed for their crimes of sin. This results in John Doe acting as the “embodiment of retribution in casting the shadow of accountability on every sinner, every spectator .” Using John Doe as the catalyst, the film is juxtaposing the “barbarism, superstition, and cruelty” of the medieval past with societies preferred “progress of enlightenment” of modernity . Fincher’s Se7en serves to, as G. R. Thompson states, “the philosophical tension between modern, progressive, and secular notions of man’s essential goodness . . . and medieval conceptions of man’s spiritual corruption .”
This archaic method of justice is part of the repressed history of Christianity, an aspect that society in general would rather forget than relive. Fincher is obsessed with keeping the audience uncomfortable by forcing them to face what has been hiding in the dark. Amy Taubin points out that this occurs not only narratively, but formally as well. Fincher repeatedly utilizes shots of “flashlights penetrating obscure and terrifying places ,” while using shallow focus as a way of forcing the viewer to look at what it doesn’t want to see, with the idea that there’s something worse in the periphery. 


This technique is used early in the film at the first crime scene involving the gluttonous man who had been force fed to death. The shadows of the poorly lit kitchen crime scene are pierced by Mills’ and Somerset’s flashlights as they inspect the situation. The audience is given glances into the brutality of the scene before them, as the detectives turn their lights to the decaying corpse, revealing the victim’s lifeless, bloated feet and hands have been bound. The lights continue to peruse the room, resulting in one close-up image of rotten food and piles of dirty dishes being traversed by a solitary cockroach. Much like the reluctance of facing the uncomfortable medieval Christian past which is the root of John Doe’s motivation, Fincher makes it physically difficult to look at the grotesque images that symbolize the violent past. This long avoided past, “despite modernity’s denial, [has] always haunted by the passions, appetites, and destructive impulses of the past, energies too powerful to be repressed by the modern .”


In Se7en, David Fincher uses the critical gothic technique of reviving and revealing the repressed in order to create an intense sense of discomfort in the film’s audience. Fincher accomplishes this both visually as well as narratively. Visually, he places the film in a city that matches the concept of Hell as outlined in Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ while also utilizing dimly lit spaces for the purpose of literally revealing that which lurks in the shadows, subjecting the audience to the gruesome aftermath of violence. Narratively, the film places John Doe’s motivation in the Christian religion, specifically from the medieval period which is known contemporarily for its archaic methods of “divine” justice. By reviving this regrettable history, Fincher compels the film’s American audience to come to terms with the repressed memories of the dominant religion of their culture.