*minor spoilers for Squid Game ahead*
Watching a good TV show is one of my favorite forms of escapism. During a 45-minute episode, it’s easy to forget all of the things I had been worrying about. So it’s safe to say I owe a debt of gratitude to Netflix. While on the app, my eyes usually tend to gravitate towards the “Top 10 in the U.S Today” section. I find it fascinating how some shows blow up within a few days of being released while others seem to fade into the shadows. One show that kept popping up recently was Squid Game. Whether it was #1 on Netflix, trending on Twitter, or all over my Instagram Explore page, I couldn’t seem to get away from the images of creepy dudes in red jumpsuits. After a few weeks, I finally decided to see what all the hype was about.
Squid Game was intense. If you are sensitive to blood and dark themes I recommend staying away. However, as the show has officially become Netflix’s biggest series launch, it seems as though I was not the only one that kind of enjoyed how dark and gory Squid Game is. The show follows a group of people in South Korea that have one thing in common: they are all in major debt. Gi-hun, our main character, cannot even afford to buy his daughter a real birthday present. So, when a mysterious opportunity for money arises, Gi-hun, and 455 other people, take it. Contestants are drugged and awaken on an island in which they are to play a series of six games, all of which are based on real children’s games from Korea. If they pass all six, they win money to take home. Sounds simple enough, right? However, if a contestant at all messes up or cannot complete a game in time, they must pay with their life. The more people who die, the more money that is added to the prize fund.
Up until this point, there is undoubtedly an ominous tone to the first episode. However, once the first game begins, viewers may be shocked at just how far this show is willing to go. The first game featured is “red light, green light.” Personally, I think this was a good choice because this game has been popularized in many countries, not just South Korea. I remember playing “red light, green light” in elementary school, which makes it much more shocking to see people getting shot for breaking the rules. The sheer amount of death in this sequence shows viewers that Squid Game isn’t messing around. Although it’s bloody, the first episode really grabs viewers by the stomach and leaves them in suspense. I won’t spoil too much more, but the entire show is definitely worth watching.
My enjoyment of the show really got me thinking. Why am I (and seemingly the rest of society) so obsessed with movies and TV shows that feature gore and death? Around the same time that Squid Game started gaining traction, Netflix released the third season of the show You. While there is no competition element, viewers of You will find no shortage of murder, blood, and violence. The season quickly rose to trending status as well. Movies like The Hunger Games and Escape Room also feature deadly competition (and have done well enough to warrant sequels). Maybe humans just have some sort of sadistic desire for violence and use the media to fulfill that desire. Because murder is well- illegal (and morally wrong) – watching shows that portray an unhealthy release of violence could potentially be a harmless way for people to release their own violence. However, there are a few other (more likely) reasons these shows gain so much popularity.
My enjoyment of the show really got me thinking. Why am I (and seemingly the rest of society) so obsessed with movies and TV shows that feature gore and death?
I have taken my fair share of “Would You Survive the Hunger Games?” quizzes in the past. It’s definitely disappointing to find out that a poison berry could be my downfall in an arena full of murderous teenagers. Still, there is something so intriguing about the whole situation. One thing I’ve noticed about humans is that we like to think we’re good at things. Maybe it’s just hindsight bias, but a part of me really thinks I’d have a chance at being a sole survivor in one of these competitions. The other part of me thinks I would die immediately, but either way I still kind of want to find out. Coming up with theories and strategies while watching these pieces of media is so fun because the stakes are so high. Adrenaline and anticipation are heightened as cliffhangers become even more stressful. It’s almost impossible not to place yourself in these situations when the characters’ anxiety can be felt through the screen. One wrong move and you’re dead; and, to some, this is fun and exciting.
On a more serious note, another thing that The Hunger Games and Squid Game have in common is that they can both be interpreted as a piece of social commentary. Their themes of classism, elitism, and capitalism hold up a mirror to society in a new and interesting way. In The Hunger Games, the death competition is not necessarily voluntary. In the poorer “districts” a lottery system is used. However, in the richer areas people often volunteer. This touches upon classism because the richer teens have access to training and better nutrition sources. They volunteer because these resources give them a better chance at winning, and winning would increase their social status even more. The most elite in this society, those living in the illustrious “Capitol”, do not participate in the games. Rather, they have the chance to bet on, sponsor, or simply be entertained by the spectacle itself. This whole situation can be symbolic of American society. Not only do the elites not have to worry about basic necessities, but they often take pleasure in mocking or criticizing those of a lower socio-economic status. These issues, both in the fictional world and reality, are systematic and institutionalized, but sometimes overlooked.
In Squid Game, participants choose to enter the game, but are in so much economic trouble that it seems almost necessary. The game-master mentions that everyone has an equal shot of winning. This parallels the idea that some favor capitalism because there is free will and if you work hard enough, you can get anywhere. However, like reality, that is not necessarily the case. Even with an “equal chance” there is really only one true winner- the 1%. The show makes it clear from the first episode that only a small amount of people are going to make it through all six rounds. Is the “free will” ideology really relevant if it’s impossible to live without fearing death at any moment? Similar to the residents of The Hunger Games Capitol, Squid Game also features elites who bet on the players, laugh at their deaths, and take advantage of the positions of power they have been granted. So why do we subject ourselves to media with such upsetting but relevant themes? While escapism is nice, it is definitely interesting to see real issues presented in a gripping yet enjoyable way. The entertainment we get from these pieces of media can remind us just how prevalent these issues really are. Having these representations to draw from can also help us to truly understand these issues and how they exist in our society. While these competitions do not exist today, it is terrifyingly thought-provoking to wonder about a world in which they do.