“The trick is to find one item, one detail, and focus on it.”
-Detective Somerset to Detective Mills
Originally, I planned on writing about the various symbols seen throughout David Fincher’s 1997 movie Seven, but when I heard the line quoted above, I decided to focus only on the role that numbers play in the film as both symbols and signifiers, helping in foreshadowing. I will, however, acknowledge one other symbol in the movie, namely, rain, and how we can interpret it as God’s approval of the killings.
Numbers and rain play a symbolic role throughout the whole movie as is apparent from the very beginning. After Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is shown getting ready for work, he is then shown at a crime scene – a homicide. There, the new detective in town, David Mills (Brad Pitt) meets Somerset for the first time. As the two go down to street level, they walk beneath a row of awnings as rain pours down. The addresses on the doors behind them all begin with the number 7: 744, 742 and 740.
Note that all of these numbers are separated by two. This can be interpreted as the separation and distance between our two main characters, Somerset and Mills. I think there is a strong case for this interpretation since later, when Mills moves into Somerset’s office, we notice that the number on the door is 714. Both of them are in the same room when we see this: 2×7=14 (or two sevens together make fourteen). Aside from the obvious seven deadly sins expressed by the movie’s title, there are also the seven virtues (7+7=14). In this scene, the two detectives who are compliments of one another (Mills being wrathful, Somerset being meek) are in one room, signifying a completeness, a whole. Wholeness is often expressed by the number 4, as is death. This interpretation of the detectives becoming closer and being expressed by the number 14 is further supported towards the end of the movie. Right before John Doe (Kevin Spacey) turns himself in, we see Mills and Somerset enter the 14th Precinct building. While in the same building, the detectives watch John Doe in an interrogation room and Somerset says to Mills: “For the first time ever, you and I are in total agreement.”
The most obvious number symbol in the movie is 7. In A Dictionary of Symbols, J.E. Cirlot says that the number seven is a symbol of “perfect order, a complete period or cycle” (p. 233). Thus, the seven murders representing the seven deadly sins can be interpreted as establishing order, a purge of sorts. In addition to the seven deadly sins, there are their seven opposing virtues, there are the main seven musical notes and, of course, seven days in a week. Let’s remember that the movie takes place in span of the seven days leading up to Detective Somerset’s retirement. Cirlot also writes that seven “is the symbol of pain” (p. 233).
There is pain throughout the movie: John Doe tortures his victims, breaks Mills’ face and routinely cuts off the skin from his own fingertips. It is also a very spiritually trying – and painful – week for both of the detectives, especially on the last day, Sunday. Cirlot seems to support my theory about the number 14 detailed above when describing the symbolism of it: “ stands for fusion and organization, and also for justice and temperance” (p. 234).
Another important number in Seven is the number 5. The police chief’s office is 705. Brad Pitt’s character has a name with five letters in each name (D-a-v-i-d M-i-l-l-s). In fact, the number five is a symbol for the character of detective Mills. If even foreshadows his death in at least two ways that I noticed. There is a scene in the movie when Mills and Somerset are looking at all of the seven deadly sins listed on a chalkboard. Number five is wrath – the sin that John Doe uses to effectively end Mills’ life by sending him to jail for murder.
Also, after John Doe has turned himself in, Mills and Somerset watch him play with a tea bag on the other side of a two-way mirror. John Doe is sitting in room number 5. It is painted on the glass of the door of the interrogation room. At one point, Detective Mills’ head completely covers up the glass and the number. The number five comes up with relation to Mills again with money in the film. When Somerset asks Mills how much money he has to pay the FBI agent for information, Mills says “about 50 bucks.” Also, the delivery man at the end of the movie was paid $500 to deliver the package at 7:00.
Writer Michael Hoffman notes in his book Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare that the number 5 is associated with protection and therefore the police. This is why it is common for a five-pointed star to be on their badges, cars, hats, etc. “The symbol (or, alchemically, sigil) of the armed enforcers of the empire of Babylon, the successor to Sumer, was the five-pointed star, or pentagram” (Hoffman p. 30). “This star also happens to be the symbol of the armed enforcers of modern America’s laws, and it was also a symbol of the enforcers of the Communist regime in Russia” (Hoffman p. 30). Granted, there are many police badges that have six points instead of five, but five points are still rather common and the classic police badge of the western sheriff has five points. If the badge is not star-shaped, it is still common for there to be a five-pointed star on the badge itself. Five is also related to the police because it is representative of protection.
Going back to the number seven, we can also link this number to another important symbol seen throughout the film: rain. At some point each day in Seven, it rains. The story of Noah and the flood occurs in Genesis 7. And Noah is given a warning that the flood will start in seven days: “For after seven more days I will cause it to rain on the earth forty days and forty nights” (Gen 7:4). Genesis 7 is also when the waters and rain come: “Then it came to pass that after seven days, the waters of the flood came upon the earth. In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day, all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the floodgates of heaven were opened” (Gen 7:11).
Let’s consider the symbol of rain for a moment and how we may interpret it. On rain, Cirlot writes in his Dictionary: “[Rain] signifies purification, not only because of the value of water as the ‘universal substance’ – as the mediating agent between the non-formal or gaseous and the formal or solid, an aspect which is common to all symbolic traditions – but also because of the fact that rainwater falls from heaven. Hence it is also cognate with light. This explains why, in many mythologies, rain is regarded as a symbol of the ‘spiritual influences’ of heaven descending upon earth” (Cirlot p. 272) (Italics added for emphasis). Each day in the film as the murders are being discovered or committed, it is raining: the earth is being purified. God agrees with John Doe’s work. Thus, on the last day, when all is finished with John Doe dying for Envy and Mills’ life being effectively ended because of Wrath, the rain stops: God rests (Gen 2:2). (Although it did rain earlier that day. We can tell because when John Doe exits the taxi in front of the 14th Precinct building, the street is wet and there is still water on the taxi.)
Before anyone objects saying that this is a rash interpretation and that God would not agree with the work of John Doe, I’d first remind them that these are the seven deadly sins that are being punished. Next, I would encourage them to read the book of Job.
-The Orthodox Study Bible
-Cirlot, J. E., “A Dictionary of Symbols”, 1971.
-Hoffman II, Michael A., “Secret Societies and Psychological Warfare”, 2001.