The ‘Pulp Fiction’ Pawn Shop: Tarantino’s Greatest Terror
Quentin Tarantino Spotlight
“I think the gimp’s sleepin“
Everyone knows the scene. Two sweating, bleeding men with plastic red balls stuffed in their mouths awaken, tied to a chair. A redneck holding a leather-bound man casually eyes his prisoners. “How did we get here?” asks the audience, fearful. Within Tarantino’s library, Pulp Fiction’s pawn shop scene is perhaps the best remembered and the least talked about. Often glossed over quickly and met with awkward glances and uncomfortable silence, the scene still has a way of bringing visceral terror, even fifteen years after its release. Despite its controversial themes, Pulp Fiction’s pawn shop scene arguably stands as the filmmaker’s greatest terror, pushing the boundaries of cinema with its visceral imagery and leaving lasting mysteries in the Tarantino cinematic universe.
Because of its impactful horror, the events of Pulp Fiction’s pawn shop are almost burned into the collective memory of film. The shop, described as the Mason-Dixie Pawn Shop in the original draft of the script, is a quiet and unassuming building somewhere in sunny Los Angeles. Engaged in a chase regarding the rigging of a fight, Butch Coolidge and Marsellus Wallace brawl their way through its doors and end up captured and incapacitated by the shop’s redneck operator, the paunchy and sweaty Maynard. The man calls up his accomplice, Zed, who is described in the script as his brother, and informs him that “The spider just caught a coupl’a flies.”
Butch and Marsellus wake up in sheer terror, gagged with red S&M balls and tied up in front of their captors. Zed demands that Maynard wake the gimp (a leather-bound man that lives in the back room), plays a game of ‘eenie, meenie, miney, mo’ for which man goes first, then drags Marsellus into the back room for unknown torture. While noises are heard behind closed doors, Butch escapes his bonds, knocks the gimp out, and runs upstairs to freedom. However, instead of leaving the pawnshop, the boxer decides to free Marsellus as well; he finds a samurai sword, then bursts into the back room to find Zed sodomizing the mob boss. He cuts Maynard down and subdues Zed, who is eventually blown away by Marsellus with a shotgun.
In including such a disturbing scene, Tarantino continues his tradition of genre switching within Pulp Fiction. While Butch’s character is a nod to celebrated boxing film Body and Soul, the horror of the Pawn Shop is borrowed almost directly from the classic Deliverance, creating a mashup effect of past narratives to keep things fresh and unique. In an interview, Tarantino stated that “Part of the fun of Pulp is that if you’re hip to movies, you’re watching the boxing movie Body and Soul and then suddenly the characters turn a corner and they’re in the middle of Deliverance. And you’re like, ‘What? How did I get into Deliverance? I was in Body and Soul, what’s going on here?’” This postmodern film technique creates an almost kaleidoscopic effect for the viewer, unnerving the audience by upsetting their narrative base. This heightens the impact of the terror within the film as a whole, putting the audience on edge by subtly indicating that the film could take another dark turn at any time.
By pushing the envelope of what is acceptable in cinema, Pulp Fiction’s pawn shop scene is classic Tarantino writing and filmmaking, taking its time with conversation to build suspense, and using sexual deviance as a way to shock his viewers. Immediately after the two men wake up in the Mason-Dixie basement, the casual and deliberate way that Zed chooses his victim is designed to give the audience time to come to terms with their predicament, and wonder whether the heroic Butch will be the first to undergo whatever torture the redneck devises. It’s a classic technique seen in horror and thriller narratives since the dawn of Hollywood, forcing audiences to participate in the helplessness of the characters at the hands of a menace. Combined with the slow rhythmic tapping of his hands on the gimp’s leather, as well as the voyeuristic gaze of Maynard in the background, this tension is heightened by Zed’s cool and controlled manner, implying that Butch and Marsellus are not his first victims.
The imagery of Pulp Fiction’s pawn shop scene is also designed to increase terror by relying on another classic Tarantino trope: the shock value of sexual deviance. Another hallmark of his films, the pure visceral reaction to the S&M paraphernalia and actual terror of witnessing on-screen assault is enough to burn this part of the narrative into audience’s minds and force them to turn away in disgust. Like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, brutal scenes of backwoods violations have a long history in Hollywood, but the unexpected viciousness of the crime and the unorthodox props make the events of the pawnshop extraordinarily memorable. Combined with the fact that it is male-on-male violence for the purpose of sadistic power committed beneath an otherwise reputable business, and these acts play to the baser fears of audiences, seeking to particularly cut masculine viewers to the core.
One of the greatest and most frightening mysteries of Pulp Fiction’s pawn shop scene is the identity of the gimp and story behind his enslavement. When first seen, the gimp is sleeping in the basement back room of the Mason-Dixie pawnshop, chained inside what looks like a cheap box made of plywood. Clad head to toe in leather and studs, the man has no lines, and is faceless besides two eyes peering out from the mask. His presence raises a number of questions concerning his identity, where he came from, and how he ended up there. Was he kidnapped by Maynard similarly to Marsellus and Butch? Does he live there voluntarily? Who was he before he was masked? While he is kept in chains and shackles, he also obeys Zed’s request to watch prisoners, implying that he is on the side of the rednecks.
Perhaps the reason why the gimp is so frightening lies in the fact that these questions have no answers. Like a backwoods bondage Jason from Friday the 13th, the gimp is an unspeaking horror that probes that very malleability of human nature. In his suit, the gimp ceases to be his own agent and becomes a slave to the holder of the leash, in this case, Zed. One could argue that the gimp even mirrors Butch’s relationship to Marsellus at the beginning of the film, as the mob boss effectively “owns” the boxer by buying him out and telling him to take a dive. The horror behind the gimp lies not in his actions, but in his possibilities, as the masked monster invites audiences to put themselves in the suit and question their power to control their destiny.
The gimp aside, the Mason Dixie still has one final unsettling mystery: the purpose of the back room. Maynard refers to Pulp Fiction’s pawn shop back room as Russell’s old room, implying that there was once another person that lived there. Could Russell have been a tenant or co-conspirator? A past prisoner of the redneck group? Could Russell be the previous identity of the gimp before he was brought into servitude? These questions ultimately remain unanswered, but bring further mystery and terror to the scene.
Regardless of how one views the scene, it is incredibly important within the context of the film and cinema as a whole. From a certain perspective, it’s possible to interpret the horrific events of Pulp Fiction’s pawn shop scene as the thematic embodiment of the entire movie — illustrating the struggles for power, possibility of fate, and the racial tensions that have been boiling under the surface for the entire film. Regardless of critical views, Pulp Fiction’s pawn shop remains an integral piece of cinematic history and an absolute terror to watch. Although future Tarantino films have always had that unifying grit, the Mason Dixie pawnshop stands the test of time as the most outlandish and horrifying.