In conjunction with the Blu-Ray/DVD release of The Cabin in the Woods , I’m reposting an essay I wrote back in April when the film was released. This essay originally appeared on horror icon Peaches Christ’s website. The essay has some spoilers, but if you haven’t seen the movie yet, what are you waiting for?
If you don’t believe in a world ruled by secret, unseen forces that control how we think, feel, and treat others, there’s a quick remedy to your delusion: Tear a twenty dollar bill into tiny, useless pieces. Better yet, do it in front of a friend. One or both of you will gasp, feel sick, feel remorse. All over a little piece of paper.
Of course, it’s not the paper itself, but the meaning in the paper (and “in” isn’t the proper word here, since meaning isn’t ever “in” anything, it’s not spatial) that is sacred to us.
If you prefer to spend your money instead of tearing it up, you could learn a bit about these forces by buying a ticket for Drew Goddard’s and Joss Whedon’s Lovecraftian film of horror, spectacle, and conspiracy, The Cabin in the Woods.
In one of its strangest and most potent moments, Marty (Fran Kranz), the nerdy Shaggy-like stoner character points out, when we’re in the sway of these secret forces, which is always, “We are not who we are.”
These forces are always magical and strange in nature – they evade our understanding, because they’re bigger than our understanding. Economy, sexual attraction, race, language, the feeling of a place: all of them invade our being and identity. Most of them aren’t chosen, and there’s no escaping them. Nature itself is the greatest conspiracy – cells conspiring without our say so, weather and elements deciding who lives and who dies. Indeed, nature is such a convoluted conspiracy that there may be no need for intention at the top at all, it may simply act out of habit, taking everyone along for the ride.
We think that science and scientific understanding give us a better handle on these forces, but in fact science is a symptom of these magical forces. Historically, science rose from religion and mysticism, linked to the spiritual at its birth, and even now as it seems distant from its occult ancestor, science pulses with magic. We build airplanes out of a magical impulse to fly, telephones out of a longing for telepathy. We bind chemicals and harness physics through a very limited understanding, demanding the world jump through hoops for us, and then pretend to understand it when it does. But we don’t understand the world, and continue to worship what we don’t understand, albeit implicitly. In labs, when an animal is killed or experimented on, it’s called “sacrificing.” Sacrificing to whom?
This tangling of magic and science, the old and the new, is on full display in Cabin, as five college students are manipulated by a secret (governmental?) organization into a weekend at a sacrificial black room masquerading as a cabin with a lake and some beautiful surrounding woods.
* * *
The movie starts by pointing to the unseen forces that rule our lives, through superstition. It’s a disorienting start – you wonder for a moment if you’re in the right theater. Where are the college kids? Where’s the party? The RV being packed full of stuff and the sly innuendo?
Instead two middle-aged men Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) hang out by a coffee machine in some sort of science-looking base. They complain about women and babies, and Hadley, in a foreshadowing you’ll forget unless you see the film again, voices a superstition – if his wife thinks it’s a foregone conclusion that they’re having a baby, if she childproofs the house before she’s pregnant, they’ll never have a baby. (Hadley is right about the baby – though he doesn’t suspect just how right. The movie starts with a small superstition at the coffee machine and in less than 24 hours finishes with the end of the world.)
Cue the title on the screen – so this is The Cabin in the Woods after all – red and loud, in an homage to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a film with which Cabin shares much in lesson and idea.
The kids, the lambs to be sacrificed, are introduced in a typical way. They’re getting ready for a trip, they’re thinking about sex, they’re lamenting lost loves, they’re excited. But how much of it is real? Jules (Anne Hutchison), has dyed blonde hair. It’s not just fake because it’s blonde, it’s calculatedly fake – we find out later that the organization, which is never named but has (surprise!) a pentagon as its symbol, has drugged the hair dye to slow down her cognitive functioning and make her dumber than she is. Her boyfriend, Kurt (Chris Hemsworth) is excited to go to his cousin’s cabin. Not his cousin’s cabin, we find out at the end of the movie. Dana (Krisitin Connolly) has just had sex with and been unceremoniously dumped by her professor, revealing her thing for smart guys (the smart guys in the organization will be treating her much much worse later). Her relationship with the professor was probably real, but it was a delusion in itself. How did she think she could maintain it? In walks Holden (Jesse Williams), who we know and learn the least about. He’s smart and nice, and maybe knows a bunch of other languages. He gets stabbed in the throat later.
And finally, Marty, who starts off and remains more knowing than the others. He pulls up in his beat up car, high and smoking a huge bong (that collapses into a thermos and later extends into a zombie-beating club). Unafraid of the police, he’ll foil them with “ancient logics,” of posturing and feigned nonchalance.
The pot keeps his head clear through the rest of the movie, and this is no coincidence. To understand how the world, as one 17th century mystic put it, is “bound with secret knots,” you have to ask big questions. For many, the big questions are too terrifying to ask without pot. Indeed, questions about god, reality, and conspiracy are nowadays ridiculed as stoner questions.
But in Cabin, as in life, these questions are what help you survive, because without the thoughtful interrogation of everything, you can’t see what kind of danger you’re in.
Their vacation world isn’t what they think it is. They pass through a tunnel, wired with explosives that go off later, that’s surrounded by a force field, that’s rigged with pheremone-emitting vents and grass, lined with underground elevators, patrolled by the organization’s hidden cameras.
Cultural theorists used to make much of such constructed vacation environments – Disneyworld’s fake castle and Epcot Center’s fake countries and Six Flags’ fake safari. The weird part about those places is that people would leave the constructs of the city and enter into something even more constructed. In contrast, the kids in Cabin are seeking the classic vacation – to be somewhere more real than their lives, but instead of getting off the grid, they’re getting on an even more heavily regulated grid, and the environment conspires against them. The woods are no longer free from being made-up. Their lives are fake. Their memories and hair color are fake. And their escape is fake. In other words, there’s nowhere real left to go.
Our world isn’t so distant from the constructed world of Cabin, and fake environments aren’t just at Disneyworld, but are now the norm. Most of our own environments now are pocked with invisible class lines (the white and/or rich people never turn left on that city street), filled with arousal-inducing advertisements, and patrolled by hidden cameras. Longing for something “real,” we mimic nature. Advertisements beep and whir in the place of missing birds, lights flash in place of blotted-out stars. It’s no wonder that most of the kids don’t notice – until it’s too late – that there are no stars out in the sky, or that moonlight seems to turn on and off like an overhead lamp.
The constructed world echoes the simulacra of Cabin’s main box office competitor, the mandatory-gym-class nightmare, The Hunger Games. And in both films, the characters are brought into the fake environments, denied escape, and sacrificed to something greater than themselves. In The Hunger Games, the contestants are forced to fight to create a sort of mini-war that will stave off widespread societal chaos. In Cabin this is literalized – the old gods that sleep beneath our planet must be appeased.
The fake world, constructed to make sacrificing real people to real and potent forces, needs upkeep. In both films, men and women in offices control the stars, the sky, the trees, and the monsters. The characters are watched and allowed no real escape. The game is always rigged, even as the audiences (of and in the films) believe there is a certain aspect of chance and therefore freedom at play.
These controlling organizations have a long history of manipulating, capturing, trapping, torturing, and killing young people. In the case of Cabin it’s a tradition that stretches back to end of time.
And so, aside from the explicitly monstrous monsters in both films, there are also the office man as monster, the scientist, the soldier, the executive as monster. There are no bystanders, not even in the audience. “We’re not the only ones watching,” says one of the organization’s men in Cabin, and the meaning is clear. The old gods are watching, the spectators are watching, but also, we’re watching. We’ve got needs, haven’t we? We need to see people die and show their tits, and scream and fight for their lives. Or our money back.
It’s a great moment. Not quite a breach of the fourth wall, but more of a little knock on it from the other side. “Hey neighbor, if you think we’re the villains, what about you?”
But we don’t have to – and shouldn’t – buy the guilt, because the movie is smart enough to let us off the hook. When the kids first arrive at the cabin, Holden discovers a two-way mirror. Through it, he can see Dana, about to undress in the abutting room, but she can’t see him. He struggles for a moment, and then decides to be a gentleman and let her know. It’s a voyeurism that we’re told is terrible – peeping at each other’s bodies, showing off (as Holden seems to be doing just moment later, as they switch rooms and Dana watches him). But then the camera pulls back and we see all of this transpire on dozens of screens in the industrial complex. There is voyeurism and then there is spying, invasion, and control. In our social-media and reality-tv-saturated world, we condemn each other for the small crime of voyeurism and exhibitionism and remain unaware of the surveillance state that has risen up around us.
As long as there’s a small battle of minor morality going on, no one notices the bigger, more important battle.
The big questions – questions of conspiracy, questions of what is real, questions of nature and culture – set us free from these low-level tangles, but we remain ridiculed for these questions. Kurt and Jules berate Dana for her interest in her books. Dana ridicules Marty for his suspicions. And then redneck torture zombies rise from the ground and start to kill everybody.
The Hunger Games’s weakest moment is when the monsters, mutant dogs or something, are released, because the monsters’ appearances don’t quite mesh with the rest of the film’s struggle to stay believable. Cabin, on the other hand, hinges on the appearance of monsters. The kids raise zombies by unwittingly reading an incantation (a la The Evil Dead) from a book they’ve found in the basement. But this isn’t a zombie flick; the movie is a vast network of monsters.
Monsters are usually the killing force in any horror film, but in Cabin the monsters are contained – and unleashed – by a larger power: technology. Underground and hidden are a whole host of monsters – a werewolf, a man-bat, a cenobite-like creature (in one of the most overt homages), a giant spider and snake – locked up in glass cells, waiting to be released. And there must be thousands of monsters, for the movie reveals that this ritual is happening all over the world, each country experiencing its own cultural version of horror. The technology, in turn, is in service to an even larger power, the old gods it serves. So the kids are the modern scientific world made victim to magic, which is subservient to science, which is again subservient to magic. Layer upon layer of power, of old world struggling to come to terms with new and back again.
Should we get used to monsters? A soldier in Cabin asks one of the organization workers as much.
The servants of the old ones are too used to them. In the film’s most horrifying moment, after most the kids have been killed by the zombies (or are believed to have been, since Marty escapes), Dana is being attacked and tortured by a zombie who wields a bear trap as a weapon. Since her death is optional (we learn that the archetype she represents, the virgin, is an optional sacrifice, so long as she dies last), the whole ritual is thought to be complete. The screens are left on, and the members of the organization party. They throw each other beers and ask each other out on dates. They blast music and tell jokes and flirt. In the background, Dana is picked up and throw to the ground, savagely attacked. Her screams are on mute.
Perhaps the organization was doing good at some point, perhaps sacrifice was important and necessary, but they all became numb to it. They ignore suffering (especially suffering on a screen); it’s just part of their job and their world. Dana doesn’t have to die, but they’re prepared to ignore the whole mess and get on with their lives. They don’t even care how it ends up. If you’ve seen one dying kid screaming for her life, you’ve seen’em all.
Of course, you can’t keep all your monsters locked up without having them break free. Marty somehow escapes death, saves Dana, and they break into the industrial underground base together. (When he shows Dana the hidden elevator that goes down – to the basement of the basement – she says, “Do we want to go down?” “Where else are we gonna go?” he replies.)
Audiences are perhaps always troubled with images of mass incarceration, and so thrill to the release of the monsters. The breakout scene fulfills the failed promise of Whedon’s fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the secret governmental organization, The Initiative, traps and studies monsters. In the series, the monsters also broke free, but it was a largely bloodless and scattered affair. In Cabin there is blood and screaming and lots of it. The jailers and soldiers, who were protecting the world, are punished. Their own party, their own version of freedom, is raided and pillaged and murdered.
As Dana and Marty make their way through the complex, dodging monster after monster and watching the employees of the organization die all around them, they stumble on the deepest truth: The old ones. The Director of the organization (played by who else but Sigourney Weaver) tells them the whole back story. And she tells them that if Marty dies, Dana can live and the world will be saved. But if Dana dies before Marty…well, then, the world is doomed.
“You can die with them, or you can die for them,” the Director tells him.
“They’re both so enticing,” Marty retorts.
Dana is tempted to kill him but fails. The Director dies. The world starts to end.
“I’m sorry I…ended the world,” Marty says.
“You were right,” Dana replies. “Humanity. It’s time to give someone else a chance.”
The world begins to shake.
“Giant evil gods,” Marty says.
“I wish I could’ve seen them.”
“I know,” Marty says, “that would’ve been a fun weekend.”
A giant hand bursts from the ground, and the credits roll.
The movie could have ended with nothing happening and meant largely the same thing. The Director would die and the ritual would go unfinished and the world would rumble and then…nothing. Calm. The gods and values we worshipped in confusion and panic didn’t have the power over us we feared.
The pentagon-symboled organization strove desperately to keep the world as it was. They tell us if we don’t keep all this falsehood and untruthfulness in place, we will be overwhelmed by chaos and panic. Well, so what? Aren’t killing people, torturing people, creating deceptive landscapes, manipulating thoughts, the very things they claimed to be protecting us from?
As for the impending dissembling of things:
“Maybe that’s the way it should be, if you’ve got to kill all my friends to survive. Maybe it’s time for a change,” Marty says.
Once you begin to see the world for what it is, once you get to the depths and ask the big questions, the world begins to change. The old world, the one you knew, ends. And of course, this is sacrifice. Real sacrifice, not fake, ritualized sacrifice made out of fake plants and hair dye, propping up a world of lies and unreal pleasures.
Cabin tells us – everything that we’re afraid a revolution in thinking and behavior would bring is already here. We’ve got to find new things to worship, or forever be in the power of forces we can’t see, understand, or escape.
(poster image by http://abayarts.deviantart.com/)