Almost by chance, 2012 became a pivotal year for Joss Whedon. That summer, his superhero franchise effort, The Avengers, became the highest-grossing movie of the year and of the century, changing the landscape of contemporary mainstream cinema in ways that are obvious today, with the flood of superhero-related projects on TV, film and streaming. If Avengers had not done as well, and hadn’t been as universally praised, it all could have been very different. But Whedon was involved in another groundbreaking film released that year, but filmed some time earlier, Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods. Written during a marathon scripting session where Whedon and Goddard worked collaboratively, Cabin is a genre deconstruction of the highest order, a post-modern take on the 1980s horror film infinitely smarter and creepier than Scream and made with a knowing, graceful artistry. At least, that’s how I and many others saw it at the time.
Cabin in the Woods has its critics, and I find them surprising. To someone like myself who is not a particularly devoted horror fan, it seemed like what Unforgiven was to Westerns: the last word on the genre. Putting the emphasis on scopophila, creating audience discomfort by placing them in a voyeuristic position and reminding them of that position, the emphasis on enforcing outdated sexual norms in youth through horror and very consciously highlighting all our various culturally-embedded nightmares seemed to explore, in a very clever way, all that the genre had to offer. Horror film is and was always psychological, and based on voyeurism, just like the cinema itself. As Mark Gattis said, “The cinema was made for horror.”
With that artistic heft, it was therefore very surprising to learn that many hard-core horror fans, people who take the genre seriously and enjoy it, are not fans of this film and in fact find it offensive at times. Their objection isn’t due to content: horror fans are used to all manner of gore and violence. Nor is it really due to quality of filmmaking, which is stylish and well-executed. Their objection seems to stem from the ethics of the film itself, and how it is critiquing the audience and its expectations. There is a “scolding” aspect to Cabin in the Woods and a sense of judgement about the film that some hard-core horror fans find repellant. Since I have no horse in the race – I like the film, but don’t adore it – it’s worth exploring this critique.
[Spoilers are necessary to disseminate the criticism. Please don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to do so. It’s much more fun when things come as a surprise here.]
The problem with horror movies that involve people being tortured in a small area by a malevolent and unseen force (Saw is another example) is that the audience is placed in the position of tacit approval of the activity. As a silent witness to all of it, the audience is somewhat inculcated in that activity itself. Imagine if an audience were to watch a film of medical experiments being carried out by Nazi doctors. If that audience didn’t jump up and scream, “Stop, this is horrible!”, they would be looked upon with suspicion, because in that scenario, silence equals tacit approval. In the horror fiction genre, audiences allow themselves to occupy that privileged “voyeur” position without really considering what it means, but since they themselves aren’t represented on-screen (at least not very often), they’re able to divorce themselves from the proceedings and establish a clear moral “safe space”.
In other words, the audience knows it’s “just a movie”, and so do all the actors, so we’re all in on the joke and no harm no foul. This is an obvious but important and valid point: horror film fans aren’t themselves psychopaths. In fact, in my limited experience, the people who enjoy the most grotesque and sadistic and violent horror films can be some of the funniest, sanest and most well-adjusted people in the world. They pride themselves on that. The people who make these sorts of films, who routinely brew up big batches of fake blood, tend to be the least strange people in the industry, sort of like the people who work in pornography. It’s just a business and they’re creating an illusion.
The problematic element of Cabin in the Woods for these sorts of fans is that it has the whole “second layer” of story. The main plot of the film is that a group of College kids go to a cabin in the wood for a weekend of partying and encounter zombies of a family who was murdered there a century before and are picked off one by one. But the meta-plot involves a group of sophisticated “controllers” who work in a cold war-style lab with big video screens and controls right out of Wargames and whose job it is to scare the teens in the cabin (in reality, an elaborate set) and kill them as sacrifices to the ancient gods. We therefore get many shots of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins (as the two chief technicians) casually discussing and even taking office bets on who will die first and how, ogling the young girl’s breasts and generally, with humorous banter, plotting the horrible deaths of all of them.
There’s a third level of meaning as well, as the technicians are only playing out an ancient script, set down centuries before. This is a ritual in which young people are tricked in “transgressing” (usually sexually) against the laws of the heavens and thus are sacrificed for it, their blood feeding the wheels of a great machine. The technicians have to have an arsenal of things that will scare young people, so they keep an enormous vault of horrible monsters, any of which could form the basis of a nightmare.
The question becomes one of control. The youth think they have free will and are in control of their situation, when in fact they are literally specimens in an elaborate carnivalesque drama. The technicians sometimes believe they’re in control but they’re in constant fear of appeasing their masters. When Sigourney Weaver appears at the end, playing the head of the whole operation, even she isn’t really in control, as she explains to the surviving youth that these laws were put down many years ago and the ancient ones need to be appeased. “This is the way it’s always been done.”
Claiming that this is the way it’s always been done has been used throughout history to justify some pretty terrible things (slavery comes to mind), therefore there is a high-level critique here of institutionally and blind adherence to tradition. But that stance is undercut somewhat by the sudden ending, when the ancient ones rise up and destroy the world. The reason for that is because two of the youth have, with the help of massive amounts of marijuana, managed to see through the artifice and refused to participate in the ritual. This brings about the destruction of the world. Message received: do what you’re told, or the world will end.
That problematic moral message might cause some cognitive dissonance for the casual viewer (it did for me), but the true horror fans’ objection is about what they seem to perceive as Cabin in the Woods’ critique of them, as a group. In the moral geography of the film, the “fan” is encouraged to identify with the “technician” characters, at least explicitly. These characters are nerdy, not good-looking, obsessed with having the “bad guys” win, get very disappointed when stories have happy endings (Jenkins yelling “fuck you!” at a TV showing Japanese schoolchildren defeating an evil spirit is an example), live to see “boobies”, are dismissive of their female colleagues (Amy Acker, in essentially an extended cameo) and are completely unmoved by the sight of beautiful people being horribly killed. In fact, they enjoy watching beautiful people get tortured and killed, and stand up on their moral high horse and say, “Well, they sinned! They deserved it!”
Equating horror fans to the technicians in this film would have been bad enough, but representing fandom on screen is not novel in and of itself. But the fact that here the “horror movie” the technicians are watching literally comes back and destroys them seems to imply, and the audience’s sympathy is definitely played in this way, that they’re the real enemy. We’re supposed to, in some ways, cheer when that big hand comes out of the earth at the end to destroy them. We laugh when Cooper’s character dies. Take that horror fans! That’s what you get for being weird little perverts!
One of the wonderful things about popular culture analysis, and academics in general, is that we can explore a point of view and an argument without holding it or agreeing with it. The best academics can do this well: to suspend judgement, to just stay out of an emotional place and regard an idea intellectually. That horror fans might feel hard put-upon by Cabin in the Woods is something I can completely understand. But I see other things in this film. There are points being made about clericalism (aren’t the technicians just like priests or bishops in some crazy church?), about class (the technicians seem distinctly more working-class than the College kids) and about the nature of cinema itself. Where some see a critique of the horror genre and of horror fans I simply see a creative disassembly of it, an interest in how the pieces all fit together, and a wicked dark sense of humour that Whedon’s work always carries.
Years from now, it seems to me that Cabin in the Woods will be regarded as a fascinating piece of the Whedon artistic puzzle, perhaps more important to his development as an artist than the very well-made but ultimately genre-bound Avengers. Whether you’re a horror fan or not.