[Warning: this post contains spoilers. I hate to ruin a good movie for others, so I suggest you watch this movie first before reading what follows after the cut. Seriously. The movie was tons of fun. I pretty much never laugh out loud when I watch movies but I did on multiple occasions with this one. Also, while a lot of clever things happened in this movie in relation to other horror films, and common tropes from the genre, I won't be touching on that in this commentary. Plenty of other folks have done that already. However, I haven't found this particular political reading of the film elsewhere -- which is not to say that it isn't already out there! -- so that's going to be my focus.]
I’m going to start by giving everything away. This is your last chance to walk away and watch the movie. Take it. Okay, now that you’ve done that, here we go:
The basic storyline of “The Cabin in the Woods” is that on a certain night every year a group of young people must be sacrificed in order to appease the old gods who slumber beneath the earth. These young people must represent certain “types” (the fool/stoner, the warrior/athlete, the virgin/goody-goody, the whore/dumb blonde, and the wizard/geek) and must be killed in a particular order. When this is accomplished the suffering of the young people, and their subsequent deaths will cause the gods to return to their slumber. If it is not accomplished, the old gods will rise and return to the surface of the earth and pour out every apocalyptic horror imaginable — likely resulting in the death of most or all of humanity. Therefore, as the plot takes various twists and turns, the question becomes this: will the sacrifice be made in order to save humanity or will some of the young people survive the coordinated efforts to kill them — thereby triggering their own deaths along with the deaths of pretty much everybody else.
2. The Political Turn
Now all of this could just be Whedon and Goddard having some fun playing with the genre and putting their own Buffy/Angel spin on things (Whedon and Goddard worked together on some of the episodes for those shows and “The Cabin in the Woods” reminded me of Angel quite a lot). However, there is a pivotal moment in the film that causes the viewer to pause and reconsider what is happening.
About halfway through the film, we have mostly followed the pattern for an American slasher film — only we covered the ground very quickly and, halfway through, we are at the point where a regular slasher movie would end. All but one of the young people have been killed (or so we think), the gods have been appeased, and the office workers who have been manipulating the environment in order to produce the desired results are having a party. Only one character, Dana, “the virgin,” remains and she is being beaten to death by one of the Buckners (i.e. the “zombie redneck torture family”), but her death doesn’t really matter — according to the rules, she is permitted to survive if she is the last person left.
So, having saved the world, the office workers have a party. People start drinking, snacking, listening to music, laughing and flirting. Yet, all the while in the background, Dana is being brutally beaten to death. At one point she vomits blood. At another point, she is being choked with a chain.
At this point, I would argue that the violence that is depicted is the most realistic and hence the most difficult to view violence in the entire movie. It’s not over the top explosions of blood, it’s not monsters ripping people limb from limb, it’s not somebody getting uni-horned, it’s a young woman being beaten to death by a large man. Yet, these images of violence are in the background of an upbeat office party.
At first, I thought this scene was doing something comparable to Martyrs (and other horror films) by causing the viewer to question herself and why she chooses to view this sort of violent movie. How is the pleasure I derive from watching this movie — where people are dying violent and horrible deaths — any different from the pleasure that these office workers are experiencing at their party? What does the act of viewing this film say about me?
I think this is a fair line of interpretation but I also think that there is something more going on here. That is to say, I think this line of interpretation needs to be carried further. Because I think that the real point of comparison for this scene is not simply me, the viewer, sitting on a couch in my apartment watching the film. It is more than this: this scene is targeting the ways in which we react to the violent deaths of those who are executed by the State in the War on Terror. Immediately, I thought of this:
I believe that Whedon and Goddard are using “The Cabin in the Woods” as a tool for examining and criticizing the War on Terror. We no longer sacrifice people to appease “the old gods” but we do torture and murder people in order to defend “freedom” or “democracy” or “human rights” or “the rule of law.” We are still killing people to “save humanity” and “save the world.” And we are celebrating their deaths when they occur.
3. Deconstructing the War on Terror
In order to show how this is actually a consistent theme in the film, I want to jump to the end and then back to the beginning. At the end of the movie, Marty (“the fool/stoner”) and Dana (“the virgin”) are confronted by the Director — the woman who runs the operation to ensure that sacrifices are made every year in order to appease the old gods. She has the following conversation with Marty:
The Director: The sun is coming up in eight minutes. If you live to see it, the world will end.
Marty: Maybe that’s the way it should be. If you gotta kill all my friends to survive, maybe it’s time for a change.
The Director: We’re not talking about change. We’re talking about the agonizing death of every human soul on the planet, including you. You can die with them, or you can die for them.
Marty: This is so enticing.
Together Marty and Dana choose to reject the Director’s advice. The Director is killed and, sharing a final joint, they have one last conversation prior to their deaths when the old gods rise. In the end, Dana agrees with Marty: it is time to “give someone else a chance.”
So how does this tie into a criticism of the war on terror? The connection is that we are led to question what “humanity” is and who gets to define who are what it means to be “human.” Here we are on familiar territory when it comes to Whedon’s early work: all too often humans behave in monstrous ways and monsters (like Angel) behave far more humanely. So we should begin to reconsider the role of the “monsters” in the film and who or what they represent.
The key for our interpretation of this is found early on in the movie. Prior to the arrival of the kids in the cabin, the office workers who control the environment are placing bets on which monster(s) will end up killing the kids. There is a scene with a whiteboard showing some of the options and who has bet on whom.
Later on, when the office workers think they have successfully completed their work, a woman tries to cash in on the prize. by pointing out that she picked zombies. One of the project managers, Sitterson, responds by saying the following:
Yes, you did. Yes, you had zombies. But this is ‘Zombies Redneck Torture Family’. See? They’re entirely separate species. It’s like the difference between the elephant and the elephant seal.
This is an important conversation. Whedon and Goddard want us to be thinking about the Buckners as more than zombies. They are a family of low-income uneducated people (i.e. “rednecks”). In other words, the Buckners and then the rest of the monsters represent the global poor. These are the people we have killed in order to clear oil fields, these are the people we have driven into slums, these are the people whose goods, land, wealth, health, wellness, children and lives we have stolen. These are the people whose humanity we refuse to recognize.
(With this in mind, I suggest you watch this trailer for “Land of the Dead” and think of the zombies as the global poor and how they are feared and portrayed by the propertied classes. This is why I also put a picture from Sao Paulo at the opening of this post. Don’t the slums surrounding the walled-off opulence of others remind you of Romero’s “last enclave of humanity” surrounded by zombies?)
Consequently, Marty and Dana are right to reject the option presented to them by The Director: in our world, it is not humanity that will perish should this system collapse. In our world, should the dispossessed rise up, it is the propertied classes (who consider themselves more cultured and humane than those backwards rednecks and other poor folks) who will be destroyed. It is those who have imposed an hegemonic and exclusionary definition of humanity, and reaped the rewards they gained from sacrificing others, who stand to fall — all others stand to gain. These is the change Marty recognizes as necessary. These are the people Dana says deserve a chance.
4. Where Have all the Bad Guys Gone?
Having said that Whedon likes to play with and reverse that which is monstrous and that which is humane, one of the other things I appreciated about this film is the way in which the office workers were portrayed. Generally, in horror films, when we become aware of hidden cameras the identity of the person on the other side — the person viewing the monitors and the live feeds — is kept a secret and, when revealed, this person usually ends up being some kind of sexual predator, sadist, or psychopath (even if they are given some sort of anti-hero status or goodish intentions, like the Jigsaw Killer in the Saw series, for example). But here, from the very beginning we know the identity of the people controlling the cabin in the woods and we know that they are office workers. Balding, not particularly attractive, paper pushers wearing white shirts and plain ties, and glasses. They don’t enjoy their work (although they do try to find some release in it, like when they dance to the party music in the cabin or when they sexually objectify “the whore/dumb blonde” — which, of course, is one way in which they can begin to dehumanize her so that they can later accept their participation in her death). But they do think their work is important. Really, these people have more in common with the IRS workers David Foster Wallace describes in “The Pale King” than they do with Jigsaw. It’s a shitty job, but somebody has to do it, right?
For a moment, we see the walls crack and one of the project managers, Hadley, reflects on what they do as he watches Dana getting beaten to death: “It’s so strange, I’m actually rooting for this girl. She’s got so much heart, when you think of all the pain and the punishment…” but at this point he notices other staff members entering the room to start the aforementioned party. His countenance changes and he busts out the following: “Tequila is my lady! My lady! Come on in, guys! Come on in! Come on in! You’re welcome. Tequila! From darkness there is light!” Like the rest of us, confronting what we do and our complicity in violence (even if we believe that violence is justified or moral) is too difficult too do — let’s just get drunk instead.
In this regard, the character of Truman is important. He appears to be the personal security guard of the project managers (he has former military experience) and is new to the job. In many ways, Truman represents the audience. From a technical perspective he does this because he is new to the project and so his questions propel the plot and provide us with answers to our own questions. This leads us to identify with him in some ways. I think Whedon and Goddard have created a situation that manipulates this identification. Truman is a good person. He appears noble and upstanding and dedicated (repeatedly affirming that he will “hold his post”). He states that he has been prepped on what the project entails — so he knows what is going on — but as the project managers emphasize, it is one thing to be made aware of a situation, it is another to see it with one’s own eyes. Consequently, when everybody is joking or partying, or hooting at the breasts of one of the young women, Truman appears to be conflicted and is not as comfortable as the other hardened workers.
However, and this is the critical point, Truman does hold his post. Although he questions things, he sides with the project managers and gives his life trying to defend them. In this regard, I think Whedon and Goddard are exposing the truth about the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves. We do not participate directly in the enslavement of children in sweatshops in Asia, we do not participate directly in the slaughter of Afghanis, we do not participate directly in deep water oil drilling or tar sands expansions… but we do know that these things are happening and we do know that we indirectly support them. Yet rather than changing what we do, we simply raise questions and express discomfort… and this allows us to feel like good and moral people (even though our actions situate us squarely on the side of oppression, violence, and destruction). We, the audience, are Truman and we even if we express discomfort with the jobs we do, we still do them and we do them well.
At the end of it all, Whedon and Goddard have exposed the War of Terror for what it is: the violent defense of the propertied classes against the global poor whom we sacrifice in order to sustain an order that privileges the humanity, opulence, and power of a select few. We are, all of us, implicated in this. Consequently, the conclusion they come to is this: we must cease the violent sacrifice of others that is used to sustain the order of our world. And if we do this and the oppressed rise up, and the poor revolt, we should not think twice about the fact that they may choose to kill or destroy us to make the world anew. This is the consequence of the choices we have made. If they are unmade — as they must be for our choices are destroying life as we know it — we should not fool ourselves about the consequences. We should not fool ourselves about whose side we have been on. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that the loss of our lives would be an injustice. This, at least, is what Marty concludes. Yet Marty, who consistently knows more and better than the others, is “the fool”! Is there any other way?