January 13, 2013

"'It’s Women’s Issues': The Cabin in the Woods, Audience Complicity, and Female Power in the Slasher Subgenre" by T.A. Noonan

When The Cabin in the Woods was released on April 13, 2012, trailers and promotional materials had already depicted the film as near-standard horror fare: five college students travel to a remote cabin “unworthy of global positioning” and are attacked by a family of murderous zombies.

But note that troublesome descriptor, “near-standard.” The first trailer tells us, “You think [emphasis mine] you know the story.” Occasional flashes of surveillance screens, control panels, and disembodied hands pulling levers suggest another narrative below Cabin’s surface.

Then, there is this bit of audience enticement: “From producer Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, writer of Cloverfield.” Those familiar with both Whedon and Goddard—especially the projects they’ve collaborated on—should have known that Cabin couldn’t be just another slasher film.

Early buzz confirmed this, yet the media was surprisingly mum about the plot’s nuances. Maybe it was because Whedon took to the internet to request that viewers adopt a strict “no-spoilers” policy, or perhaps these viewers realized early on that Cabin’s twist required an audience of expectant suckers.

Slasher films traditionally begin with a kind of origin story, a glimpse of the nightmare that will spend the next ninety-or-so minutes terrorizing us. And at first, we get exactly that from Cabin. The credits open with illustrations of sacrifice projected onto flowing blood. Then, before a title card can appear, the film cuts to two Geek Squad-looking dudes in white shirts, dark ties, and gray slacks chatting in an office break room.

This scene, as Whedon and Goddard note in Cabin’s audio commentary, is designed to confuse us, shift our expectations, and force us to wonder whether we’ve entered the correct theater. From that moment on, they have us right where they want us: critiquing the genre’s tropes while seeming to uphold them—because in spite of its unorthodox appearance, Cabin’s opening is far more traditional than it might appear at first blush.

It isn’t until much later that we realize that we do, in fact, see the monster, and it isn’t a “zombie redneck torture family.” After all, it is the audience that demands that the film satisfy its need for sex, blood, torture, and death. We are Cabin’s real monsters, insisting that the women of slasher horror become either sacrificial whores or long-suffering virgins for our selfish desires.

Whedon and Goddard give us what we (think we) want at first, but as Cabin progresses and strays from familiar tropes, a heroine emerges who forces us to question our assumptions about the horror genre and its female characters. Ultimately, the film concludes with the end of the world because Dana (Kristen Connolly) refuses to play by the rules we have set down for her—transforming her one of the strongest heroines horror movie history.

Cabin’s first sequence focuses on Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), two normal, witty guys, as they discuss Hadley and his wife’s attempts to conceive and how childproof locks “jinx” the whole process. Their conversation is as funny as it is unexpected. No one opens a slasher film with an office scene, much less one about fertility issues.

As they make their way through a large complex, they are joined by Lin (Amy Acker, in her third appearance as a scientist in a Whedon production), who warns them that “Stockholm went south. . . .[T]here’s just . . . Japan and us.” Sitterson and Hadley insist everything’s under control, but Lin’s fear alerts us that whatever’s going on has serious consequences.

After a clever jump-scare title reveal, the film cuts to Dana dancing in her underwear and a t-shirt as she packs. Pausing to gaze at a notebook sketch, she is joined by her friend Jules (Anna Hutchinson), now a blonde thanks to the power of chemistry.

Jules suggests that she get over the man in the drawing, a professor that Dana has slept with, by hooking up with Holden (Jessie Williams), an attractive friend of Jules’ boyfriend Curt (a pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth, now a Whedon repeat offender). Dana insists, “That is the last thing I want,” a moment that subtly foreshadows the archetype she is poised to fill.

In an interview with Total Film, Whedon notes that one aspect of contemporary horror that bothers him is “kids acting like idiots.” Thus, he and Goddard quickly establish that Cabin’s characters aren’t stupid. Dana says of her recent breakup, “I knew what I was getting into.” Curt jokes with Jules about the dangers of reading, who blames him for teaching her about books, before recommending one to Dana.

Even Marty (Fran Kranz, yet another Whedon alumnus), who arrives stoned and ranting about “[p]eople . . . [who] drive in a very counterintuitive manner,” demonstrates significant ingenuity with his collapsible coffee-mug bong. The only one that doesn’t receive this treatment is Holden, an athlete who is almost hit by a car while catching a football in the street. The fact that he is not characterized as clever is noteworthy because of the archetype he will represent.

As an unknown man with a headset reports from the roof that “[t]he nest is empty,” the friends begin their drive in a borrowed Rambler packed with dirt bikes, supplies, and a large quantity of marijuana. Jules wonders if they’re going in the right direction, noting that she can’t find the road on the GPS.

This sparks a fresh rant from Marty, who speaks to the film’s eventual conclusion:

Marty: That’s the whole point! Get off the grid, right? No cell phone reception, no entrapment cameras. Go some place for one goddamn weekend where you can’t globally position my ass, okay? This is the whole issue. 
Jules: Is society crumbling, Marty? 
Marty: No, society is binding. Right? It’s filling in the cracks with concrete. Everything’s filed or reported—logged, right? Chips in our kids’ heads so they won’t get lost. Society needs to crumble. We’re all just too chickenshit to let it. 
Jules: Alright, Mr. Rants! 
Marty: You will come to see things my way.

We cut back to Sitterson and Hadley entering a secure underground control room, where they meet Truman (Brian White), a new security officer, and question him about his preparation for their imminent mission. His crisp posture and use of “sir” betray a military background, and he insists that he will “hold [his] post.” In spite of Hadley’s playful insistence that Truman can call Sitterson “honeytoes,” the tension remains.

Sitterson and Hadley take their seats at a sprawling panel equipped with large surveillance screens, and as systems come online and satellites triangulate their targets, our travelers arrive at a creepy gas station. Grizzled proprietor Mordecai (Tim DeZarn) emerges to offer directions and a brief history of “the Buckner place,” the cabin where the friends will stay.

However, when Marty jokes about Mordecai’s age because he was “rude to [his] friend,” the conversation takes a sinister turn.

Mordecai refers to Jules as “that whore,” and Holden steps in to prevent Curt from starting a fight. “I think we got enough gas,” he says. Mordecai replies to the swell of dramatic music, “You got enough to get you there. Gettin’ back—that’s your concern.” Dana quietly slinks away, Curt throws the gas money, and Marty calls Mordecai a “fucker.” They leave, Mordecai’s face inscrutable.

We follow the Rambler until it reaches a tunnel, and the hot widens to show an eagle gliding near the rocks. Before the friends emerge, it crashes into an invisible lattice and falls from the sky in a shower of feathers and sparks. The fence crosses the chasm between the tunnel’s two sides, extending up and down as far as the eye can see. No one, of course, notices.

Upon arriving at the titular cabin in the woods,[1] the travelers choose their rooms. In his, Holden discovers a painting of a ritual sacrifice overseen by a shadowy figure. Disturbed by the image, he removes and discovers a one-way mirror behind it that allows him to see into Dana’s room.

At first, he watches, smiling as she checks her teeth, fixes her hair, and gazes thoughtfully into the glass. Once she begins to undress, though, he becomes visibly uncomfortable and bangs on the wall to stop her.

When Holden shares the information about the one-way mirror with the rest of his friends, Curt suggests that they check the rest of the rooms for additional mirrors, saying, “You know Marty wants to watch us pounding away.” Marty replies, “I ain’t even, like, hearing that,” suggesting that Curt’s comment is as unexpected as it is crass. Even Jules is bothered, though she dismisses him with a playful “don’t be an ape.”

Once everyone else leaves, Holden offers to switch rooms; Dana thanks him “for being decent.” They have a friendly exchange about the set-up their friends have engineered, and Holden reveals that his chivalrous actions came only after an intense “internal debate” with “[s]houting on both sides.” Her icy suggestion that he consult Jules about his “internal bleeding” reveals another reference to a character’s intelligence: Jules is pre-med.

Dana leaves unhappy, but once in the one-way mirror room, she catches a glimpse of Holden’s chiseled torso as he removes his shirt. As if to avoid temptation, she decides to re-hang the painting and cover it with a blanket. This moment serves as both a reminder of Dana’s sexual desire and Holden’s athleticism—both of which will be supplanted to serve Cabin’s purpose.

A point driven home as the camera pulls back, the action now a streaming video feed on a monitor.

Then, several more feeds from every room.

Finally, Sitterson rolling an office chair into view and announcing, “Places, everyone. We are live.” This is the film’s first major revelation: Sitterson and Hadley are part of a group whose job is to manipulate these five youths from behind the scenes. And it appears that almost everyone the kids have interacted with is in on it.

Lin reappears to inform us that Jules’ hair dye contains time-release drugs that “[slow] down cognition” and to suggest additional drugs to “increase libido.” Mordecai, the Harbinger, calls to proclaim in reverent tones, “The lambs have passed through the gate. They are come to the killing floor.” Obviously, a sacrifice is in the works, and we realize the scenario is pure artifice—settings and action composed, characters and situations contrived.

But a hilarious speakerphone prank by Hadley almost buries a key detail. As Mordecai continues, his formal tone and clichéd monologue evoking giggles from the control room staff, he observes, “It wasn’t all by your ‘numbers.’ The Fool nearly derailed the invocation with his insolence.” As evidenced by Lin’s warnings in the opening scene and the sheer number of people working to control the outcome, much hinges on its success. 

Yet everything cannot be accounted or planned for, and herein lies the beginning of Cabin’s end.

Mordecai also gives us our first glimpse into film’s use of archetype. Previously, he referred to Jules as “that whore,” but it is more accurate to identify her as “that Whore.” She represents that slasher staple, the promiscuous female, and those familiar with the subgenre know what will happen to her. Marty, meanwhile, is the Fool, the funny—also, usually nerdy and single—friend who also has a predictable role.

These revelations help us understand the method behind the opening’s madness. As Whedon says in the production notes to Cabin, “The control room bosses are a stand-in [sic] for us, the viewer. But they also represent everything that [Goddard and I are] up against as storytellers: the need to hurt kids more and more on screen, to make them behave foolishly, to make the death of them the points as opposed to the suspense leading up to it.”

Thus, the “office plot”—with its snarky dialogue, the personnel’s absolute confidence, and even a betting pool on which monster the kids will select—represents the audience’s belief that the “horror plot” will unfold in a certain way.

Lin’s conversation with Truman during the betting scene provides further insight into the path the film will take. While representatives from various departments make their predictions, Truman expresses some discomfort with the game:

Lin: Seems a little harsh, doesn’t it? It’s just people letting off steam. This job isn’t easy, however those clowns may behave. 
Truman: Does the Director—do they know about this downstairs? 
Hadley: The Director doesn’t care about this stuff. As long as everything goes smoothly upstairs, as long as the kids do as they’re told—
Truman: Then it’s fixed? 
Hadley: No. No. No.
Truman: Well, how can you wager on this when you control the outcome? 
Hadley: Well, we just get ‘em in the cellar. They take it from there.
Sitterson: No, they have to make the choice of their own free will. Otherwise, the system doesn’t work. Just like the Harbinger. He’s this creepy old fuck, practically wears a sign “You will die.” Why do we put him there? The system. They have to choose to ignore him, and they have to choose what happens in the cellar. Yeah, we rig the game as much as we need to, but in the end, they don’t transgress— 
Hadley: They can’t be punished.

The stripping of free will is explicit. Supposedly, the kids must choose to participate; however, the system is rigged to force them into it. After all, intelligent, rational people like Jules, Curt, Holden, Marty, and Dana don’t intentionally put themselves into horror-movie situations. They have to be externally manipulated, like actors on set, to participate.

Also, note the first mention of the Director, an off-screen figure regulating the entire scenario. If the meta-narrative wasn’t clear before, it is now.

As the film progresses, we see our future victims doing a lot of things we expect from young people in a slasher film: swimming,[2] partying, drinking, using drugs, and playing Truth-or-Dare, which includes an erotic makeout session between Jules and a taxidermy wolf head.[3]

When the cellar door blows—or is blown—open during Dana’s turn, Jules dares her to enter. Below is a wild collection of oddities, each one representing a possible monster or group of monsters to be loosed upon the five friends.

Dana, ultimately, makes the choice. By reading from an old diary containing a Latin inscription, she calls upon Mother, Father, Judah, Matthew, and Patience Buckner (Maya Massar, Dan Shea, Matt Drake, Dan Payne, and Jodelle Ferland, respectively), the “zombie redneck torture family.” As Truman watches the Buckners shamble toward the cabin, he observes, “They’re like something from a nightmare.”

Lin’s response and the conversation that follows is revealing:
Lin: No, they’re something nightmares are from. Everything in our stable is a remnant from the Old World, courtesy of you-know-who. 
Truman: Monsters? Magic? Gods?
Lin: You get used to it. 
Truman: Should you?
The riggers have become so desensitized that they no longer have any feeling toward the creatures they “control.” Like the audience they symbolize, they’ve seen it all; nothing surprises them.

Truman is the lone critical voice who sees just how strange it is to approach the sacrifice of youth with blasé wit. In many ways, he is Goddard’s and Whedon’s conscience, questioning the genre’s acceptance of sadistic torture as both plot development and plot fulfillment.

Soon after the Buckners are released, the party’s tone shifts, each person taking on his or her designated archetype. Jules dances like a stripper. Curt chugs beer and makes rude comments. Dana, inexplicably shy, sits in silence. Holden now wears glasses, looking like an intellectual.

Only Marty appears to be unchanged and articulates the differences between who they were and who they’ve become:
Marty: You seriously believe nothing weird is going on? 
Dana: Conspiracy? 
Marty: The way everybody is acting. Why is Jules suddenly a celebutard? And since when does Curt pull this alpha-male bullshit? I mean, he’s a sociology major! He’s on full academic scholarship, and now he’s calling his friend an egghead? 
Dana: Curt’s just drunk. 
Marty: I’ve seen Curt drunk. Jules, too. 
Dana: Well, then maybe it’s something else. 
Marty: You’re not seeing what you don’t wanna see. Puppeteers. 
Dana: Puppeteers? 
Marty: Pop-Tarts. Did you say you have Pop-Tarts? 
Dana: Marty, I love you. You’re really high. 
Marty: We are not who we are.
As Holden translates the Latin from the Buckner diary with Dana, Curt and Jules head into the woods to have sex. Dozens of men fill the control room, waiting for the inevitable, but when Jules observes that it’s “chilly,” Sitterson and Hadley kick them out and begin adjusting the environmental controls. “Pheromone mists” are pumped into the air, the temperature is increased, and even the moonlight is brightened to intensify the romantic atmosphere.

The payoff is Jules’ nudity, and it is necessary. Sitterson points this out to Truman when questioned. “Gotta keep the customers satisfied,” he says. “You understand what’s at stake here?” We, the viewers, want her to get naked, and the scenario requires her to complete her transformation into the Whore archetype she’s been chosen to fill for both narrative and meta-narrative purposes.

When she climbs on top of Curt and reveals her breasts,[4] it’s all over; moments later, the Buckners appear, and Mother, Father, and Matthew decapitate her with a large saw.

Sitterson and Hadley look on with blank expressions, and Sitterson breaks the silence with a prayer and a small kiss to a pentagram around his neck: “This we offer in humility and fear for the blessed peace of your eternal slumber. As it ever was.” Hadley echoes the final line with eyes closed, then rises to pull a lever.

Somewhere deep below the complex, gears crank, a jar breaks, and blood flows into carved grooves in a flat stone. The ritual is in full swing, but the recipient of the offering remains unclear.

Back in the cabin, Dana breaks from making out with Holden to confess that she’s never had sex before. Of course, we know this isn’t true; she has admitted as much in her first scene. However, Dana has transitioned into her archetype, and that requires her sexuality to be stripped from her. Marty goes outside and is rescued by Curt mere moments from certain death.

Once inside, Curt reveals that Jules has been killed and proposes that they secure the area and stick together. This is, of course, not keeping with the scenario—the victims need to be isolated in a slasher film to ensure that they are easy targets—so Sitterson pumps additional drugs into the cabin to force a change of heart.

The characters head to their individual rooms, and Hadley locks them in remotely. Marty freaks out, knocking over a lamp and discovering one of the many hidden cameras located throughout the cabin. At first, he believes himself to be on reality television, but Judah yanks him through a window before he can investigate further. Marty tries to fight off the Buckner but is stabbed in the back.

His demise appears imminent, so another lever is pulled. This time, the grooves form a recognizable shape—a person holding a goblet in the air. However, the blood leaks out of the cup’s rim, as if splashing, and the complex trembles.

Sitterson and Hadley dismiss it as excitement from “downstairs.” The tremors travel throughout the entire area, including the cabin—further demonstrating the intrinsic link between the cabin, the complex, and “downstairs.” They are literally right on top of each other.

Mother attacks Dana in her room, but she manages to escape with Holden’s help. They make their way into the basement, and upon seeing a large collection of rusted tools and weapons, realize that they’ve entered the Buckner’s personal torture chamber.

As they search for a way out, Mother manages to capture Holden. Dana, grabbing a spear from the floor, stabs Mother through the eye, impales her head against the basement door, then picks up a large knife from a nearby table and stabs Mother multiple times in the chest.

Up to this point, Dana has been a lot of things, but a warrior has not been one of them. Only now, almost two-thirds through the film, do we get our first glimpse of her transformation from archetypal victim to bad motherfucker.

Sitterson and Hadley, disappointed by this change of events, flip a switch to zap the knife from her hand and prevent her from keeping it. The very fact that they intervene here is our suggestion that this scenario won’t end well. Of course, they’ve intervened before, but the disappointment in their voices as they invoke the good old days “when you could just throw a girl in a volcano” demonstrates that no one anticipated Dana’s resourcefulness.

Curt makes his way into the basement and leads his friends to the Rambler. Dana asks about Marty and is informed that “[t]hey got him.” The pain in her face is almost palpable, exposing the deep levels of affection she has for her friend. They climb in, the camera focusing on a bloody handprint on the bottom of the door as a screech fills the air.

Except that the screech is not coming from Dana. Rather, it comes from an evil, longhaired Japanese girl surrounded by a couple dozen chanting schoolgirls. Light emanates from the ghost’s body, and she is transformed into a “happy frog.”

This is the feed from Japan, driving Sitterson to shout “fuck you” six times at the cheerful nine-year-olds on his screen. Lin appears on another monitor, obviously upset, which prompts Sitterson to ask about Marty:
Sitterson: [W]hat the fuck’s up with this guy’s pot, anyway? I mean, he’s supposed to be drooling, and instead, he almost makes us. 
Lin: We treated the shit out of it! . . . The Fool’s toast, anyway. And so are we if you don’t get this under control! 
Hadley: Shit! 
Lin: What? Shit, why? 
Hadley: Gotta go! Work to do! 
Lin: You guys are humanity’s last hope! If the Ancients rise, we—
 Lin’s monitor is cut off, her mention of “the Ancients” almost lost, as Hadley shouts, “The fucking tunnel’s open!”

It suddenly appears that the ritual will fail because the exit has not been secured. Sitterson rushes to the Demolition Department to trigger the explosion. They insist it’s a “glitch,” but he doesn’t care. The tunnel must collapse in order to trap the victims. At the very last second, Sitterson manages to blow the tunnel, cutting off the only escape route.

After surveying the cave-in, Curt has an epiphany and grabs one of the dirt bikes to attempt a heroic jump across the chasm: 

Holden: You got a smooth run. There may be a five-foot differential on the other side, but you gotta give it everything. 
Dana: Curt? 
Curt: Look, you guys, you stay in the Rambler. I’ll get help. If I wipe out, I’ll fucking limp for help, but I’m coming back here. I’m coming back with cops and choppers and large fucking guns, and those things are gonna pay. For Jules.

He sails through the air to an uplifting score, and for a moment, it looks as if he’ll make it.

Until he crashes into the invisible lattice.

Curt falls, his body and bike bumping against the fence. It is at this moment that Dana realizes “Marty was right,” that “puppeteers” are controlling them. Another death means another lever pulled; this time, the grooves form a human with a spear clenched in one hand.

She and Holden drive toward the cabin in search of “another road, another way out.” Dana is in shock, but Holden begs her to stay focused. Just as he says they need to stick together, Father Buckner emerges from hiding and fatally stabs Holden in the neck, causing the Rambler to veer into the lake.

Dana escapes through the sunroof, and as she surfaces, Sitterson, Hadley, and Lin pull beers from a cooler to begin their celebration. Truman is understandably confused. “She’s still alive,” he observes. “The Virgin’s death is optional, as long as it’s last,” Hadley replies. “The main thing is that she, you know, suffers.”

Finally, the label is given to describe Dana’s personality shift and false confession. She is the mirror image of the Whore, the archetypal “good girl” of the slasher subgenre whose purity (sometimes) allows her to survive the horrors faced by her friends. Moved by Dana’s struggles, Hadley confesses, “It’s so strange. I’m actually rooting for [her]. She’s got so much heart. When you think of all the pain and the punish—”

His genuine moment of identification evaporates as the other scientists enter the control room. “Tequila is my lady!” he shouts5. “Tequila! From darkness, there is light!” The ritual appears complete, and everyone’s hard work is rewarded with celebration and another year of silence from the Ancients.

While Dana fights Matthew Buckner on the docks to the strains of REO Speedwagon’s “Roll with the Changes,” the personnel discuss the outcome. “Classic dénouement,” gushes one team member. “I screamed,” says another. One would think they were reviewing a horror movie.

Meanwhile, Sitterson speaks to the Demolition team, who insist that the glitch was caused by “a power reroute from upstairs.” Upstairs, though, is the cabin—the one place a power reroute should not come from.

A ringing phone cuts through the party noise. Hadley orders everyone to shut up as he answers it. In response to the voice on the line, he insists, “Everything was done within the guidelines.” But this isn’t true, and as the personnel turns to watch the screens, Marty reappears and saves Dana.

The Fool is alive, the sacrifice incomplete.

He leads her to the Buckners’ grave, where she discovers a trap door leading to a small hallway with a control panel that Marty has hotwired. A severed zombie arm writhes on the floor, a remnant of Judah, who Marty “disemboweled” with a trowel. Dana tearfully informs her friend that she is the only survivor, and he, in turn, shows her an elevator. “Someone,” he spits, “sent those dead fucks up here to get us.”

Left with the choice to either face the Buckners or take the elevator, Dana and Marty choose the elevator. As they travel deeper into the complex, they pass several transparent chambers, each containing a monster. Dana realizes that her choice dictated their fate, and as the camera pulls back, we see just how many possibilities exist.

Among them are werewolves; wraiths; Ballerina Dentata, also called “The Sugar Plum Fairy”; Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain; giant spiders; giant snakes; evil clowns; Boomers, Witches, and Tanks; blobs; Dragonbats; twin girls known as “Grady’s Daughters”; Killbots; zombies; tentacles; Baby Doll Faces; giants; Reptilius; and dozens more beyond counting.

Panic erupts in the control room. Hadley screams into a phone, “Do not touch the girl! If [the Fool] outlives her, this whole thing goes to Hell!” Lin rushes in announce that one of Marty’s stashes went unlaced and “[w]hatever he’s been smoking has been immunizing him to all our shit.” In spite of everyone’s meticulous plans, it appears the whole situation is collapsing.

Dana and Marty are located, and the cameras lock onto them. Meanwhile, they hold each other tenderly, their faces wracked with fear and pain. As they reach the lower levels, a security officer confronts them and orders Dana to exit.

Before she can comply, however, Judah’s arm distracts the officer long enough for Marty to knock him against the elevator wall. He grabs the trowel and gun from the floor, handing the trowel to Dana. The two move along until the voice of the Director rings over the speakers:
You shouldn’t be here. This should have gone differently, ended more quickly. I can only imagine your pain and confusion, but know this: what’s happening to you is part of something bigger, something older than anything known. You’ve seen horrible things, an army of nightmare creatures, but they’re nothing compared to what came before. What lies below. It’s our task to placate the Ancient Ones, as it’s yours to be offered up to them. Forgive us, and let us get it over with.
The voice is female—familiar, though not necessarily recognizable at first.

Marty and Dana flee into a small security station as men with machine guns open fire, and in a perfect deus ex machina moment, Dana spots a large red button labeled “SYSTEM PURGE,” which she punches with a snarl. The sound of moving elevators can be heard as the men cease firing. One of them realizes what’s happening and has enough time to mutter, “Oh shit.”

As the elevators ding simultaneously, monsters erupt from the doors. Then, another horde. And another. Monsters we didn’t see in the storage area emerge to wreak havoc—doctors, Reavers, Gremlins, unicorns, mermen, mummies, and “Angry Molesting Trees,” among others—and cover the complex in blood and viscera.

Through all of this, Marty and Jules manage to find their way into a secret passage that heads “downstairs,” the same one Sitterson—the lone survivor of the entire staff—also uses to escape. As he turns the corner, he meets Dana and the business end of her trowel. It’s an almost ironic accident, but he dies at the hands of the one person that is allowed to survive.

His final words are a request: “Kill him.”

Marty shakes Dana out of her daze and hands her the confiscated gun. They continue down a small flight of stairs and reach a temple-like room suspended over a deep pit. The floor is a pentagram, the same one Sitterson kissed earlier, with stone slabs carved with faceless human figures at each point: a man with a spear, a man with a cup, a man with a scroll and quill, a naked woman, and a demure woman.

“What are they?” Marty asks, and it is Dana who puts it all together. Each figure is an archetype; Jules, Curt, Holden, Marty, and Dana were chosen to fill those archetypes. In order to complete the ritual, they must be sacrificed. But it’s more than that, she observes. “They don’t just wanna see us killed. They wanna see us punished.”

To answer the question of why, the mysterious Director (Sigourney Weaver, in perhaps the most incredible cameo in horror-movie history[6]) enters:
The Director: For being young. It’s different in every culture,[7] and it has changed over the years, but it has always required youth. There must be at least five. The Whore. She’s corrupted; she dies first. The Athlete. The Scholar. The Fool. All suffer and die at the hands of whatever horror they have raised, leaving the last to live or die as fate decides: the Virgin. 
Dana: Me? Virgin? 
The Director: We work with what we have.[8]
The stakes are high for this ritual; should it fail, the Ancient Ones, “[t]he Gods that used to rule the earth,” awaken to destroy everything. The Director tells them that they have eight minutes[9] to complete the ritual and save the world, and in order for that to happen, Marty must die.

He isn’t happy with this, of course, and suggests that a world where people suffer to appease such cruel gods needs to end. The Director, however, is adamant about preventing the “agonizing death of every human soul on the planet.” He “can die with them,” or he “can die for them.” There is no alternative.

Now Dana faces an agonizing decision—murder her friend to save everyone else, or save him to murder the world. The Director attempts to incite her, saying, “You have to be strong.” Earlier, her choice spelled doom for her friends. Now, the stakes are a billion times higher. She aims the gun. Though her hand trembles, we’re sure she will pull the trigger.

We know she’ll do the right thing for humanity.

What she doesn’t know, though, is that a werewolf is poised to attack from behind. As she hesitates, it strikes, causing her to drop the gun. Marty grabs it in the chaos that ensues, drives off the werewolf with a flurry of bullets, and battles the Director hell-bent on killing him. Dana, mortally wounded, lies on the entrance steps.

Just then, Patience Buckner shuffles past, her ax upraised to deliver the final blow to Marty. Dana knows that he’ll die if she does nothing because he doesn’t see Patience approaching. All she has to do is remain silent; the ritual will be completed, the Ancients will be appeased, and the world will be saved.

Instead, she summons enough strength to call out to her friend. Seeing Patience’s approach, Marty rolls the Director into the path of her ax. The blade splits the Director’s skull,[10] and he shoves both into the pit where the Ancient Ones slumber.

The room shakes as Patience and the Director disappear from sight, and Marty limps over to Dana’s side. She manages to sit up just as Marty sits down, their shoulders touching. She knows she’s “going away,” but this doesn’t stop her from apologizing. “I’m so sorry I almost shot you,” she says, her voice wavering and body weaving. “I probably wouldn’t have, but—”

Marty interrupts, “Hey, hey. No. Shh, no. I totally get it.” From his pocket, he produces a joint and lights up. “I’m sorry I let you get attacked by a werewolf and ended the world.” He is ready to take the blame for what’s happened, but Dana stops him as she takes the joint.

“No,” she says. “You were right. . . . It’s time to give someone else a chance.” Dana has reached the conclusion Marty foreshadowed during their initial drive—this society needed to crumble, but she was not too chickenshit to let it. And as the two friends link arms and clasp hands, the Ancient Ones rise. The cabin collapses into the pit, and a giant, human-looking hand crushes all the eye can see.

During the final minutes of the audio commentary, delivered as Nine Inch Nails’ “Last” plays over the credits, Goddard and Whedon joke about Cabin’s moral message: Drugs are good and allow you to see the world as it truly is. But then, Whedon backtracks and acknowledges that the real moral is that “people are more important than humanity.”

Dana’s final choice is a testament to this. One could argue that the very fact that she pointed a gun at Marty communicates her intent to kill him and save humanity. One cannot, however, interpret her warning of Patience’s approach as anything but an ethical decision that places greater value on saving one treasured friend over billions of unknown individuals.

At the beginning of the film, Dana chooses the form of her friends’ destruction, but by the end, she chooses the form of her own. One way or another, Dana knows she will die from the werewolf’s bite, Patience’s ax, or the Ancient Ones. In those final minutes, she realizes she would rather die with her principles intact.

As viewers, we are forced to ask ourselves which is more important, and for many, the answer would be the world. This is why we fully expect her to kill Marty, and we resist her decision to spare him. Indeed, I’m certain some viewers were infuriated, perhaps believing that, placed in her shoes, they would not be so selfish.

Yet if people are more important than humanity, as Whedon posits, then her decision is the only correct one. Hemsworth himself makes a related observation in Cabin’s production notes: “I think the danger with horror films is that they often treat the audience as idiots. This film respects the audience by questioning our desire for horror films to begin with.”

A society willing to sacrifice young people is a society that needs to turn its gaze inward and reexamine its priorities. And as we watch Dana, we should question both our complicity in that sacrificial process and our resistance to strong heroines in horror. For every Laurie Strode, Ellen Ripley, or Alice Johnson,[11] there are dozens of weak women who do not fight the nightmarish situations they find themselves trapped in.

We laugh when we see these women trip over obvious tree roots.

We yell at the screen as they shed their clothes.

We cheer as we see women getting what they deserve.

We are guilty.

The Cabin in the Woods indicts us all.

T.A. Noonan writes stuff. Sometimes it appears on the internet, sometimes on lovely printed pages. A confessed Whedonite, she lives with her partner on Florida’s Treasure Coast. Find her online at fear_of_abstraction.

In addition to the sources linked in this document, I also referred to The Cabin in the Woods: The Official Visual Companion, TVTropes’ page for The Cabin in the Woods, The Cabin in the Woods Wiki, the Wikipedia page for The Cabin in the Woods, and the IMDB listing for The Cabin in the Woods.

1      An interesting fact: although released in 2012, The Cabin in the Woods was filmed at the same time as Twilight. In the audio commentary, Whedon jokes that they would have captured images of Bella and Edward had the cameras ventured just a few feet into the not-so-thick woods.

2      In real life, Kranz is exceptionally muscular, so in order to maintain that stereotypically scrawny look associated with nerdy guys, he is costumed in many layers to hide his frame. Thus, he doesn’t swim during the lake scene.

3      To make this scene more tolerable for Hutchinson, the wolf was dusted in powered sugar, which also conveniently made the wolf appear dirty and old. Also, the “Little Red Riding Hood” overtones are not lost on me, though I lack the space to explore them without losing the essay’s focus.

4      After her topless scene in the woods, Hutchinson’s breasts are never again seen, even during the attack. Commentary reveals that this was a deliberate choice by Goddard to avoid “mix[ing] the sexuality and the violence in that way.”

5      Whitford came up with this line himself. Goddard and Whedon loved it so much that they kept it into the movie.

6      Weaver was carefully selected for this role, and not just because of her “genre cred,” as the creators put it. Goddard and Whedon felt she, as a respected, award-winning actress with significant dramatic cache, had the gravitas to make the Director’s part believable.

7      This explains the difference between the Japan scenario, which features the Yūrei so common in contemporary J-horror, and the American scenario, which takes its cues from the slasher subgenre as it’s evolved since the late 1970s.

8      As Weaver delivers this line, she stands in front of the image of the Virgin. In a delightful bit of blocking, the Virgin’s hands line up perfectly the part of Weaver’s hair, and the Virgin’s hips and thighs frame her head in a kind of horned nimbus.

9      In yet another meta-narrative reference, this line is timed so that it is delivered eight minutes before the theater lights turn back on, signaling the end of the film.

10   The phrase “ax wound” is one of many derogatory terms for the vulva, and it is also the name of an excellent feminist horror 'zine. The fact that the Director is killed by an ax wound to the head strikes me as particularly interesting, considering the ways in which slasher films traditionally depict women—especially in terms of their intelligence.

11   Here, I specifically refer to Alice in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, but her (de)evolution in its sequel is exceptionally problematic. For more, please see Scott Fynboe’s “‘I Guess This Is My Own War’: The Rise and Fall of Alice Johnson as Champion in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and 5."


Unknown said...

A most amazing and insightful and intelligent essay! I fucking loved this movie, and had yet to read anyone who had written anything interesting about it. And here it is. Really smart--and one rarely finds long form film criticism like this online. I am going to use this to teach one of my classes, if that's cool with you. Really well done. Oh, and I'm a friend of Stephanie and Dawn's, whom I think you might now. Cheers!

( t.a. noonan ) said...

Thanks, Tom! And by all means, feel free to use it for teaching.

If you're interested, I've uploaded a PDF version of this essay to the public Dropbox folder where the linked screenshots are located. (It also gave me a chance to correct a couple of small typos that I missed during my various copyediting passes.)

Here is the direct link:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting! I'm currently teaching a "monster" themed composition class and as I was reading this I found myself wishing it was shorter so I could use it in class. Is there a shorter version by any chance?
Greetings from Hattiesburg!

( t.a. noonan ) said...

Annette -- Oh darn, I don't have a shortened version. You're not the first person to ask, though, which suggests that I *should* do one. Also, Hattiesburg FTW!