©2021, by M. Keith Booker
The Cabin in the Woods was one of the most eagerly anticipated horror films of the first decades of the twenty-first century, largely because of the rumors that it would be directed by Josh Whedon, who had gained so many genre fans with his Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) television series. As it turned out, Whedon co-wrote and co-produced the film, which was helmed by first-time director Drew Goddard, who had previously worked primarily as a writer, including on Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Cabin in the Woods is an extremely self-conscious metafilm that openly announces its participation in a number of horror film traditions, placing itself, in fact, in a world in which we learn that many of the events depicted in horror films have actually occurred. At the same time, it strives to be an effective horror film in its own right—and even supplies a tongue-in-check backstory that potentially explains not only its own existence, but the existence of all those other horror films as well. At the same time, it provides some telling commentary about the workings of neo-liberal global capitalism that at least begins to move beyond the morass described by Jameson, in which postmodern culture is unable to get outside the ideology of capitalism and thus unable to mount any truly effective critique of it.
The Cabin in the Woods begins with an opening titles sequence, tinted in red, that features Gothic imagery from the horror tradition, accompanied by ominous music. Then, as the film itself begins, it suddenly cuts to a very mundane scene in which two middle-management types (in white shirts and ties) chat beside the office coffee machine. One of them, Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford), is complaining to the other, Gary Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), about the fact that his wife has extensively child-proofed their house, even though they currently have no children and might not even be able to have any. It soon becomes clear that the two men work in a large facility with important international connections, though it is very much unclear just what those operations are. What is clear is that their secret facility is large, well-funded, and high-tech. It has a rather military vibe, though we are reminded within the film that “this isn’t the military.” It is an outpost of something more powerful and more destructive than the military: capitalism itself, specifically capitalism in its contemporary neo-liberal global manifestation (as is emphasized at several points in the film by mentions of various other outposts around the world).
Then the film abruptly cuts to still another completely different setting, in which a group of college guys and girls prepare to go away for a fun weekend at, of course, a cabin in the woods. We know it’s a horror movie, though, and we know what happens at such cabins in horror movies, so we know it’s only a matter of time until things go badly wrong. The cast of characters is carefully chosen as if from a roster of horror film clichés. The girls include the supposedly virginal redhead Dana Polk (Kristen Connelly) and the presumably loose blonde Jules Louden (Anna Hutchison). The guys include hunky athlete Curt Vaughan (Chris Hemsworth), bespectacled scholar Holden McCrea (Jesse Williams), and goofy stoner Marty Mikalski (Fran Krantz). Just for fun, there are a few twists (Curt is actually an excellent student, not a dumb jock, Dana—fresh off an affair with one of her professors—is not really a virgin, and Jules is neither dumb nor naturally blonde, having only recently dyed her hair), but even those are virtual clichés in themselves.
The cabin (the country getaway of Curt’s cousin), of course, is the film’s central cliché, as the title indicates. But before they reach it, the five college kids must first stop to gas up their camper van at the requisite rundown country gas station, manned by the requisite sinister, tobacco-spitting redneck attendant. This attendant, known in the film as “the harbinger,” of course warns the young people that they are likely going to their doom, but they of course merely scoff at him and his pseudo-religious nonsense. The cabin itself, meanwhile, is pretty scary and dilapidated, but it does contain some modern features—such as a one-way mirror on the wall connecting two of the rooms. But, as anyone who has seen the Evil Dead films—the most important of the many referents of this film—would suspect, the real danger lies in the cellar beneath the cabin, which the kids obligingly head down into very soon after arriving.
By this time, however, we already know that they are being maneuvered into going into the cellar by Sitterson and Hadley and their organization, who have the travelers under high-tech surveillance. Indeed, while it takes virtually the entire film for the whole scenario to be made clear, it is obvious that the organization is not merely watching the kids but also subtly managing their actions to make them behave more like stock characters from a horror movie, leading them to their doom. For example, they have laced Jules’ hair dye with a chemical to make her dumber and are meanwhile drugging the kids to ramp up the overall level of libido. Meanwhile, the various employees at the organization’s headquarters make bets on what the kids will do and what will happen to them—this is clearly something they’ve done many times before.
Once the kids have been lured into the cellar, they of course find it filled with all sorts of creepy artifacts, including an old diary detailing the weird experience of the Buckner family, original inhabitants of the cabin. Dana begins to read aloud from the diary—which of course causes the Buckners to be raised from their graves and start stumbling toward the cabin as a “zombie redneck torture family.” Back at headquarters, those who had bet on this particular curse afflicting the kids cheer with glee at their victory. As it turns out, the organization maintains a “stable” of various sorts of monsters and afflictions to use in their missions, all of which are derived from “remnants of the old world.” Part of their work involves giving their subjects just enough free will to choose (however inadvertently) which monsters will afflict them in a particular instance.
Of course, this stable of torments, while given this naturalistic (or perhaps supernaturalistic) explanation, is also derived from various horror film subgenres. For example, while the cabin-in-the-woods motif provides the basic scenario of the film, various sorts of monsters can be called upon to assault the cabin. In addition, the cabin itself includes a torture chamber (called the “black room”), filled with baroque instruments of pain that the Buckners (according to the supplied backstory, anyway) had used while still alive in order to inflict a number of torments on their victims (including their own family members). The implication is clear: many horror films are so formulaic that it is almost as if the characters were being manipulated like the characters in this film.
Once the Buckners have arisen, the next segment of the film involves the efforts of the kids to fight off the zombies, so that for a time we are essentially within a zombie movie, inflected through the hillbilly horror subgenre. Curt and Jules are getting dumber and dumber and hornier and hornier, aided by pheromone mists released by the organization. They start to have sex in the woods outside the cabin, which is apparently what the organization’s “customer” likes. Then, once Jules has finally performed the obligatory baring of breasts, the Buckners have their cue to attack. The “promiscuous” Jules becomes the first victim—just as scripted.
Gradually, we will learn that the kids are being offered up as sacrifices to some mysterious power or powers, eventually identified as Lovecraftian Ancient Ones, powerful gods who lurk beneath the surface of our world and who feed on human fear and death. It is only the sacrifices engineered by the organization that prevent the Ancient Ones from wiping out humanity altogether. And, for a time, it seems that all of the young people are being successfully manipulated toward their deaths. Only the super-high Marty, perhaps made paranoid by marijuana (or perhaps just made resistant to the organization’s drugs), who has the vague feeling of being a puppet, seems to suspect what is going on, while even the brainiacs Dana and Holden are too distracted by their libidos to notice. Even as the zombie family assaults the cabin, the remaining kids continue to behave according to script (with some timely assists from their watchers), except for Marty, who discovers the surveillance equipment in his room, verifying his suspicions that even more is going on than meets the eye. At first he thinks maybe they are just on a reality TV show, but then a zombie crashes through his window, knifes him, and drags him into the woods, apparently making him the second sacrifice.
Soon afterward, the other three kids try to escape in the camper van (and nearly succeed) but find their route blocked by a chasm, somewhat in the mode of the one that blocks Ash’s escape in Evil Dead II. So Curt decides to jump the chasm on his motorcycle, only to crash into an invisible artificial barrier erected by the organization, sending him plunging to his death. Soon afterward, Holden is dispatched as well, leaving only Dana to continue the struggle. As the designated virginal Final Girl, in fact, the script does not even demand that she must die—only that she must undergo a significant amount of suffering, which she has already done.
At this point, then, the organization is prepared to declare victory, having apparently completed their mission successfully. Sitterson, Hadley, and the others crassly begin to celebrate the deaths of the other four young people, oblivious to the fact that Dana is still in danger. It turns out, though, that Marty is still alive, which ruins the party, especially after he and Dana manage to defeat the Buckners and make their way into the underground world of the organization, where they of course encounter other members of its stable of horror creatures, beginning with a werewolf, some ghosts, a girl whose whole face is a many-toothed mouth (like something from a del Toro movie), and a gruesome Cenobite with circular saw blades sticking out of his head (clearly a variant of Hellraiser’sPinhead). By this time, the fact that this stable is made up of various horror movie (and, in some cases, video game) “types” is abundantly clear. Then, to top it off, the camera pulls away to reveal the numerous cells that contain their stable of creatures, including the creepy twins from The Shining, among many others, corresponding to the list of monsters seen earlier in the film when the employees of the organization were betting on which monster would ultimately take down the college kids.
As it turns out, The Cabin in the Woods has one more delight in store for viewers, as the two remaining heroes make their way further into the bowels of the organization’s headquarters, then encounter its Director (the boss of Hadley and Sitterson), who is played by Sigourney Weaver, probably best known for her role as Ripley, the Final Girl of the outer-space slasher film Alien (1979). The Director explains to Marty and Dana certain details concerning their plight, thus also filling in information for any viewers who hadn’t figured it out already (and meanwhile perhaps taking a stab at horror films that feel obligated to explain more than is really necessary). She urges them to quietly accept their fates and thus to dave the world from destruction; instead, they make their way to a control panel that allows them to release the stable of imprisoned monsters, causing havoc within the organization’s headquarters. This leads to an extended (and incredibly bloody) action sequence, in which the various creatures (which even include a killer unicorn) do their work, while Marty and Dana seek a means of escape through all the carnage. Eventually, the whole organization is wiped out, leaving only the two young people, who sttle down to share one last joint and await the end of everything. Perhaps, they conclude, a civilization that must sacrifice its young people in order to survive deserves to be destroyed.
The film does indeed stipulates, that the sacrifices must be young, which comments in a variety of ways on the exploitation of the young by their elders in our contemporary society, perhaps most obviously in the way young people are employed for military duty, sacrificed in wars designed to benefit, not themselves, but the rich and powerful among the older generation. Meanwhile, to the extent that Cabin is a film about horror films, this motif can be taken as a reminder that the horror film industry, though featuring largely youthful characters and designed to appeal primarily to young audiences, is primarily financed, managed, and operated to the profit of their elders, who make big bucks by creating films about the destruction of young people by various evil forces. In this sense, we should remember that the youth-culture hero Whedon himself was 48 in 2012, the year this film was released, while even the fledgling director Goddard was already 37, much older than the young characters in the film, even if quite young by the standards of Hollywood directors.
One way of looking at The Cabin in the Woods is that it projects a world in which all horror films are being engineered by the organization, thus providing an explanation for the fact that so many horror films seem so formulaic—they are, in fact, being generated from a single master script. Indeed, whether one reads the film quite this literally or not, a major project of The Cabin in the Woods is to point out just how stale so many horror film clichés are becoming—though of course the film couldn’t really work unless the clichés it invokes were so well known. In any case, if one reads The Cabin in the Woods simply as a commentary on the sad state of contemporary horror, it becomes a sort of self-undermining artifact: it’s an original and inventive horror film that is basically about the fact that there are no longer any original and inventive horror films, thus adding to the film’s many ironies.
Ben Kooyman addresses this aspect of The Cabin in the Woods, arguing that the activities of Hadley and Sitterson essentially allegorize those of the horror film director. In this sense, according to Kooyman, the two “puppeteers” become stand-ins for journeyman horror directors who, because of the constraints of the marketplace, are forced to work within narrowly defined genre conventions, with little opportunity to exercise anything like genuine creativity. Additiona;ly, the industrial environment of their headquarters suggests, for Kooyman, the businesslike production practices of Hollywood during the old days of the studio system. Ultimately, though, Kooyman puts a positive spin on all this and argues that Hadley and Sitterson are represented in a positive light, because of their resourcefulness in working with the materials that they have. Further, he argues that the activities of Hadley and Sitterson in keeping the Ancient Ones at bay are meant to suggest the positive “societal value” of horror film—even though the ending of the film would seem to call this particular interpretation seriously into question.
Most critics have seen The Cabin in the Woods as being much more critical of horror film in general, and I would have to agree that Kooyman is perhaps being a bit generous in his assessment of the depiction of horror film within the film. On the other hand, while The Cabin in the Woods scores a number of amusing points in its send-up of contemporary horror film, I would also argue that the true message of the film is potentially much deeper and more serious. Whatever horrors the film throws at its young protagonists, those horrors are themselves just puppets. The real villains of the film are the corporate puppeteers back at the military-industrial-complex-style headquarters, wearing their white shirts and ties, drinking their coffee, and making jokes about the destruction they are visiting upon innocent young people. Granting that the film has good reason to be concerned about the violence and gore of recent horror films, Bridget McGovern nevertheless notes that
“the genius of The Cabin in the Woods lies precisely in the fact that it leads its audience to question what the genre has become, and what we’re getting out of it. If horror movies are a safe way of exploring fears both primal and cultural, what do we really need to be afraid of, now, in 2012? It’s not the escaped maniac with a hook haunting lovers’ lanes, and it’s not Leatherface (or Deadites, or an off-brand Pinhead, or even a rampaging killer unicorn) … turns out, the new face of ultimate evil is two pasty, middle-aged guys in a golf cart. Or at least, it’s what they represent.”
Derrick King argues, along these lines, that the film’s basic structure—in which the young people are supposedly free to make their own choices but are in fact being heavily manipulated by Hadley and Sitterson, can be read as an allegory of the basic political condition of late capitalism. For him, The Cabin in the Woods
“can be grasped as a political allegory for the way in which freedom is, under global capitalism, radically overdetermined by mechanisms of ideological, electronic, and biological control that exacerbate inequality and unevenly distribute life itself amongst populations.”
In this sense, one could read The Cabin in the Woods as a sort of cautionary tale that warns us of the potential destructive consequences of continuing to let this situation prevail.
Along these lines, Jameson has argued that one of the central problems of life under late capitalism is the difficulty of “cognitive mapping,” of understanding the complex global system within which we live and knowing just how we fit into that system. One of the crucial effects of this failure of cognitive mapping is the vague sense that our lives are being manipulated and controlled by powerful, invisible forces that we can neither identify nor hope to resist. Unable to name these forces, we strike out instead at immigrants, or Muslims, or abortion doctors, using them as stand-in scapegoats for our real tormentors, the behind-the-scenes manipulators like Hadley and Sitterson. The Cabin on the Woods, however, gets to the heart of the matter by suggesting that our lives are not being wounded by godless scientists or welfare mothers or hippie tree huggers, but by the military-industrial complex, as represented by soulless, heartless functionaries of the ilk of Hadley, Sitterson and their colleagues, which is the real puppet master that is pulling the strings that operate our everyday world.
Meanwhile, one crucial element of the plot of The Cabin in the Woods involves the fact that similar affiliated organizations are orchestrating sacrifices to the Ancient Ones all over the world, which is would of course be the case in the era of global capitalism. Unfortunately, the intended victims in one scenario after another manage to escape death and defeat evil. But someone must be sacrificed to appease the Ancient Ones, lest they take vengeance by destroying human civilization altogether. Thus, the United States emerges as humanity’s last bastion against total destruction, enacting (with an irony that is clearly intended as a criticism) the longtime myth of American exceptionality, as well as the more recent vision that it is up to the United States to serve as the world’s policeman.
The Cabin in the Woods goes even farther. By supplying a narrative framework within which the organization justifies its activities as necessary in order to protect our civilization, it strikes at the very heart of the arguments through which the United States has long justified siphoning off an obscenely large percentage of our national wealth to support the military (and the constellation of fat-cat defense contractors that surrounds it), giving it the most destructive power of any military in the history of the world, while our national infrastructure crumbles and our social programs gradually spiral downward toward the level of what used to be called the “third world.” Perhaps it is no wonder that horror movies are thriving in the twenty-first century, when the entire United States operates on an economy of fabricated fear, struggling desperately to find new bogies to replace the specter of communism that once haunted us, thus justifying the allocation of more and more resources to fight off these new and more nefarious threats. By daring to address this phenomenon, The Cabin in the Woods is a brave film, indeed, though one could also argue that addressing it within the framework of a popular horror film significantly defuses its subversive message. In our current climate, however, one might argue that cultural forms such as the horror film, which are able to fly under the radar of the powers-that-be because they are regarded as mere entertainment and as politically harmless, are the only available tools for making such arguments.
Fear, of course, is the central resource of the horror film, so the horror film might be the ideal venue within which to explore the extent to which neo-liberal society, with its array of perceived threats and its economic precarity, operates according to a dynamic of fear, a dynamic that is closely related to the individualist ethos of capitalism, pushed to new heights under neo-liberalism. After all, surrounded by danger, there is nothing more frightening than being alone. Little wonder then, that one of the first moves of the puppeteers of The Cabin in the Woods (and a move they make repeatedly) is to separate the victims into different rooms. As Blouin puts it,
“Rather than expose American neo-liberalism as a bureaucracy of fear, Goddard’s film suggests that contemporary horror films tacitly affirm the apparatus. Hadley and Sitterson separate the various characters from one another. They weed out those that are pre-determined to be weaker. Dana and her cohort are pushed into separate rooms to face the evil alone. They are deliberately kept from working together. The violent undercurrents of individualism emerge, a common recurrence celebrated with shots of tequila by the group running the game” (95).
Meanwhile, McGovern makes an interesting argument that The Cabin in the Woods is able to deliver its message while remaining entertaining because it is essentially constructed in the same fashion as John Hughes movies, especially The Breakfast Club. In those films, society attempts to force young people into pre-scripted roles, only to have the young people rebel and refuse to play the game, opting to become the people they choose to become. McGovern also approvingly compares the motif of rebellious young people vs. repressive authority that she sees as central to The Cabin in the Woods to the individual vs. society structure of the recent teen-oriented dystopian film The Hunger Games (2012).
The problem with this logic, of course, is that it remains thoroughly inscribed within the ideology of capitalism. Films about brave individual heroes facing up to and successfully resisting large, evil, corporatized structures create the illusion that such localized individual resistance—as opposed to large-scale, collective action—can actually be effective. This illusion, of course, is precisely the one that the capitalist powers-that-be want their Culture Industry to deliver, because it helps to defuse any momentum toward collective resistance. What McGovern does not point out is that the individualist rebellion of the young people in The Cabin in the Woods actually fails utterly. They do manage to bring down the huge organization (read, capitalism) that has been pulling their strings, but they also bring down everything else as well, because, as mere individuals, they are unable to supply any sort of replacement structure (such as socialism) to protect humanity from the abyss.
This ending, though, would seem to offer a number of different interpretations. For one thing, it could be taken as commentary on the kinds of apocalyptic endings that horror movies often have and that horror fans seem to enjoy, perhaps because—as Jameson suggests in his “Future City” essay—it is the only way, in the postmodern era, to imagine the end of capitalism. On a more specifically political level, this ending can be taken as seriously raising the question, as do Marty and Dana, of whether a society that sacrifices its young people (by breaking their spirits and turning them into obedient corporate drones) really deserves to survive. I see little reason, however, to interpret this film as literally advocating the destruction of all of humanity in order to get us out of our current morass. Instead, I view the ending of the film as an exemplary postmodernist one, per the theorization of Jameson. This film clearly wishes to make a strong statement about the failings of capitalism but is simply unable to imagine any specific alternative that might be preferable.
To its credit, The Cabin in the Woods does, however, highlight its own inability to imagine alternatives, potentially identifying this inability as a crucial part of the neo-liberal postmodern condition. The end of the film does this most spectacularly and obviously, but there is also a passing moment, seemingly insignificant, early in the film when a crucial point about the unavailability of viable alternatives is made. As Dana and Jules pack to go away for the weekend, Jules discovers that Dana has packed some textbooks, including one entitled Soviet Economic Structures. Jules discards the textbooks, insisting that Dana replace them with things like a tiny bikini, one of the emblems of the pleasure-based consumerist culture of the West.The point is presumably that she wants Dana to concentrate on having fun instead of studying, but one could argue that this goal is also central to the mind-numbing machinations of neo-liberal capitalist ideology, with American popular culture as its central delivery mechanism. In addition, that the book being discarded is one on Soviet economics makes it clear that it is not simply critical thinking in general that is being discouraged under last capitalism. Socialism, in particular, is being discarded, because it potentially represents the most powerful and viable alternative.
This is not to say that The Cabin in the Woods specifically recommends socialism as an alternative to the capitalist system it criticizes. Rather, the film here simply acknowledges that socialism, at least for now, is no longer regarded as a serious alternative. By so doing, though, it potentially makes its most telling observation about the workings of neo-liberal capitalism and its insidious strategy of convincing individuals that there is no other way. This is the strategy that Mark Fisher has identified as central to what he calls “capitalist realism” (essentially synonymous with postmodernism), noting that the Thatcher administration in England (a key actor in the rise of neo-liberalism) literally employed the slogan “There Is No Alternative.” Again, however, it is probably Jameson who provides the best gloss on The Cabin in the Woods in this sense. In Archaeologies of the Future he again notes the contemporary inability to imagine utopian alternatives to the capitalist order. Further, he argues that the collapse of the utopian imagination is so sweeping that “at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment … and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively (xiii). Unable to imagine an historically viable alternative to capitalism, The Cabin in the Woods imagines instead the end of the world, which is a pretty comprehensive failure. But, by calling attention to this failure, it perhaps strikes its most telling blow against neo-liberal capitalism. Acknowledging the way in which neo-liberal capitalism creates the belief that there is no alternative to its own gruesome logic is at least a step toward getting beyond that logic, even if a problematic one.
Blouin, Michael. “‘A Growing Global Darkness’: Dialectics of Culture in Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods.” Horror Studies 6.1 (2015): 83–99.
Dean, Rob. “(Almost) Every Horror Reference in The Cabin in the Woods, Explained.” A/V Club (October 31, 2014). https://news.avclub.com/almost-every-horror-reference-in-the-cabin-in-the-woo-1798273659. Accessed January 26, 2019.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
King, Derrick. “The (Bio)political Economy of Bodies, Culture as Commodification, and the Badiouian Event: Reading Political Allegories in The Cabin in the Woods.” Slayage: The Journal of Whedon Studies 11.2-12.1 (Summer 2014). http://www.whedonstudies.tv/uploads/2/6/2/8/26288593/king_slayage_11.2-12.1.pdf. Accessed January 27, 2019.
Kooyman, Ben. “‘Gotta keep the customer satisfied’: Puppeteers as Director-Surrogates in The Cabin in the Woods.” Horror Studies 6.1 (2015): 101–119.
Lockett, Christopher. ‘We are not who we are’: Lovecraftian Conspiracy and Magical Humanism in The Cabin in the Woods.” Horror Studies 6.1 (2015): 121–139.
McGovern, Bridget. “Joss Whedon, John Hughes, and Torture Porn: What The Cabin in the Woods Says About the Current State of Pop Culture.” Tor.com (April 23, 2012). https://www.tor.com/2012/04/23/joss-whedon-john-hughes-and-torture-porn-what-the-cabin-in-the-woods-says-about-the-current-state-of-pop-culture/. Accessed January 26, 2019.
Renner, Karen J. “Generational Conflict, Twenty-First Century Horror Films and The Cabin in the Woods.” The Millennials on Film and Television: Essays on the Politics of Popular Culture. Eds. Betty Kaklamanidou and Margaret Tally. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. 110–25.
 On the obvious impact of the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft on the conception of these Ancient Ones—and on The Cabin in the Woods in general, see Lockett.
 See Rob Dean for a discussion of many of the film’s numerous horror film references.
 On generational conflict in The Cabin in the Woods, see Renner.
 One might compare here T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), a brilliant and unprecedented poem about the fact that cultural conditions in the modern world are so debased that it is no longer possible to create good poetry.
 King’s allegorical reading, incidentally, aligns The Cabin in the Woods with torture porn, a subgenre to which most critics have seen the film as opposed, partly because of Joss Whedon’s expressed distaste for it. For him, however, both Cabin and films such as Hostel address the fact that, under neo-liberal late capitalism, the human body has become a “consumable object.” For King, “torture porn films are a response to these larger historical anxieties about the diffuse power structures of multinational capitalism and the way that bodies are circulated as commodities worldwide (the global sex trade or the forced movement of laborers being paradigmatic examples).”