Satire and Meta-Horror in “The Cabin in the Woods”

This post is going to include spoilers. My suggestion is that you just go see the movie right now to avoid ruining it, and then come back and read this. It’s worth the money.

Maybe they should have called it The Penrose Cabin.

Did you go see it? Good. Wasn’t that awesome?

Think of every slasher movie you’ve ever seen and try to refute this general summation of the genre: You have a group of young, attractive twenty-somethings who decide to travel to a remote location and have some fun. Once they get there, they are cut off from escape and are pursued by something horrible that wants to kill them one by one.

The characters in question include these: a slut, a jock, a fool, a scholar, and a virgin (the “final girl”). You are generally pleased to see the slut go down and are disappointed when the fool bites it because he has the most personality and cracks all the jokes. The virgin may either survive or be the last to die, but cannot die if there are still others alive.

The Cabin in the Woods laughs at the formula while also playing right into it. This is intentional and even orchestrated by the mysterious office workers who have set up all the predictable traps for the characters to fall into.

When the coeds get to the cabin, they find an assortment of things in the basement, each one both ominous and alluring. They settle on a diary from the perspective of a young girl from a creepy inbred family who kills people, and the reading of the diary brings back these zombified hillbillies. Meanwhile, the office workers place bets on which item will capture the group’s interest, for each one is connected to a different monster that will potentially rise up to star in the movie-within-the-movie.

At first, everything goes according to plan. But something unexpected happens: something that I always wanted to happen in horror movies but knew never would because they follow the same formula time and again.

The virgin stands alone, ready to face the monsters; but it turns out, the fool is still alive!

Yes, the fool, the only character worth caring about, has duped them all and figured out that the situation they’re in is rigged. Smoking weed throughout the movie, he has a hard time convincing his friends that he’s not just being paranoid because of the high. He and the final girl escape the zombies and find a secret elevetor buried underground. They go down.

Up until now, the movie has been an entertaining play on the slasher formula. The men orchestrating it stand in for both the filmmakers and the viewers, giving us a satirical lens through which to not only watch a horror movie, but also to see through it to its structure and understand the skeleton of the beast. As the formula further unravels, we find ourselves with a horror movie that is commenting on horror movies while at the same time deconstructing itself as a horror movie.

When the two survivors venture underground in the macabre version of Willy Wonka’s magical elevator, it starts to get really good. We see the individual cages holding in all of these nightmarish creatures lying in wait to be chosen. In the midst of it all is the command center, at which point the movie-within-the-movie defies its contrived reality, busts through its fourth wall, and enters the reality of the movie. Think of it as if you’re sitting in a movie theater and the characters suddenly break through the screen and fall out into the seat next to you.

Then we learn the truth: this command center is an operation that has taken over the old rituals of sacrifice. In the new ritual, each of the characters is a sacrifice to the ancient gods, who can only be appeased if the formula goes according to plan. If it does not, then they will rise up and the world, as we know it, will end.

Who are these old gods, we might ask? Tradition. It is the tradition of slasher movies that calls for the formula to be followed and for no one to question its absurdity. On a larger scale, tradition often holds us back from change and progress. It is the old gods and the old ways that force us to complete the ritual every year, but isn’t it about time for a change?

The Cabin in the Woods suggests that we break the ritual. It would have been very nihilistic towards the horror genre had the movie allowed the fool to be killed off and the ritual to go as planned. But it doesn’t do that. Together, the fool and the final girl defy the ritual and let the ancient gods out to destroy the world. What’s strange about this ending is that it isn’t actually nihilistic. It shows us that we can break out of the traditional formula and create something new, even if that requires us to destroy the old formulas on which we’ve built our reality.

Here the movie deconstructs the horror-slasher genre and turns against itself. It has taken apart all the pieces of the formula and, in the end, has cast them aside entirely. The status quo has been shattered, and the old gods no longer need to be appeased. Yes, it suggests that we can change horror and create something original, but even more than that it suggests that we can change the world. We do not have to be shackled by the rituals that surround us.

And these: our puppeteers, our new gods, modern cinema, etc., can get bent.

The Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie for intellectuals with a dry sense of humor. The movie is very tongue-in-cheek, providing us both revelatory moments like the ones I’ve described and also the pure enjoyment of poking fun at itself. It successfully walks the thin tightrope between not taking itself seriously and making us care about the characters. It satirizes itself but also gives itself a meaningful reason for being.

It manages to do what Shaun of the Dead has done before it: be a legitimately good horror movie in its own right while, at the same time, completely destroying the very foundations of its chosen genre. A bit of a conundrum that somehow works perfectly in our postmodern, poststructuralist society. I really think that, if this movie is taken seriously enough, the slasher genre as we know it could be at an end. Now anyone who tries to pull the old “five attractive twenty-somethings getting murdered one by one” will be laughed off the film scene by advocates of The Cabin in the Woods. Really, isn’t it about time we shake up the horror  genre as we know it?

And the zombies were defeated by a stoner wielding a giant bong.

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8 thoughts on “Satire and Meta-Horror in “The Cabin in the Woods”

  1. Hmm? Very interesting, Joanna. I’ll have to check this thing out. I apologize for having read the spoiler-containing post first. Whatever you do, please don’t tell my wife. I’m always bugging her for reading the last page in a book before beginning the thing. If she hears I’ve done the same with this film, I’ll never hear the end of it. 😉
    Take care.

    -Jimmy

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