The films starts off with the all too common horror trope of college students setting off for a weekend in a cabin in the woods. The students seem at first corny stereotypes from a B-movie, but they are quickly shown to be the pawns in a more sinister game. In a high tech underground facility, employees’ office talk blends in with hints of a major international event. The students are the chosen victims of a ritual sacrifice that is managed by the employees of – what it feels like – a government facility, given that the lead technician is played by Josh of West Wing memory, Bradley Whitford. From the facility, Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford) monitors the students through surveillance, releases a pheromone mist to affect their decision-making, and dispatches the odd monster to kill them according to a pre-established order. The five students represent archetypes: ‘the whore’, ‘the athlete’, ‘the scholar’, ‘the fool’, and ‘the virgin’. They are to be killed like characters in a horror movie for the entertainment and satisfaction of the gods, the ‘Ancient Ones’. Cabin in the Woods does not simply make fun of cheesy horror films, but also aspires to expose the voyeuristic and sadistic enjoyment the audience expects from horror. It doesn’t quite deliver partly because it is too close to the material it wants to criticise, but also because it doesn’t handle well the different levels of the film, namely the mockery of our advanced scientific society shown to be driven by hunger for voyeuristic entertainment, social gender stereotypes, as well as the ironic take on horror films. Had the film taken itself a little more seriously and played with archetypes a little more, it would have been great. Cabin manages some good moments nonetheless. Most importantly, it lends itself to some good anthropology.
The archetypes of the ‘whore’ and of the ‘virgin’ reflect how women are associated with the body and sexuality. The dichotomy is typical of gender norms regulating female sexuality and carrying moral judgement. Accordingly, women are ‘good’ when their sexuality is under the control of men, as in marriage, as sexless in the paternal home or the convent. A woman, who is in control of her sexuality and own body (taking contraceptives etc.), is a threat and is labelled a ‘whore’ in an effort to control her by condemning her behaviour. As Mary Douglas showed in her book Purity and Danger (1966), the internal order of a community and its external boundaries are maintained through the regulation of women’s bodies. Women’s roles of mothers and home-makers are vital not only to the biological reproduction of the community, but also to ensure the continuity of societal and economic structures.
When women go beyond those roles and enter the public sphere of work and power, societal structures need to change, at least to some extent. It might just mean that they enter on ‘male terms’, while maintaining their role at home (Hochschild 1989), and are later accused of ‘wanting it all’, or actually managed to change the culture and structures of the public sphere. To be fair to Cabin in the Woods, the stereotypical representation of the ‘whore’ and the ‘virgin’ is shown to be orchestrated from the facility; yet the film doesn’t really play much with this idea of archetypes, which would have strengthened the narrative of the film and made the ritual more than a slasher film. The slasher film is there to show that the cannibalistic gods clamouring for human sacrifice are none other than the audience. So did the ritual live up to anthropological standards?
Of Modern Science and Human Sacrifice
Human sacrifice captures our imagination. It feels alien, barbaric, and primitive … until you think of the death penalty (that’s for another post!). From an anthropological perspective, it should be pointed out that not all sacrificial victims die, sacrificial violence takes many forms, sacrifice is not always violent, and that the point of the sacrifice is not necessarily the death of the victim. As remarked by Kathryn McClymond (2002, 2011), we think of sacrifice as killing animals or humans because of the influence of Christianity, which is based on a human sacrifice in substitution for the sins of humanity. This does not apply to most religions, especially Vedic sacrifices, which mostly involve plants. Further, “Vedic sacrificial killing is not so much about destruction as about gaining access to the medha, the life essence within the plant stalk.” (McClymond 2002: 227). Nevertheless, like Cabin in the Woods, “the focus is on maintaining the cosmic order. … The Vedic sacrificial setting assumes that human ritual agents avert potential disaster by imposing religiously prescribed order upon the created world” (McClymond 2011: 323).
Sacrifice is a ritual and ritual is a process. This means that sacrifice has different stages although they are not fixed. There is generally an invocation, followed by the offering and immolation of the victim. With more than a hint of irony, Cabin in the Woods includes an invocation when Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford), in shirt and tie in front of his computer, says: “This we offer in humility and fear, for the blessed peace of your eternal slumber, as it ever was.” Well done Cabin!
The ritual generally ends with ‘communion’, according to Victor Turner (1977). If the audience is the community, munching popcorn at the cinema might pass as ‘communion’, but of course there is also another audience: the employees at the facility. Marty (Fran Kranz), the geeky character and archetype of ‘the fool’, is the only one who can perceive the truth, mostly because he has smoked marijuana, which makes him immune to the drugs spread into the air by the computers. Marty sees that he is “on a reality TV show”. The sacrifice is broadcast on TV for the benefit of the employees in the facility, who celebrate by running sweepstakes and drinking beer. As mentioned, the film writers (Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard) might have meant the comment on ‘reality tv’ more as an ironic critique of the preponderance of entertainment in our lives; yet ritual is always a communal event, so this can also be ‘communion’.
The film contrasts ironically the ultra-modern, high tech underground facility, which controls the environment and even the brains of the students, with primitive ancient gods demanding human sacrifice, which is meted out by monsters, magical beings, and zombies. Yet, the scientific technology proves itself unable to perform the ritual successfully. Two of the students survive, Marty (Fran Kranz), the fool, and Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virgin. They set loose the monsters in the facility. The virus escapes the lab. They condemn the world to destruction by performing – what we could perhaps construe as – their own version of sacrifice, and celebrate with in ‘communion’ by sharing a spliff.