Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, 2012
#23, 2012 Skandies
This is a meta slasher flick. I've never seen a non-meta slasher flick. I saw Scream, and now I've seen this, and that's it. However, because my area of concentration in college was contemporary American pop culture, I've read a bunch of analytical articles from the early 1980s about slasher flicks, or as the articles tended to call them, "dead teenager movies". The soon-to-be-dead teenagers in The Cabin in the Woods are mostly played by actors who are 30+; I don't know to what extent the original batch of movies suffered from the 90210 syndrome that would make this count as parody. The supposedly Millennial characters also make at least one joke that is very '80s-specific, which makes me wonder whether it's just a bit of self-indulgence by the Gen X filmmakers — like when the Baby Boomers behind Wild Palms had the Gen X characters making references to Father Knows Best and Cass Elliott — or whether it's supposed to be a tribute to the slasher flick decade, or what. It got me wondering who exactly the target audience was for a movie that comments on a genre whose heyday was three decades earlier, but when I asked a Millennial about it, she pointed out that for all their proud proclamations on Twitter that they don't know who Paul McCartney is, pop culture is less of-the-moment for Millennials than for previous generations, because they're used to being able to pull up anything they want at a moment's notice, whether it's a song that came out last week or a movie that came out before they were born. So just because slasher movies are no longer the phenomenon they once were doesn't mean that the teenagers of today haven't seen a bunch of '80s slasher movies. They've just seen them on their phones.
The title sequence of The Cabin in the Woods sets up the theme of the movie: that slasher flicks are just a recent iteration of a longstanding cultural practice of ritual human sacrifice — literally, for the characters in the films, and symbolically, for those of us out here in the real world. This, according to Cabin's level boss and the academics who wrote those articles I read lo these many years ago, is an exercise in the decrepit lashing out at the next generation, leveraging their societal power to punish the young for their sexual vitality, and even more so, for their ability to bounce back from stupid decisions that would destroy the lives of people a little bit older. Behind every dead teenager is a little priesthood of filmmakers and studio executives smirking, "Bounce back from this." But while that might explain why these movies take the shape they do, the question remains: why would young people, then or now, choose to subject themselves to that message? I asked some horror fans of my acquaintance, and the consensus was that the answer is pretty simple: no one cares about the stories. The kids in the audience aren't pondering the ideological underpinnings of the narrative unspooling before them. They're just there for the neurochemical rush that comes from even vicarious danger. And they actually like that the victims are teenagers, because they can relate better and that makes it scarier.
Somewhere along the line I ran across an article — I think it was in one of the test prep books I taught out of, and I think it may have been written by Stephen King — in which the author defended the value of the horror genre, going back to the ancient idea of catharsis. We are hardwired to gather in packs to hunt and kill things, the argument went, but since we are so individually vulnerable, we're also hardwired to have a hair-trigger and amped-up fear response, lest we fall prey to fiercer beasts. None of this constitutes civilized behavior, so these impulses need a safe outlet or else they might leak out in ways that jeopardize the functioning of modern society. Going to a slasher flick every Friday night, the article concluded, offers us a way to give these primal urges a workout in a harmless way. I know that appeals to evolutionary biology are on the outs these days; they are frequently spurious, and I have no stake in defending this dimly remembered article, nor in defending the horror genre in general (personally, I dislike it). But what did strike me about this argument, especially in relation to Cabin's discussion of the old punishing the young, is that ganging up to hunt and harry someone for some transgression is not behavior limited to any particular age group. I mean, isn't that basically what the Internet has become, Twitter in particular? It seems like every time I go there to post a link to one of these articles, the Trending Topics are basically a Ten Most Wanted list — click on a name, see the news article explaining the nature of the offense, read the howls of outrage (because given Twitter's character limit, there's little room for more nuance than "Grah! Don't like!"). Often the outrage is well deserved, as in the case of the dentist who killed the lion, but just as often it's something like the one I saw a few days back: some talk show host I've never heard of insults a singer whose music I've never heard, and presto, an avalanche of tweets from teenagers demanding the cancellation of her show. Which seems maybe a little disproportionate, but whatever — I certainly wouldn't have minded seeing Andy Rooney's segment on 60 Minutes get canceled after he devoted a full installment of it to mocking Kurt Cobain after he'd committed suicide. But however much justification each of these twitstorms may have on their own, the fact that people gathering in hashtag mobs to hound someone has become a daily spectacle is just a little too reminiscent of Orwell's Two Minutes Hate — except 140 Characters Hate runs around the clock. Which I am well aware is something that the pundit class, Get Off My Lawn division, has been wringing its collective hands about for a while now. So let me be clear: I don't think that the rise of these hashtag mobs says anything about any particular web site, or era, or generation. That's the point — like slasher flicks, this is just a recent iteration of a practice that dates back for millennia, and says something about how fundamentally fucked up we are as a species. What's surprising about the ending of The Cabin in the Woods is that it goes the full Melancholia in taking this line of thinking to its misanthropic conclusion.