A Communist in the Woods

A Review of The Cabin in the Woods

Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!

— Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”

It is probably impossible today for anyone to make an even halfway commercial movie that shouts, in some positive sense, ‘Revolution!’ as loudly as its lungs can bear, so one must celebrate the films that seem (whether deliberately or not) to imply its necessity.

— Robin Wood

After spending several years languishing on the shelves of Hollywood’s unreleased projects, The Cabin in the Woods was finally released this month to rave reviews. People are calling it a “game changer.” No doubt the film deserves such acclaim, and in this respect, comparisons with The Evil Dead or the original Scream are indeed apt. The film transforms and subverts the horror genre in general and the torture porn genre in particular. But one should not stop there. The Cabin in the Woods is not just subversive in terms of genre conventions. The film also demands to be read politically.

The film’s impact largely resides in its ability to undermine all expectations. Surprise is key. Thus, a person who has not yet viewed the film is strongly advised not to continue reading.

The Cabin in the Woods involves a blood sacrifice ritual in which a handful of young adults are ceremonially put to death to appease the mysterious gods. This ritual takes place throughout the world unbeknownst both to the general population and to the victims. This is the behind-the-scenes, transnational death squad of Hostel II taken to the next level. As my comrade Noah Zweig has pointed out to me, the ritual is orchestrated by an organized group of bureaucrats who remain coldly detached from the screams of their victims. As they routinely carry out the blood sacrifice, they joke amongst themselves and chat about their lives, passing the time like office workers at the proverbial water-cooler. If ever there has been a cinematic manifestation of Hannah Arendt’s thesis on the banality of evil, perhaps this is it.

Throughout the film, it is suggested that this ritual has continued throughout human history in a variety of forms. In the past, people were simply thrown into volcanoes. Now, the ritual has taken the form of reality television. One may be reminded of the mass suicide spectacles portrayed in dystopian films like Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, or, more recently, the game of death depicted in The Hunger Games. Looking at The Cabin in the Woods politically, one might ask how this macabre ritual also takes place in our current society. Do we not also offer our young as a blood sacrifice today by sending them to fight neoimperialist wars overseas in places like Afghanistan and Iraq? Is not their blood spilt on the altar of global empire and capital, offered as a sacrifice to Mammon just as lives were previously offered to Moloch and Baal?

The victims in The Cabin in the Woods are even given the same Orwellian justification for their death that politicians give our young soldiers. With their death, they are told that they will be making freedom possible for the masses. It is also significant that we are repeatedly told in the film that the monsters represent our own nightmares: zombies, demons, werewolves, giant snakes, a maniacal clown, and yes, even a merman. Just as the victims of the film are to be put to death by our collective nightmares, so too are our soldiers sent to fight imaginative monsters: the filthy Arab, the evil Muslim, the stereotypical terrorist. These are our current reactionary nightmares, sinister phantoms conjured up in order to instill fear and to perpetuate existing power structures. Today’s Muslim boogeymen were yesterday’s Communists, and it cannot be a coincidence that in the beginning of the film, we learn that one of the protagonists is reading a book on Soviet economics. This reference is nothing less than a gesture towards the nightmares of the past, the demonic fictions that were used to justify the blood sacrifices of previous generations.

But what happens if the blood sacrifices stop? This remains the film’s great, unsolved mystery. Will the unleashing of the unseen gods bring about the apocalypse and the end of the planet? Will it usher in a more just world? The bureaucrats who maintain the status quo believe that the end of the blood sacrifices will mean a fate worse than death. The killing ritual thus represents a symbolic order which serves to stave off the Lacanian Real, the unimaginable absolute. In this way, a fundamentally unjust status quo is justified, and the suggestion that the blood ritual be stopped so that society can move in a different direction is treated with absolute horror and abject terror. As Erich Fromm would have put it, freedom is a source of fear.

The five protagonists of the film represent stereotypes: the nerd, the jock, the slut, the virgin, and the fool. It is Scooby Doo without the dog. Significantly, the film goes out of its way to show that each character is actually far more complex and multidimensional than his or her stereotypical role suggests. The nerd is athletic. The jock is smart. The slut isn’t slutty. The virgin isn’t a virgin. And the fool is perhaps the cleverest one of all. The bureaucrats behind the blood ritual go out of their way to make these people conform to their characters. In the same way, the game of life is fixed. Social institutions tell us who to be and how to act. No matter what the Ayn Randians and bootstrap libertarians suggest, social structures and institutions do exist, and they do matter. They play a substantial role in how we live our lives.

But such a view need not be fatalistic. Social institutions many indeed function like Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses, but the attempt to dominate all individuals is never complete. People do have agency. They do indeed resist, and they often fight against the roles that have been predetermined for their lives. The oppressed rise up. The victim no longer turns the other cheek. Marx’s proletariat rebels against the machine. In surrealist Aimé Césaire’s words, “the slave ship cracks.”

In the film, one of the most important forms of resistance is marijuana. Smoking joints has allowed the fool to escape the bureaucratic puppetmasters’ various tricks. It has rendered him immune to their manipulation. This is why he can hear voices while others cannot. In The Cabin in the Woods, pot is a form of counterhegemonic rebellion. Timothy Leary and the rest of the sixties drug culture would be proud.

Eventually, blood rituals throughout the world begin to backfire. Would-be victims across the planet, from Japan to Sweden, begin to resist, managing to prevent their own deaths. Meanwhile, the bureaucrats back in America watch in utter dismay. The global hierarchy is collapsing all over the planet. The symbolic order is falling apart. Although the film was conceived and produced several years before the revolutionary events of 2011, these scenes are nothing less than a premonition of the world events that were to come. One can only imagine that similar scenes played out in corporate boardrooms in 2011 as the powerbrokers watched the protests on their television sets and on their laptops. People began rising up throughout the Arab world, across Europe, and elsewhere, even in such unlikely places as Madison, Wisconsin and Zuccotti Park. The puppets were demonstrating that they are not controlled by the puppetmasters. They were not doing what they were supposed to do. A possibility that had previously been rendered unimaginable was coming to light. As The Cabin in the Woods and the revolutionary year 2011 both demonstrate, the hegemonic global order can indeed be overturned. The struggle continues.

Greg Burris is based in Santa Barbara, California. His other writings have appeared in CineAction, CounterPunch, Electronic Intifada, and Jadaliyya. Read other articles by Greg.