To the long list of reasons why I love my job, you can add this one: in a week I’m going to Sacramento CA to present a paper at the biennial Whedon Studies Conference. Yep, that’s a thing. And as much as it might sound vaguely comic-con-ish, it’s actually a serious academic conference that has been happening for twelve years. It should not be such a surprise, really, considering the fondness (and by “fondness,” I mean “obsession”) that a great many academics have for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Joss Whedon’s other creations.
My good friend Nikki Stafford, whom you may remember from such roles as my partner in crime in our Game of Thrones posts, has been bugging me to go for years. She has been to most, if not in fact all, of the conferences so far, at least one time as a keynote speaker. And given that I am on the cusp of my very first sabbatical (yet another reason to love my job), I thought what the hell … it’s time.
And it’s also in Sacramento, which is just down the road from San Francisco. So, double score.
I’m presenting a paper on The Cabin in the Woods, a film Joss wrote and Drew Goddard directed, which was filmed in 2009 but didn’t get released unto 2012 because of distribution issues. If you haven’t seen the film, go watch it right now. Or at least stop reading this blog post, because SPOILERS.
For those who haven’t seen it but laugh in the face of spoilers, the premise of the film is that a group of five college co-eds go to a remote cabin, where they encounter in the basement a variety of creepy tchotchkes. As it turns out, each of them, handled in a certain way, will summon a specific monster (or cluster of monsters) that will kill them in succession. As it happens, Dana (Kristen Connolly) inadvertently summons the Buckner clan, a family of “zombified pain-worshipping backwoods idiots” by reading a Latin incantation out of the journal of Patience Buckner.
The conceit of the film, and what makes it a brilliant inversion of the horror genre, is that the five main characters are being manipulated by a clandestine group of technicians in a hi-tech facility underneath the cabin. The whole point of having the five oblivious co-eds play out a cliché horror movie narrative is to make them a sacrifice to the “Old Gods”—ancient, powerful beings who pre-existed humans and who demand ritual sacrifice, without which they will rise from their slumber and destroy the world. And so a sort of global conspiracy has arisen, with different countries performing their own sacrifices but all essentially working together as a fail-safe, so if one fails others will succeed and keep the stroppy Old Ones quiescent.
My paper, which is still in the process of being written (hey, I started on it a week and a half before flying to the conference—this is me being on the ball) is a consideration of the Lovecraftian influences on Cabin, and the ways in which Whedon rewrites H.P. Lovecraft’s “Old Ones” mythos. I’ll post the text of the paper after I’ve presented it … for now, I’m just using this blog to ruminate over elements of the film, and speculations about it, that won’t be making it into the paper itself.
Why won’t they make it into the paper? Because some of the notes I was writing today were veering dangerously close to fan fiction. Cabin leaves a lot of unanswered questions, especially in terms of history, and I found myself today maundering over possible origin stories for the film’s present-day military-industrial conspiratorial scheming. The implicit suggestion is that this ritual sacrifice has been going on for time out of mind—since the dawn of human civilization and before. And because I have one of those minds that can’t help puzzling over such questions, I find myself wondering: how did people get by before the advent of such omniscient technology such as is on display in the film? The lead “technicians” Stitterson and Hadley (Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, the latter essentially playing the role as if Josh Lyman had gone into covert ops rather than D.C. politics) nudge their five victims into classic stupid horror movie behavior by releasing chemicals and pheromones, changing the lighting and temperature, and just generally making use of the impressive technology at their fingertips to better facilitate the ritual slaughter. And yet they ultimately fail, as do all the other stations around the world (spoiler). So if this all-powerful technological juggernaut fails, how on earth did previous sacrifices succeed?
Of course, once we move into speculation on such an issue, for which there is little or no exposition in the film, we’re engaging in a version of what a former professor of mine called the Lady Macbeth’s children question. Apparently (I’ll have to take his word for it, as I’ve never encountered it myself), once upon a time Shakespeare enthusiasts speculated at length about how many children Lady Macbeth had. The only reference to her (possibly) having had children is when she coldly declares she would kill her own child to win Macbeth the throne: “I have given suck, and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: / I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash’d the brains out.” But from this utterance apparently sprang interpretations of the play based in whether she had actually had children, and how many. Or perhaps it just functions as an exemplar of the fatuity of speculating too far outside the text. Either way, I can’t help doing it with The Cabin in the Woods—in part because I think I have a reasonable case to make. Not in front of a scholarly audience, mind you, but what use is a blog if I can’t use it for dorky speculation?
So: how did humanity fare with the sacrifice before they could build elaborate underground complexes dedicated to carrying it out? One possibility, which I’ll call the Lovecraft scenario, is that secret societies have existed since the dawn of civilization and before, who passed the secret of the Ancient Ones on down through the generations, and in premodern days it was easier to carry out human sacrifices without ruffling the sensibilities of the larger population. And perhaps there were even volunteers to do the ritual dying. Such a scenario is not, after all, too far from the mythology Whedon created for Buffy, in which the Slayer and the Watchers Council stretch in an unbroken line back to Neolithic times.
The other possibility, which I’ll call the Gaiman scenario, suggests that the contemporary technological apparatus facilitating the sacrifice, and its concomitant conspiratorial secrecy—and the intricate process of the sacrifice itself—are products of modernity. Perhaps in ancient times the ritual did not need to be nearly so elaborate, as the larger portion of humanity engaged in worship and sacrifice, and the copia of blood offerings satiated the Ancient Ones. In the final moments of the film, as it slowly dawns on survivors Dana and Marty (Fran Kanz) that they are the subjects of ritual sacrifice, Marty plaintively wonders at the hoops they’ve been made to jump through: “A ritual sacrifice?” he asks. “Great. You tie someone to a stone, get a fancy dagger and a bunch of robes. It’s not that complicated.” In this bewildered comment, I’d argue, lies a key to the film as a whole. Why is this ritual so complicated? In the Gaiman scenario, the Ancient Ones were not necessarily secret but worshipped in various guises, from Marduk to Anubis to Quetzacoatl to Zeus to Mithras to Elohim; but as humanity emerged from its dark ages, worship became less primal and more formalized, and hence less satisfying to the gods. Here emerged the conspiratorial cabals dedicated to placating them, and as modernity took humanity away from not just primal worship but religion generally, the ritual sacrifice became necessarily more elaborate and sophisticated, to compensate for its infrequency.
All of which is fun to speculate on, but as I mentioned, it veers dangerously close to fan fiction. Yet I would argue that the Gaiman scenario is consonant with the film’s broader themes, and in working it out in my head I think I’ve arrived at the core of my paper’s argument. What is brilliant about Cabin is the way it stages a confrontation between Enlightenment rationality (manifested in the technicians’ military-industrial technology) and what China Mieville has called H.P. Lovecraft’s “bad numinous”: Cabin is rooted in an identifiably Lovecraftian mythos, in which humanity inhabits a thin scrim of ignorance in time and space, insignificant grubs compared to the Old Gods. Lovecraft’s vision is religious in nature, but without the meaningfulness humans glean from a relationship to the divine. The motifs of madness and unreason run throughout his work.
The conspiratorial nature of the technicians’ ministrations is also key, for the film plays on classic, even cliché tropes of conspiracy and paranoia: the massive yet invisible omniscient organization (as Fredric Jameson notes, the “minimum basic components” of a conspiracy narrative are “a potentially infinite network [and] a plausible explanation of its invisibility”); the fetishization of the technology of surveillance and control; the one paranoid Cassandra (Marty) whose warnings are ignored as the rantings of a lunatic (or in Marty’s case, chronic pothead); but most importantly, the way in which the conspiracy comes to function as a supplemental or substitute religion.
Seeing as how I wrote my dissertation on conspiracy and paranoia, I might as well quote myself making this very point:
[C]onspiracy sometimes seems to have something of the divine to it: “Conspiracy,” writes Don DeLillo, “is the new faith.” Scott Sanders similarly declares, “God is the original conspiracy theory,” and goes on to say that the conspiratorial world is one “governed by shadowy figures whose powers approach omniscience and omnipotence.” In Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud relates the character of the paranoiac to primitive societies (“savages”) who ascribe to their god-king persecutory powers of weather and plague; he makes an identical argument in Psychopathology of Everyday Life. And sociologist Karl Popper suggests that “the conspiracy theory of society” is simply a form of perverse theism, of “a belief in gods whose whims and wills rule everything.”
Hence, conspiracy narratives frequently have something of the bad numinous at their center, manifesting symbolically as the suggestion of a continuity with a conspiratorial past—or more broadly, with the positing of history as conspiracy. Or to again quote Jameson, the symbolic force of conspiracy narrative “draws not on the advanced or futuristic technology of the contemporary media so much as from their endowment with an archaic past.” He’s speaking specifically here about The Crying of Lot 49, but the point holds for a surprising number of conspiracy narratives—as indeed, as it should be obvious, it does for The Cabin in the Woods.
Cabin’s unique twist, however, is that while typical conspiracy narratives constitute a substitute theism and draw symbolic force from the suggestion of continuity with an archaic past, Cabin’s conspiratorial apparatus is explicitly established as being in the service of an extant (albeit secret) theism; and while I can speculate on its continuity with an archaic past, as I did above, the film itself sets up the conspiratorial organization in symbolic opposition to that past as manifested in the Ancient Ones. And yes, I do mean in opposition, for while the technicians’ conspiratorial network—which is ostensibly global—is in the service of the Ancient Ones, that service is explicitly a matter of abject submission. The climactic sequence when Marty and Dana release all of the monsters in the technicians’ bestiary—which of course then proceed to horrifically kill all of the people in the underground lair—drives this point home with literal vengeance (and is, indeed, a characteristically Whedon gesture: the weaponization of the supernatural and its tendency to backfire feature highly in Buffy season four, in Firefly with River’s “modifications,” and in the Heroes-esque attempts to contain emergent superpowers in Agents of SHIELD).
To return to why I think the Gaiman scenario holds water in all this: the contemporary moment of the film allegorizes the divorce of instrumental reason and the numinous (bad or otherwise), even as rationality in the form of technology not only submits to unreason (the Lovecraftian Ancient Ones) but produces it (the murder of innocents). If we consider the evolution of Cabin’s ritual as the gradual distanciation of science and reason from the numinous, the film becomes a potent allegory for the ossification of science and religion into incommensurability, with neither providing a rational, humanist moral center.
At any rate, that seems to be where my paper’s argument is going … now if I can just get there without having to ask how many children Lady Macbeth had in the cabin in the woods, it might just work.