The Ballad of Joss and Sir Terry, Genre Warriors

More Cabin in the Woods musings. The recap of the Game of Thrones finale will be up soon, promise. (And by “soon,” I mean late tomorrow or early Wednesday. Nikki is currently on the road, and I will be as of tomorrow).

As often happens with my blog posts, this one grew in the telling. For the actual discussion of Cabin and its relation to Terry Pratchett, you want to skip about halfway down.

When I was casting about for a topic to propose for my Slayage paper, I settled on Cabin because it seemed to fit vaguely in with the broader research I’ve been doing on fantasy and humanism. As I have watched and re-watched the film and worked through my arguments, it has become clear that it doesn’t vaguely fit with the broader research so much as it fits perfectly—and has helped me focus and hone my more general thinking as I focus and hone my argument for this paper. I love serendipity.


One big thing that unfortunately won’t make it into the conference paper is just how reminiscent Cabin is of Terry Pratchett’s writing, most specifically his novel Witches Abroad. It should not perhaps be surprising, as both Joss and Sir Terry are in the business of upending generic expectations and critiquing the ways in which genre tends toward reductive formulae that, while working within the genre’s peculiar logic, ultimately come to defy common sense. In The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson likens the evolution of genre to the process of sedimentation: when a genre is new—that is, before it is identifiably generic—it is radical and possibly revolutionary and comprises a fresh and unique form of representation. As the form is repeated in various iterations over years and generations, it creates its own set of expectations, and what was once fresh and new becomes ossified as new layers of sediment are laid down.

Which is not to say that all genre fiction, film, and television is reductive or formulaic, just that much of it is. Joss Whedon has frequently averred that he first conceived of the idea for Buffy the Vampire Slayer when watching a typical slasher film and wishing that the ditzy blonde who always dies first would instead turn around and beat the crap out of the would-be killer. The ossification of genre reinscribes narrative patterns and character behavior to the point where—as we all know from horror films—people make choices that make literally no sense. Run back upstairs from the bad guy? Of course. Go make out in a creepy forest after hearing about an escaped serial killer on the news? Why not! You heard a weird noise? Let’s have sex!

There’s a number of reasons why enough academics adore Joss’ work to sustain a conference and peer-reviewed journal; first and foremost is the application of his irreverent sense of humour to a genre that is not merely regressive but frequently actually retrograde in its portrayal of women, gender roles, sexual politics, to say nothing of its deeply conservative moral universe. Indeed, the very title Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which served and still serves to make people dismiss it out of hand, is itself typical of Joss’ approach: it subverts expectations by elevating the character we expect to be comic relief and an early victim to the role of hero.

But integral to Joss’ work is the very humour I mentioned above, which is not (as one might expect from the title) parodic or satirical, but often takes the form of a studied irreverence in the face of the terrible (“terrible” in the truest sense of the word). Call it “strategic snark,” if you like: though both Buffy and Angel manage to be frequently scary and even horrifying, the soul of the shows lies in how the main characters are constantly unimpressed by monsters, demons, and various other supernatural beings who demand terror and awe.



Buffy: So let me get this straight. You’re… Dracula. The guy. The Count.
Dracula: I am.
Buffy: And you’re sure this isn’t just some fanboy thing? Because … I’ve fought more than a couple of pimply overweight vamps that called themselves Lestat.
Dracula: You know who I am. As I would know without question that you are Buffy Summers.
Buffy: You’ve heard of me?
Dracula: Naturally. You’re known throughout the world.
Buffy: Naw. Really?
Dracula: Why else would I come here? For the sun? I came to meet the renowned … killer.
Buffy: Yeah, I prefer the term Slayer. You know, killer just sounds so …
Dracula: Naked?
Buffy: Like I … paint clowns or something.
(Ep. 5.01 “Buffy vs. Dracula”)

This tendency makes itself felt in just about everything Joss does, and certainly everything he writes. To my mind, the most Whedonesque moment of The Avengers is when the Hulk confronts Loki (starts at 0:43):

The snark and irreverence of Joss’ work is more than just comedy, as it articulates a very basic human defiance to instrumental and autocratic expectations. It is no coincidence that his work consistently exhibits a deep suspicion of and antipathy to powerful, conspiratorial groups and organizations dedicated to control, manipulation, and surveillance: the Watchers’ Council and the Initiative in Buffy, Wolfram and Hart in Angel, the Alliance in Firefly, the Rossum Corporation in Dollhouse, and SHIELD in The Avengers and Agents of SHIELD … and it doesn’t make much difference when the organizations are ostensibly on the side of the good guys, they are still treated with fundamental ambivalence.

I suppose if this post has a thesis (besides the obvious observation that Joss and Sir Terry are awesome), it is that Joss’ resistance to generic expectations allegorizes this similar resistance to instrumentality. And what makes his work fundamentally humanist is that he does not oppose the heroic individual against the faceless collective—he is no Ayn Rand—but rather the village. Or, well, the symbolic village, the small group of people representing an often ad-hoc comingling of strengths and flaws. Whedon heroes are never weaker, never more alienated than when they eschew the village to strike out on their own (as happens with Buffy about twice a season). The Scoobies, Angel Investigations, the crew of Serenity, the Avengers … Malcolm Reynolds is no ubermensch, Buffy no uberfrau, for the simple reason that they flag and fail when flying solo.

All of which makes The Cabin in the Woods such an interesting addition to the Whedon canon. As he and director Drew Goddard have said, they were interested in creating, if not a corrective to recent trends in horror, something that would put their spin on the genre—at once acting in homage by making allusions to literally dozens of classic horror movies, but also critiquing what I characterized above as the ossifying tendencies of genre (OK, I’m putting words in their mouths here a bit—neither of them used the word “ossify”). As mentioned in my previous post, Cabin takes the cliché story of a group of college students encountering murderous monsters on what was supposed to be a party weekend in the wilderness, and frames it as an event entirely contrived by a top-secret, vaguely military, conspiratorial agency that manipulates them into precisely that cliché horror narrative, for the purposes of turning them into a ritual sacrifice to the “Ancient Ones”—old gods now dormant beneath the earth who demand bloodletting in exchange for their quiescence.


The crux of the film is the way in which the framing device—the conspiratorial apparatus—dramatizes the artifice of horror film clichés, the deformation of characters into types. The ritual demands five types to be submitted to the slaughter, as the Director (Sigourney Weaver) explains in the film’s final moments:

There must be at least five. The whore: she’s corrupted. She dies first. The athlete. The scholar. The fool. All suffer at the hands of whatever horror they have raised. Leaving the last: to live or die, as fate decides. The virgin.

The Director enumerates familiar stock characters from many, many horror films (and the films of John Hughes, but that’s another essay). Except that in Cabin, the five characters are artificially forced into those roles by chemical means. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the ostensible whore, is characteristically blonde—though we learn at the very beginning that she only bleached her hair recently, and we further learn that the product had been doctored by the technicians to modify her behavior. Far from being a whore or a slut, she is in what appears to be a stable and loving relationship with Curt (Chris Hemsworth). Curt is on full academic scholarship, and in the opening scenes coaches Dana (Kristen Connolly) on the best books to read in a class she’s taking: “Seriously, Professor Bennett covers this entire book in his lectures. You should read this … now, this is way more interesting. Also, Bennett doesn’t know it by heart, so he’ll think you’re insightful.” But as the film goes on, he behaves increasingly like a testosterone-laden meathead, egging Jules on as she dances provocatively for the group, and causing pothead Marty (Fran Kanz) to protest “Since when does Curt pull this alpha-male bullshit? I mean, he’s a sociology major.” Marty himself is the film’s Cassandra, and who ironically fits most naturally into his role as the clown—ironically because he is the sole person unaffected by the technicians’ pharmaceutical interventions (his high-octane pot, we learn, renders him immune), and is the person who utters the common-sense protests most often heard from horror-movie audiences. The “scholar” is Holden (Jesse Williams), who is, in contrast to Curt, actually an athlete, a recent and much-desired addition to their college’s football team. And yet later in the film he dons spectacles and translates the Latin in the diary of Patience Buckner. And Dana, the ostensible virgin, is actually no such thing: we learn at the outset that she has recently emerged from an affair with one of her professors … a fact that does not deter Curt from later obnoxiously urging Holden to “de-virginize” her.

Throughout the film, the characters’ behavior is manipulated by technicians. When Jules resists Curt’s urging to have sex out in the forest, they raise the temperature, make the lighting in the clearing more romantic, and release pheromones. And when one character makes the totally commonsensical suggestion that everyone stick together?

Implied by this square peg, round hole approach (“We work with what we’ve got,” the Director shrugs in response to Dana’s protest that she’s not, in fact, a virgin) is that the artifice of the narrative is more critical than any basis in or resemblance to reality. What is most important is story, that everything unfolds the way it is supposed to, which is to say: they way it has always gone. In the end, Cabin is about resistance to narrative.

Discworld_Josh_Kirby_Witches_Abroad_detailWhich is where it starts to resonate with Sir Terry, and in particular with Witches Abroad. There is a tendency in the Discworld novels toward events unfolding because of a certain narrative inevitability (or as I like to call it, the “narrative imperative). In Moving Pictures, in which the Discworld gets the fantasy version of the silver screen, the Librarian of Unseen University—who is a very large orangutan—sees a tall tower and a pretty blond woman, and so feel mysteriously compelled to abduct her and climb the building. The blurb on the back of the recent Snuff, which is about Watch Commander Samuel Vimes taking a long-overdue vacation, reads: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a policeman taking a holiday would barely have had time to open his suitcase before he finds his first corpse.”

And so on. But it is in Witches Abroad that Sir Terry really addresses this theme of narrative inevitability. The three witches of Lancre—Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrit Garlick—travel to the city of Genua (the Discworld New Orleans) to confront a fairy godmother determined to play out a Cinderella story no matter what the costs. As they travel, they encounter a trail of stories left in the fairy godmother’s wake, the most poignant of which is a version of Little Red Riding Hood, in which the big bad wolf welcomes death because he has been driven mad by the need to play the part ordained for him by the story. And in a more comic encounter, Nanny Ogg dons her brightly coloured striped tights only to have a farmhouse come crashing down on her head, followed by a bunch of confused dwarfs wondering why they feel compelled to sing.

Stories’ “very existence,” Pratchett writes at the start of the novel,

overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down the mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.

This, he continues, “is called the theory of narrative causality.” What it means is that stories, once told, take a shape, which is why they keep repeating themselves:

This is why history keeps on repeating all the time … So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.

This is a typical Pratchettian gesture: the Discworld novels started as parodies of fantasy fiction’s more egregious tendencies, but have evolved into a consistently trenchant humanist critique of absolutism and authoritarianism, and valorize pragmatism as both a simple virtue and philosophical system. His theory of “narrative causality” allegorizes the way in which custom can calcify and in the process come to be understood as inevitable. In this respect, Pratchett offers a useful rubric for reading Whedon’s central trope in Cabin. The narrative determinism as described in Witches Abroad is fundamentally similar to the ritualistic repetition of generic horror plots. In both cases there lies at the heart of the texts a resistance to transcendental logic. In Witches Abroad, one of the objects of Pratchett’s critique is fantasy’s tendency to rely on the dual crutches of prophecy and destiny; the stories are not preordained or divinely guided, but establish patterns through retelling, until “It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his brothers, not to succeed.” Pratchett’s theory of “narrative causality” is an inversion of the transcendental conception of destiny, fate, and predestination. It is also a far more complex and contingent one: not abandoning the notion of destiny altogether, but figuring it rather as inevitability wrought of repetition and iteration, and however deeply entrenched, ultimately disruptable. Destiny then, in Pratchett’s hands, becomes practically synonymous with genre. That is to say, the narrative expectations Pratchett describes in Witches Abroad—and their inevitability—effectively reflect the way generic expectations govern the telling and retelling of certain kinds of story. Hence destiny in Pratchett’s figuration is not an absolute, externally imposed by a transcendent power, but patterns of behaviour and custom wrought of our own making.


Phew. OK, that’s as far as I want to go with this one. If you made it this far, I feel as though I owe you a beer …

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