So it’s been three days of Slayage, with one day left to go, and the experience has been amazing. There’s something pretty singular about attending an academic conference where everyone is intimately familiar with the core texts. Normally, the conference experience, while often rewarding, tends to have a lot of papers and presentations that are quite simply mind-numbingly boring. Not because they’re banal or poorly written/presented (though there are those), but because the balance of what people are writing on is pretty far out of your wheelhouse, or so extremely specialized that it simply has no relevance to you. Which is not to say such papers cannot be valuable–I have learned a great deal from papers on topics I never would have read were they not on a panel I was attending–just that in many cases, you find yourself playing catch-up, trying to grasp the substance of a topic with which you are unfamiliar.
The flip side of this unfamiliarity is the need, in writing your own conference paper, to include a certain amount of exposition: you need to be cognizant of the people in the room who know nothing about your topic.
But at a conference like Slayage, everyone knows everything. This is so incredibly liberating: while writing an early draft of my paper, I suddenly realized “Wait … I don’t need to outline the main plot points of The Cabin in the Woods … everyone there will have seen it!” And in some cases, know it far better than me, in spite of the fact that I watched it at least ten times through in preparing my paper.
As an aside: the building in which many of the presentations have been scheduled has an elevator that dings when its doors close … and that ding is pretty much identical to the elevators in Cabin just before they unleash ALL THE MONSTERS. I swear to you, after multiple viewings of this film, when I heard that ding the first time I nearly wet myself.
Ahem. Anyway, the point is that it’s a pretty remarkable experience to be in the company of many, many very intelligent people who are all nerding out about the same set of texts in an extremely intelligent manner. It’s what I imagine conferences must be like for James Joyce or Milton scholars, only less antagonistic. The closest I’ve come to an argument with anyone here was politely disagreeing with someone who thought that Lovecraft was just a throwaway gesture in The Cabin in the Woods.
Speaking of … I will post again tomorrow with pictures and a fuller discussion of the conference, but for now, as promised, here is my conference paper in full. Replete with many slides, because I went to the Linda Hutcheon School of Conference Presentations, which dictates that you must distract you audience from your paper’s flaws with pretty pictures.
My paper today emerges from a broader research project that looks at a handful of contemporary fantasists who employ this genre rooted in magic and the supernatural—and which in such defining texts as The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia Chronicles is overtly religious—to articulate a specifically secular and humanist world-view. I am looking at, among others, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Richard K. Morgan, and Lev Grossman … and to this lineup, Joss Whedon is an obvious addition. What I’m arguing today is that, in The Cabin in the Woods, Whedon proceeds from an identifiably Lovecraftian mythos, rewriting it to stage a confrontation between the absolute unreason of Lovecraftian gods and the instrumental rationality of technocratic conspiracy—and in that confrontation critiquing instrumentality of both hues and asserting a humanist argument that is consonant with almost all his previous and subsequent work.
Before I start, three quick caveats: first, I don’t mention Drew Goddard. Whedon and Goddard collaborated on The Cabin in the Woods, but I just talk about Whedon here—so when you hear me say “Whedon” in relation to Cabin, please imagine “and Goddard” following in parentheses. Second, I’m using the terms science, technology, empiricism, reason, and rationality more or less interchangeably to mean “instrumental reason.” I just didn’t want to have to say “instrumental reason” repeatedly. And finally, my definition of humanism here is, by design, very loose; one of the blue-sky goals of this research is to reclaim the concept of humanism from the arid positivism of the New Atheists, and recuperate it from its savaging during the ascendancy of poststructuralism. It’s early days yet, however, so my conception of the humanism I want to champion is still evolving.
There is a video on YouTube of Joss Whedon delivering a speech upon accepting the Harvard Humanist Society’s Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism. His speech is classic Whedon: a mix of disarmingly irreverent humour and passionate advocacy, culminating in his assertion that “Faith in God means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers;” true believers who, he continues, are perfectly able to “codify our moral structure, without the sky bully looking down on us telling us what to do.” What stood out for me when I first watched this speech was the apparent contradiction of Whedon’s avowed atheism and that fact that the television series that made his reputation and career is not only lousy with sky bullies, but effectively predicated on the existence of a supernatural order that includes the Christian god (and, as we learn in season six, heaven). Far from being a contradiction, however, this tension is exemplary of how in Buffy the Vampire Slayer—and just about everything else he has created—Whedon consistently pits human and humanist agency against a seemingly omniscient, omnipresent collective, both of the supernatural variety (Wolfram and Hart, the First Evil), and the technocratic (the Alliance in Firefly, the Rossum Corporation in Dollhouse).
The Cabin in the Woods is thus an interesting example, insofar as it juxtaposes the malevolent mystical collective and the conspiratorial, technocratic one. At first blush the film appears to be a retread of elements from season four of Buffy—the massive underground military operation with a paddock full of supernatural monsters, which ultimately escape with dire consequences—except that where the Initiative attempts to weaponize the supernatural, the Technicians of Cabin are in abject submission to it, employing their hyper-advanced technology in the name of carrying out a primeval blood sacrifice. To frame it more abstractly, the film merges the genres of Lovecraftian horror with that of late-twentieth century conspiracy theory.
To address the Lovecraftian dimension first: Stephen King once famously characterized H.P. Lovecraft as twentieth-century horror’s “dark and baroque prince.” China Mieville, while granting the spirit of this praise, amends it slightly to account for “the canonical nature of Lovecraft’s texts, the awed scholasticism with which his followers discuss his cosmology, and the endless recursion of his ideas and his aesthetics by the faithful” (xi). Rather than being horror’s prince, Mieville says, Lovecraft is “horror’s pope.”
Considering Lovecraft’s vehement and vitriolic atheism, it is dubious whether he would have appreciated that moniker; on the other hand, despite his atheism, Lovecraft’s fiction articulates a mythos that is heir to the American religious visionary tradition. As Edward Ingebretsen observes, “Lovecraft writes in the traditional cadences of religious discourses” (133) that are particularly reminiscent of such fire-and-brimstone sermons as Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which notoriously centers on the image of God dangling Man by the ankles over the fires of Hell. Repeatedly, Lovecraft posits a vast and ineffable cosmos populated by godlike beings beyond the ken of humanity. He opens his story “The Call of Cthulhu,” arguably the defining text of his mythos, with the following cheerful observation:
A key element I’ll be returning to here is the assertion of science’s absolute limitation, its helplessness in the face of those black seas of infinity. All it can serve to do is reveal to us the truly horrifying nature of existence, at which point our choices are madness or the rejection of the empiricism that brought us to this traumatizing revelation. Lovecraft’s fiction stages accidental encounters between individuals and these “horrifying vistas,” which are not the abyss of the infinite itself, but its symbolic manifestation in such Old Gods as Dagon or Cthulhu. Human existence in Lovecraft’s work is a thin scrim of ignorance in time and space, microbially insignificant next to the Old Gods.
This figuration of vast and nigh-infinite power is essentially religious in nature—or would be but for Lovecraft’s nihilistic inversion, which situates humanity not as the focus, product, or creation of the divine, but rather as utterly incidental to it: fire and brimstone without the chance of personal salvation. Indeed, in his book The Roots of Horror in the Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Barton Levi St. Armand observes that Lovecraft articulates a bone-deep Calvinism, with its “close-reasoning logic and unyielding determinism” but without Calvinism’s “metaphysical superstructure”—or in other words, the suffering and torment of the sinner’s life without the ultimate meaning attached to either salvation or damnation.“What we are left with in Lovecraft,” he asserts, “is thus a full-fledged cosmic consciousness, without any overt religious dimension … It is, in turn, the breaking of these natural laws of time and space that produces the sublime emotions of cosmic terror that characterizes his tales” (31-32). And whatever congress his characters do have with Cthulhu or any of the other Old Gods, the result is madness unto death—or, as in the case of the story “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” a monstrous transformation that itself comprises metaphorical madness. As Ingebretsen observes, Lovecraft adopts but distorts the American visionary tradition as represented by the Mathers or Jonathan Edwards,for if “Edwards implied that cosmic terror resulted from the too-attentive love of deity, Lovecraft situates terror in the indifference of [the] malignity of the cosmos” (118). China Mieville makes a similar argument, stating that Lovecraft does in fact see “the awesome as immanent in the quotidian” just as any religiously devout individual might, but for him and his characters “there is little ecstasy there: his is a bad numinous” (xiii).
It is not difficult to discern a distinctly Lovecraftian mythos in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the idea that humanity is adrift among multiple planes of existence, most of which are populated by demonic forces that, if they think of humanity at all, think of it as a tasty snack; and an unbroken slayer lineage that goes back to Neolithic times, which was itself first created to defend humanity from the demons that pre-existed them. This mythos was expanded as the series progressed, explored more fully in later seasons and in Angel (never more pointedly perhaps than in the death of Fred at the hands of the Old God Illyria, whose contempt for humanity and her characterization of them as “the muck at [my] feet” and “the ooze that eats itself” strongly echoes Lovecraft’s assertion of humanity’s infinitesimal insignificance). The Cabin in the Woods alludes to Lovecraft’s mythos even more overtly: humanity is at the mercy of the Ancient Ones, gods who (like Cthulhu) slumber beneath the earth, known only to the small set of secret societies that worship them.
Cabin is no mere Lovecraft knockoff, however: Whedon deploys the Lovecraftian frame in an almost Miltonic manner, which is to say that it functions as a key to all mythologies, with seemingly every single horror movie trope both encompassed within, and indeed the product of, this broader mythos.
“They’re like something from a nightmare,” says new recruit Truman as he looks on their panoptical surveillance screens at the Buckners, the zombified pain-worshipping backwoods idiots whom Dana has inadvertently summoned. “They’re something nightmares are from,” Wendy Lin corrects him gently. “Everything in our stable is a remnant of the old world. Courtesy of … you-know-who.” Wendy’s statement echoes the way in which Lovecraft’s Old Gods—specifically Cthulhu in “The Call of Cthulhu”—inflect and infect the dreams of humanity. In Lovecraft’s mythos, the Old Gods incite madness and ecstatic worship even in their sleep, giving rise to “Cthulhu cults” in the backwaters of the world, whose devotees are described as an “indescribable horde of human abnormality” (152).
In The Cabin in the Woods, Lovecraft shares the stage however with the familiar (and it seems, at times, inescapable) trope of conspiracy. The Technicians play the role of the top-secret agency with omniscient surveillance capabilities and the seemingly infallible ability to manipulate and control unwitting victims. Situating them as adjunct to the Ancient Ones provides the film with a dual layer of critique: first and most obviously of the horror genre itself; but in juxtaposing the trope of conspiracy with that of an ancient, malevolent supernatural power, it at once draws out and negates conspiracy’s own principal symbolic force, which is the suggestion of divine or godlike powers.
To a certain extent, conspiracy as a trope has always functioned as a form of perverse theism, but that dimension became increasingly striking in the second half of the twentieth century. Don DeLillo, America’s veritable godfather of conspiracy and paranoia calls it “the new faith” (28). 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” (177). In Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud characterizes religion as essentially conspiracist in origin, comparing the figure the paranoiac to primitive societies 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 the displacement of “a belief in gods whose whims and wills rule everything” onto the whims and wills of powerful organizations:
Hence, conspiracy narratives themselves frequently have something of the bad numinous at their center, manifesting symbolically as the suggestion of continuity between the technological present and a magical past—which functions more broadly to rewrite history as conspiracy, with the present-day conspirators heir to their ancient predecessors. Or to quote Fredric Jameson from The Geopolitical Aesthetic, the symbolic force of conspiracy narratives “draws not on the advanced or futuristic technology of the contemporary media so much as from their endowment with an archaic past” (17).
And here is where I want to go back to Lovecraft’s implied characterization of the numinous and science as different in kind rather than degree. Much fantasy, especially urban fantasy, either implicitly or explicitly depicts science and magic as on a continuum: in a variation on the old adage that a sufficiently advanced technology must appear as magic, the implication is that technology has the capacity to explain and replicate magic. Season four of Buffy is essentially an extended meditation on this principle.
Angel approaches it from a slightly different perspective, with our growing knowledge of Wolfram and Hart’s inner workings: the “legalization” (if you like) of the supernatural functions similarly to rationalize and domesticate the numinous. (My favourite depiction of this is the change in season five’s opening credits, in which the musical punctuation changes from the image of badass Angel kicking in a door to harassed Angel snapping shut a legal brief).
It is here that The Cabin in the Woods offers a subtle but substantive shift: the film appears to establish this same continuum between the empirical and supernatural, which would be doubly consonant with the trope of conspiracy as a form of displaced theism. The shift however is that the Technicians’ “archaic past” is not continuous with divine power but adjacent to it. The conspiracy evolved as subsidiary: as already mentioned, it is explicitly established as being in the service of an extant (albeit secret) theism. There is no hint of the Initiative here aside from cosmetic similarities. The Technicians do not attempt to domesticate their stable of monsters or weaponize them. The climactic slaughter that unfolds when Marty “purges” the system is superficially similar to what ultimately happens to the Initiative; but while the Initiative’s demise is an obvious allegory for the dangers of hubristically pursuing weapons technology, Marty quite literally unleashes hell.
The significance of The Cabin in the Woods’ shift from portraying science and magic as continuous, to this absolute disjunction between them, is not to allegorize the incommensurability between instrumental reason and the numinous, but to ironically collapse them into the same imaginative space, to show reason’s thralldom to unreason not as unnatural but somehow inevitable. If the film allegorizes anything, it is that dimension of the dialectic of Enlightenment that points to how instrumental reason taken to an extreme—in effect, becoming a religion in and of itself—produces the madness of unreason. The French Revolution devolves into the Terror, exclusionary understandings of humanism facilitate race theory and slavery, the Nazis’ dictatorial technocracy produces the Holocaust, blind pursuit of quantum physics gives us Hiroshima. Perhaps it seems odd, and even perhaps offensive, to discuss a parodic genre film in these terms, but I would argue that among the many, many reasons to love the work of Joss Whedon, one of the most prominent is the fundamental antipathy and suspicion that animates all he does: antipathy to and suspicion of instrumentality, of autocratic intervention, of the collective’s need to impose its will on the village.
The Cabin in the Woods does not end happily, but it ends with an inescapably humanist cri de coeur: Marty and Dana being literally satanic (see, there’s Joss being Miltonic again) as they declare non servium, and assert what agency they have in the face of the forces arrayed against them. The obvious argument against my claim here is that “um … they kind of killed the whole world with their petulance, there.” But I would suggest that the film’s overarching thesis is that it wasn’t Marty and Dana that brought doom—it was the ossification of instrumental reason in the service of madness. Whedon may employ Lovecraft as a foundational basis for much of his work, but he invariably asserts this elementally humanist defiance in its face, and says to both technocracy and religion “a plague on both your houses.”
DeLillo, Don. “American Blood.” Rolling Stone 8 Dec. 1983: 21-28, 74.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Trans A.A. Brill. New York: Moffat, Yard, &co. 1918.
—. Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Trans. A. A. Brill. London: Ernest Benn, 1948.
Ingebretsen, Edward. Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.
Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1992.
Lovecraft, H.P. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. Ed. S.T. Joshi. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Mieville, China. “Introduction.” At the Mountains of Madness. New York: Modern Library, 2005. xi-xxv.
Popper, Karl R. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Routledge, 1963.
Sanders, Scott. “Pynchon’s Paranoid History.” Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon. Eds. George Levine and David Leverenz. Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1976. 139-59.
St. Armand, Barton Levi. The Roots of Horror in the Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. New York: Dragon Press, 1977.