This Halloween, I decided to ignore my crippling horror movie fear and watch Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods.
Somehow, I ended up watching a deconstruction of horror movies instead.
This post contains MAJOR spoilers for Cabin in the Woods.
Cabin in the Woods is, ultimately, all a manipulation. We are watching a horror movie written inside a horror movie, as a group of government agents manipulate a group of college students into acting out horror movie tropes as a sacrifice to ancient, blood-thirsty gods. Each of the teens represents a different horror movie archetype — the whore, the athlete, the fool, the scholar and the virgin — and they are punished and killed, one by one, for their stereotypical flaws.
One important fact, I think, is that none of the characters fit these archetypes at the start the film. They are — shockingly — real people. “The Whore” is a college student in a long-term relationship with her boyfriend, the funny, caring-seeming sociology major, who becomes the Athlete. The fool is played for laughs, but, like many fools in classic drama, he seems the most savvy of the bunch. The scholar is introduced while catching a football, and the very first thing we learn about the Virgin is that she slept with her professor. Instead of reducing them to their simplest, basest characteristics, the cabin decides to reduce them to the stereotypical characteristics convention says they should have. In fact, apart from the Fool, each one seems to swap base characteristics with one of their friends, in order to meet conventional expectations. Jules is blonde and outgoing (and has a boyfriend!), so she must be the Whore, while Dana, who slept with her professor but also plans to bring Economics textbooks to the cabin, must be the Virgin. Dana’s boyfriend, as the handsome man, must be the athlete, while his sporty, glasses-wearing friend suddenly becomes able to read Latin and turns into the scholar. The only character who remains the same is Marty, the fool — because, by nature, the fool is both intelligent/observant and humorous/ridiculous.
On the surface, this is clearly criticism of the fact that no human being is as one-dimensional as a horror movie character. But I think it also goes deeper, into the categories that horror movies, and indeed the media and the US in general, place people. The girls can only be defined by their sexuality, and it’s a binary system: virgin or whore. One is not quiet and studious and “pure” seeming, so she must be the whore, regardless of their actual personality and behavior. And the whore must be punished.
In fact, the punishment of the Jules was the strangest part of my viewer experience. The movie made it clear that she had been drugged, through her hair-dye, to make her shallower and more promiscuous. When even that fails to make her have sex outside after exploring a creepy, horrific basement, the controllers pump in more pheromones and even adjust the lighting to make them have sex. Yet the group I watched the movie with still reacted with a bit of a thrill to her death, calling her stupid for going outside, making jokes about her dirty dancing and flirting with Marty, and almost egging on her death as punishment for her behavior and stupidity. Even when the drugs were made explicit, it seemed to be human nature (or, at least, viewer nature) to dismiss the “whore” and hanker for her punishment. Because that is the behavior we, are viewers, expect from the pretty blonde with a boyfriend, and that is the reaction that viewers have been encouraged to have.
As the most corrupted of the bunch, Jules must die first, and she dies in the most painful, drawn-out way. While our scholar simply gets stabbed through the neck and dies, Jules gets stabbed in the hand, dragged across the ground with a bear trap, and then forced to sit and watch and wait as a zombie brings a saw for her execution. It is slow and sickening, and, as the controllers say, it is all a “punishment” for her transgressions. Transgressions, notably, that the game requires her to “choose” to make — and then drugs her so much that “choice” doesn’t really come into it. Her behaviors are not choices, but expectations — the viewers’ beliefs about how a pretty blonde girl in a horror movie should act, forced upon her so that we can then get gratification from her punishment for her transgressive folly.
The one part of the film I can’t quite figure out is the role of the Virgin. If she dies, she must die last, but she is allowed to live, as long as she suffers. As the designated “pure” and uncorrupted one, she is apparently the only one good enough to be allowed to survive the horrors she faces. Yet she must suffer… as punishment for being a woman, even an uncorrupted one? Everyone else is allowed to die and leave these horrors behind, but if she survives, she is to carry them with her and live with them for the rest of her life. And weirdly, as she is designated as the Virgin, even though the first thing we learn about her is her affair with her professor, it seems like her given role is a life-long thing. It doesn’t matter whether or not she has sex, or who she has sex with. It’s a label given to her, from the outside looking in, because she is studious, because she’s quite quiet, at least compared to her friend, who is in a stable relationship, but is also pretty, and confident, and outspoken, and in control of her sexuality. Ultimately, they are not punished for their choices or behaviors, although that language is used extensively. They are manipulated and punished because of the behavior that is expected of them, because of stereotypes and impressions that are out of their control.
As far as critiques of sexism in horror movies go, this is a good one.