Your Allegory’s Eating My Plot! Or, the Cabin in the Woods Problem

If you didn’t die from the wafting fumes of smugness that are inevitable in every Joss Whedon script (don’t give me that look, I’m following him too), you probably noticed that Cabin in the Woods was 2011’s delightful, gory gift to the world (I thought I should make my fondness for it clear early on, in case you won’t be able to tell later). The slasher genre hasn’t really been a thing for over a decade, even including the weird pseudo rebirth it had in the 90s post-Scream, the horror genre still falls into repetitive and unimaginative ruts often enough for the general gist to still be applicable as satire. It’s such a shame that the ending stabs itself in the gut.

For those of yous unawares (and if you are and are interested in watching the movie I’d pause here – it really is greatly improved by the element of surprise, and we’re going to discuss all of the spoilers), the plot goes like this: four teenagers are going to a forested domicile for vacation, where they are unknowingly being watched by a high tech underground agency. Said watchers plan to crowbar the teenagers into slasher movie stereotypes, then off them to perpetuate an ancient ritual that keeps the giant monster gods under the earth pleased and sleeping. Eventually the remaining teenagers catch wise and find their way down to the conspiracy bunker to wreak a little hell, and everything is swimming and bloody and clever if not especially deep. Then Ripley shows up for her cameo and everything is terrible.



So, that slasher movie ritual and the elder gods and the conspiracy bunker? It’s all a pretty on the nose allegory for the state of the horror industry – Hollywood cranks out tired, cliché flicks to keep we the audience happy and mollified, terrified that we may one day rise up and overthrow the system. Naturally, the movie ends with the ritual screwed six ways to Sunday, and the Final Girl refusing to murder her friend for the sake of an ancient, corrupt blood sacrifice. So they share a joint and wait for the apocalypse instead. Now, as far as the allegory goes, this is a fitting finale. By defying the expected horror tropes you wake the audience to the possibility of new stories, hopefully demolishing the old system of horror to make room for a new world of theoretically endless possibilities. Fair enough.


Do you see what we did there? DO YOU?

The problem is that on a narrative level, this is possibly the most villainous, self-centered, nihilistic decision the characters could have made. They have suffered, and suffered horribly (indeed, part of what makes most of the movie so overwhelmingly successful is that it reintroduces a sense of empathy and humanity to the notoriously cruel “dead teenager” flick). For this they decide to damn billions of people to a painful death (Ripley actually brings this up, and we are meant to sympathize with the kill em all option).


If I had a quarter for every teenager I wanted to survive a slasher
…I would have Nancy from the
Elm Street series

Not only that, either option results in their own deaths anyway, making the decision (on a purely narrative and character driven level) so despicable and cruel and downright villainous that it actively boggles my mind. For a movie that has up to now so pushed the human element, so painted our protagonists as considerate of individual suffering as a means of contrasting the cold, detached efficiency of the conspiracy bunker, it’s an utter betrayal of what we’ve been led to root for.

It’s the fastest I’ve ever gone from investing in characters to loathing them utterly. And I don’t get the feeling like that was the intent (too many battered one liners, I suppose) – rather, I think we’re supposed to be so focused on the meta-narrative that we cheer them on.

And I’m really not on board with that. Because here’s the thing – allegories are tricky things. A metaphor, you can just have one thing that has a deeper subtextual or referential meaning, creating unspoken connection in the audience’s mind whenever you bring it up. It’s like extra credit for good, observant viewers (ideally there are a range of metaphor obscurities, so people can scale themselves up on that kind of thing).

An allegory, though, the whole story stands for something else. Every piece works in tandem to tell a kind of sock puppet story while they pass you secret notes under the table. Those notes would’ve been really annoying as a lecture, but as puppet show aids they’re far more digestible. But allegories, as I said not a paragraph ago, are tricksy obfuscators. Because they tend to be written by authors who very passionately believe in what the allegory represents, it’s a constant battle for restraint. And a story that wears its primary skin too thinly risks becoming an object stuck in its time at best and unreadable dreck at worst.

The best allegorical stories stand on their own as stories. They’re strengthened by knowing the author’s intent but, as we’ve discussed before, they can stand without them (as indeed they must, because eventually the author will not be around to answer questions, and cannot fully be aware of what biases they inevitably injected as beings of their environments anyway). The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials (and heck, even Lord of the Rings) are breathtaking fantasy stories whether or not you know the religious inclinations of the various authors (admittedly, it’s pretty hard to miss with Lewis and Pullman). Evangelion (drink!) works whether or not you try to ascribe meaning to the Judeo Christian imagery Anno tosses around like candy. District 9 is gutpunching (if about as subtle as a sledgehammer tied to a perpetually-on singing bass) even without layering the real history of the apartheid slums they filmed in.

All of those are not only logically sound stories (a benchmark that Cabin in the Woods clears) but emotionally sound as well. Lyra acts because of her own principles and based on her experiences, not because Pullman suddenly wants her to make a point. Asuka crawls out of the tang because it fits with her character’s unshakable will to live, not because the story demands that she become an Eve figure. Take away the secondary readings, and the story still makes sense and feels ‘true.’ Not so, with our topic of discussion.



And that’s a problem. The viewer who doesn’t get the metaphor is confused and alienated by the sudden shift. The viewer who does is shaken out of the characters they’ve invested in because the script wants to rub their nose in what had previously been well-contextualized cleverness. It is one thing to have a work deliberately distance itself from its characters, calling on the audience to observe rather than empathize (this is pretty much David Cronenberg’s forty year MO, after all). But to take the route of empathy when it suits you and drop it (rather, to jerk it as sideways as possible) when it’s not as convenient to getting your message across, is bordering on laziness. Certainly it is a cheap and somewhat nasty trick, all the more bitter for serving as the final impression.

An allegory without a worthwhile, earnest story risks becoming the work of Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), who woke up one day thinking it would be grand if his essays suddenly had dialogue and cardboard cutouts to be mouthpieces. And nobody, whether they read in high school or belonged to a really zealous book club like yours truly, wants that.

9 replies »

  1. Maybe the ending would have worked better if these “sleeping gods” didn’t actually exist.

    Or if they’d been more faithful to the Lovecraftian roots of that plot element, the demented cults in Lovecraft are doing these sacrifices to awaken the Old Ones, not keep them sleeping.

  2. Here from your Leslie Vernon article on the Mary Sue.

    I think you missed the other allegory in operation, which is about whether a society whose existence is dependent on the torture and suffering of a chosen few is worth saving. It’s similar to Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” a story about a thriving city of wealth and happiness, all of which is dependent upon the existence of one atrocity: a single child who is kept in perpetual filth, darkness, and misery. Without the scapegoating of this child, the city would fall. So do you stay in the city, knowing that your happiness is dependent on the child’s suffering, or do you leave for an uncertain future? (Or, in this film, do you free the child and let the chips fall where they may?)

    It’s not just lazy nihilism for the sake of getting people excited about new stories–it’s a philosophical question about the value of a society that survives through eating its own. You can disagree with the film’s answer to the question, but you should at least realize that the question is being asked. It really isn’t subtle.

    Its also completely consistent with Marty’s characterization throughout the film. I don’t know how or why you think it’s out of character or out of left field for someone who said “Society needs to crumble. We’re all just too chicken shit to let it” to end society as we know it.

    • Oh, I got it – I just think there’s a distinction drawn when it’s not “society” it’s the utter extinction of a species (which removes it pretty fast from just being a sociological question). But fair play enough to you

      • Allegorically, it’s society. After all, the parallel drawn is between the ancient gods and the (human) audience. The old gods are a segment of “society” that has been overtaken, trapped, and kept complacent with blood and media by another segment of “society” that benefits from their remaining asleep. They’re controlled by the “puppeteers” as much as the sacrificial victims are. Revolution is bloody, but so is maintaining the status quo.

        It’s similar to what Romero does in the Dead movies, particularly Land of the Dead, where the humans are “us” but the zombies are also “us”–an us that rises up to devour the us who want to want life to go on as it is. The zombies are “other” and the humans are “us” only because the existing class system wants us to see ourselves as the beneficiaries rather than the victims of the status quo (and “us” as the victims of “the other” who wants to eat up our resources and destroy life as we know it).

        That’s just my reading, obviously, but I haven’t read an analysis of CitW that doesn’t regard the gods as metaphorically human/the audience, including your own in this essay.

        • It works just fine as an allegory – but it doesn’t work in terms of pure plot mechanics, the reality of the story (where they are straight up murdering every adult and child on earth, rather than just releasing them from a social system). That’d be my point – the best allegories don’t simultaneously undermine the “truth” of the story.

  3. They aren’t murdering every adult and child on earth. They’re refusing to murder each other and letting the natural order take its course as a result of that refusal. It’s the trolley problem in movie form, except without the certainty of a thought experiment since it’s not actually set in stone that the director is right. Maybe every human will be killed. Maybe humans and gods will find a way to co-exist. It’s a new story, so we don’t actually know.

    Trust me, I really get that it’s a moral decision that you find personally repugnant, but I don’t think it undermines the “truth” of the story just because the characters subscribe to a system of ethics that isn’t utilitarianism.

    Like, your objection on story grounds is that events and actions should arise naturally from characters’ “principles and experience, not just because [the author] wants to make a point,” correct? But again, it’s completely consistent with Marty’s characterization throughout the film–his horror at the level of control being exerted over people, his refusal to be controlled himself, his belief that society needs to crumble. How would it be more “truthful” to the story if he let himself be manipulated into being killed in order to maintain a society that he now knows is founded inexorably on lies and a slow but constant bleed of human suffering?

    • A fair point, even if I maintain issue with the film (is it only Marty’s movie, should Dana not have had more of an effect thematically if we’re going that route and ostensibly she’s co-protagonist, idly on into forever). Even still, a fair point.

      • Dana is definitely the primary protagonist, which is why she has an arc and he really doesn’t. But yeah, thematically, it’s more his movie than hers, since she comes around to his perspective, but I don’t necessarily think the protagonist always needs to be the moral center of a story.

        I think it’s fine to have issues with the movie and, like I said in my first comment, to disagree with its answers to the questions that it asks, or to find its sense of morality repugnantly immoral. I just think it’s a mistake to see an ethical stance that differs from yours as a problem of logic or story or “truth.”

  4. Looking at it from this perspective the whole thing might have worked better if unleashing the old gods simply meant ‘the end of the world as we know it’ and not the end of everything. If the secret underground lab conspiracy were really more about maintaining a status quo that suited them instead of preserving all of humanity and the finale involved Dana and Marty venturing out into the new world you’d have a neater allegory that also allowed for a more empathetic conclusion.

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