Knowing is Half the Battle

I’d been feeling somewhat proud of myself for my interpretation of The Cabin in the Woods, until I watched it a second time. It was disheartening to hear the characters make my brilliant insights all but explicit.

When the new security guy comments that the monsters are “what nightmares come from,” Amy Acker’s character says that it’s the opposite: the monsters in the cells are more like our nightmares made real. At the end of the movie, when the Director is explaining the background of the ritual, she concedes that the whole process is horrible. But she says that before the ritual, when the ancient ones ruled, it was much worse.

It’s obvious from the opening credits sequence — a sequence I still think should’ve been omitted, since it was so obvious that it undermined most of the subsequent reveals — and then made explicit several times over: horror stories fulfill the same role for modern societies that human sacrifices did in the earliest societies. What’s clever is the idea of what that role is, exactly. It’s to make us believe we have control over the uncontrollable.

The complex contains all of our nightmares, safely contained in their own individual cells, ready to be released whenever we need them. The ritual is what we’ve developed to reassure ourselves that we understand how our nightmares work: if we’re smart enough to know to yell “don’t go into the cellar!” or “don’t go into that room alone,” then we’re smart enough to avoid whatever horrible fate comes to the people up on the screen.

Watching young people getting ritualistically murdered is nothing compared to the horror of not knowing, never being able to predict exactly when and how terrible things will happen to us. It’s the difference between modern horror and Lovecraftian horror, which is why calling them “the ancient ones” is even more appropriate.

If you need evidence, just look at how much the Lovecraft mythos has been trivialized and commercialized — turned into board games, video games, bumper stickers, plush toys, and generally turned into an off-hand reference. The recurring theme of Lovecraft’s stories was the idea of the horror that comes from not knowing — something infinitely powerful but never seen, lurking just outside the realm of what we can control and civilize. Something so horrible that even to look at it is to go insane. So of course, we turn Cthulhu into dolls and jokes. We have to give The Nameless One a name.

There’s one thing we still can’t figure out, though: I can’t remember the exact dialogue, but during the party scene in the control room, part of the crew insists that the lack of a cave-in wasn’t a “glitch.” They say that it “came from upstairs.” Does the movie ever explain that?

3 thoughts on “Knowing is Half the Battle

  1. I believe the implication was that it had to do with Marty’s tinkering with the electrical system in the monster lift, as he comes back not too long after. Also, I’m guessing in this case “upstairs” might be referring to divine intervention, as that their “bosses” are downstairs, and it would give a nice excuse for why every ritual in the world happened to fail that year…

  2. Ah, that’s pretty clever. Also fits with the line about how the cave-in should’ve happened “hours ago,” which would be about the time Marty had his run-in with the zombie (redneck torture family).

  3. One more thought about this — I’d gotten so used to “upstairs” meaning either “heaven” or “the boss” that it didn’t even occur to me that for the pople in the complex, “upstairs” means the kids and “downstairs” are the ancient ones. So basically, I think you’re exactly right: it’s not referring to divine intervention, but the fact that somebody upstairs (Marty) messed with the electrical system enough to ruin the cave-in.

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