More ‘Cabin in the Woods’

by Sonny Bunch on October 15, 2012

The quick post I wrote this weekend on Cabin in the Woods kicked up some interesting discussion on Twitter (here’s my feed, if you’re interested in seeing my portion of the responses). I just wanted to respond to a few specific criticisms as well as highlight a piece that ran in Commentary making an argument similar to mine. Spoilers after the jump.

(Note: I’m not going to recap the finale of Cabin in the Woods here; check out my previous post on the subject if you’re in need of a refresher.)

First the highlight: Stephen Daisley had an essay in the July issue of Commentary that tackled the morality of Cabin in the Woods in a more in-depth and thought-through way than I did. Daisley:

Jaded by humanity’s cynicism, the pair decides the world is not worth it. They kick back, light up a joint, exchange some witticisms, and settle down to watch Armageddon let rip. Up through the ground, the corrupt soil of our corrupt world, shoot the gnarled mandibles of pagan deities, and the credits roll. It is intended as a happy ending.

This is all wrong. Apocalypse movies are about saving the world, or at least feeling bad if we can’t. …

Joss Whedon, who has strived to articulate an intelligent popular culture through his television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, designed an astute meta-horror intended to offer a way forward for a genre mired in mean-spirited torture-porn and fatuous remakes. But a pornography of decline, featuring pulp politics for a left-liberal elite eyeing its best chance in decades to smash American exceptionalism, is hardly an improvement. It’s self-hatred passing for self-criticism.

This strikes me as about right. 

Ross Douthat seemed fairly disgusted by my call for self-sacrifice of the surviving pothead youth:

There are two things going on here worth teasing out. The first is a theological argument that I’m ill-equipped to engage in and that, even if I was, Ross would win handily because he’s one of the smartest thinkers I know on the topic. All I’ll say is that in a world in which the Old Ones are real and pagan sacrifice actually staves off the end of the world and the deaths of billions—as opposed to being used as an excuse to satisfy the bloodlust of the common folk—then the moral calculus shifts somewhat and Judeo-Christian thought is not entirely useful as an ethical compass.*

The second point has to do with the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It’s an interesting comparison, though I think slightly off. If you recall the short story, the citizenry of Omelas is aware of the sacrifice that happens on their behalf; they are shown the child who is tortured as children themselves and then choose to allow that cruelty’s continuance for the benefit of their society. The citizenry of Cabin in the Woods, however, is not aware of the sacrifice being made on their behalf. They are unaware of the Old Ones and unaware of the violence being done to innocents** to satisfy them. It’s true, the pseudo-corporate/pseudo-governmental agency that manages the sacrifice knows what’s going on—and they are punished for it, horribly, at the film’s end. But is it morally justified to sacrifice further billions, who knew nothing of the evil? Are they as wicked as those of Omelas?

Another criticism of my post revolved around whether or not seeing no difference in a regime that secretly murders five to save the lives of billions and a regime that would kill billions for fun is “moral relativism.” Here’s Julian Sanchez:

And here’s a commenter on the previous post: “If the finale is as you characterize it, it demonstrates neither nihilism nor, of all things, moral relativism. It demonstrates, merely, a rejection of utilitarianism.”

As to Julian’s point I will simply reiterate that in a world in which pagan gods are real what is “just” shifts slightly and, therefore, the decision to let the heavens fall becomes slightly trickier.

Does the rejection of self-sacrifice constitute a morally sound embrace of absolutism and a rejection of utilitarian thought? I mean, it could. I don’t think the film makes the case, however. The actions of the final two characters amount to “Well, it’s not fair for us to be chosen to be sacrificed, so f—k it. Let’s spark up a jay and watch the world burn.” I also think it’s unfair for those kids to be killed, but their acceptance of the idea that there is no difference between a world that is unfair to them personally and a world that is unfair to billions of unaware innocents strikes me as pretty damn relativistic. I could be wrong.

*That being said, this is definitely something I’d like to read more from on Ross. If not at his NY Times blog, then maybe The American Scene? FWIW, Victor Morton made the same point I’m making here in a series of tweets; maybe he’d be interested in blowing that out in a blog post? Let’s continue this discussion, people!

**There is an interesting secondary discussion to be had about the relative level of innocence of the teens in The Cabin at the Woods: It’s pointedly noted that they must engage in classically defined horror movie “bad behavior” of their own free will (drinking, drugs, sex, etc.) for the ritual to go down properly, but given the manipulation of the bureaucrats one would be justified in asking just how freely they were actually acting.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark October 15, 2012 at 11:13 am

On your **point. Being in a universe where we are manipulated into “bad behavior” and held accountable to it is the biblical universe. Only though outside grace does that change. In that way, the Whedonverse is often a place where outside grace is unavailable. They are all hellscapes with plenty of false messiahs.

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Julian Sanchez October 15, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Your focus on self sacrifice may be skewing the heart of the ethical question. That can’t really be central, because both of the survivors are clearly going to die when the Old Ones rise, probably badly. The girl could actually survive if her stoner friend died–so she’s sacrificing herself by NOT continuing to try to kill him (or persuade him to let himself be killed). She would rather die (with billions of others) than kill an innocent.

We could just as easily imagine they’re refusing to murder five innocent toddlers in order to forestall the death of billions, on the grounds that the ends never justify the means. While I would tend to regard this as excessively morally stringent — even as a non-utilitarian, there is a scale of moral horror that ultimately trumps even strong rights considerations, especially when they’re guaranteed to die either way — this is the polar opposite of “relativism”. They are saying it is wrong to treat people in certain ways — as mere fodder to be used or sacrificed — and this wrongness is NOT relative, but absolute: It holds true regardless of what the consequences may be, and even if the larger society would in this case applaud the choice to kill.

I suspect that you generally associate “relativism” with unsound moral decisions, with good reason, and so have somewhat reflexively applied it where it really doesn’t fit the scenario.

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Sonny Bunch October 15, 2012 at 2:59 pm

I was actually working on a clarification just now; I believe I’ve made the silly mistake of conflating moral relativism and moral equivalence.

So, to clarify: What bothers me about the finale is the false moral equivalence the kids draw. When everything is said and done, the two surviving teens survey the landscape and determine that a world in which five “innocents” are sacrificed to save the lives of billions is as immoral and unjust as a world in which ancient gods kill billions for kicks. But in the ontological universe of the film—in which pagan gods exist, are unstoppable except by sacrifice, and of which the public is blissfully unaware—it may be unfair for these teems to die, but it is not necessarily unjust. The suggestion that the two worlds are equally unjust—indeed, so unjust that the death of billions is no big deal—is kind of abhorrent.

But you’re right; this probably doesn’t fall under the rubric of “moral relativism,” exactly.

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Julian Sanchez October 15, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Closer to the mark, though I question that framing also. While the scale of horror imagined here would probably override my normal reaction, I would almost certainly refuse to secretly murder one innocent person in order to save five or ten equally innocent others. (Pick your favorite fantasy scenario for how this happens; the ethical literature is full of ‘em. Divvying up organs for transplant is a favorite.)

This does not mean that I regard an outcome or situation where one person dies as “morally equivalent” to an outcome where twelve die. (If you gave me the choice of WHO TO RESCUE in a scenario where only one of two groups could be saved, I would certainly choose the larger if that were the only relevant difference.) It just means, again, that I am not thinking about the situation purely in terms of “outcomes.” I can agree that it is morally worse for more people to die (or be killed) but regard this as generally irrelevant to the absolute (or near-absolute) prohibition on murder.

You’re right, though, that the kids in the movie DO seem to be rendering some overall judgment about the moral propriety of these scenarios. But it’s not an equivalence. They seem to believe that the Old Ones rising is BETTER, because it is morally preferable for humans to suffer while resisting evil than to cooperate with evil in exchange for relative comfort or peace. It comes down to whether you think all that ultimately matters morally is physical pain or pleasure, or whether a world can be morally better in which there is more suffering, but less willing cooperation with evil. Cabin’s protagonists take the view, not that these worlds are morally equivalent, but the the second world IS, in fact, morally better–that it is worse to be the torturer than the tortured.

Again, that seems awfully morally stringent to me, but it is a coherent outlook with several long and distinguished traditions of ethical thought behind it. Here, as perhaps in some other public uses, I wonder if “moral equivalence” isn’t a cudgel against the uncomfortably consistent application of certain principles. In practice, when I hear “moral equivalence” I expect I’m about to hear someone rationalize conduct we’d unequivocally condemn if someone ELSE did it, on the grounds that WE are generally good, while THEY are mostly wicked, and so superficially similar conduct is totally different when WE do it. It’s all, you know, relative, man.

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Sonny Bunch October 15, 2012 at 4:13 pm

I still think you’re giving them a bit of undeserved credit here with regard to their judgment of society. If you recall, The Fool, who has to die, argues that it is immoral for him to be killed while The Virgin, who could still live, realizes she has to pull the trigger. It is not until after she is (presumably) mortally wounded by the werewolf that she says ‘Aw, screw it; let the world burn. Sorry I was going to shoot you, it’s only now as death approaches that I see the emptiness of life.’ (Not in those words, but still.)

(Sidenote: The “abridged script” linked to below is quite funny on this point; stumbled onto it while trying to find the real script: http://www.the-editing-room.com/the-cabin-in-the-woods.html)

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SkinsFanPG October 15, 2012 at 3:41 pm

awwww sheeeeeet, it’s a Sanchez/Bunch blog cage-match. I’m gonna grab my popcorn!

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Ben_A October 15, 2012 at 3:53 pm

While many moral systems consider it morally wrong to kill an innocent in the service of an alleged greater good, very few moral systems think it’s wrong for an adult to consciously sacrifice his life in the service of a greater good. Indeed, the later constitutes the classical case of heroism. Jump on that grenade, etc.

If someone can credibly make the case that your consent to ritual sacrifice is necessary to preventing the rule of Cthulhu, you need to say yes. Pothead kid should be *begging* the girl to kill him.

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Connor October 15, 2012 at 11:43 pm

I don’t know if it’s relevant to any arguments, but the Virgin was not a virgin. It was possibly implied that the stoner, I think they classified him as the Fool, was the only virgin in the group, but I could be remembering wrong.
So even if the girl had killed him, everyone was dead anyway because she wasn’t actually the innocent Virgin. I don’t know if there was a “win” situation in the movie where any of the kids made it out alive.

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Sonny Bunch October 16, 2012 at 9:51 am

None of the stereotypes are true to type, though; that’s part of Whedon’s meta-commentary on the genre. (As The Director (Weaver) says: “We work with what we have.” Something along those lines anyway.) But the jock isn’t just a jock and the whore isn’t just a ditzy whore; they’re both also really smart and help the virgin figure out what books to read. And the nerd isn’t really a nerd; he’s also a transfer to the football squad who has “the best hands on the team.” The “fool,” of course, turns out to be the only one wise enough to see what’s really going on.

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Douglas April 25, 2013 at 2:52 am

I realize it is a bit late for me to add a post, but I just saw the movie. I think you are missing out on Joss Whedon’s message. I can see the control room and the whole complex as a metaphor for today’s western world. It is a cynical world that feeds our baser instincts. The fool was right in saying maybe it is time to shake things up.

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