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:
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) October 14, 2012
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) October 14, 2012
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:
— Julian Sanchez (@normative) October 14, 2012
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.