All Aboard the Murder Train: Sigmund Freud Visits The Cabin in the Woods

Another wonderful one from new contributor Charlotte Getz: If you haven’t seen Joss Whedon’s Cabin […]

Mockingbird / 11.20.12

Another wonderful one from new contributor Charlotte Getz:

If you haven’t seen Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods yet, then you might be like me – you don’t just watch a scary movie, scream, and then roll over and go to sleep. No. You ingest it. Your skin soaks it up like toxic rays that, by the time you should have long been asleep, have charred your whole being black and left you at the mercy of the feral wilderness of your imagination… Yet…the very next night, that trailer for (another) movie featuring a nighty-clad little girl being exorcized in a barn comes on TV. And you can’t help but transfix on those magic words: “Based… on …actual…events.” Before you know it, it’s three hours later and you’re so vigorously entrenched in the bowels of googling the “actual event” that the FBI has tapped your phone line. You do all of this, even though you are all too aware of the consequences it will have on your most basic sanity. Cabin in the Woods is an interesting and, at times, hilarious commentary on our culture’s obsession with death – a subject of frequent discussion on Mockingbird recently. Maybe, though, this grim passion points to something much bigger.

“The aim of all life is death.” -Sigmund Freud

Narratives depicting death and destruction have engrossed mankind since its origin. The bullfighting tradition, gladiatorial battles, Alabama football (Roll Tide), violence that permeates nightly news and (on a broader scale) art, literature, and cinema all serve as evidence of this statement. Man is inexplicably, yet indisputably, drawn to this entropic sort of narrative where “there is an irreversible tendency…toward increasing disorder and inertness… [and] the final state predictable from this tendency” – death. Noel Carroll, in his book The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart, says that in the horror genre, “…emotive responses of the audience, ideally, run parallel to the emotions of characters” through camera angle, point of view, etc. If this is accurate, then the logical response to this subject matter should be to avoid it at all cost! Yet, paradoxically, we as humans seek it out, crave it, and even take pleasure from it. Why?

In his article, “Analysis: Cabin in the Woods, Paul Bullock claims that we watch movies like this to “satisfy the beast below,” insinuating that our human drive towards death and violence is placated by witnessing it in a removed or fictional form. Satisfaction is nearly synonymous with pleasure. Bullock agrees that pleasure – on multiple levels, the pleasure received in the deaths – is the movie’s thematic nucleus. Now, before you rush to make an appointment with your shrink, allow me to define a few theories…

According to Freud, every human is in constant search for “stasis,” the state of nothingness only experienced in the womb. Freud believed that we seek to achieve stasis through death, “an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things” – the Death Instinct. The process of our passage towards death begins at birth and can be visualized in the shape of a circle, with stasis as both the preface to life and death’s exuberant epilogue. The death instinct incites upon exiting the womb, and is followed by the life-long cycle of the desire for and momentum towards the end – the glad return to the womb, to nothingness. Everything in between is a futile attempt to simulate a return to that paradise. NOTE: The Death Instinct does not suggest that we are all suicidal – the notion of simulation is important.

Cabin in the Woods plot summary [SPOILERS]: five intentionally caricatured college students hop in an RV and head to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of fun. What they don’t know is that government agents (“puppeteers”) are manipulating them in very elaborate ways – ultimately resulting in the murder of three of the five characters (at the hands of redneck zombies). The puppeteers take pleasure in the deaths – aiming to kill off each character but the “virgin girl.” Their motives are unclear until it is revealed in the end that they are performing a ritual sacrifice to ancient gods. If the gods are not sated, they will destroy the world. Ultimately the agents fail, in that another character survives along with the virgin girl. The world will thus be destroyed.

In his essay, Freud’s Masterplot, Peter Brooks says, “All narration is obituary in that life acquires definable meaning only at, and through, death.” In postulating the resemblance of life to a narrative, he also asserts the equivalence of death to the conclusion of that narrative. Therefore, the act of experiencing narratives in history, literature, or cinema points toward the desire of the viewer to obtain meaning. This meaning, he says, arrives from the mutual compulsion to extrapolate a shared narrative – in this case, a narrative of death – by reaching its ultimate resolution. In search for understanding, the characters in the movie make stupid decision after stupid decision (of their own free will), seeming to walk right in to their own deaths (i.e. an eerie trap door just defied gravity and flew open! Let’s go down!). Is our quest for meaning, in experiencing their story, indicative of the desire for our own death?

Brooks contends that the quest for meaning, for death, by way of plot is signified in the tension between two categories – difference and resemblance – that ultimately constitute the device of a metaphor. The result of their amalgamation is transformation or, “change in a predicate term common to beginning and end.” Metaphor, therefore, can be defined as transformation, “the same-but-different.” Consistent with Carroll’s argument regarding the parallel between character and viewer, Brooks says that metaphor brings into relation different actions and then unites them through perceived similarities, resulting in a common (shared) plot. The cliché-ness of each character in Cabin in the Woods (jock, slut, smarty, stoner, and virgin girl) leave them far enough removed, as if masks of people, but just familiar enough for us to step into their roles. For the purpose of this commentary, let’s define metaphor as the unity of ourselves (the viewer) with the fictional agents (the viewer) and the characters in jeopardy. We are the same-but-different, unified by the shared motivation for transformation – a change from a beginning to an end.  This is our “common plot,” as experienced through the narrative of the film. And the entropic momentum to reach the final meaning of the story is diagnostic of a fierce desire for death itself.


If there is truth to these theories, then experiencing narratives of death is a part of this cycle back towards stasis. We simulate our own death by placing ourselves in the roles of the characters to “satisfy the beast.” Cabin in the Woods jarringly brings our attention to this tendency, by placing the audience in juxtaposing positions of both character and witness (the agents). In typical horror movies, the viewer is placed only in the character’s role – where we experience our own death. But here, we watch and experience our own death. The movie is packed with imagery involving sight – windows, two-way mirrors, television monitors, hidden cameras, eyes, etc. – all voyeuristic. We are ever reminded that we are watching others, who are watching others, who are watching others. United by this common experience, we proceed together in search for resolution. And, to return to Freudian language, the ending that the agents know will satisfy the gods and please the audience is the survival of the virgin girl – the empty womb. The end is the beginning…

As Jean-Paul Sartre compellingly argued, “Narrative must tend towards its own end, seek[ing] illumination in its own death.” Perhaps we see rough symbolism of this in that zombies – the living dead – are the delegates chosen to kill the characters in Cabin in the Woods. Is living dying? Or, conversely, is dying living? Because two characters survive in the end they, along with the rest of the world, must (knowingly) die at the hands of the hungry gods. And they seem content, even impassioned, to do so.

Freud believed that there are “two kinds of instincts: those which seek to lead what is living to death, and others…which are perpetually attempting and achieving a renewal of life.” The argument could be posed, therefore, that the final act of death results, paradoxically, in some unexpected condition of what our instincts (in their most primal functioning) truly desire from life – nothingness, peace, and perfection. And the suggestion of the word “renewal” is that this perfection once was.

As I try to make sense of all of this, I’m ever drawn back to the idea that perhaps what this instinct really points to is the catastrophic fall of man, and our perpetual desire ever since to reenter to the completion of heaven. If heaven – the first and final destination – is the metaphor for the womb, then it’s components (the same-but-different) are God and His people, who are made in His image. The third component, and agent of our Real Death, is Jesus (the same-but-different) – simultaneously God and man – who unites us into a common shared plot of life and death and then life again. The result of this three-way-unity is transformation, “a change in a predicate term common to beginning and end.” And the conclusion of His transformation from life to death (and, thus, ours) is resurrection.

Evil, death, and destruction (as Susan Sontag describes it, the feeling of “everything running down”) serve as reminders of a deep wrongness in the world and so result in a need and desire for its opposite. The opposite, according to this conversation, is (paradoxically) death. As we experience horror stories – or any narrative for that matter – do we consider them as some means of personally paralleling their entropic endings? It seems morbid, but I personally can’t deny some primal sense within, a hint, that something is missing. And like other human needs – food, water, air – ones that I know without question must be satisfied, I also have the sense that this formless and blurred “something” that is missing, much like Edenic paradise, can be satisfied as well; found again. It appears that the solution of death – for the time being, the simulation of death – and the possibility of some final and inexplicable peace is the only real way to achieve this satisfaction. How strange and impossible that, in search of nothingness (or stasis), the actual result seems to be some strange everything. “To live is Christ” but, as J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan says best, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”


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