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¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The movie opens in the middle of the most banal of office scenes, with two white-shirted white men futzing around in a break room. Hadley complains about his ongoing conflict with his partner over their potential child, while Sitterson extracts a coffee from a vending machine. Although Hadley and his partner are still in the process of trying to conceive, she has already begun child-proofing the house. Draping himself over a water cooler, Hadley describes it. “Dude, she did the drawers! We don’t even know if this whole fertility thing is going to work, and she screwed in these little jobbies where you can’t even open the drawers!”
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Sitterson waves off the “nightmare” of the drawers. “Sooner or later,” he shrugs, they will be necessary; to him, Hadley’s future child is an inevitability, and Hadley’s partner’s impulse to protect it are “natural.” Hadley, on the other hand, views the whole process as a jinx. “It guarantees that we won’t get pregnant. And,” Hadley concludes, “it takes me about 20 minutes to get a fucking beer.”
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 This scene was part of the initial pitch for Cabin in the Woods; Joss Whedon originally explained to co-writer Drew Goddard that he wanted to start the movie “with two guys in a break room, talking about fertility.” The film is generally described as a meta commentary on the horror movie genre, deliberately identifying and satirizing common elements of horror films to comment on audience desires. (When the seemingly inevitable zombies appear, Hadley, Sitterson, and their colleagues view them as boring and yet incredibly good at their job: “they have a 100% clearance rate.”) Whedon himself describes his project as trying to figure out “why [horror] movies follow this pattern.” By beginning with a discussion of reproductive technologies, and continuing to focus as much on scientists and engineers as cavorting coeds, Whedon explores this question with an indictment of the real-world institutions of modern science in all of their bureaucratic, banal, and globally-destructive glory. He answers horror with science (fiction), critiquing the methods through which we make knowledge about the world.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 What is it about us, Whedon asks, that makes us so drawn to the voyeuristic slaughter of the young? Cabin makes us reckon with the violence that feminist and queer theorists have argued is at the foundation of our social world. It dims the screen to reveal the violence that, if it were eliminated, would destroy the civilized arrangements in which we place our faith and understand our futures. The ideology of Cabin is what James Scott has described as high modernism, “a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress…the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.” The workers in the cabin’s control room work all year to create the perfectly ordered sacrifice, the efficient combination of supposedly deserved deaths, to keep the gods happy and ensure the survival of the rest of humanity, just as we accept a certain number of deaths and mutilations to industrial accidents, clinical experiments, or radiation exposures in order to keep the economy roiling and our civilization alive. Death for the few is “axiomatic,” written so completely into the functioning of modernity that to remove it would mean death for all, the death of our future.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Cabin answers Whedon’s questions with a far more unsettling premise than that typically used to explain away our horrific obsession. We are not answering the call of our reptilian brains, not looking to fight back against modern capitalism, not grappling with the threat of plague or radiation or chemical warfare. We want to watch teenagers being fed to zombies, selfishly, because we know that our own lives depend on it.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 Queer theorists have begun to take a critical stance towards a dominant politics in contemporary western culture that makes appeals based on the projected needs of the future. Often, this future becomes ideologically embodied in the form of an idealized child. As Lee Edelman describes, our politics is in the service of a child who “remains the perpetual horizon…the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention.” For that Child, our entire conservative politics “works to affirm a structure, to authenticate social order, which it then intends to transmit to the future in the form of its inner Child.” Edelman defines this drive as society’s overwhelming “reproductive futurism.”
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 In her work, Judith Halberstam links such a reproductive futurism to the goals that are often espoused in the name of society’s hypothetical future children. She writes, “success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation.” Such success is specifically cast as a kind of prepared hopefulness where, by shoring up particular family and community structures with financial entanglements, we might be able to ward off whatever it is that is at this moment impending: global economic collapse, the death of the American family, etc. The imperative to work for the survival of future generations, rather than for happiness in the moment, makes it not only possible but a seeming inevitability that life must be for many people an exercise of sacrifice.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Hadley and Sitterson’s opening conversation immediately establishes that Cabin in the Woods recognizes this worldview. Hadley’s frustration with child-proofing mechanisms situates us within a world that recognizes that sacrifice for future children is an undeniable good. When Hadley whines about not being able to get a beer, we are to recognize this as both funny and a little pathetic, a man-child learning to balance his own needs against his (future) child’s. Sitterson plays the role of the wise elder in their interaction, reminding Hadley that the instinct to protect is “natural” and, by implication, right. Hadley, like all parents, must submit to the technological system of child-proofing, despite its impediments to his own happiness. To think otherwise — to be more concerned with his beer than with his child’s safety — is mockingly immature and selfish.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 After showing us the banal white-shirted workplace of Hadley and Sitterson, the film throws us into the saturated, summery world of five college students who banter their way into the movie’s ostensible plot: a weekend trip to a cabin in the woods that will eventually go horribly, horribly wrong. As they are introduced, each character is deliberately positioned both as an archetype and as a subversion of type. Curt, for example, barges into Dana and Jules’ conversation with a “Think fast!” and a thrown football, but immediately follows up with an educated opinion about Dana’s coursework and a suggestion (rife with foreshadowing) about how to manipulate her professor’s opinion. Jules, similarly, bops into Dana’s room with a brash and sexual sensibility, but all of her denigrating comments about Dana’s books are clearly sarcastic, and the first thing we learn about her is that her blonde hair (typically so meaningful) is brand new, an ephemeral fashion choice rather than a permanent identity marker.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Crucial to the movement of the movie’s plot, as it progresses, are the ways that these characters submit to or resist their most simple definitions: scholar, athlete, virgin, whore, and fool. For them to serve their purpose, they must be recognizable as an ideal type, but it must also be clear that something is amiss. The extent to which these characters are stereotypes is not of their own design; their personas, as well as their trip to the cabin, have been engineered by the scientists and managers that work with Hadley and Sitterson in their underground control room. The cabin has been gifted for their use via a mysterious cousin; the chemistry department laced Jules’ blonde hair dye with a chemical to alter her state of mind; the control room pumps pheromones into the air and changes its temperature to influence their behavior. At all stages, their path is manipulated to put them in the right place at the right time. Each of them has a specific role to play in the unfolding of Cabin’s primary ritual.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 The ritual is, as will become clear, a ritual sacrifice. In the conceit of the film, the human world is built upon — and in the service of — evil gods who live beneath the earth’s surface and demand a yearly blood sacrifice of the young. The organization for which Hadley and Sitterson work is the bureaucratic apparatus through which that sacrifice takes place. It works in the fashion of twentieth and twenty-first century institutions of science, segmenting its task into specialized units rife with a multitude of staff, including lab-coated professionals, mid-level managers, technicians, interns, and security staff. (The chemistry department handles mind-altering substances, for example; the demolitions department orchestrates cave-ins and other destruction; Hadley and Sitterson manage the control room; interns scuttle around making bets.) It incorporates a complicated, near unknowable technological infrastructure to complete its task, one which distances technicians both logistically and ethically from their messy work of murder. And with banal predictability, it is run as a workplace hierarchy, with each individual reporting to a manager in turn, from the guard at the door to the Director at the top, who only intervenes in the mess of operations when absolutely necessary.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 The only character who reliably subverts the institutions’ intentions is Marty. An exaggerated stoner, Marty is the group’s prophet and, ultimately, savior, in his own way speaking, living, and eventually dying Cabin in the Woods‘ queer truth. When he arrives to join the group at their Rambler RV, he rolls up in a beater car, windows down, smoking out of bong made from a modified stainless steel coffee mug. As his friends reprimand him, he irreverently schools them: “Statistical fact: cops will never pull over a man with a huge bong in his car. Why? They fear this man. They know he sees farther than they, and will bind them with ancient logics.” Later, once they are all in the Rambler and on their way, he expounds further:
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 “That’s the whole point [of the trip]! Get off the grid…One goddamned weekend when they can’t global position my ass…Society is binding, right, it’s filling in the cracks with concrete. Everything is filed or recorded or blogged. Chips in our kids’ heads so they won’t get lost? Society needs to crumble, we’re all just too chicken-shit to let it.”
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 This is Marty’s queer theory prominently on display. As Halberstam describes her project, “The Queer Art of Failure dismantles the logics of success and failure with which we currently live. Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.” As Edelman puts it, “at the heart of my polemical engagement” (and at the heart of Marty’s) “lies a simple provocation: that queerness names the side of those not ‘fighting for the children,’ the side outside the consensus by which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism.” They see the ways that locking adults, and the children they supposedly serve, into a global technological system actually does little for their own good. You can hear the plaintiveness in Marty’s voice as he describes those chips in kids’ heads that keep them from being “lost,” from experiencing a world in which they might not be rigidly positioned.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Marty recognizes that this kind of futurist orientation is, as Edelman says, “always purchased at our expense,” as well as at the expense of our future children, who have little hope of making the supposedly right choices, those which would exempt them from sacrifice themselves. Rather, the technological system serves itself. It conservatively serves to perpetuate itself, and with it those who are positioned as its wielders.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 In the original sense of the term, the world according to Cabin in the Woods is a straightforward (if incredibly logistically complex) cybernetic system. Each year five youths are sacrificed, their blood drained into the earth through a series of manually operated pipes, leaving the gods appeased and allowing humanity to begin its preparations for next year’s ritual destruction. In this sense, every actor and actant in the film is a cyborg interacting with another human or technological piece of the system. This is especially true of the five youths chosen for slaughter. They are always controlling or being controlled by a mangle of people, chemicals, monsters, and various other technologies of command and control.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 To Donna Haraway, this very mangle provides the opportunity for transcendence — a transcendence not of the material world but rather of one’s history and subjective baggage. In her “Cyborg Manifesto,” she writes of the “border war” that has been created between the organic and the machine, and sees the creation and employment of this dualism as one of the primary mechanisms through which inequality is made manifest and justified. Instead, she proposes a theory for understanding the world in a “non-naturalist” mode, “a world without gender” which would consequently be a world without birth or origin. For Haraway, the cyborg privileges the knowing, ironic self which imagines itself to be free of its origins because of the thoroughness of its embodied knowledge. Instead of a language of rebirth of the self, which connotes both biological sex and chance for a parental influence, Haraway’s cyborgs cope with the world and its violence through a “monstrous” regeneration. Such a world without birth would also, then, be “a world without end.”
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Despite the cyborg’s emphasis on communication and network building, an individual subjectivity is still central to its ontology. Without even the idol of a potential future child upon which to focus attention, the modus operandi of the cyborg appears to be the further independent development of its own embodied selfhood. But in the cabin in the woods, any faith in an individually embodied self is skewered, proved to be not only folly but itself the very basis for continued oppression.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 The built environment from which Haraway imagines her cyborgs building brand new, asexually reproduced selves is allegorized in the form of the cabin’s cellar. The lynchpin upon which the sacrifice hinges, the cellar in the cabin is filled with dozens of evocative objects: a wedding dress and locket, a conch shell, family pictures, film reels, a jewelry box, the diary of a young girl. It is the last, the diary, which finally sets into motion the murderous action of the film. When Dana picks it up and reads out loud the memories of Patience Buckner, it is Dana’s choice of this object that calls the whole Buckner family, risen from their zombie graves, to come kill her and her friends.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 The cellar and all of its creepy, gruesome, wondrous possibility is the crucial mechanism through which Cabin‘s system of sacrifice takes place; it is the illusion upon which the stability of the entire system is predicated. As Dana whispers with horror once she understands, “They made us choose. They made us choose how we die.”
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 When Truman, a new sentry, is introduced to the control room, it is an opportunity for the movie to explain this system. He is particularly upset by the betting that has developed around the cellar, in which individuals and departments bet on which object (and which connected grisly fate) will be selected by this year’s sacrifices. Truman, witnessing the machinations made by the entire crew to even get them to the cabin, questions how such betting can work.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Sitterson: They have to make the choice of their own free will. Otherwise the system doesn’t work. It’s like the harbinger. He’s this creepy old fuck that practically wears a sign: “YOU WILL DIE.” Why do we put him there? The system. They have to choose to ignore him. They have to choose what happens in the cellar. Yeah, we rig the game as much as we need to. But in the end, they don’t transgress…
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 The way of the cyborg is not, as Haraway claims, merely non-dichotomous, a “powerful infidel heteroglossia.” In actuality, to the extent that it cleaves to cybernetic discourse, it is totalizing in its emphasis on stability. The cyborg creates a new holism out of the wreckage of the built environment. But its goal, ultimately, must be that of the system from which it has so ceremoniously sprung: the continuance of self. (It is no surprise that only Marty, the stoner prophet, is adamant that the group leave the cellar; he is aware of the trap not only of the microcosm of the cabin but also of the trap of human civilization as a whole.) Haraway attempts to find her way out of this dilemma, recognizing that “the main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.”
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 1 Yet her own concern with the future, with the continued subjective experience of the cyborg and the world it inhabits, belies this premise. Cyborg epistemology has incorporated reproductive futurity into its raison d’Ãªtre. Cyborg fathers are not inessential, nor invisible; they are merely distributed. The cyborg father is Hadley and Sitterson, sitting behind a computer terminal. The father is the voice of the Director through a red phone, chastising underlings. The father is the chemicals pumped into the air to subdue and instigate compliance. The father is the internalized obedience of a young woman who raises a gun to kill her friend, because the alternative — a world without human order — is too much to imagine. The cyborg father proscribes his children’s possible modes of engagement, whether he is at their bedside or not, because he has created their conditions of possibility. The cyborg may choose what to pick up, but it’s still in the cellar.
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 1 Cabin in the Woods concludes with an affirmation of, instead, a zombie epistemology, one grounded in a drive towards death, failure, and a radical, spectacular renunciation of the individual and its symbolic future. Zombies, in their relatively short history as monsters, have been inextricably linked to systems of imperialism, global capitalism, and technoscience. From Haitian legends of zombies raised from the dead to work in sugar mills (White Zombie) to zombies created by rogue radiation brought back from space exploration (Night of the Living Dead) or by a pandemic virus instigated by irresponsible research (28 Days Later), zombies have stood in for the unknown, unacknowledged victims of high-modernist technoscience. Theorists Deleuze and Guattari have called zombies “the only modern myth,” referring to our twentieth-century facility with rationalizing death and destruction at the population level, with understanding individual deaths (even many individual deaths) as the price of civilization in a technocratic era.
¶ 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 In our twenty-first century zombie movie, our human protagonists are the victims of this monolith, although they are no less dead for being living. When Marty and Dana finally make their way down into the bunker where the monsters and the control room are housed, they are met with the disembodied voice of the Director over the loudspeaker:
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 “What’s happening to you is part of something bigger. Something older than anything known. You’ve seen horrible things…but they are nothing compared to what came before, what lies below. It’s our task to placate the ancient ones, as it is yours to be offered up to them. Forgive us, and let us get it over with.”
¶ 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 The Director: We’re not talking about change. We’re talking about the agonizing death of every human soul on the planet. Including you. You can die with them, or you can die for them.
¶ 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Marty dismisses her offer, but Dana raises her arm to point a gun at him. The Director implores Dana to be strong. Marty watches her. “Yeah, Dana. You feeling strong?”
¶ 46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 But in that moment, two monsters appear that force them stop fighting each other. A werewolf pulls Dana away from Marty, and the zombie Patience Buckner attacks the Director, sending them both into the abyss that leads to the ancient ones.
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 The kids are left, beaten and bloody, on the steps of a ritual alter. And so they ask, what if, instead, we fail? What would seem unthinkable to the cyborgs — the destruction of their subjective and symbolic future — now seems the only option left. Dana takes a puff on Marty’s last joint and says, “You were right. Humanity… It’s time to give someone else a chance.”
¶ 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Edelman similarly writes, “When I argue, then, that we might do well to attempt what is surely impossible — to withdraw our allegiance, however compulsory, from a reality based on the Ponzi scheme of reproductive futurism — I do not intend to propose some ‘good’ that will thereby be assured…We might rather, figuratively, cast our vote for ‘none of the above.'”
¶ 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 “None of the above,” as I see it, is the abdication of our obligation to the idealized future of our genetic offspring. A proposed zombie epistemology would push this abdication further, freeing us from the intense cultivation of even our cyborg selves. So long as we are building ourselves out of the literal wreckage of war, and knowing our bodies and ourselves using the same instruments of science that have made us experiments (and sacrifices), we will only ever know ourselves as our creators knew us. Though as cyborg we might appropriate knowledge from scientific journals, in applying it we accept as individuals risks that were conceived as applying only to an abstract population. Though we might free the speculum from the hands of a professional gynecologist, in wielding it we internalize the rightness of his vantage point, knowing ourselves as he might see us instead of how we might feel us. Though we might try to make the best possible choices about what to eat, where to live, when to work, and how to take care of ourselves, cyborg choices will always be informed by the science and technologies that were made by powerful people considering the interests of the whole system. The interests of all of the individual cyborgs were never part of the plan, and this makes system-knowledge dangerous to them.
¶ 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 1 Zombies cannot deny their place in the horde. They don’t have subjectivity. They don’t optimize. They don’t bricolage. They are the sacrifice to the high modernist system, and thus they can understand the lie: the system does not serve the lives of the majority of its members. The scientists in Cabin in the Woods don’t sacrifice five children each year in order to save every other person on the planet (although that is a positive externality); they sacrifice five children each year for the satisfaction of powerful gods. When we punish our bodies to lose weight, optimize our cholesterol, or maximize our fertility, it is because placing ourselves on our physician’s bell curve is the only way a cyborg knows how to be good.
¶ 51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 Zombies cannot know themselves, not according to the ways of knowing that generations of scientific establishment have codified. They know themselves to be part of a horde, but their knowledge is local. They are the least powerful victims (it is no accident that, during her life, Patience Buckner was violently abused by her father), but also incredibly powerful as a cooperative. They work, not for the future or for the system, but for themselves.
¶ 52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 To embrace a zombie epistemology is to recognize our limitations as subjects of power, but also to accept the radical implications of not seeing ourselves as high modernism sees us. It is to accept that science treats us as interchangeable members of a population, but to push back against knowing ourselves in the same way. The dictate of the cyborg, internalized from its distributed patriarchy, is to self-actualize, to actively build and rebuild oneself using the tools and knowledge left behind. The dictate of the zombie, in contrast, is simply to be: to be radically embodied, to be present in only the present, to let go of the possibility of discovering, categorizing, organizing, and optimizing a self. As Edelman puts it, “the queerness of which I speak would deliberately sever us from ourselves, from the assurance, that is, of knowing ourselves.”
¶ 53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 As Marty might say, isn’t it about time? As cyborgs, the teenagers “chose” the means of their own destruction. But as a zombie, Patience Buckner found her way to the Director and ended her own torture. Together, they destroyed civilization.
¶ 56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 For Joss Whedon, the road to this kind of queerness was a long one. The rejection of patriarchal control over the future has been a constant presence in his work, from Buffy Summers’ early rejection of the Watcher’s Council to her later insistence on protecting her sister even if it meant ending the world. But as apocalypse threatened, his heroes have always found a way to work out a solution that preserved the world. Even as Angel’s team of investigators glibly faced down the destruction of Los Angeles, and presumably the world, at the end of the television series, they still clung to one repeated theme: going down with a fight. (Angel famously stares at the wreckage of the city and directs his team, “Let’s go to work.”) And as reward for Buffy and Angel’s persistence, for buying into, as Edelman puts it, “the insistence of hope itself as affirmation,” their world, in fact, does not end. Buffy recognizes that sacrificing herself will save both her sister and the world; a continuing graphic novel series reveals a new future for the City of Angels.
¶ 57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 1 Cabin in the Woods, instead, embraces an apocalyptic model much closer to the one floated in Dollhouse, in which identity, the soul, and the body were ontologically and technologically split from one another. In this world, a technologically-advanced corporate entity has designed technology to “wipe” the memories and personality from a person’s mind and replace them with a newly programmed self. But after a series of events in which selves are misapplied, spontaneously generated, and destroyed, Dollhouse unambiguously showed there to be nothing natural or unalterable about our conception of personhood. Whedon’s science fiction is becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea that maybe there is nothing unequivocally good, or necessary, about our individual notion of personhood either. When in their blank state, the programmable “actives” — who are occasionally referred to as zombies in the series — often soothe themselves and others by repeating the phrase, “I try to be my best.” At first something of a weak joke (what could it mean for a non-person to be their “best”?), this line achieves poignancy and horror as the audience can grow to see themselves in the actives’ place, as dolls who could be made healthy or sick, wealthy or poor, or fulfilled or miserable by changing the conditions of their lives. In that world, who are we, and how do we know it?
¶ 58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 1 At the conclusion of Cabin, although Marty and Dana regret that they won’t be able to see what happens next, they also recognize that there is nothing in the world left for them. Why attempt to preserve a mode of being that they know to be built with the blood of their friends? Their perception of the world, and their agency within it, has already proven to be so malleable as to be a fiction. Why continue to pretend that there is any desirable future in that cyborg vision? What might happen if, instead, as the giant hand of the old one springs from the earth, a zombie rises?
¶ 61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0  Maria Elena Fernandez, “‘The Cabin in the Woods’ Spoilers: Drew Goddard Speaks Freely,” The Daily Beast, April 16, 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/16/the-cabin-in-the-woods-spoilers-drew-goddard-speaks-freely.html.
¶ 72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0  Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 335. Interestingly, in this instance the history actually belies the film. When Wendy, of the chemistry department, is explaining the system to Truman, he makes the mistake of describing the Buckners as “something from a nightmare.” Wendy corrects him; the Buckners are actually “something that nightmares are from,” coming from the old world. Unless zombies were merely waiting in the depths of some unconscious nightmare to emerge into folklore and dreams at the appropriate twentieth-century moment, the “zoology” department is responsible for much more than simple curation of the monster archive.