Odds and DEAD Ends: Watching from below: Voyeurism in ‘The Cabin in the Woods’

Voyeurism in The Cabin in the Woods

Released in 2012, The Cabin in the Woods struck a chord in a genre dominated by ‘torture-porn’ and remakes of paranormal horror from Asia. By taking the formula of The Evil Dead film and using the codes and conventions as part of its narrative construction, it seemed to revitalise a genre that many felt had gone astray. I’m going to discuss the film’s use of cameras and the theme of voyeurism, to heighten the film’s tension by subtly shifting our allegiances and questioning our morality.

By default, massive spoilers if you haven’t seen the film.

The film is uniquely structured in that it follows two sets of characters. We have the teenagers on the ‘top floor’, unknown sacrifices to the gods below, and the crew on the ‘bottom floor’ to ensure their demise. Whedon and Goddard state on the DVD commentary that they were going to keep the second floor a secret until a way into the film, but eventually decided against it. This way, they set us up from the beginning with the fear of being watched.

By giving us this knowledge, we place ourselves in a position of power, having information that the main quintet of the piece doesn’t. This aligns us with Alfred Hitchcock’s theory of suspense; that the audience must know something that the characters don’t, be this a wallet about to fall from someone’s jacket or a killer in the closet, to create tension. You can watch Sir Alfred himself explain it in the video below.

Being watched is always powerful in creating paranoia and fear because it is an invasion of our privacy, someone forcing their way into our innermost thoughts and deeds. When Marty says that the idea of the trip is to ‘get off the grid’, he highlights this need for privacy, which we know to be nothing but an illusion. If a metaphor is needed for this invasion of privacy, it is embodied by the two-way mirror in the cabin.

One of the ways this voyeurism is used is through its desensitisation those working below must undergo in order to protect the world. Consider the scene before Jules’ murder and the way in which she must be ‘the whore’ before she can be killed. Kirk says to her “‘we’re all alone’”, followed by a shot of everyone watching it happen. Though this is played for laughs, it’s a real fear that they will be discovered, something every teen couple fears. Later, when asked if Jules showing herself is necessary, we are told “‘we’re not the only ones watching’”, and that they “‘need to keep the customers satisfied’”. The teens are produce, goods to be shown, approved of, and then sold, and it requires such an extreme degree of desensitisation, of dehumanisation, that they must force themselves to do, that we begin to side with those below.

The teenagers are being spied upon from a functional point of view: people need to know what they’re doing in order to do their job right. The comedy Goddard extracts from the workforce means that we align our morals with them. This comes to a climax when the group is heading to the bridge and we get the call that it’s still intact. Who do we support here? Do we support the victims, trying to survive? Or do we support the men trying to kill them, trying to save the world? We are put in a moral quandary here which only adds to our tension.

As another note, not only is the floor below watching the top through their cameras and monitors, but they themselves are also being watched by their boss and the gods. Layers upon layers of voyeurism and the need to look over your shoulder are piled up here in a single film. We cannot get away from eyes everywhere, watching us, wanting us to kill or be killed.

Viewing them through the cameras perhaps helps those below deal with the situation. They don’t have to meet the victims; they can deal with the situation as if they were playing a video game. They are test subjects in a Saw-like game. And one shouldn’t think that this emphasis on viewing as a theme is coincidental. After all, co-writer and director, Drew Goddard, also wrote Cloverfield, one of the movies that re-vitalised the found footage genre along with REC and Paranormal Activity, a genre that emphasizes horror viewed from a first-person perspective.

The desensitisation that the workers go through in order to do their job is passed onto us. This presents us with questions of morality that arise with the film’s conclusion. We side with the heroes and yet also need them to fail. This places us in a tricky situation. Who do we support? The final act’s big dilemma would not resonate so much if we simply sided with the victims, and so we must watch them suffer, with as much black humour as we can get from it so that we also want those trying to keep the gods happy to succeed. It’s the only conclusion we can come to. But is this the right decision? What is the right decision?

In conclusion, the voyeurism displayed throughout the film aids the shift in our empathy just from the side of the victims into the centre of the two sides. We find ourselves in a world of moral greyness, where we aren’t sure who we should root for. We are between Scylla and Charybdis, with the pressure mounting, the clock ticking down, and no clue how to feel. Horror is comprised, at its core, of choices. Whether to run or fight, go up the stairs or out the front door, cut our leg off or not, we have to deal with choices. Goddard puts us in that point where we don’t want to have to choose, but we must. And that’s what makes The Cabin in the Woods, through its theme of voyeurism, just that little bit special.

Article by Kieran Judge (Paranormal Activity, 2007)

Bibliography

Cloverfield. 2007. [Film] Directed by Matt Reeves. USA: Bad Robot.

Institute, A. F., 2008. Alfred Hitchcock On Mastering Cinematic Tension. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPFsuc_M_3E
[Accessed 20 09 2018].

Paranormal Activity. 2007. [Film] Directed by Oren Peli. USA: Blumhouse Productions.

REC. 2007. [Film] Directed by Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza. Spain: Filmax International.

The Cabin in the Woods. 2012. [Film] Directed by Drew Goddard. USA: Mutant Enemy.

The Evil Dead. 1981. [Film] Directed by Sam Raimi. USA: Renaissance Pictures.

 

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard co-wrote the film The Cabin in the Woods back in 2009.  The film was then shot and directed by Goddard and was completed in May of 2009.  Sadly the film was shot under the MGM umbrella who later filed for bankruptcy putting the release of the film on a severe hold as the film fell into limbo.  However, in 2012 the film finally came to release just over three years from its original completion date.  Thankfully for Horror Fans the film is out in release and eventually will end up on DVD.

The film’s opening credit scenes may leave some wondering if they have entered the correct theatre as they start.  You are shown images of ritualistic sacrifices through many different cultures.  You will obviously find yourself asking what does this have to do with anything in regards to the film.  To be honest this is a brilliant opening sequence as it’s the first hint of what is to come as the story moves forward.

The film starts with Richard Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford) doing the normal thing of talking about life around a coffee machine. As they walk through their non-descript office building they are approached by Wendy Lin (Amy Acker) who is concerned about other operations around the world.  Sitterson and Hadley point out that one of those countries remaining has a spotless record and there is no concern.

The viewer is than taken to a house were a group of five college aged kids are getting ready to take a vacation to a cabin now owned by Curt Vaughan’s (Chris Hemsworth) cousin. Curt is taking a long his girlfriend Jules Louden (Anna Hutchison), her friend Dana Polk (Kristen Connolly), a pot smoking friend Marty Mikalski (Fran Kranz) and lastly Holden McCrea (Jesse Williams).  Holden is the guy Kurt and Jules asked along in hopes of hooking him up with the now relationship free Dana.

As the group takes their RV out to the cabin we flash back to the office that Sitterson and Hadley are working in and we begin to see that they are tracking the group.  At this time we are not sure why but as you watch you begin to see something begin to unravel.  We get an idea on how much trouble the group is going to be in as we watch a hawk follow their RV as it enters a tunnel.  As they drive thru and emerge on the other side the hawk is seen flying and it suddenly bursts as it hits a field that stops it from following the RV any further.

This is the viewer’s first hint that something isn’t right about this cabin in the woods and we watch as those at the mysterious office watch what happens to the kids inside.  There is a hidden motive to all of the struggles the kids go through and it will eventually become evident.  The joy is watching how things are revealed on how things are set to take place.

Whedon and Goddard in away take a direct shot at the current trend in horror films. You can see how their story seems to glorify the things that make horror films great to one aspect of the audience. However, at the same time they seem to ridicule aspects of more modern horror that have become a great trend in the genre.

This is what makes The Cabin in the Woods such an interesting film.  Along with the way the story is told and things unravel it helps to bring questions about what makes horror great, and at same time bad.  This is all handled in the way the film moves and paces as the college students seem to avoid stereotypes that are associated with these films.  There are hints at some of them and we watch as people pay for that fact.  The really interesting thing is as you watch the film we find out a major secret about what, or who, could kill the kids.  The fact they have an option of foolishly choosing the implement of their own death from horror film stereotypes is well done.

The Cabin in the Woods is a film that horror fans should try to see either on the big screen, or when available on DVD.  It’s a film you will find both fascinating but at the same time quite intriguing.  It turns those horror film stereotypes we’ve come to see on their head and makes you think.  Of course, any Joss Whedon fan will want to see this just to show support for his works. I know this Brown Coat saw it for that reason as well and really enjoyed the film.