Well above and far beyond a world where jocks and stoners and soulful chicks are all effortlessly erudite, there’s an audacious amount of worldbuilding going on in The Cabin in the Woods. Spoilers, spoilers, everywhere, it’s time to overthink! The most obvious difference between the nominally real world and the world in Cabin is that in Cabin’s world, monsters are very real. Every kind of monster from dismemberment goblins to colossal malevolent Elder Gods simply exist and always have, theoretically pre-dating humanity itself. This is not an Earth where folklore is just a bunch of stories but a certain amount of mad science creates something that approximates vampire legends, nor is it one in which a twisted but enterprising serial killer consciously emulates the motifs of traditional witches. This is an Earth of primal horrors taken completely at face value. And I have no beef with that whatsoever, of course, huge fan of things fantastical and impossible that I am. In fact it probably counts as one of the great twists of the movie’s metagaming of the genre. The very first scene of the movie features not the protagonist-victims but their soon-to-be tormentors, yet everything in that scene is screamingly mundane: two guys in white collar shirts and ties, getting vending machine coffee, talking about baby-proofing a house, against a backdrop of bland modern office interiors. The fact that the protagonist-victims are being set up becomes abundantly clear, so the audience as expected is going to be making guesses about what exactly the nature of the set-up is. I compared notes with Clutch and Slick afterwards and we all agreed that our initial expectations were pretty similar: maybe it was all going to turn out to be some kind of elaborate hoax for a new kind of reality show, and the early victims would turn up alive and well in the end, or maybe it the deaths were all-too-real but it was all being staged for the benefit of people who loved horror so much they wanted an endless supply of snuff films with fake supernatural themes and special effects. In other words, we all assumed that the things we were seeing onscreen were taking place in a real-esque world like our own. But that’s the twist, the deaths are real and people are being killed as sacrifices to vengeful and evil gods below, not in the sense of some deluded crazy people believing in non-existent demons and acting on those beliefs but in a totally straightforward and literal manner, real sacrifices for real entities.
But there’s another side-effect to this alternate-world approach which I find even more interesting. I mentioned already that I cannot wait to re-watch Cabin to catch things I missed the first time (not to mention pausing to see things that were impossible to ingest in real time, like reading every line on the betting pool whiteboard or noting the contents of every cell in the terror-menagerie) but another reason I want to watch it again is to confirm something which I’m only about 95% sure of: The Cabin in the Woods takes place in a world without horror movies.
If you’ve heard anybody else talking about The Cabin in the Woods, you might have noticed comparisons made to the Scream movies, anointing Cabin as a worthy successor, etc. There’s a fair point to be made their because both are post-modern self-aware horror movies/love letters to horror movies, but really Cabin is almost the opposite of Scream. (Full disclosure: I’ve only seen the first 2 in the Scream series, so maybe there’s more overlap with the latter installments, but I doubt it.) Scream is an example of the hypothetical cases I was alluding to above, in that it could ostensibly take place in our real world. There’s nothing supernatural in Scream, just a frighteningly clever but ultimately human serial killer. There’s an acknowledged and deliberate construction of horror tropes, but in Cabin these are based on ancient mythology and the re-interpretation of archetypes, and in Scream it’s all explicitly riffing on the movies, to the point that characters in Scream constantly say things like “Oh, this is just like that part in all the movies where somebody goes off on their own after saying ‘I’ll be right back!’ and then is never seen again!” The justifying internal logic of Scream is that the protagonist-victims there are teenagers, full of arrogance and presumed immortality; they should know better than to go into the dark basement alone after watching all those horror movies, but then again horror movies aren’t real and it’s cool to laugh in the face of danger and tempt fate. This unfailingly proves their undoing and adds to the body count.
So compare that to Cabin, where one of the key moments is when Curt makes it back to the titular vacation abode and takes charge of the group, telling everyone they have to barricade the doors and windows and more importantly stay together. Which would be an opportune moment for Marty, the wise fool and most self-aware voice of reason, to say “Right, don’t split up like dummies in a cheap slasher flick” and yet, he doesn’t. But cut to the manipulators behind the scenes, and they dispense some mind-altering gas that makes Curt say “Wait, no, that isn’t right … we need to split up, we can cover more entrances faster that way.” And nobody argues with him, at which point it seems like a shame that the mind-altering gas isn’t available to the audience, where the suspension of disbelief strains terribly at the question: jeebus, haven’t any of these people ever seen a horror movie?!?! What I’m doing here is making the serious argument that that is exactly what the movie would have us believe. If the protagonist-victims had ever sat through a single slasher flick, they would never have split up at that point, gas or no gas; but they do split up, ergo they have never seen a slasher flick. And the only way to avoid such a ubiquitous cultural element is if it doesn’t exist. Cabin takes place in a world where monsters exist and horror films don’t.
This is fascinating to me because it’s very similar to the situational paradox of comic book universes: do they have comic books there? If superheroes and supervillains and gods and aliens and lost civilizations &c. &c. are real, as they are within the context of those stories, then what appeal would fake stories about the same have to the denizens of that world? It’s been addressed in various different ways. In Marvel Comics, it’s been posited almost since the beginning that superhero comics would still have appeal to a mass audience familiar with the real thing, but there are slight differences due to levels of access: the publicity-friendly Fantastic Four has an authorized licensing deal, whereas the more secretive Spider-Man and X-Men get turned into much more lurid and sensationalized fictional characters on the newsstand. In Watchmen, first there were the same WWII comics our world had, Superman and Batman and whatnot, then there were real mystery men inspired by those fictional characters, and then superhero comics died out and kids in the alternate 80’s of that world read comicbooks about pirates, mostly. Smallville works around the fact that Clark in the early 21st century is destined to become Superman at some point down the road, which precludes a competing fictional version of Superman dating back to 1938, which was the genesis point of American superhero comics … so in Clark’s world there are superhero comics but the most famous one is entitled Warrior Angel (seemingly not published by either of the Big Two) and obviously draws on much older cultural traditions.
(By the by, speaking of angels, it’s somewhat implicit in drawing a world predicated on evil elder gods requiring bloody appeasement lest they wipe out humanity that YHWH is kind of a non-factor. After the movie, Clutch asked if there were any major horror fiends that didn’t figure into the all-hell-breaks-loose finale. There were zombies, werewolves, mutants, giant snakes and spiders, vampires, robots, clowns, an unmistakable homage to Pinhead … Clutch was pretty sure every base had been covered. But I immediately said “devils” and he acknowledged I was right. Again, maybe with benefit of a pause button I’d be able to spot a forked tail or red skin or goat horns on some background character, but then again probably not. I suppose you can’t have devils without angels, and you can’t have angels without God, and Cabin is pretty starkly a God-free world. So points for consistency there.)
Really, if you think about it, it’s just the ultimate logical conclusion. What ideal world would a writer create in order to tell the story of his horror movie? A world without any horror movies, where the writer gets to be the trailblazer and tell a story utterly without antecedent. Yet at the same time, without a long tradition of horror movies to draw on and the skeleton of tropes to hang fresh meat upon, you couldn’t have The Cabin in the Woods at all. That’s the beauty of playing around with alternate worlds, though: often you end up with the best of both.