[Immediate Spoilers for The Cabin in the Woods]
During the Q&A after an early screening of The Cabin in the Woods, someone asked the director, Drew Goddard, if there were any plans for a sequel. Goddard, surprised, reportedly asked if the questioner had actually watched the movie. The ending of The Cabin in the Woods isn’t meant to be ambiguous. We are to understand that not only are we seeing the end for all of our protagonists and antagonists, but the end of all human life on earth, seemingly forever.
That ending on its own is something unusual; that this ending comes at the choosing of our protagonists is something stranger still; and that this ending is meant to be something of a victory is strangest of all. Yes, the end of all mankind comes at the gargantuan hand of the old gods, but only because our protagonists cannot abide the price that would have had to be paid to avert it.
There are two ethical thought experiments that have been talked and written to death in recent years which apply here. The first, and more ubiquitous, is Philippa Foot’s trolley problem. Imagine a runaway trolley/train heading down a set of tracks, hurtling towards five men working on the tracks, completely unaware of the train and certain to be hit and killed. From your position, you can do nothing to stop this train, but you can switch the trolley to a different track, one where only one person would be certain of death. While not certain, robust empirical research of this thought experiment indicates that the majority of people who hear about this dilemma believe they would be inclined to flip the switch, sacrificing one life to save five, or they would be inclined to think that someone who flipped the switch was doing the right thing.
The flip-side of this thought experiment involves knowing of the certain and imminent death of five individuals, and then choosing a bystander to sacrifice in order to save the five. In one version, this involves harvesting the organs of one healthy person to save the lives of five terminally ill patients. In another, there is no switch to be pulled, and the only way to save the five is to push one person in front of the trolly before it reaches the five. In these sorts of thought experiments, the math of the cost in human lives is the same, but the overwhelming majority of respondents in those more active scenarios are opposed to taking action.
It’s hard to pinpoint the nature of the difference between these two categories of thought experiments, but in the first we can tell ourselves we are choosing to save five lives, and a downstream byproduct of that choice is that the trolley will still kill someone. In the other examples, we are actively choosing a person to kill, and the byproduct of that will be to save five lives.
Our protagonists and antagonists in The Cabin in the Woods are on opposite sides of this divide. Sitterson (Richard Jenkins), Hadley (Bradley Whitford), and the rest of the team in the control room have made the calculation that actively sacrificing four to five human beings to save the lives of 7 billion people is the moral thing to do. The team in the control room is often presented as comic and unserious, but at the loss of the first life they solemnly intone the words required by the ritual: “This we offer in humility and fear, for the blessed peace of your eternal slumber. As it ever was.” Despite surface appearances, they take their work, the ritual, and the stakes of their failure seriously, and are clear that what they are doing is a moral necessity in circumstances they are trying to make the best of.
Conversely, Dana (Kristen Connolly), the last of the sacrificial victims and archetypal horror movie final girl that the ritual requires, eventually makes the decision that there is nothing in this world that would make her kill her friend, Marty (Fran Kranz), who had repeatedly saved her life; it would not be worth the life of everyone else on earth, nor would it be worth either her or Marty’s lives as their immediate demise is also assured as a consequence of her choice. While she briefly struggles to get to this choice, and does entertain the idea of killing Marty, she is confident when she does decide, that what she is doing is a moral necessity in circumstances she is trying to make the best of.
The film makes clear what the fallout of Dana’s decision will be, and that the film is on Dana’s side. At the same time, neither the team in the control room, nor the legion of horrific monsters are exactly cast as villains either. The monsters do what monsters do, and the team in the control room is doing what they feel they must in service of a righteous cause.
A fairly nihilistic position is defended earlier in the film by Marty. “Society is binding. It’s filling in the cracks with concrete. Everything is filed or recorded. Blogged, right? Chips in our kids’ heads so they won’t get lost. Society needs to crumble. We’re all just too chickenshit to let it.” Part of this ironically juxtaposes with the literal manipulation and surveillance the kids are going to be under by Sitterson, Hadley, and their team; but taken literally, Marty has already broached the idea that the world and humanity are neither saveable nor worth saving.
In the final moments of the film, the moral crux of the story is made plain in the confrontation between Dana, Marty, and The Director (Sigourney Weaver). The Director says: “It’s our task to placate the ancient ones, as it’s yours to be offered up to them. Forgive us, and let us get it over with.” To which Marty replies, “Maybe that’s the way it should be if you’ve got to kill all my friends to survive. Maybe it’s time for a change.”
One could see how what seems required might look differently looked at from each vantage point. To the director, this seems as straightforward as the trolley problem - sacrifice this one stranger’s life to save the lives of 7 billion people. For Dana, the math is the same, but it’s not some stranger she needs to sacrifice. Rather, it’s a good friend who had saved her from an attacking werewolf mere moments before. Whether they should or not is an open question, but our moral concern does shift when it comes to our loved ones.
For Marty, the question hits closest to home as he is being asked to sacrifice himself for the greater good. The Director says as much to him, “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.” We admire those who sacrifice themselves for others, (think the death of Spock in Wrath of Khan) but we admire it because it’s supererogatory: going above and beyond what is morally required. We generally don’t demand of anyone that they must sacrifice themselves for others.
Marty doesn’t sacrifice himself for the world, Dana ultimately cannot bring herself to kill him, and the Director is killed by her own monster before she can kill Marty herself. In the last moments, Dana and Marty apologize to one another for their circumstances: “I’m sorry I almost shot you,” Dana says, and “I’m sorry I let you get attacked by a werewolf and then ended the world,” Marty replies.
There is still time at this point for them to change their minds, but they’re not going to. Passing a joint between them, Dana says, “You were right. Humanity. Time to give someone else a chance.” This is the choice they’ve made. Humanity let what they’ve been through, and so much more, happen to them, therefore humanity is not worth saving. This is the greater good they believe in and the film is on their side.
Taking apart the ending like this makes me more sympathetic to that questioner on the Q & A asking about a sequel. I understand Dana and Marty’s decision. The ending is honest and true to the characters. The Old God’s hand erupting out of the ground, blacking out the screen, followed by the fierce Nine Inch Nails musical cue is a deeply satisfying ending in the moment. Yet, the message underneath that ending makes me want something more.
I do love The Cabin in the Woods, and structurally I’m hard pressed to find a thing I would change about it. Part of me wants a continuation of the story where humanity is redeemed, but what we get and what we want are often at odds. I regret the nihilism at its core, but I love The Cabin in the Woods for the film that it is. Even if given the opportunity to sacrifice this film, perhaps to save the world from extinction at the hands of the old gods, I’m not sure I would do it. Sorry folks; sometimes them’s the breaks.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.