Rites and Wrongs

One thing about Amazon Prime is that you can watch a movie multiple times with no real fiscal consequences. Alone on a Saturday, I started my ritual of looking for a movie to match my mood. I’ve posted before on Cabin in the Woods, a kind of Lovecraftian parody of the five-people-in-an-isolated-cabin motif, but the movie is so deeply based on religious motifs that I noticed many things I’d missed the first time around. When the college kids descend to the basement to choose, unwittingly, their fate, they happen upon a diary written by Patience Buckner—one of the zombie family that will eventually emerge to murder three of the five. So far so good. The backstory to the Buckner family is sketchy (Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are said to have written the script in three days, not much time to develop backstory), but they are religious zealots who believe in pain as a spiritual purgative. In other words, they hurt each other in an attempt to be religious. This idea is not without historical foundation, and although it plays only a small role in the movie, it is part of the larger plot as well.

The entire control center that is intended to keep the old gods satisfied, is a highly technical ritual center where the horror movie tropes take place to appease the ancient ones. As Sitterson and Hadley explain, the suffering of the kids as they face the ritual sacrifice is an essential element in pleasing the gods. It is, nevertheless, a ritual. As each victim is killed, a lever is pulled channelling blood down across icons of the roles played by the scapegoats. Marty, the stoner who ultimately figures out what is going on, makes the point that for a ritual all you need are robes and sticks. Of course, ritual is one of the main constituents of religion, and ritual has to meet the specs provided by the gods.

Cthulhu takes Manhattan

Cthulhu takes Manhattan

Modern day fascination with H. P. Lovecraft has led to a resurgence of interest in “the old gods.” Lovecraft, while personally an atheist, knew the powerful draw of the idea. Gods are controlled by ritual. Many religions trace the architecture of rituals to the deity placated by them, but this tacit domestication is a kind of archaic rule of law. Humans do this, gods will do that. The hastily written story of Cabin in the Woods abides by this pattern. As long as somewhere in the world a human sacrifice is made according to specifications, things will continue as they are. In other words, our random world is a throw of the dice by the gods. Unlike his contemporary, Albert Einstein, Lovecraft’s gods did apparently play dice. Cabin in the Woods is a modern farce of that ritual and is, in an unexpected way, a deeply religious movie.

Lovecraft in the Woods

CabinintheWoodsYou know the basic plot: five college students—always an uneven mix of genders—travel to a remote cabin in the woods during a break. Extreme bloodshed ensues. The Evil Dead? Cabin Fever? Blair Witch Project 2? This time it was The Cabin in the Woods. With the exception of Cabin Fever, all of these films have a religious origin for the horror unleashed on our protagonists, with varying degrees of seriousness. The premise of getting away into the woods is overtly sexual in nature, often with the added vice of drinking or drug use far from the eyes of watchful society. Something inevitably goes terribly wrong. Were they a tad less graphic, most of these movies could pass for morality plays in their adherence to the convention, made obvious in The Cabin in the Woods, that the virgin is the sole survivor. Of course, this is done with tongue deeply embedded in cheek. Joss Whedon, who brought us Thor and The Avengers, knows all about gods, and they are the driving motivation behind the evil lurking in this contrived cabin in an artificial wood.

In this parody of the splatter film, the blood of the archetypal teens is collected to appease a Lovecraftian pantheon of unseen “ancient ones.” These are the gods of old, hidden deep beneath the earth in a slumber, placated by the ritual sacrifice of the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool, and the virgin. The sacrifice is orchestrated by techie priests who wear white shirts and lab coats, in a hermetically sealed laboratory under the cabin where they are set to unleash any variety of monsters on the kids, leading to their gruesome demise. First the protagonists must “sin”—not a difficult prospect, given the arrangements—and be punished. If the ritual fails, the world ends when the “evil, giant gods” are released; echoes of Cthulhu are rife.

Horror movies offer more than scares. If done well, they provide catharsis as well—a kind of celluloid redemption. Writers and directors, however, have moved toward self-parody to distort the horror film into a kind of comedy. Even as early as The Evil Dead, the humor is evident. Joss Whedon, however, effectively wields the evil gods, just as in The Avengers. Deities are revered less for their goodness than for their sheer power. H. P. Lovecraft, an atheist, gave us the old gods. Hollywood has run with them. Instead of catharsis, viewers are left with an undefined unease—something is not quite right with this universe that has been created. Gods, whether holy or horribly profane, demand much of humanity. The response may be abject devotion or laughter. The sins remain the same as human vices of old. It is the gods that have been transformed.

Know Thyself

Perhaps it is a perverted sign of the times, but sometimes I seek myself online. Not surprisingly, most of what I find there is stuff I’ve posted myself. Then my daughter suggested that I search “wiggins” in the Urban Dictionary. For people my age, the Urban Dictionary is often handier than Merriam-Webster for reading online lingo. I’d never tried to find myself there before, however. It turns out that “wiggins” is defined as “The state of being uncomfortable or freaked out… an uneasy feeling; a sense of foreboding badness.” Speaking strictly for me, this is a spot-on definition. Other Wigginses would likely take exception, but this connotation fits me like a thumbscrew. Perhaps our names make us who we are. The Dictionary also cites the source of this slang; Joss Whedon (who also gave us The Avengers) apparently coined this term on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (His name, by the way, is defined as, “To kill off the most lovable b-list characters in your movies.”)

Naming, in ancient times, held a distinctly religious significance. Ever notice how many biblical characters were renamed by God? Even today the Catholic Church recognizes renaming after a saint as part of a person’s identity at certain crucial junctures in life. Indeed, in western culture “Christian name” equates to the more secular “given name.” Names define us.

I’ve done a fair amount of genealogical research. The actual etymological origins of the name Wiggins are obscure, but likely have to do with living in a valley. More exciting prospects trace the name back to early English forms that look like the word for “Viking,” and the name does seem to originate from the vicinity of York, where Vikings were not unknown. Still, the more prosaic, the more likely.

crucibleWhen my mother remarried, I took on my step-father’s surname. It didn’t sit well. When I read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in seminary, John Proctor’s words leapt out at me: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” When I later went to court in Massachusetts to reclaim, legally, my birth-name of Wiggins, I had that quote written on a paper in my pocket. We are our names. Slang has, in my case anyway, provided the most reasonable definition of my surname. And only courts, as I know from experience, have the authority to change this pre-decided declaration of who we are.