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.

Evil Living

Maybe it was just the lack of rationality that comes with driving 700 miles in two days, or just plain glaikitness, but I watched Evil Dead II a couple nights back. I had read on an Internet site (probably already a warning) that it was very scary, but I’ve been a slave to logic for many years. Supposing this to be a sequel, I was confused when the first few minutes replayed the plot from the first movie with just two characters instead of the original five. Budget cuts (literally, as I later learned) meant leaving out characters and supposing that the viewers would catch on. In the first Evil Dead, the catalyst of the evil spirits in the woods was “Sumerian” spells recorded by an ill-fated professor in the cabin in the forest. Playing the recording (still in the first film), the kids release the evil spirits and one-by-one become possessed until Ash has to kill off all his companions. The campiness in both films tends to ameliorate the over-the-top violence and blood, and you know that the film isn’t taking itself at all seriously.

Once I figured that out (it was, after all, a very long drive), I settled in to watch a familiar story unfold. New characters are added in the form of the professor’s daughter, and traveling company, who show up with more pages from the Book of the Dead that will help to dispel the evil. When the characters encounter a ghost of the dead professor, he says something that may be the point of this blog post. He urges his daughter to seek salvation in the pages of the book. So here was a distinctly Judeo-Christ-Islamic theme playing out: salvation comes through obeying a book. It is an example of what I would have called “the Bible as a magical book” back in my teaching days. Movies, both good and bad, tend to portray “Bibles” as books that have the ability to affect the world around them in beneficial ways. Demons are cast out, illnesses are healed, lives are restored.

My fondness for B movies, in the end, is all that redeemed this domestic cinematic experience. I have spent many nights in the woods and I have read and reread sacred books. The two, however, seem to be worlds apart. Nature often feels like a redemptive experience. After many weeks of experiencing the outdoors only in the guise of New York City, a truth that can only be called sacred occurs—people are creatures of nature and nature can still feel sacred to us. Here is a simple reason that environmental integrity must be maintained against those who would exploit the earth for fossil fuels, timber, or drainage of lakes for irrigation. Nature may be our last chance to find something truly sacred. Once one person, company, or government destroys it, it will be gone for a lifetime or more, for everyone. That, in my book, is evil.

The Evil Living

Returning home from my campus visits, I needed some brainless relaxation. Since we don’t have any television service at home, this means watching movies. I’d heard quite a bit about The Evil Dead over the years—a movie that was scary back in the 80’s when it appeared. Improvements in special effects and the intensity of engineered sound are capable of drawing a person into an alternate reality for a couple of hours these days, and the endless reiteration of earlier movie effects somehow robs the early thrillers of their impact. The Evil Dead, however, capitalizes on confusion about the menace and teeters on the brink of morality for the entire 85 minutes. Naturally, when looking for a source of fear, it seeks a religious agent. The source of the evil in the woods is narrated in a voice-over of the presumably dead scientist who has discovered Sumerian texts that release demons in the forest (mostly in the form of falling trees).

Sumerian is always a safe bet if you want a language that your viewers will not be able to identify. The earliest known recorded language, Sumerian is still difficult even for experts, and it conveys all the strangeness of long ago. We do know that the Sumerians recorded myths that involve what we might call “demons” today, but the possession of humans was a much later development—probably a pre-scientific way of explaining epilepsy. As our five students seek a weekend getaway in the woods, they become possessed and face the moral question of just when a person ceases to be human. At what stage does someone have the right to kill someone else? Perhaps unintentionally, the movie gives us the answer, “Never.” This kind of morality has a place in America, one of the very few “first world” nations in which the death penalty is still legal. Often promoted by those dead-set against abortion. Where do we draw the line saying a person has crossed over into the unforgivable other?

The Evil Dead has become a cult classic over the years. Its relatively low budget of less than half-a-million dollars brought an astonishing box office return on the investment. The gore, tame by more modern standards, does not mask that what is really at issue here: the question of right versus wrong. What is truly evil? Sumerians aside, what possesses people and drives them to destroy one another? The Evil Dead, like many horror films, reaches for a religious answer. As the supernatural fog begins to clear, however, we might not like what we see in the clear light of day. Religion may be an excuse, but the assaults upon one another are what Nietzsche famously called “human, all too human.” The sooner we clear our vision and pay attention to what is actually happening, the sooner we can combat the horror.