Friday, October 21, 2016

It Was Night in the Lonesome October

October weather in these parts is variable, to put it gently. We might get a foot of snow (as in 2011), a hurricane (as in 2012), or a heat wave (as in 2014). We might get all three – or none. The past several days, after a chilly start to the month, we have been treated to sunny balmy 82 degree (28C) days. The nights have been pleasant, too. One doesn’t always appreciate shirtsleeve nights in August, but in October they are infrequent and therefore especially welcome.

Wednesday was just such a night. With all outside lights shut off, I sat outside in the dark for a while. I do that sometimes. The sky was clear, the stars were bright, and aircraft too high to hear crisscrossed overhead. Despite the peaceful scene, I soon was on primal alert – not by intent but by instinct. My home is surrounded by woods and crepitation beyond the tree line meant something large was moving about. The odds are that the sounds in the woods were made by deer, but I wasn’t going to walk over there to find out and I was keenly aware of the distance from where I sat to the back door. For most of human existence large predators have been a serious threat. We have been on their menu. Inside our cozy homes on land stripped of large predators (other than our own kind) by our forebears, we tend to forget that – but only intellectually, not emotionally. Predators still haunt our thoughts. Sounds and shadows in the dark still get our adrenaline pumping. Our bodies still react as though hyenas are stalking us.

Here in New Jersey’s suburban fringe, it’s a pretty safe bet that you will not be eaten by hyenas. Mountain lions, once native the state, no longer exist here. Coyotes and black bears do, but neither animal is much interested in people. Bear attacks do happen on rare occasion, but almost always as a result of a surprise encounter that startles both person and bear. Bears are quite capable of being dangerous: last year one killed a deer in my yard and left half of it for me to clean up. One could kill a person just as easily, but for whatever reason they don’t make any special effort to do it. So, I was safe and secure in the dark whatever my limbic system said to the contrary.

Makers of horror films try to tickle these same limbic structures with their fare – and we are treated to a lot of their fare in October. Back inside my house, having had enough of the real horror unfolding on TV (the final Presidential debate), I selected the flick The Cabin in the Woods, which takes place at another…well…cabin in the woods. Filmed in 2009 but not released until 2012 due to MGM’s bankruptcy, this movie got very disparate reviews when in theaters: for every enthusiastic “Wicked fun!” there was another “Disappointing.” Upon having seen it, this doesn’t surprise me. Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, who had worked together on Buffy, like to mix genres: in this case, horror with a kind of off-beat comedy – not outright satire, which is fairly common (e.g. Student Bodies), but something more idiosyncratic. I can see why hardcore horror fans were perplexed by it – even annoyed. But I’m with the crowd that found it fun.

 "athlete, scholar, whore, fool, virgin"
A stereotypical horror film involves a group of isolated young people whose lives are in peril from some attacker(s), be the attacker a beast, a supernatural entity, or just a plain criminal. The members of the group are predictable archetypes with predictable behaviors who meet predictable fates. What if there is a deeper reason for these archetypes than just “convention?” What if they are a half-conscious echo of something real? What if each year human youths are offered up as ritualistic sacrifice by a secret organization to placate Ancient Ones? What if the ritual is all important: that the youths must transgress and be punished in some defined way? All of that is the premise of The Cabin in the Woods. There are multiple sacrifices around the world and many cultural variations to the rituals, but in each case the attention to ritual matters; at least one of the sacrifices has to succeed each year or the Ancient Ones will be angry. What happens if, for some combination of reasons, one year all of the ritual sacrifices fail? In Cabin the isolated youths unwittingly risk this happening by not being true to their archetypes.

Many people wonder if there is more to the world than meets the eye. Some hope there is. Cabin once again warns to be careful what you wish for.

Thumbs Up, but not for everyone: in particular, not for pure slasher aficionados.


  1. Yeah I usually don't get spooked either, but I had a late night encounter when I heard a rustling in some brush around me and a crane flew out. Talk about raising the hair on your neck.

    Cabin in the Woods was okay, but I didn't care for it a lot. Part of that is I figured out it was going to be some sort of Lovecraftian twist. I enjoyed Cabin Fever better irrc. A lot of horror just doesn't do a lot for me lately, though I still watch them particularly this time of year. I still think The Babadook is well done.

    1. I liked the Babadook too, in part because the entity could be interpreted in a number of ways. I read one review that suggested it was a manifestation of Amelia’s own mind, which helps explain how she tames it.

      I haven’t seen Cabin Fever, though I know it has a cult following. I liked the conspiracy in Cabin in the Woods and that the conspirators were humanly incompetent: clowning around when, given the stakes, they should be attending to business.

  2. I really enjoy "Cabin in the Woods". That mix of humor and horror plus managing to throw in just about every type of horror creature and cliche in the book by the end was really fun. The final Lovecraftian cosmic horror was just icing on the cake for me. Not quite a classic like I know some people like to call it. But still a hell of a lot of fun.

    Living in the suburbs all my life I know I'm out of my depth when it comes to the wilderness. I love taking organized hikes and exploring the forests and mountains, but as long as I get to head back to a comfortable bed when its over. I think the scariest animal encounter was with a possum in the back yard when I was a kid. We both terrified each other and I got hissed at.

    1. It’s hard to argue against a malevolent unicorn, isn’t it?

      Hey, opossums bluff very well with their 50 teeth and evil hisses. It takes a while to catch on that they’re all bluff. Even so, I wouldn’t pet one. I’ve done camping in deep woods and liked it well enough, but I’m not eager to face a predator anywhere close to my own size either. I’m glad none ever called my bluff.