While Scream (1996) and The Cabin in the Woods (2011) both fit Isabel Pinedo’s definition of postmodern horror, these films surpass her examples of Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Nightmare on Elm Street because of their intertextual references and dissection of horror movie conventions. Scream and The Cabin in the Woods are examples what Valerie Wee calls “hyperpostmodernism,” which she identifies as a new phase of postmodern horror. The evolution of this new phase shows that in order to continue providing the experience of fear Pinedo identifies, the horror genre must reject its exhausted tropes and invent new surprising and terrifying elements that do not rely on familiarity with the genre.
Scream and Cabin fit Pinedo’s guide of postmodern horror in places. Her general definition of postmodernism is a system in which “traditional (dichotomous) categories break down, boundaries blur, institutions fall into question, master narratives collapse, the invetibality of progress crumbles, and the master status of the universal (read: male, white, monied, heterosexual) subject deteriorates” (18). Nick Chandler’s article “Subversion of Genre Conventions in Scream & The Cabin in the Woods” offers an analysis of the meta postmodernist characteristics of self-awareness and echoes Pinedo’s ideas. He writes, “The term ‘meta’ is a post-modern idea that a piece of work is self-aware, and subverts mainstream conventions, or in this context subverting horror tropes, all the while making/implying to different texts, otherwise known as intertextual references” (Chandler par. 1). Another term for this is self-reflexivity. Both movies are overtly aware of horror genre conventions and manipulate them so that the movies engage in hypermediation and remind the viewer that they are watching a movie, breaking some of the tension and sometimes becoming comical. Both movies focus on five teenagers that fit stereotypes of the Jock, the Whore, the Virgin, the Nerd, and the Clown/Stoner and have versions of the haunted house where the characters are partying and then the slasher action occurs.
Scream’s self-reflexivity explicitly discusses horror conventions in the script, often through the nerd character Randy. The scene below takes place between Randy, Billy, and Stu – the latter two are revealed at the end to be Ghostface.
Randy says that the cops let Billy go because they don’t watch enough horror movies. He says, “There’s a formula to it. A very simple formula.” The irony of this scene is that Randy maps out exactly what the movie plot is because he knows what to look for. The formula Randy is referring to is the combination of horror clichés, such as the final girl, the cell phone excuse, creepy kids, found footage/diaries, and much more. Some people think they have even calculated a mathematical formula for horror movies based on suspense, realism, and gore. The characters in Scream directly refer to the audience’s expectations and also mention specific horror movies throughout the movie. My personal favorite manipulation is about the trope that the virgin, usually “the final girl,” always survives. But in Scream, the final girl, Sidney, is not a virgin and the virgin is Randy. This scene is an example of how the movie plays with the balance between terror and comedy.
Cabin’s self-reflexivity does not explicitly discuss horror conventions, but instead assumes the audience is aware of the worn-out tropes and weaves in references to a long list of horror movies through the monsters in the movie. This video by GoodBadFlicks explains the references in the movie.
A point that is mentioned in the video and in Chandlers article is that the ancient gods that the ritual is seeking to appeal to is symbolic of the audience. Chandler writes, “It can be interpreted that the ‘Gods’ are in fact the movie viewing audience, and the actions of Hadley and Sitterson are in fact the writers trying to please them, through genre conventions and themes that are universally recognized, e.g. ritual” (par. 6). The following clip is an example of horror movies feel for the necessity of nude shots.
And when they get the shot of the girl’s breasts…
Cabin writers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon chose to relate the audience’s desire for these conventions to a ritual sacrifice, a relationship that has even been explored by Shakespearean scholars. Derek Cohen’s article on King Lear explains how early modern drama and sacrifice rituals both require an audience, a vulnerable participant, human conflict, and resolution. (385-386). The writers are commenting on how that by including expected and familiar conventions, horror movie creators are sacrificing creating a movie that influences the genre and our culture. Cabin is a pretty boring movie while you are watching the characters get killed one by one, and it is not until the expectations are broken with Marty’s, the Clown/Stoner, survival that the movie becomes interesting. The scientists controlling the ritual explain that Dana, the Virgin, must be the last to die and if she dies before Marty then she is not final girl and the ritual will not be complete. The movie becomes engaging when the horror formula is disrupted. At the end of the movie, Marty and Dana decide not to kill each other and to let the ritual be incomplete. As a result, the gods break out from their dormant state beneath the earth and begin to destroy the world.
Because the movie does not give the audience the horror clichés it wants, the movie as a whole is actually refreshing and blatantly questions the ways our culture crafts horror. Cabin has “changed the way we watch and think about horror movies by treating metaphor as text instead of subtext: It’s an undisguised horror movie about horror movies, much as The Babadook is an undisguised horror movie about being a single parent or It Follows is an undisguised horror movie about adolescent sexuality” (Crump par 4). Speaking about Cabin’s influence on our culture as a whole, Phil Hoad writes, “Whether it’s Cabin’s redneck zombies, or J-horror’s “dead wet girls”, or Indonesia’s pocong (a ghost wrapped in a Muslim burial shroud that often features in its low-budget spookers), they’re expressions of the violence, shame and isolation that underlies whatever collective traumas those cultures are shaped by” (par. 4). The expressions of violence in Scream examines “the issue of trust in romantic relationships, using slasher-film conventions to explore the turmoil of female adolescence” (Wee 57). This is the same idea presented in Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” – “the monstrous body is pure culture” (4). Movies and the culture they are presented in connects back to Wee’s article on hyperpostmodernism, in which she states the Scream films were “specifically created for a generation steeped in pop culture,” and the same is true of Cabin. And as generations and culture adapts, technology also advances, an aspect of late postmodern horror.
Wee writes that “the films reemphasize the vital role that media play in their lives” (52). In Scream, the media take the form of Gale Weathers, a journalist whose career takes advantage of the murders, and the development of new media technologies such as cell phones, cable, and video. The video rental store and the group watching Halloween together represents the community the genre provides. Horror movies are especially important to Billy and Stu since it motivates them to begin the murders – “watch a few movies, take a few notes.” The media presence in Cabin is represented by the constant eye of the science lab who has cameras and microphones all over the cabin. Marty even finds a camera at one point and makes the connection to the lab’s monitoring to reality TV.
In the section on irrationality, Pinedo writes “the trajectory of the classical narrative is to deploy science and force to restore the rational, normative order, whereas the postmodern narrative is generally unable to overcome the irrational chaotic forces of disruption” (22). Cabin plays with this statement directly in the role of the science lab to perform the ritual to restore order to the gods. The scientists use their control of the property to influence the characters decisions, such as releasing pheromones in the forest to prompt a sexual act and increasing the lighting when a character complains that it is too dark.
The technology the scientists have implanted in the house is a sharp contrast to the eerie antique cabin, and the power that the technology has over the teenagers is scarier than the cabin. The lab is symbolic of the classical horror narrative, but the teenagers present the chaos that disrupts the scientist’s deployment of horror tropes. Because of their refusal to behave according to the scientist’s plan to appeal to the gods, they cause an apocalyptic ending. A crucial rule violation in each movie is the refusal to give one final girl. Scream gives two, Sidney Prescott and Gale Weathers, and Cabin gives one final girl, Dana, and one final boy, Marty. This is the final attack on genre conventions and a re-writing that questions the biggest horror cliché. Scream suggests the overall importance of female survivors in the face of male suppressors and Cabin seems to suggest that gender and genre conventions as a whole should not matter to the goal of scaring audiences. Cabin continues the conversation that Scream started, and as our culture, youth, and technology continues to progress, horror conventions must also adapt.