Get Out, Cabin in the Woods, and Why Today’s Horror Films Are So Meta
Why the slasher genre is dying in favor of more intellectual horror.
The horror genre is one of the most diverse genres in cinema. Underneath the umbrella of horror are multiple sub-genres including slasher, body horror, and creature feature just to name a few. But in the modern era, horror films that try to fit a classic mold often fall short of expectations. The main reasons for this are cliches. We’ve seen the same tropes redone so many times that it becomes difficult for them to fulfill their purpose—to scare us. In recent years however, many horror films have found a way to overcome this. Over the past decade, horror films have become increasingly meta. They are self aware of the tropes they are are expected to fill and often play around with these expectations in creative, even humorous ways. But by using these fun premises, they use their subject matter to speak on real life issues that are often far more frightening than any demon or serial killer. Two recent films that perfectly exhibit this idea are The Cabin in the Woods (2012) and Get Out (2018).
The interesting thing about the protagonists of these two films is that not only are they similar to each other, but they also fit the mold of the typical horror protagonist fairly well. Horror protagonists tend to be brave, grounded, and intelligent yet overall generally normal people with no exceptional skills or experience. This is usually a significant contrast from a witless supporting cast. But one of the biggest characteristics in the typical horror protagonist is that they are flawed in some way, and that they overcome this flaw during the climax. Chris Washington, the protagonist of Get Out is a photographer who is still internally traumatized by the death of his mother, who was killed in a hit-and-run and left to bleed out on the side of the road. This internal turmoil is his true main obstacle, in that it is what is used to weaken him to be placed in the Sunken Place. But at the climax of the film, Chris overcomes this insecurity by killing his adversary, Rose, in the same fashion that his mother was killed. Dana, the protagonist of The Cabin in the Woods goes through a similar arc, though not necessarily as defined as Chris’ in Get Out. Dana is a mild-mannered young woman whose innocence is her main crutch throughout the film. She is frequently the butt of jokes amongst her friends and wasn’t taken seriously in general. But her innocence ultimately saves her from being sacrificed, in a moment where she rises up and ultimately survives her attackers. The crucial comparison between these two characters is that they are both introduced to the true issue being expressed in the film during their defining moments, and that this issue is a reflection of a larger sociological issue. Chris learns about the plan of the Armitage family to steal his body while in captivity, which is a reflection of the real-life issue of cultural appropriation. After breaking into their headquarters, Dana learns about the global conspiracy of sacrificing humans to the gods, which is a reflection of society’s constant electronic surveillance and the cover-up of secrets from the general public. With modern horror films becoming increasingly meta, the writers are finding ways to create traditional protagonists who also have arcs that tie in with a broader social message.
The main internal oppositional forces acting against the protagonist in both films is an insecurity that she or he must face to complete their arc. In Get Out, it’s the death of Chris’ mother and the guilt he feels of sitting around watching television as she bled out in the street. This is first expressed when Chris silently watches the deer die on the side of the road after he and Rose hit it with their car. This insecurity is what makes him vulnerable to Missy’s hypnotism. In The Cabin in the Woods, Dana’s internal oppositional force is her virginity and innocence. She gets made fun of for it by her peers numerous times. While certainly not as poignant as Chris’ internal struggle, it still becomes relevant to the story when her purity leads to her death being only optional. The external oppositional forces acting upon them share far more similarities. Both are victims of a secret institution whose goal is to control and manipulate them. The Order of the Coagula in Get Out is a far smaller organization than the global force in The Cabin in the Woods, but with more sinister and selfish motives. The ultimate goal of the organization in The Cabin in the Woods is to protect the world while sacrificing a few, while the goal of the Coagula is to steal the bodies of African Americans for selfish purposes.
Like most horror films, the main conflict in Get Out and The Cabin in the Woods is physical. Both deal with forces in the real world that could inflict bodily harm on the protagonist. In Get Out, each member of the Armitage family presents a different physical danger against Chris. Rose represents a succubus, in that she is luring Chris to his doom through romance and sexuality. Missy is the hypnotist, putting her at a psychological advantage over Chris. Dean is the surgeon, so he’s the one who actually performs the procedure. And Jeremy, the brother, is the muscle of the operation. He’s the one who apprehends any subjects who get out of line, which is why he is so aggressive with Chris during dinner, trying to test his strengths and weaknesses. In The Cabin in the Woods, Dana and her friends face a number of physical obstacles in the form of supernatural creatures, all under the control of the secret organization.
While the inciting incidents of many horror films vary, Get Out and The Cabin in the Woods both share a similar trope with many horror films in that the story is revolved around the protagonist's struggle in an unfamiliar environment. The inciting incident in Get Out occurs when Chris first arrives at the Armitage’s estate. The inciting incident for The Cabin in the Woods occurs when the group first arrives at the cabin. Like the inciting incidents, the act II goals of both protagonists are similar. Both involve the character making a general assessment of their environment. Chris’s act II goal is to get through the rising awkwardness and uncomfortable racially charged situations of his weekend at the Armitage household. Dana’s act II goal is to get through her weekend at the cabin despite the ridicule from her friends for being mild-mannered. Both goals involve the protagonist trying to make the best out of a less-than ideal situation, and the grim details that they unearth along the way. Their act III goals were also fairly similar. Chris’s act III goal was the literal title of the film—get out. Dana’s act III goal was to get out of the facility but to also get to the bottom of what they were doing and why. An interesting and important detail is that both acts ended with the protagonist destroying the establishment that was controlling them, whether it was Chris burning down the Armitage house and killing the family or Dana letting all of the monsters loose in the facility. This is symbolic of the desire to dismantle oppressive establishments, which speaks to the socially conscious stance that horror films are currently taking.
Horror films in general tend to encompass many themes. One of the most common themes explored in horror is isolation. The idea of being somewhere sparse and unknown inspires many horror stories. This theme is relevant in both Get Out and The Cabin in the Woods. The Cabin in the Woods starts off an a very conventional note, in that a group of friends embark on a trip to an isolated cabin in the middle of a forest. This is a classic method of writing horror, by placing the characters in a place where they are too far to get help. The Cabin in the Woods does something very creative with this idea by making it so that in reality nobody is isolated, as the entire planet is being surveillanced at all times. This challenges the isolation trope and presents something potentially far scarier. In Get Out, Chris is isolated both physically and personally. Aside from the secluded location of the Armitage estate, Chris is also isolated in that he is the only African American on the entire property. This isolation is heightened when he encounters the “black” groundskeepers who are acting just as suspiciously as everyone else.
Piggybacking off of the theme of isolation, most horror films are set in a secluded area, whether it be a forest, abandoned town or even the vacuum of space. The settings of both Get Out and The Cabin in the Woods exhibit this. The remote, rural location of Get Out not only provides a feeling of fear and anxiety but also provides essential plot devices. The deer that Chris and Rose hit on their way to the house provides a metaphor for Chris’ late mother as well as gives foreshadowing for what’s to come later in the film when Chris kills Dean with the mounted deer head. The setting of The Cabin in the Woods is pretty straightforward. It’s meant to mirror the classic location of countless horror films from the past. Both films are set in modern day, which is common in horror films. Making it contemporary makes it more relatable and close to home, which in turn makes it scarier. Both films are set over the course of a weekend, however this isn’t necessarily a common theme in the horror genre.
The Scope is the one field where the two films differ the most. In Get Out, the scope is personal, as the story is focused on Chris and his struggle with the Armitage family. In The Cabin in the Woods, however, the scope starts off as communal as it focuses on the dynamic of the group of friends. By the end of the film, the scope becomes global as it is revealed that the organization is a global power fighting the threat of the ancient gods. While the scopes of both films are vastly different, they both incorporate themes that are observed on a global scale.
At the end of the day, all horror films exist with the point to frighten the viewer in some way. With that being said, the tone of The Cabin in the Woods and Get Out is dark and frightening, like virtually every other horror film. Despite their more complex tones and subject matter, they still rely on fear to attract an audience. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding Get Out regarding its frequent classification as a dark comedy. A lot of this comes from the fact that the director, Jordan Peele, comes from a comedy background, as well as the hilarious performance from supporting actor Lil’ Rel Howery. While the film does have plenty of humor, saying that film has a comedic tone would be a bit of a stretch. It’s still a very serious film dealing with very serious subject matter, with humor sprinkled in to break the tension.
Most horror films follow the Monster in the House archetype. Even if the antagonist isn’t a monster or supernatural entity, there is usually an element of a dark, harmful force pursuing the protagonist. In Get Out, Chris must survive a house full of “monsters.” In The Cabin in the Woods, the monsters are both literal and metaphorical. Another common archetype found in horror films is Dude with a Problem. Both films feature elements of this, in that they both follow generally ordinary protagonists in extraordinary situations. One major archetype that both films share is Institutionalized. This isn’t necessarily a common trope in the horror genre, however the Purge franchise is deeply exploring this. In Get Out, the institution is the cult that the Armitage family is running, which is a representation of the institution of white patriarchy. The institution in The Cabin in the Woods is the global organization sacrificing people to the ancient gods.
Get Out and The Cabin in the Woods were both very risky films, in that they took tropes that people have come to know and love and altered them to serve a greater message. Both were very successful in doing so. In this success, they inspired a new generation of horror writers to think outside of the box when approaching the genre. This new concept of socially conscious horror films doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Films like the Purge franchise are taking a deep dive into relevant issues like racism, police brutality and classism. Hopefully this trend sticks around for a while, as we learn that above all of the tropes that have scared us in the theatres traditionally, this biggest monsters are ourselves.