I love Lovecraft, and you do, too
Warning: spoilers regarding Joss Whedon's "Cabin in the Woods" ahead. It's pretty far down, though, and I'll warn you before we get there.
I've been playing with structuring out some screenplay ideas lately, and, that, in conjunction with the date, is what spurred today's post.
Today in 1937, the "dark and eldritch prince" of fantastical, pulpy horror, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, kicked the cosmic bucket. H.P. wasn't the greatest human being who ever lived - in fact, he was kind of a weenus about his health, and had some very bad ideas, indeed, about a certain charismatic German running around in Europe at the time. That aside, his works became one of the greatest inspirations on modern horror, a veritable treasure trove of short stories, poems, and novellas that impacted the writings of Maine's own Stephen King, among many others.
Sci-fi and horror really found their foothold during the early 1900s, primarily thanks to a fringe fandom who thought their ideas worthwhile, and preserved those fragile collections of work despite ignorance on the part of mainstream culture. One of these fan preservationists, August Derleth (an author himself) made sure that Lovecraft's stories were saved and anthologized, so a hearty tip of the invisible cap to Mr. D.
I strongly suggest you go track down some Lovecraft if you haven't read any of his work — "The Rats in the Walls" is a great place to start, though I think I myself began with reading "The Shadow out of Time" (one of his longer stories). At any rate, I'm going to speak about his works in a broader sense, so here's hoping I'm not ruining anything critical. Ha, ha.
Lovecraft had a very particular pattern in his stories, one that I believe has a great deal to do with modern storytelling. The first-person protagonist generally begins by bemoaning why and how they stumbled across some remarkably scary thing, and only barely escaped with their sanity. Then they return to the beginning of their story and lay out what happened, with occasional foreshadowing about the impending abomination. The narrative then draws to a close...but when you're least expecting it, Lovecraft adds a frightening sucker punch at the end that makes you quake in your boots.
Ultimately, it's the same sort of descent into a magical world and flight to return that we see in Joseph Campbell's vaunted monomyth...but with what I think is a very interesting twist.
I've said in earlier posts (Ender's Game, Part II and Jeff Probst, Survivor's Mother Goddess) that there's a very specific breakdown in modern narrative iconography. Of the two parental archetypes in our culture, Dad is about order, reason, and law — he keeps the peace and makes sure that society stays on the rails. Occasionally he goes overboard and has to be scaled back, but ultimately, order trumps chaos.
On the other side of the equation, we have the mother. Usually Mom is the nurturer, providing life, nutrients, and shelter, as well as a sacred enclave to which we retreat in naturalistic stories (think Avatar). But when Mom goes back, she really goes bad. At that point we have terrifying, red-in-tooth-and-claw, savage beast ravening at our backs: that most abhorrent of parental archetypes, the devourer-mother. She who gave life changes her mind, and destroys (mythologically, by consumption) her own offspring.
I think this demon mother archetype exists in the tentpoles of storytelling, too. The Hollywood monomyth is all about a hero descending into a magical realm, finding a piece of themselves that's missing, which will help them now live a healthy and integrated life, and they get the heck out of dodge and back to the everyday world to complete that integration process.
Horror movies are similar, but they're executed with a consistent twist. These stories are often about the descent into a chaotic magical world that's constantly trying to devour them; once they've crossed the threshold from their everyday existence, they often spend the rest of the movie/story trying to escape and get back to normalcy. Of course, that sort of experience is traumatic, so they never really escape, and have to spend the rest of their lives constantly looking over their shoulder.
This, to me, is fascinating because horror movies are often deemed to denigrate women, and hey, often times they're stacked with not-long-for-this-world bimbettes. Often enough, though, the meatheads go down first, and the most innocent female of the group is the one to survive. Why? Because the girl is the archetypal virgin, the only one who can escape this inversion of the "sacrifice to the dragon" narrative construct (which we find in early British and ancient Greek mythology).
Ultimately, then, these stories are about sacrificing adolescent innocence and emotional excess in order to reunite with the Father, bearing in mind that if you lose control, Mom's right there to gobble you up.
Open acknowledgement of this narrative structure was something that made Cabin in the Woods such a great film. If you haven't seen it, stop reading now. Seriously, I think it's on Netflix instant, and it should definitely be available at your local video store. Go watch it, and come back here when you're done.
Cabin in the Woods was all about subverting Hollywood's typical monomyth structure by actively noting its existence. It's meta: a story about a story. Dad is trying to take out Mom here, overlaying a masculine story onto feminine symbolic structures, but Mom is ultimately triumphant. Why? Because she doesn't have to play by any rules.
Cabin's Director character is female, but as with Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, she's really representative of a masculine archetype. This is the priest, lording over the young sacrifices in a dark subterranean temple (underground = womblike = Mom's territory). The Director expects our Virgin to play along by killing one of the other archetypal figures, and perhaps dying (at the very least, suffering greatly) herself.
But Cabin's virgin goes against logic, defying the Father and flinging herself into the service of the devourer-mother. This brings the whole cycle to the end, and presumably the planet along with it.
Therefore, Cabin in the Woods is extra fantastic because not only does it consciously follow the structure of a horror movie, but it then does a spiffy inversion right at the end, loosing the figurative mother's nightmarish kingdom onto the realm of sanity. Magic and chaos overrun logic. And we know that Mom's army is going to take down everything that resembles society and structure, no questions asked. All that madness is boiling up from the very earth itself, after all — the one place we always assume will be constant (mother tamed by father, in Father-dominant mythological setups).
Anyway, I think this is one piece of Lovecraft's far-reaching legacy: bringing us the fear, the sense that everything could fall down around our ears at any moment. And with that happy thought, I bid you a happy Friday, and a happy ides of March.
Courier Publications reporter Bane Okholm received her M.F.A. in Screenwriting from U.C.L.A. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @MediaHeathen.