Many horror fans would consider it blasphemy to suggest that The Cabin in the Woods is smarter than Scream, but it's true. The slasher-horror (of sorts) directed by Drew Goddard and written by Joss Whedon surprised audiences when it hit theaters in 2012, with a twist that defied the traditional set up the film's concept seemingly orbited.
If you've seen the movie, you'll know exactly what we're talking about. But if beyond the ending you were still left with a few questions, then here's The Cabin in the Woods ending explained.
Warning: There are many major spoilers ahead for The Cabin in the Woods.
We start the film with Steve and Gary, two seemingly ordinary operatives working at a facility. At this point, it's difficult to make sense of what it is they do, though it's clear that "other countries" are "failing". Then we meet the stars of the movie - five college students, each of them seemingly archetypal. There's Dana, Curt, Jules, Holden, and Marty, who are heading on a weekend getaway to a cabin in the mountains. En route, they meet a gas station worker who warns them about the cabin, referring to it as "the old Buckner place". But the teens decide to head there anyway, thinking nothing of it.
As the movie gets going, we repeatedly cut back to Steve and Gary and all their colleagues. It's obvious that they're manipulating the college students' every move, with the intention of getting them to that cabin. There's also an invisible force field surrounding the area in the mountains, so once the teens pass through, they're unable to leave. On arrival at the cabin, Dana and Marty discover a painting that depicts a violent sacrifice. Meanwhile, the workers at the undisclosed location are placing bets as to what 'scenario' they think will emerge, before we see a whiteboard detailing dozens of different 'monsters'.
The teens party, and as they get drunk each become 'lesser' versions of themselves (due to chemicals the workers are pumping into the cabin) - Curt starts acting like a jock, Jules flirts with everybody, Holden is suddenly wearing glasses, and Dana suggests she's a virgin, before quickly correcting herself. Marty, however, being extremely high, becomes suspicious about their behavior. Suddenly, the basement door swings open, and despite Marty's warnings, the teens enter and they discover several mysterious artifacts, each of them appearing to represent the different scenarios the workers are placing bets on.
They settle on a diary by 'Patience Buckner' and read out some of the Latin content, which causes zombies to start emerging from the earth outside. Back at the facility, we learn that the 'game' is only rigged to a point - that while the teens are 'herded' to the cabin and into the basement somewhat, ultimately they must use their free will to choose to ignore the warnings of the man at the gas station, and enter the basement, and then pick the horror that will befall them, otherwise, the "system doesn't work", and they "can't be punished" for their sins.
And so evil zombie rednecks are unleashed upon the teens, with Jules being the first victim in a brutal sacrificial killing. Curt is next, after trying to escape on his motorbike but crashing into the force field. Marty is dragged into a hole outside and killed by one of the Buckners, and Holden is killed by one in their RV. Every time one of them dies, we see their blood being fed through some sort of ancient device, filling the outline of a human shape that has been etched into a stone slab.
Following the deaths, the facility workers speak to an unseen presence, offering up the sacrifice in "humility and fear" in exchange for their "eternal slumber". The workers then party while footage of Dana fighting the zombie plays all around them. We learn that the 'final' victim can either die or survive, that it doesn't matter - so long as she "suffers". But then Steve and Gary get a phone call from The Director, who tells them that one of the previous teens is actually alive - it's Marty, who has been immune to the facility's chemicals due to how high he is.
When we cut back to Dana, Marty comes to her rescue and leads her back to the hole he fell down where we last saw him. It turns out he killed the zombie, and that it was undead blood we saw afterward. But Marty has also discovered an elevator, and the two decide to enter it and see where it will take them. And while it has been hinted at several times up until this point, it's here where we get the movie's major reveal - that this facility houses countless 'nightmare creatures', each of them incarcerated inside a glass elevator, waiting to be unleashed upon the victims who unknowingly chooses them up on the surface.
Panic ensues in the facility as Steve and Gary race to ensure that the two teens are killed. Upon leaving the elevator, Dana and Marty outrun security guards and then, by way of causing the ultimate distraction, decide to unleash all the monsters from the elevators. Total hell breaks loose as the stuff of nightmares tears the facility's employees to shreds. As Dana and Marty try to find safety, they encounter The Director in a large sacrificial chamber, which houses the five human drawings, which obviously represent the teens. Beneath the platform they're standing on, enormous creatures move about.
The Director explains that the creatures are Gods of the old world called the Ancient Ones. The symbols each represent an archetypal character: the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool, and the virgin. As the virgin is uncorrupted, she can be left to live or die as fate decides. When Dana argues that she's not a virgin, The Director says, "We work with what we have", which explains why chemicals have been used to make the teens more archetypal-like. If the Gods don't accept the sacrifice, they will rise. And with all the other rituals around the world having failed, if Marty isn't dead by sunrise, the world will end.
While Dana initially considers killing Marty to save the world, the two end up overthrowing The Director and she is killed instead. While the two talk briefly, the Gods beneath them begin to rise and the facility starts to fall apart. We then cut to the outside of the cabin, and an enormous hand comes smashing out of the earth, and then the credits roll. With the sacrifices having failed, the Ancient Ones have risen, and now hell will begin on Earth. But what does all of this really mean? What is the ending of The Cabin in the Woods trying to tell us, or the movie as a whole for that matter?
It's all pretty self-explanatory at surface level, but there's so much more than meets the eye with The Cabin in the Woods. The Ancient Ones that have required human sacrifices for eons are Gods, and as The Director explains, "It's different in every culture, it has changed over the years, but it has always required youth." This is of course 'meta' commentary on all the subgenres of horror, which is plain to see throughout the film whenever we cut to the likes of Tokyo, where a 'J-horror' type figure is terrorizing young girls. In the States, however, it's five 'typical' teens who end up in a remote cabin in the woods.
As for the creatures, which are "remnants of the old world, left behind by the Gods", they each represent many horror genres and films too. These are our tools of choice, means of torture for unsuspecting victims. Taking all of this into account, it's not a stretch to imply that the Ancient Ones represent us, the audience, and our lust for horror and the torture of innocents, which usually comes in the form of "at least five" typical teenagers, and with our disconnect being represented by the workers when they watch all these teens die via surveillance cameras. The head of the facility is even called The Director!
It's true that we do always seem to want - or at least, expect - the same thing from horror. At least on this occasion, though, we might have been told we were getting what we wanted, but we got something very different indeed - and where horror is concerned, that's definitely not a bad thing.