The dark wood of the cabin embodies the familiar and imposing, the warm and eerie. This visual duplicity makes for imagery that filmmakers have stretched across various genres. Hollywood has taken advantage of it in every decade, refitting it to suit the contours of our primal desires and fears. With Knock at the Cabin, one of horror’s best-known auteurs, M. Night Shyamalan, has projected a new set of existential fears onto the emotional expanse of the cabin. But this image didn’t arrive out of nowhere; it remains a map of cinematic touchpoints. As a visual throughline, it extends back to the origin of film, filtering different ideas through its muted palette, eventually landing on horror.
John Ford’s The Searchers is the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) blindly seeking vengeance for his family, killed and kidnapped by members of the Comanche tribe. It is a film that embodies the Western while reimagining its relationship to the world, leaning explicitly into the horror of a worldview that measures everything in such gross, physical ways. Ethan’s morals are calculated by the square footage conquered and sacrificed; people are obsolete in order to preserve American ideology. In one of the film’s more famous sequences, Aaron (Walter Coy) and Martha (Dorothy Jordan) realize that they are under attack, understanding rippling through the cabin until it settles on Lucy’s (Pippa Scott) reaction. Ford hangs on her twisted recognition before zooming in on her scream, a shot reminiscent of classic horror. The aftermath of this attack is captured in the image Ethan encounters after coming home: The family home alight and abandoned, dissipating with a plume of black smoke.
This was not the first Western to make use of the cabin’s iconography. Silent films like 1905’s The Train Wreckers used it to advance the plot and build out otherwise sparse scenery. As the gang of robbers flees from their attempted murder of the switchman’s daughter, they seek out a wooden hut which hides the handcar, brazenly crowding around it in search of an escape. The Story of the Kelly Gang used the setting a year later for more complex means, isolating Kate Kelly (Elizabeth Tait) in front of the ramshackle wooden home in the first scene, immediately introducing an element of animalistic fear which drives the plot forward as she is thrown about, alone in front of the cavernous countryside. But then the gang of criminals pile out of the house to save her, a stream of people caught filing out of the wooden door. In both cases the cabin is a haven, an eerie necessity, ominously beckoning characters near. They are pockets of the unnatural infringing on the outline of the natural world.
But all of this is most aptly expressed in The Searchers, which best understands the mythical capacity of the cabin in the Western. When we are introduced to the family, first catching sight of the homestead, it is a structure jutting out from the beige blur of the landscape, a marker of occupation and a visual analogy for the Western’s obsession with land. As a genre, its underlying American imperialism has curdled into something oppressive. The image of the cabin, once synonymous with the Western, has morphed from a clear structure against a barren landscape into a blurred figment held by foliage, obscured by a more complex relationship to control.
Horror films in the ‘70s started capitalizing on sacrilegious imagery, slipping under the skin of an American culture newly uncomfortable with traditionalism and conservatism. With this switch it became clear that the cabin was no longer a symbol of white American independence, it was something unnerving, stuffed with rotting conservative ideals. It found a home with the slasher: A violent ballet, often loosely plotted around a group of young people taking some kind of getaway that would end coated in a sheen of blood and gore. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre grapples with the isolating power of the cabin, fashioning a host of new horrifying images that simmer behind the veneer of the American picket fence. It is the final sequence of the film—where Sally (Marilyn Burns) limps away from the house chased by the hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) wildly swinging his knife across her bloody back and Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) following behind—which spoke to a newly renovated distrust of the cabin. As the house recedes into the background and the dirt driveway stretches on, imbuing the film with a surge of natural light, there is an overwhelming desire to escape the dark tones and sweaty corners of the film’s setting thus far.
In 1978, a 22-year-old Sam Raimi would cobble together a short film called Within the Woods. It focused on five friends escaping to a cabin in Tennessee. This idea would launch Raimi’s directing career (and cut short his time as an English student at Michigan State University), firmly cementing cinematic horror’s ownership of the isolated cabin. The demonic presence which infects the group’s home represents a shift that pervades our current filmic landscape. While the cabin was once emblematic of a promising future, it is now reduced to a nihilistic fear of being stuck. This era of horror was inventing a new way of scaring audiences, exploiting viewers’ intimate knowledge of what it means to be betrayed by your surroundings following the political turbulence of the ‘70s. This turn acknowledged that the fear of the cabin being violated was misplaced: The tension always laid in the desire to claim land, unnaturally demanding nature conform around you. Ultimately, the walls of the cabin collapse and the floor cracks, crushing the characters and viewers alike.
As with all cinematic tropes, the cabin has been defined and redefined by the socio-political circumstances surrounding it. Audiences are no longer seeking the warm, sandy hues of the cabin making a stand in the American West. They are drawn to the creeping terror and shadowy corners of the cabin in the woods. With the next iteration of this trend, Knock at the Cabin, we are reminded that this symbol of patriotic independence has splintered into something less uplifting and more befitting the nature of its country. It is a place clinging onto a twisted sense of independence and writhing under the weight of misplaced faith.
London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.