KNOCK AT THE CABIN And The Impossible Decision

Exploring common horror movie ultimatums in the grand style of "The Trolley Problem."

By Mary Kay Mcbrayer · @mkmcbrayer · February 3, 2023, 7:51 PM EST
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If you've seen the trailer for M. Night Shyamalan's newest film, Knock at the Cabin, then you already know it centers around an impossible ultimatum. Four strangers trap a family in their vacation cabin and tell them they've "been chosen to make a horrible decision: Your family must choose to willingly sacrifice one of the three of you, to prevent the apocalypse."

The big caveat here is that Leonard (Dave Bautista) says it doesn't count if they kill themselves. He doesn't say why because he doesn't seem to know, but he does know that the apocalypse will come if they decide not to do it, and he gives a pretty detailed prophecy on how it will go down. It is, as Leonard says, a horrible decision to make.

But people love to include these kinds of ultimatums in horror movies.

When it comes to life-or-death decisions, most choices are under the umbrella of the Trolley Problem. If you're unfamiliar with that moral philosophers' thought experiment, here's the quick and dirty version of it:

You're the conductor. You see a trolley heading toward five people on the track, whom the trolley will certainly kill. If you could flip the switch and change the track so only one person would die, would you do it?

It's meant to be a hypothetical ethical dilemma, so don't get too caught up in the actuality of it as I did (a friend informed me that actual train conductors have a specific training for this problem where they flip an auto-pilot switch and gtfo, thereby circumventing the morality all together). The point is, horror movies—lots of movies in general, to be honest—use the Trolley Problem in variations. I've found that horror movies prefer the following forms of ultimatum, to the degree that they're almost trope-level apparent:

Me or You

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Knock at the Cabin
rules this one out immediately, and to be fair, it's a pet peeve of mine when people say, "I'd die for you." Usually, it annoys me because that big gesture comes after a smaller failure of some kind, like not following through on your word for some basic task. I especially hate that phrase when I see it in movies, and I usually respond by screaming at the TV, "No one asked you to die for her, Kevin. She asked you to pick your daughter up from school! Can you do that instead?"

In film especially, it's an easy decision when there's a choice between Me or Someone I Love. Every decent person would fall on that grenade every time. There's no gray area: either I die or you die, and let's be honest, if I love you that much, it's much easier for me to be dead than to go on living without you (so it's not the sacrifice that it seems to be at face value, anyway). Like Bill (Nick Offerman) says in The Last of Us, Episode 3, "You were my purpose." And if we're at that point, well, mission accomplished.

Some movies do succeed in making that easy decision pretty interesting. Here are two of them:

Armageddon: Someone has to blow up the asteroid, and they can't do it remotely.

A Quiet Place: Super-hearing aliens are going to eat your family unless there's a diversion.

Train to Busan: Hot dads have to save their families from fast zombies.

Even the dark comedy Bedazzled involves this self-immolation trope.

Part of what makes these decisions easier, though not easy, is knowing the exact parameters. We have a concrete If X, then Y setup that doesn't happen that clearly in life.

Me AND You or Someone Else

the road

The decision gets more complicated when a protagonist has to sacrifice someone else for their loved ones. It's basically the Trolley Problem, but with a twist. Throwing yourself in front of the moving train won't stop what's coming… but throwing someone else in front of it will. See? That's a harder conflict.

Unless, of course, the person you have to kill is a Bad Guy. That's not a hard decision. Kill the bad guy. Granted, you have to be pretty mentally warped to kill anyone without psychological repercussions, not to mention the mental aftermath. (Unless you're Adrian Pimento on Brooklyn 99, in which case you can gleefully say at your bachelor party to a group of friends, "Oh, I'd kill all of you for her.”)

Here are a few examples of Me AND You or Someone Else:

Vertical Limit: It's more thriller than horror, unless you count those opening credits, when the nuclear family of father (Stuart Wilson), son (Chris O'Donnell), and daughter (Robin Tunney) are all climbing a cliff face and someone's carabiner breaks. The dad is at the bottom of the rope. The son is in the middle, and he's the only one with the knife. Their dad yells that the son has to cut him loose or they'll all die.

For a mediocre movie, that cold open has stuck with me for twenty or so years—what an awful place for that brother, but at least he had his dad's blessing. There has to be some solace in that.

The Road: "Each the other's world entire" indeed. The father (Viggo Mortensen) has sacrificed many people and things to save his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), even though his son asked him not to. In his defense, the father argues he only took the man's things, but did not kill him. The boy claims it's the same thing. One thing that The Road gets correct (among many—this film is amazing) is the fact that the person for whom you're making the sacrifice (as in, the person you're saving) has to live with your decision, too. Talk about survivor's guilt. I better live one hell of a life.

Me or Everyone Else


This one is usually pretty easy, especially if the "me" in question is kind of at the end of the line anyway, or if they're a decent person. I mean, how selfish would you have to be to say, "I'm more important than anyone else in the world, and I'd rather live alone than help them out."

Here are a few that fall into that category:

Cabin in the Woods, where a human sacrifice is necessary to keep the Old Gods from destroying humanity

I Am Legend: A man with plague immunities has to decide whether to share them at the cost of his own life.

Seven Pounds: A man wants to atone for a multiple-manslaughter accident.

You or Everyone Else


This is the hard one. The one that not many movies tackle.

To expand on the "I'd die for you" declaration, it usually encompasses everyone else, too. As in, not only would I die for you, but I'd kill everyone for you. Everyone else in the world. That's a sentiment we can get behind pretty easily as an individualist culture.

Knock at the Cabin, though. This horror movie turns that meritorious declaration on its head: would you, in fact, kill your beloved to save literally everyone else?

No. Nope. Of course not. That goes exactly against everything we stand for. Like that one Offspring song said thirty years ago, "The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care. Right? Yeah."

I'm not convinced. We all die alone, so in the end, it's my conscience I have to answer to. When the Trolley Problem deviates to one person whom I love or literally everyone else in the world, that is no easy ultimatum, and there's not a good pay-off either way. The only other example I could think of was the Abraham-Isaac story from the Bible, and they got let off the hook.

Knock at the Cabin presents a very unique ultimatum, and that makes the film very interesting.

There are always the bummer lose-lose choices, too, that were fashionable in the early 2000s, whether it's mercy-killing or self-immolation, like these horror movies (and even more in the drama genre), to name a few, The Mist. Every episode of The Walking Dead but especially the one with Tyreese and Carol in the woods with the little girls. The Descent. Saw.

I don't know about you, but every one of those titles makes me groan because—without spoiling too much in case you haven't seen them—every choice is irredeemable. Honestly, this fourth category is the most like life because the parameters of the options are unclear. We can make hypothetical decision trees all day long and still make the wrong decision. So why does this type of ultimatum show up so often?

My guess is the same answer as why we enjoy horror movies: I need to see all the worst shit in the world so that I can avoid it. Watching it in a controlled environment, where the horrors are all locked safely behind the fourth wall, gives me the illusion of safety. Then again, like Leonard says in Knock at the Cabin, "Families throughout history have been chosen to make this decision." No one gets off easy.

Knock at the Cabin is now in theaters.