Cosmic Horror and the Ruins of Capitalism in Night in the Woods

I maintained my sanity during the pandemic by spending time outdoors in abandoned places. Some of these places exist in the real world, but most were virtual. One of my favorite haunts has been Possum Springs, a depopulated town in western Pennsylvania that serves the setting of the 2017 story exploration game Night in the Woods.

In Night in the Woods, you play as Mae, an anthropomorphic cat who has dropped out of college and moved back to Possum Springs to live with her parents. With no job and nothing better to do, Mae decides to investigate the disappearance of several local children. It turns out that there is a monster living in the abandoned mine tunnels under Possum Springs, and a cult of town residents has been feeding young people to this creature in return for a promise that it will prevent the town’s economic decline. When Mae and her friends catch the cult in the act of sacrificing one of its own members, its leader tells the group of teenagers that these rituals aren’t easy for them, especially now that they’re getting older. It’s time for a new generation to take over and ensure the prosperity of Possum Springs, however modest this prosperity might be.

Mae and her friends don’t join the death cult, of course. They escape from the monster, and the mine tunnels collapse and trap the remaining cult members underground. At the end of the game, Mae reflects that what she’s taken away from this experience is the conviction that, if there is no benevolent higher power in a hostile universe, then she and her friends will have to help each other while doing the best they can for themselves and their community.

The elements of cosmic horror in Night in the Woods are genuinely creepy, especially during Mae’s interactive nightmare sequences, but the purpose of the cult is to serve as a thematic juxtaposition to the true terror of Possum Springs, a large and impersonal set of interlocking systems that collectively exploit hardworking but vulnerable people – namely, capitalism.

Mae’s parents are afraid of losing their house to the bank because of an usurious mortgage they took out to finance Mae’s college tuition, and entire neighborhoods in Possum Springs are filled with repossessed, unsold, and subsequently abandoned buildings. The pastor of the local church wants to open a shelter for the newly homeless and the railroad drifters who camp out in the forest next to town, but she fails to obtain a permit from the city council due to concerns that lowering the property values in the neighborhood will fatally disrupt an already struggling real estate market.

The horror of an absurd and uncaring universe in Night in the Woods has very little to do with the unfathomable monster lurking in the mine tunnels, although the cult of older people who sacrifice members of younger generations for the vague promise of being able to sustain an imagined standard of living comes uncomfortably close to allegory in the wake of the 2016 American presidential election. Forces beyond our control and comprehension are indeed destroying individual lives and modestly thriving communities, but these forces are nothing as quaint as a stygian tentacle beast that eats children.

According to Scott Benson, the lead writer and artist of Night in the Woods, Possum Springs is located in western Pennsylvania just outside of Pittsburgh. This situates the town in the Rust Belt, an economically depressed region stretching around the Great Lakes from Buffalo to Detroit. The cities in the Rust Belt were centers of American manufacturing until the 1980s, when international free trade agreements incentivized companies in sectors like natural resource extraction and the automotive industry to outsource materials and labor. Formerly bustling mines and factories closed, resulting in a dramatic decline in population that in turn resulted in the bankruptcy of many smaller businesses.

It’s currently possible to accrue a sizeable following on social media by posting urban exploration photos of shuttered factories and other ghostly relics of infrastructure, such as empty schools, hospitals, movie theaters, and shopping malls. There’s a certain poetic charm in high-contrast photos of healthy green weeds stretching up through the cracks of ash-gray concrete and leafy vines twining around rusted iron support pillars. Images of the remains of modern civilization devoid of human presence provide fertile ground for the imagination to run wild.

Night in the Woods denies its players the solitary pleasures of urban exploration, however. As a dialog-driven game, its story can’t be advanced unless the player participates in conversations with various people around Possum Springs. As the you learn more about the town, you begin to understand the problems experienced by its inhabitants, which range from poverty to alcoholism to severe depression. At the same time, you come to appreciate the people who care about each other and want to do right by their community even despite the financial and emotional burdens they carry.

Night in the Woods suggests that the fractures in the community cannot be repaired by any given individual action, like “going to college” or “owning a home.” Rather, the problem lies in the larger economic forces that steamroller over working-class people in small towns. None of the characters Mae interacts with are stupid or unaware of what’s happening, but most of them don’t have the agency to make any real choices about their lives.

Night in the Woods features a number of optional sidequests that tell an ongoing story about the historical tension between the former mine owners and the labor unions in Possum Springs, and it’s clear that the working conditions for miners were deplorable. The mines closed at least a decade before the story begins, but the labor of the workers in Possum Springs is still exploited. Mae’s father, who was laid off from his job at a small factory, now works at a large supermarket by the highway that forced the local grocery store in Possum Springs to be shut down. At the end of the game, Mae’s father considers starting a labor union at his workplace, which pulls money out of the local economy without benefiting the town or its people.

The game’s presentation of unions isn’t entirely positive, however. As Mae’s friend Bea explains, the unions are male-dominated, and homosocial labor solidarity lends itself to an atmosphere in which overt sexual harassment is swept under the rug. Mae’s friend Selmers, who started writing poetry for the rehab program she entered after becoming addicted to pain pills while working at the local pharmacy, performs a reading of an incredible piece about how even unionized jobs are becoming unsustainable in the face of global capitalism.

Night in the Woods is ultimately about accepting uncomfortable realities while moving forward and finding friendship and community in difficult times and circumstances. The game isn’t just a protest against the violence of the global neoliberal capitalism that destroys local economies; it’s a model of resistance on a small and personal scale, as well as an argument for the quiet beauty of allowing outdated structures to fall gently to ruin.

Small town life isn’t for everyone, but neither is building a community from scratch in a big city. If nothing else, it’s good to have choices. The gameplay of Night in the Woods is centered around making choices, and the choice Mae and her friends make is to bury the monster in the mine, sacrificing short-term gains for long-term stability.

Although Night in the Woods is set in the days leading to and following Halloween, its advocacy for regrowth and positive change is a welcome message as society gradually begins to recover from the effects of the pandemic. If nothing else, Possum Springs is a great place to find surreal and spooky chills, and Mae’s homecoming is a crash course on how to make conversation with other people in real-world places that will be hopefully be not so abandoned in the future.

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This essay was originally published on May 18, 2021 in Entropy, a digital magazine about the fringes of art and culture. Entropy closed its website in late 2022, and I am reproducing this publication with the kind permission of the editors.

Plant Space

No one in this house is “productive.” 🌿

Inspired by my annual reading of Sarah Ahmed, I drew this as a reminder to myself that there’s room for stillness and silence in the ongoing resistance against systems that seek to exploit our energy and labor. It ended up becoming an unintentional self-portrait. I was thinking, “What sort of person would live in a house like this,” and then I realized, “Oh right, I do.”

A lot of my plants have been all across the United States as I moved from apartment to apartment while chasing jobs in a market that depends on people like me, by which I mean young(ish) people who are willing to cut their connections and uproot their entire lives in order to have a small chance at getting their foot in the door of an unnecessarily competitive industry. Academia especially is built on exploited and largely uncompensated labor, and there’s so much survivor bias that not even the people who have experienced and suffered from this precarity acknowledge how harmful it is to everyone involved.

It’s wild how the vast majority of critiques of capitalism are contained within the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is all about doing things and being productive; and, in exactly the same way, most critiques of capitalism are about doing things and being productive. To give a classic example, Marx says that workers need to utilize the “muscle power” and “vital force” that have been harnessed by capitalism and redirect their energy and labor to overthrow the system. I would argue that not doing things and not being productive is an equally valid means of resisting capitalism. Sarah Ahmed, who has just as fraught of a relationship with academia as I do, has argued the same thing: Don’t allow yourself to become a tool in the hands of people who are intent on breaking you.

After being destroyed by a “dream job” that I almost had to kill myself to stay on top of, I made a firm decision to take it easy and chill out for a bit. Part of this decision is deprogramming my instinct to be “productive,” but a lot of it is simply taking the time to be quiet and listen while creating the space to appreciate the sort of time-consuming writing, scholarship, and art that’s been marginalized and pushed aside by the constant demand for new content. Like my plants, I’m going to sit still and soak in the sun.

………also, I needed an “author photo” for my summer project, a zine about Gothic botanical horror. 💀🌱