Lifted by ‘The Descent’

By Brian Keiper

Credit: Dan Mumford

I sat alone in the exam room waiting for the doctor to come in and tell me what I already knew but had been afraid to admit. The previous couple of years had proven that there was something more going on than just an occasional onset of the blues. I was prescribed some medication, and the doctor shared a few insights on dealing with the stigmas that I had been exposed to for much of my life.

So, that was that; I was officially clinically depressed. Now what?

Soon after, I discovered two works that opened my eyes to the nature of what I was experiencing and, more importantly, how to deal with it. The first was a book called Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk (2005) that detailed how depression played a major role in that great man’s greatness. The other was quite a surprise: Neil Marshall’s The Descent (2005).

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I expected a scary story, a claustrophobic setting, and cool monsters. What I got was so much more. In fact, the movie affected me so profoundly that, until watching it in preparation for this article, I had not been able to bring myself to watch it again for ten years. Not so much because it scared me, though it did, but because I was afraid it would tarnish the memory of the first viewing — that it would not hold the same power as it did the first time. Well, I was wrong. If anything, the film has even more power now.

The Descent begins with thrill-seeking friends Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Juno (Natalie Mendoza), and Beth (Alex Reid) in the final moments of a river rafting trip, braving one last stretch of rapids. Just beyond, Sarah’s husband (Oliver Milburn) and their young daughter Jessica (Molly Kayll) are there to meet them. Moments later, Sarah’s husband and Jessica are killed in a horrifying car accident. The film cuts to a year later and the reunion of Sarah and Beth with Juno and three more young women as they are about to go spelunking in what Juno has told them will be a safe and fun exploration of a cave that adrenaline junkie Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) refers to as a “tourist trap.” So, I expected the “six chicks with picks” movie that the cast and crew jokingly called it during production, but as the film unfolded, I became aware of something much deeper going on.

From L to R clockwise: Natalie Mendoza as Juno, Shauna Macdonald as Sarah, Alex Reid as Beth, Nora-Jane Noone as Holly, Saskia Mulder as Becca, and MyAnna Buring as Sam. Credit: Celador Films.

The film unfolds quite deliberately in the first act. Marshall takes time to introduce and let us get to know the personalities of the six women as they drive to the trail-head, hike to the cave entrance, and marvel at the wonders of the first couple of cavernous chambers. We get to know safety conscious and veteran caver Becca (Saskia Mulder) along with her little sister Sam (MyAnna Buring), who is very close to becoming a doctor. We learn more about Juno’s hot-blooded protégé Holly, as well as a few facts about Juno and Sarah’s strained friendship. But soon, the walls begin to close in and the true terror of the film with them.

As Sarah and Becca narrowly escape a cave-in which blocks the only way back, a subtext slowly began to reveal itself to me. During this scene, Becca tells Sarah, “you’ve already been through the worst thing that could ever possibly happen and you’re still here,” hinting at the hidden strength she has buried under (but also because of) her grief. Soon, I began to see the cave as a topography of the human mind and these six women were trapped inside themselves.

The group finds itself trapped deep inside the cave. Credit: Celador Films.

A state of grief or depression feels a lot like being trapped in the dark with no means of escape. The sequence where the explorers face their first impossible task was the moment that things really started to hit me. Because of the cave-in, there is no going back; they have no choice but to keep moving forward. And now, they must cross a chasm using only half the equipment they came with as one of the rope bags was lost in the cave-in. I felt I had been faced with an impossible task of living with depression and overcoming the desire to withdraw into myself. Sometimes, the thought of giving up entirely crept in. To see these characters face something that they were undeniably afraid of and overcome it, became a glimmer of hope.

The film takes a turn that goes beyond the ideas of being lost in the dark with the arrival of “the crawlers.” These are apparently the descendants of ancient cave people that have evolved over time to survive underground. They are blind, rely on a bat-like sense of hearing to hunt, and have adapted to maneuver their cave-dwelling — even to the point of crawling on the walls and ceilings. They have become something more animal than human. As people, we all have monsters in our minds. Those demons take on many forms but fighting them takes strength.

The demons crawl inside. Credit: Celador Films.

The Descent helped me see that I have more strength than I realize, even when the inner demons do all they can to convince me of my weakness. Sarah discovers more strength than she ever knew she had when fighting these creatures, maybe because she had spent the previous year fighting the demons of her loss. The monsters that scared me the most were thoughts of self-harm and occasionally even of taking my own life. In Sarah, I saw that yes, there will be fear, but courage is finding the power to face the monsters in spite of the fear.

The most striking moment in the film is when Sarah is “reborn” after falling into the pit of blood in the cave chamber filled with the remains of untold numbers of animals and humans. Her emergence from the pit echoes Martin Sheen as Willard in Apocalypse Now (1979) slowly emerging from the water on his way to kill Kurtz. I have no doubt that this was an intentional choice to show that Sarah has become something new. She has just learned she has been betrayed by her best friend, Juno, and her actions from this moment on are completely her own — not informed by the thoughts or actions of anyone else.

Martin Sheen as Willard in ‘Apocalypse Now.’ Credit: American Zoetrope
Sarah is reborn. Credit: Celador Films.

This is a two-edged sword, however. On the positive side, she fights for herself and does things she never thought herself capable of. On the other hand, her rage at Juno’s betrayal causes her to wound Juno in such a way that guarantees her death at the hands of the crawlers; and that is something Sarah will have to live with for the rest of her life. This is made clear in the film by Sarah’s vision of the dead Juno in the car with her after her “escape” from the cave. In the truncated U.S. release of the film, this moment was the ending, one in the tradition of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) where the heroine escapes but has lost her mind in the process.

Sarah escapes from the cave in a birth-like sequence. Credit: Celador Films.

The longer version of the ending that was released internationally sees Sarah awaken just after this moment, still in the cave imagining that she is celebrating her long-dead daughter’s birthday with her. She is clearly changed. Even her movements echo those of the crawlers, implying that she is becoming less herself and more her demons. This further illustrates the idea of the cave representing the mind. The film ends with her trapped within the prison of herself. As bleak as this extended ending is, it is the truer ending: one is never able to fully escape grief. And ultimately grief and depression go hand in hand, which is why I believe I experienced this movie the way I did.

Sarah learns the bleak truth. Credit: Celador Films.

Still, I’ve always felt a certain amount of guilt about my depression. I do not have an inordinately troubled past. There is no history of abuse or trauma. Sure, there have been sad times, even traumatic events that have taken people I cared about away from this world, but these were not triggers that sent me into an ongoing depressive state. What I experience is based solely on a chemical imbalance somewhere in my brain. Because of this, I often feel I haven’t earned the darkness — a darkness that never completely leaves. Though I have learned ways to manage the depression, it will always be with me. That feels an awful lot like being trapped in the dark trying to ignore the screaming of demons echoing in my ears.

Few people I encountered saw the film as more than a fun, scary ride with cool monsters, and it certainly is that. But as I continue to argue here and elsewhere, the best horror movies work on multiple levels. There are as many interpretations as there are viewers of these movies — we each see them through the lens of our own experience.

The Descent is a film of great beauty juxtaposed with extreme ugliness. Magnificent shots of the forests and rivers just before an encounter with a rotting elk carcass. The awe felt in the first chamber of the cave is pitted against the horrors of the bone chamber with its pools of blood. This is a film of life and death, loyalty and betrayal, ecstasy and pain. And in many ways, that is the nature of life — highest highs and lowest lows, glorious mountain tops, and deepest valleys. Whether writer/director Neil Marshall and his cast and crew intended the subtext that I saw unfold before me, I don’t know. But I do know that in one of the more uncertain times of my life, The Descent gave me a map for the road ahead. Looking back on the ten years since I first saw the film, I can see that in a very real way, when I was in one of the darker valleys of life, The Descent lifted me up. Now, when I am overcome with guilt, I seek gratitude. When my weaknesses cripple me, I reach deep and find my strength. And when the darkness closes in, I keep searching for the light.

About the Author

Brian Keiper is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He’s also written for Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, F This Movie!, and Ghastly Grinning. Follow him on Twitter @BrianDKeiper.

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A membrane of texts about the human condition within the horror genre. A MANOR feature.

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