Claustrophobia and Emotional Repression in The Descent

What does grief feel like? Can you touch it? Weigh it? Is it an empty house you wander? A soft, trembling thing small enough to rest in the palm of your hand? The six-woman cast of characters in Neil Marshall’s 2005 cult horror gem The Descent plummet into grief without a safety line, scrabbling at slick walls for purchase, and finds that it’s much worse than any of them could have guessed. Grief is not a feeling. It’s not a sickness to outlast or a burden to carry. Grief is a labyrinth of blood and stone.

The disastrous caving expedition which constitutes the bulk of the film begins as an attempt by protagonist Sarah’s friends to pull her out of a year-long depression in the wake of her husband and daughter’s deaths. When the women gather for drinks the night before, though, the air is thick with tension. The once-close friends are alienated from each other and discomfited by the scale of Sarah’s suffering. For all that the expedition is meant to lift Sarah’s spirits it begins with dishonesty, avoidance, and emotional withdrawal, and once the women enter the cave system the film manifests that repression in suffocating passageways and yawning chasms, places where minds and bodies are crushed against unyielding nature. 

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Too Close for Comfort

The Descent is best known for the pallid, wall-climbing “crawlers” which appear in its second act to stalk the women through the caves, but by far its most visceral scare happens before they ever scuttle onto the screen. Early on in the expedition one of the party’s less experienced members becomes stuck in a narrow tunnel which threatens to collapse. As literal tons of stone grind and shift above her, she begins to panic, hyperventilating and sobbing while the others try desperately to extricate her. It’s one of the most stomach-clenching depictions of anxiety ever committed to film, realizing the catastrophic thinking and helpless, immobilizing hysteria of a panic attack with the crumbling bones of mountains.

From the first moments of the titular descent the film uses the imagery of the cave to depict the party’s journey into Sarah’s repressed grief. The yawning black mouth of the cave shaft augurs the depth of her unprocessed misery, followed by the crushing panic of delving into that emotion as symbolized by the navigation of the tunnel, the chasm, and the pit. When the crawlers — themselves representations of subhuman, unthinking emotion — appear and the women find themselves literally wading through blood and bone, the film reaches into the primal depths of human experience as the party confront their utter inability to grapple with Sarah’s loss. 

No Way Out

Marshall’s film constructs a subterranean world in which one woman’s struggle to keep her head above water echoes and re-echoes until it becomes a frenzied scramble for bare survival. With minimal dialog it creates an immersive experience of what it feels like to be, like Sarah, in the grasp of emotions too massive and shattering to feel. It’s a perfect example of horror’s power to externalize the most extreme human suffering, to make it tangible and frightening even to those who’ve never felt it before. Its blood-slicked faces of sheer rock and slopes of gnawed and broken bone are not just set pieces but the architecture of a mind in agony.

Perhaps more than any other genre, horror draws power from the expansion of emotion beyond words and body language. Violence is one way horror can transcend normative emotional communication, costuming and set design another. By surrounding its characters with consciously chosen visual echoes of their stress and anxiety, The Descent pushes past emotional expression and into a kind of physical melodrama where anxiety lives in grinding shelves of stone, grief in lakes of blood and gore hidden deep beneath the earth, rage and hunger for connection in pale troglodytes that swarm like maggots through dark tunnels, hunting by shrieking like mourners and waiting for the echoes to come back to them.

The Descent creates a language of repression and its brutal consequences written out in a heightened, viscerally intimate reality. It’s a look at friendship between women without any girl power cliches, without any high-minded notions of perfect selflessness and inborn emotional intelligence. By transmuting their pain into a labyrinthine hive of carnage and panic it opens up a richer view of how women relate to one another, of their failings and their pettiness, of their depth of feeling and their crushing isolation from each other. It’s a free fall through the howling blackness into everything that women aren’t supposed to feel or be.



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