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The Descent (2005)



The Descent could be seen as a textbook guide to instilling horror in viewers. However, to view this film in such a way would be to consider it a mere genre exercise when instead it is a jarring metaphor for the pain of exploring our darkest thoughts. The horror here, which is accomplished as perfectly as it likely could have been, does not exist solely to frighten but to evoke the terror of such a journey into the subconscious. Specifically, the film follows one character's descent into an unexplored cave system, which almost inherently becomes a metaphorical descent into the unexplored recesses of her own mind. The Descent is merciless, but more importantly, it never falters from its attempt to tell the story of a character's confrontation of the hidden aspects of her psychology.

An outdoor sportswoman named Sarah loses her husband and daughter in a car wreck. Her husband, who was driving, seemed lost in thought at the time. The film hints that he was involved with one of Sarah's outdoor companions, Juno. Some time after recovering from her own physical and emotional injuries incurred in the accident, Sarah heads out on another trip with her friends, this time to go spelunking. While on this expedition, getting lost is only the beginning of their problems. These six women will soon encounter an unimaginable terror.

Throughout the majority of the film, there is never a suggestion that Sarah suspects Juno of being involved with her husband, but that's likely because she doesn't want to consider that thought. However, one early scene shows us that there is some unexplored idea within Sarah's psyche that she does not want to confront. During her recovery in the hospital, Sarah wakes, walks into the hallway, and hallucinates the hall's lights going out one at a time. As they do so, Sarah flees the approaching darkness as if it contained something terrifying. Whether it is a belief concerning Juno or something else entirely, there is something devastating within Sarah's subconscious that she does not want to acknowledge.

Whereas the hallway hallucination is a visual symbol of something haunting Sarah's deepest thoughts, Sarah's descent into the cave is a metaphor for her descent into her subconscious, her slow confrontation of her suspicions. This is where the horror begins. As Sarah and the others delve deeper into the cave system, they encounter worse and worse horrors. First, it is the simple knowledge that they cannot return the way they came. Then, it is a brush with death, as Sarah becomes stuck in a crawlspace and nearly crushed to death. Later, the characters learn that Juno, who was supposed to bring a book detailing safe passage through the system, not only left the book behind but took them to a different cave altogether -- one that has never been explored. Finally, the women are confronted by a primordial horror that could not have been anticipated (and which is best left unspoiled).

It is upon this final confrontation that Sarah metaphorically reaches her subconscious, the place likely harboring her suspicions of her husband and Juno, and struggles to keep it from destroying her. The horror is everywhere, from jump scares to the nature of the threat itself to the fear of dying a barbaric death far beneath the Earth's surface. Eventually Sarah hits rock bottom of the cave system, when she becomes completely submersed in the blood of other victims that have fallen to the terror facing her. This is a turning point for the character, as she has symbolically succumbed to the deepest crevasse of her psyche. At this point in the film, she acknowledges and even begins to embrace every gritty aspect of her being. When she performs one act that confirms the evolution of her mindset, she is freed from the suppression of her un-approached thoughts regarding her husband and friend, and, in a two-part final scene, she begins to experience dreams of wish-fulfillment rather than nightmares of suppressed thoughts. There is a nightmarish entity that pops up in one of these dreams, but it is not an indication of her returning fear. Rather, it is a sign that Sarah has fully accepted herself and all of her actions. This otherwise startling element is present in her dream only because Sarah no longer fears it. In fact, she may no longer fear anything.

In the end, The Descent's subconscious-born horror is really the horror of accepting oneself in full. Sarah's thoughts about her husband and Juno always existed within her, just as the more real horror she encounters always existed below the surface. When we acknowledge buried aspects of our being, as Sarah does her own, we accept the parts of ourselves--the thoughts, the suspicions, the ideas--that have been buried beyond our conscious. However, to loose such things into our being means to invite mayhem. There are some parts of ourselves that we are not prepared to face. It may be that accepting them is the only way to live authentically, but if that is the case, authenticity may be something we can do without.