8 min read

Little Earthquakes: The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

Doesn't take much to rip us into pieces.
Little Earthquakes: The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

The time is upon us: The first issue of my comic, MAW, is going to be in stores on September 15, and you can see the weird, gooey monster I ripped out of my heart and inflicted on the world.

The deadline to order the first issue of MAW at comic stores is this Monday, August 23. I really hope you do go and ask for it, and that you recommend it to your friends if you think they'd be into it. I started writing at a time when the received wisdom was that "feminism is unmarketable;" the only reason I ever got a job, let alone an opportunity like this, is that I have readers who show up and tell other people when they like my work. Dead Blondes, my book on horror, substantially outsold Trainwreck, my debut, and it was not hard to tell what made the difference – Trainwreck got favorably reviewed in the New York Times, but Dead Blondes got recommended by horror fans to other horror fans, and that's what mattered. I'm pretty constantly aware that I owe everything to your generosity.

So I hope you will get to your comic store before Monday; I will be deeply grateful if you do. In the meantime, though, I've been writing up classic movies that are related to MAW. This was your first clue. Here's your second.

And (oh, God, here we go) if you want a preview, you can read the first pages of MAW here.

The Descent doesn’t warn you that it’s a smart movie. The movie sets itself up, right away, as a merciless jump scare machine. We open on Sarah, a woman who goes on a whitewater rafting trip with her husband, small child, and best friend Juno. Exactly three minutes and fifty-seven seconds later, due to a shocking event I won’t spoil, the husband and child are dead. Flash forward about a year, Sarah and Juno decide to go cave-diving with a group of roughly interchangeable women, and boom, we’re off to the spooky cave.

This could be the set-up for any two-bit gore factory, and The Descent is not above the pleasures of the form. Locations are ominously under-lit; monsters loom out of the darkness, accompanied by scare chords; the characters get split up at the worst possible moments, make bafflingly stupid decisions, and die horribly as a result. I’ve watched the movie three or four times now, and I still can’t always tell the characters apart.

The Descent should be a B-movie, and it is, sort of. It’s also one of the most effective movies ever made about PTSD. The Descent immerses you in an environment where nothing is safe, where the worst possible thing can always happen at any moment, where every waking moment is full of unbearable tension. Then it reminds you that Sarah has been living in that world ever since her family died, and when people stay down there long enough, they change.

The Descent is over fifteen years old, and most people who watch it for the first time will have been spoiled as to the premise. Still, it is a movie with a lot of twists and shocks, so if you’d like to encounter them unprepared, you can stop reading here. Talking about it in anything other than vague generalities is going to require unpacking some stuff you shouldn’t know.

Like Jaws, The Descent is a monster movie whose monster is nature. The rules of the underworld are clearly spelled out: The cave is utterly devoid of light. Flashlights and headlamps run on batteries, and those batteries die quick. Phones don’t work. The terrain is almost unthinkably hostile, full of underground cliffs and lakes and rockfalls and holes to the bottom of the world, none of which you can see before you fall into them. You stay on the path, and you stay with your group, because if you get lost, you will never make it back to the surface.

This being a horror movie, someone has to make the worst possible decision. In this case, it’s Juno, trying a little too hard to give her friend Sarah a good time. She  tricks the group into entering an unmapped cave system, and sure enough, the entrance caves in right after they walk through it, leaving them trapped without a map or a way to get help. The claustrophobia and dread of the setting are immense. For at least an hour, it seems like we’re going to watch a movie about a bunch of women who starve to death in the dark.

Then — cue scare chord — we learn how they’re actually going to die. There are mutants in these caves, and they feast on human flesh, as mutants often do. The women run, scream, get split up, make stupid decisions, and the jump scare machine revs up to full speed.

It’s customary to pause here and note The Descent’s gender politics, which were hugely ahead of their time in 2005. The movie premiered at the height of the torture porn wave, in which women were largely portrayed as hypersexualized splatter victims. The Descent features an all-female cast, yet the plot is so relentlessly focused on survival that their gender hardly seems relevant. All of them are athletic and brave and competent in ways Hollywood still doesn't allow most female characters to be. (I almost wrote that they’re all intelligent, but then I remembered Juno, whose whole raison d’etre is to make bad decisions and get everybody killed.) Womanhood is intrinsic to who they are, but it doesn't define or limit who they are. It’s Alien if every single crew member was Ripley: No-one is “the girl,” and no-one is the “strong” girl who has to disprove female stereotypes. They’re all just a bunch of women getting shit done.

The movie’s emotional throughline is the fracturing trust between Juno and Sarah. Juno drags Sarah and the rest of the group into unsafe territory; she’s reckless, she fucks up, she gets people killed and she lies to cover her tracks. We never quite forget that Juno was responsible for the rafting trip that killed Sarah’s family; on some level, Sarah blames Juno for inviting her, for luring her out into a different unsafe place where a different terrible thing could happen. The cave wakes up all that trauma. It’s a place where Sarah’s resentment and distrust and even hatred of Juno can push up to the surface and blossom into something horrible.

This movie is nearly perfect, but I should warn you now that it doesn’t stick the landing; I will never forgive The Descent for manufacturing an affair between Juno and Sarah’s husband at the last possible second. That one plot development instantly tilts the all-Ripley universe into a more stereotypical dynamic — instead of telling a story about a woman whose trauma leaves her unable to trust or maintain relationships, you’re telling a story about two girls fighting over a boy. You won’t remember the affair between Juno and Sarah’s husband, though, for the same reasons I can never remember the husband’s name: He doesn’t matter. It’s Sarah’s turn away from the light and the world above that you will recall.

“Descent,” in the title, means the dive into the cave, but it also means Sarah’s slow slide from human being into creature. At some point, Sarah begins to realize that the monsters understand her better than the people do. A crawler lives under the earth, under the dirt, where we keep our dead. A crawler dwells in the underworld, surrounded by bones and carcasses, drinking from lakes of blood. It never breathes fresh air, never sees daylight. A crawler is trapped in darkness forever, because darkness is the only place it feels safe.

So is Sarah. The cave is claustrophobic and terrifying and unlivable for the other members of the expedition, but for Sarah, the surface world is all of those things, too. If the people you love can be taken from you in an instant, in the midst of a conversation, there is never a reason to feel safe anywhere. The pain and fear close in around you, like a rockfall, and bury you alive.

Sarah is a light-starved mutant, a dweller in the land of the dead. She descends into a river of blood and emerges as someone else — harder, more brutal, less capable of trust or connection, less sensitive to other people’s pain. It’s both a defeat and an apotheosis: If she can only ever be a monster, she may as well be that monster in full.

Like I say: The Descent doesn’t advertise itself as a serious movie. You can watch it as a scare machine, and it will work — there are still moments that make me jump or hide my eyes, even now, after watching it many times.

Yet the meaning is there, if you care to look. This particular two-bit gore factory is full of mythological imagery — Demeter’s furious grief for her daughter Persephone; reckless Inanna’s rivalry with the Queen of the Underworld; the river of blood that Thomas the Rhymer crossed to reach the Otherworld — all of it about death and passage and what it means to confront darkness. The Descent is telling a story we’ve been reciting since the invention of human language. It’s very… well, frankly, it’s hard to write about it without using the word “deep.”

One point of that ancient story, though, is that trauma does not make us better people. Suffering will not sanctify you. It may even make you worse. It’s not enough to tell people who’ve survived terrible events that they are strong and triumphant and icons and #brave and goddesses; that kind of false respect only puts the burden on struggling people to be role models for the rest of us. Living with trauma is hard and tiring, and it can kill you. It’s hard enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other, without also having to provide an inspirational example to the rest of the world.

It is okay to be damaged. It is okay to be bitter, to be enraged, to be un-okay. It is okay to try to cope and fail to cope and cope in self-destructive ways, because what all of that means, in the end, is that you are behaving like someone hurt, and when we say “trauma,” we’re using a clinical word to say something hurt you. Expecting traumatized people to seem unharmed is only adding one more injustice to those they’ve suffered. Letting that monstrous cave creature just be monstrous, witnessing the bone-scattered grounds and lakes of blood it lives in without judgment, is often the only way to calm it down.

If you cannot calm the monster down, though, it will eat you. In every version of this story, Sarah ends up alone in the dark. The Descent honors Sarah’s trauma, but it also understands her pain well enough to let the story play out all the way to its logical conclusion. Sarah loves the dead more than she loves the living, and eventually, dead people are the only people she knows.

The Descent is streaming on Tubi. It's also available to rent on Google Play and Amazon Prime.

At my other job, I wrote about the queer subtext of The Green Knight, easily my favorite movie of the past year. And, speaking of trauma, I interviewed Dr. Pauline Boss about the concept of ambiguous loss, and why the pandemic seems to have suspended so many of us in a limbo of unresolved and uncertain grief.

The idea that MAW has something in common with The Descent is not mine; it was suggested by the artist, A.L. Kaplan. Here's one more plug for his comic, Full-Spectrum Therapy, which you can find here.

Enjoying these posts? Subscribe for more


Sign in or become a Jude Doyle member to join the conversation.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.