By Colbey Emmerson Reid
Neil Marshall’s 2006 horror film The Descent is about six female high-risk adventurers who get lost in an uncharted Appalachian cave system inhabited by cannibalistic monsters. These turn out to be an undiscovered species of southerners produced through inbreeding, perfectly adapted to live alone in solitary pockets of the mountains until it’s time to go hunting. You know, just like the real ones.
Naturally, the entryway to the cave collapses, the spelunkers are separated, and the women’s only hope of survival is to find another exit while evading the creatures. The women who try to outwit the monsters with their more highly evolved brains, like the English teacher and zoology doctoral candidate, who determines her opponents hunt by sound and can be eluded by silence, are the first to go. The only way to survive against the so-called “crawlers” is by becoming as feral as they, which is to say, by hacking them to pieces with climbing tools before they rip your throat out.
The “descent” of the title thus alludes to Darwin’s The Descent of Man, in which the biologist explains that animals differ in gradations from human beings rather than qualitatively. The women in the cave discover that their distinction from the extant cave men and women diminishes the longer they survive, thus illustrating a downward drag within the principle of natural selection. For instance, one of the women, Sarah, cowers in a hole in the wall for a little while, watching the crawlers feed on one of her friends. When they’re distracted by the sounds of the other lost women who are shouting for each other in the dark, Sarah emerges to try to help a second friend, Beth, who’s wounded, immobile, and clearly the next course.
Sarah has a good cry and considers crawling back into her nook, but in the end instinct takes over. She bashes Beth’s brains out with a rock so she’ll be dead when the crawlers get to her, and then bludgeons her way through a crowd of monsters until she falls into a sinkhole. When Sarah emerges, gasping for air, she pulls herself out of the hole, kills another couple of crawlers, and lifts her weapon high in her best conquering hero pose. The blood and mud on her face make her look like a highland warrior, an archetypal figure for victory won through violence—ironically, though, the Scotch herdsmen who cultivated a reputation for hair-trigger tempers and merciless reprisal in order to protect their sheep from thieves are also the ancestors of Appalachian mountain people. Sarah’s competition for survival draws out her likeness to what she is trying to escape. In one scene, she butchers a family of crawlers offered by the film as effigies of Sarah, her husband, and her child.
The evolutionary nightmare is only half the story. The other half is a psychological thriller focused on the aftereffects of the death by the impaling of Sarah’s husband and daughter in a head-on collision with a pole-laden car on the way home from a white water rafting adventure. After navigating the rapids while her family watches, Sarah notices that her husband seems distracted and Beth notices that he’s very attentive to one of the other women, Juno. The car crash occurs shortly afterwards; Sarah’s husband looks away from the road when she asks him why he’s been distant, and the next thing Sarah knows she’s waking up in a hospital, looking for her child, and then sprinting down a corridor as the lights behind her blacken. At the end of the hall, she collides with Beth and the news that her family is dead.
The descent into the cave one year later parallels the corridor in the hospital, the former echoing the latter and framing the “adventure” as an effort to escape a psychological descent into darkness. Sarah struggles with hallucinations of her daughter that paralyze her; we watch her leave the present, her face going blank and her body limp as her mind becomes absorbed in time. Crawling through a tight pipe later on Sarah has a panic attack, and Beth’s words as she’s trying to calm her gasping friend say it all: “the worst thing that could happen has already happened. There’s nothing else to be afraid of.” Of course, she doesn’t know about the inbred southerners yet—but it’s clear that Marshall means to carve two stories out of one, to trump the trumped-up creature feature with a real-live horror, the kind of horror anyone might experience and be ruined by. In a genre that always offers survival as the ultimate prize—in this sense, all horror films are the invention of evolutionary biology—Marshall wants us to wonder whether staying alive is enough.
By introducing an ordinary trauma into the Darwinian parable, Marshall thus produces the kind of “monstrous misreading of Darwin” that Elizabeth Grosz (The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely, Duke University Press, 2004) has attributed to Nietzsche, who contended that Darwin’s construction of evolution produced an environmental fatalism designed to make nothing more than “the weak…the herd…the servile…the low…the mediocre”—in short, “the boring” (100-101). Nietzsche represents himself as the “anti-Darwin” (101), a champion of the exceptional, the unrepeatable. Against the vicissitudes of natural selection he posits his own principle, the will to power, defined as a longing—indeed, a demand—not simply for adaptation but “exaptation” (101): the excess of survival.
In The Descent, while the other adventurers are stock characters whose fitness is tested by circumstances, Sarah conquers the crawlers because her past provisions her with a will to seek something beyond the merely human as it is defined by biology and produced by nature. The will to power, which is a form of playfulness with the vast waste, or inutility, that Nietzsche discovers everywhere within the system to which Darwin ascribed scarcity and efficiency, wants more than simple subsistence and reproduction. It seeks profusion, luxury, abundance, an elevation of the organism above itself. What Sarah must discover in the cave, an allegory for her mind, is whether she will be rendered mentally and emotionally dead by her past: will she just get by, or will she find her way to joy again.
It is not Sarah, though, but Juno who first exerts the will to power, and who invites Sarah to do so too. She reminds the group of their motto: “if there’s no risk, what’s the point?” and ensures that their adventure will be dangerous by filing the wrong cave with the forestry service and lying to the others about the difficulty of the cave they’ll be exploring. Juno’s extension of the invitation to risk is designed to help Sarah as well as herself. She apologizes to Sarah for leaving so quickly after her family’s death the year before, telling Beth, who berates her for it, that “we all lost something” in the accident. Though it sounds like Juno is rehearsing the cliché of her lost sense of immortality, in fact we know because we’re shown the tender glances she exchanges with Sarah’s husband right before he dies that Juno is speaking literally: she lost him. Juno wants the latest adventure to be an occasion for rejuvenation. She tells Sarah, once they’re trapped in the cave, that she wants them to discover something new and name the cave: “Maybe your name,” she offers—and Sarah challenges, “Or yours.” This is the classic scenario of the will to power, which either shapes or is shaped by matter.
Sarah misunderstands. She accuses Juno of endangering the group by taking them on an ego trip, but she’s got it wrong. Neither the adventure nor the will to power is about ego. They’re about wagering the self against an expansion: they’re about transcendence. For Juno, the appearance of the crawlers is a fortunate disaster. They raise the stakes, as the will to power desires the greater tension that will drive it toward greater accomplishment. Juno’s goal is to make it out alive with Sarah so that both women can be reborn, in part because the rebirth of each is dependent on her alliance with the other. When Juno discovers markings on the cave walls suggesting an alternate exit, Sarah is lost and Juno tells the other women that she’s not leaving without Sarah. Her refusal to leave without her rival, whom she treats only as an ally, testifies to her desire to extract herself from the conventional rivalry narrative. Juno wears a charm around her neck engraved with the words “love each day,” a testimony to the renewed jubilation she seeks to uncover for herself and friend by refusing the conventional narrative of envy and competition between women.
Indeed, Marshall suggests the alternative paradigm through an implied lesbian relationship between Juno and a younger woman euphemistically referred to as her “prodigée.” In the context of Juno’s Roman name, a relationship that might otherwise seem maternal is eroticized. Juno is determined to offer Sarah this alternative as well. But Sarah recognizes “love each day” as something her husband used to say. When she and Juno meet again after wandering alone through the cave, everyone else is dead. They follow the markings Juno found on the wall, butchering crawlers together with easy grace. It appears as though they will triumph together, and emerge reinvigorated by their survival—which Marshall has begun to trope as trivial; it’s just not that difficult for them.
At the last moment, however, Sarah confronts Juno with the engraved charm necklace Beth snatched from Juno’s neck before falling into the pit with Sarah. Sarah knows that Juno left Beth for dead, and that she’d hoped the knowledge of Sarah’s husband’s unfaithfulness would die with her. Juno is trying to rewrite history in order to produce a more bearable future, a future that will not end in descent, the living death of those buried alive by an emotional catastrophe. She doesn’t want to be merely alive. But Sarah is caught in the throes of ressentiment, an inability to “digest the past and be rid of it” (116). For her the past keeps coming on strong, it “returns to haunt the present” literally in Sarah’s recurring fantasy of her daughter’s birthday party, and thereby overshadows all futures.
Marshall suggests that it is not environmental fatalism that ruins Sarah but her own inability to become “untimely” by removing herself from the constraints of a present too fully circumscribed within the past. Her alternative is to extract something from the past which will reshape the present, and it’s easy for the audience to see how Sarah’s history could explain to her the plausibility of difference, a “tension with the present which [could] move [her] to a future in which the present can no longer recognize itself” (117). We—like Beth—have noticed that Sarah’s marriage was falling apart anyway, that in losing it she wasn’t losing anything. Sarah’s anger with Juno is all about revenge for a loss that should now be beside the point. Juno seems to have understood this; she turns to her friend to help recover from the loss of something she too never had. Nevertheless, Sarah turns her weapon on Juno in a fury, the only new story she can put together is one in which her daughter dies because her husband is distracted by Juno. She hacks into Juno’s leg with a scythe and leaves her crippled and weaponless to a fresh onslaught of crawlers.
Sarah makes it out of the cave, and Marshall plays up what will become the film’s great irony by accompanying Sarah’s emergence from the ground with a high, spiraling camera and majestic orchestral music. She claws her way up a tunnel lined with bones, pushes her hand through a thin covering of dirt and moss, and hoists her body from the earth in a scene the audience recognizes from vampire and zombie movies. This should be our first clue that all is not as well as it seems, since in horror movies that which crawls from the ground is only ever “undead.” When Sarah’s head pops out of the ground she draws a deep breath, a baby’s first breath on emerging from the womb: she thinks she’s born again having slain her demons (avenged her child’s death), which she believes—mistakenly—to be Juno.
Back at the car, Sarah careens out of the woods, pulls over to the roadside, and is nearly hit by a truck. This is the first hint that the past isn’t vanquished, that she’s in the throes of the demonic repetition of that other post-adventure head-on collision. Sarah recognizes this, but she still thinks she’s won. She thrusts her head out the window and vomits water like a drowned woman resuscitated. Slowly, with relief, she draws her head back into the car. She’s ready to drive away from the cave now, it’s over. She looks to her right and finds—the bloodied ghost of Juno in the passenger seat. The screen goes black: “the darkness” (the film’s original title) that Sarah’s been running from since the hospital corridor is upon her.
The ending, revised from the British version in which Sarah dies in the cave for American audiences who wanted a happy ending, questions whether mere survival can constitute happiness (the competing resolutions illustrate the difference between American and continental philosophical constructions of happiness). Sarah gets out of the cave alive, but she’s trapped in the madness of a future that only repeats the past with a different face attached to it. Having traded hallucinations of her dead daughter for hallucinations of her dead friend, unable to think her way out of the misery of eternal repetition, she is caught in the hell of a Darwinian descent in which beings become only that which has been selected by their history.
Sarah has been reborn exactly the same, and the real horror of “The Descent” is not about crawlers or even being trapped alive and forgotten in a cave beneath the earth. It’s about the inability to create a new self through rebirth, the bitter disappointment of a self that becomes merely itself again. Sarah’s hope for something else has been left in the cave with her leg chopped off. But while Sarah’s survival is hardly a happy ending, her friend, who submits to the strike rather than fighting back—as she is clearly equipped to do—has realized the Nietzchean promise of the Overman by not merely accepting but willing the accident that happens to her, thereby achieving the nobility of “a kind of happy self-annihilation” (102). The Overman is a more-than-human-being which ascends not by evading, forgetting, or even remembering the past but by willing its eternal return.
For Nietzsche, the eternal return is the extraordinary acceptance of fated events as willed events, an invitation to them to happen again, no matter how mundane, humiliating, emotionally withering, or physically destructive. While Juno could have elected to defend herself against Sarah the way she did against the crawlers, this would have been to fall back into the clichéd narrative of erotic rivalry between women and deny herself the new being she’s been pursuing in the cave. Since “‘becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ are necessarily obscured or even obliterated…it is not too much to say that even…death…is among the conditions of an actual progressus’”; indeed, “‘the magnitude of an “advance” can even be measured by the mass of things that has to be sacrificed to it’” (Nietzsche, quoted in Grosz, 108-109).
Marshall seems to think that the original ending, in which Sarah kills her friend and then purposely succumbs to the crawlers, would have been “happier,” as it would have reflected the Overman’s will for the eternal return of her loss. As it is, all that can return is more of the same—The Descent 2 is due to be released in 2009, with Sarah haunted by hallucinations of an event she neither remembers nor understands, forced back into the cave that nearly killed her, doomed to the horrible repetition not only of her trauma, but also—should she survive again—the disappointing rebirth of an identical subject. Marshall offers a cautionary fairy tale against being born again into a demonic repetition, and proposes conventionally “sinful” behaviors (lying, murder, lesbianism, suicide) as lining a path towards that genuine paradigm shift which is constitutes a genuine resurrection story.
Colbey Emmerson Reid is Assistant Professor of Modern Literature Department of English and Humanities York College of Pennsylvania. She can be reached at email@example.com.