The Descent: A Search History

photo: Lionsgate
perception vs reality

The first time I saw The Descent, I had a fever. 

For a long time those saturated images lingered, mingling with my own memories, everything drenched in shades of red.

The damp dark of the cave—

A woman screaming my sister’s name—

A body submerged in a glistening river—

One fervent gasp for air. 

A story told in shadows, feathered in a flashlight’s beams—all of it heightened by the physicality of my discomfort. Were the chills from fear or fever? I can’t remember, couldn’t say. I turned to the film that day in search of distraction, but everything onscreen only made me more aware of my own shallow breath. Yet I felt compelled to continue what I had started, to see the story through to its end.

As if I was not simply watching The Descent, but The Descent was happening to me.

anxiety symptoms in women

The only man in The Descent dies within the first four minutes of the film’s runtime.

A trio of women reach the shore in the wake of their whitewater rafting adventure; our protagonist, Sarah, reunites with her husband, Paul, and daughter, Jessica. But even at this early stage, something churns beneath the surface of the group’s reconnection. A silent but meaningful moment passes between Paul and audacious, beautiful Juno as he removes her helmet at the water’s edge—an intimate exchange between Sarah’s friend and partner that hints at a deeper betrayal, soon to be revealed.

In the car, Paul is cold and distant. We feel something brewing—conflict, confrontation. We don’t expect what happens instead—collision. Copper pipes penetrate the windshield, impaling him beside her. Whatever confession was on the horizon, it’ll never come now.

Maybe it’s an unusual structuring decision for a horror movie, beginning with the worst thing. The crash is shocking and yet there’s also something grotesquely normal about it. Sarah loses her husband and child in a brutally mundane tragedy that claims 3,700 lives every day. It’s disturbing to consider that a calamity so commonplace is also the worst kind of loss many of us can imagine. The camera lingers on the wreck in this opening salvo, as if daring the viewer to wonder: what could be worse than this?

In the aftermath of Sarah’s loss, the women embark on another adventure. This time their sights are set on the depths of the earth, a caving expedition of six helmed by the determined Juno. No longer a carefree girls’ trip, the journey is now heavy with intent—to heal Sarah’s wounds, to assuage Juno’s guilt, to bring the friends back together again. But in her attempt, Juno has hidden the truth once more; the cave system she selected for the group is entirely unexplored terrain. Self-assured Juno sees her shared adventure as the answer, perhaps a path to redemption. But by definition, adventure will always promise some degree of uncertainty—for better or worse.

Sarah’s participation is all muscle memory and obligation. Her heart’s just not in it. To make matters worse, she finds herself trapped in a tunnel not long after first entering the cave. The moment is a claustrophobe’s breathless nightmare—unable to move forward, unable to go back. Sarah begins to panic, wailing, “I can’t fucking breathe!”

In such a moment, one is gripped by the intractable instinct to wonder—in fear as in grief—what if I’m trapped here forever? What if it will always feel like this? Sometimes fear builds so thick that it obscures the future from view.

Another friend, Beth, soothes Sarah’s rising panic by reminding her of the horrors of her past. “What are you so afraid of?” she asks. “The worst thing that could’ve happened to you has already happened. Okay? And you’re still here.” 

And Sarah has made it this far, after all. Sometimes the mere fact of past survival can be the thing that gets you through. But when the worst has already happened, where do you go next? Do you make a home in grief, or fight your way forward? If you attempt the latter, how do you know what’s waiting for you in the distance?

Perhaps the whole genre of horror is simply paranoia’s answer to the question: what’s the worst that could happen?

how to be a final girl

In grad school, I wrote story after story about girls who disappeared. Flighty Leanne ran off with a boy; trusting Jenny got into the wrong Ford; dreamy Mira was most likely abducted by aliens. Prom queen Harper—one of my favorites—slipped through the fabric of space and time when she went for a walk one afternoon. Didn’t even realize she’d been gone.

On my commutes, I listened obsessively to true crime podcasts. The narratives shaped in these conversations often give the sense of life as an endlessly branching thing; every choice yields a consequence, and the hosts discuss them all. Every decision made by a victim is retroactively weighted with frightening significance.

To be a final girl is to make a series of choices while knowing that any one of them could lead to your undoing. But consumers of these stories sometimes make the mistake of attributing intelligence or morality to the simple fact of survival.

When I wrote these stories, when I listened to them, it was a way of mapping every possibility in my head. What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe I thought that if I memorized every permutation, I could handpick the best path forward. Make the “good” choice every time. Save myself.

caves near me

The Descent is a story of surfaces—what we see at a glance, and what lies below. 

The majority of the film occurs underground. If a camera had been placed at the mouth of the cave when the women first slipped beneath, it would capture the calm beauty of the surrounding landscape while unspeakable horrors rage below. The underneath is where the real story lies.

There is more to literally everyone you will ever meet than what you see at first glance. As is the case for many, Sarah’s loss marks her invisibly. From the outside you would simply see a woman on an adventure with friends; you’d have no idea of what she’s been through. What she’s lost. 

How else to describe what remains but an emptiness? A gaping cavern in her life where there was once a family. And when everything else has been stripped away, when avoidance is no longer an option, when all coping mechanisms have been exhausted, and still, something lingers—what else is left but to walk into the wound?

While running from the crawlers, Sarah falls into a pool of blood with an awful splash. She is beneath for so long that the surface goes almost completely still, save for a gentle bubbling. The crawler finds her. For a moment it’s as if Sarah has come face-to-face with the ugliest part of herself—a knot of primal grief and despair made flesh. Somehow she finds the strength to fight back, ultimately stabbing the crawler with a giant tooth. She emerges in a moment of unholy baptism, stretching for the flaming torch before her, soaked in blood but breathing.

I have to believe we are reborn from our worst moments, if we can just make it to the other side.

instructions for forgiveness

The Descent is a girls’ trip gone wrong. The beginning of their final adventure is in many ways idyllic, a dream of platonic connection. The women catch up and crack jokes, bubbling effervescent laughter. The photo they take at the cabin freezes that moment in time—proof that in the past, before the horror, there was good. A picture that will remain long after they are gone.

Of the six women, I return to Juno most often. Daring to the point of recklessness, a fierce friend who betrays her bond with Sarah in one of the worst imaginable ways. To say nothing of her ostensible responsibility in Beth’s death—although Juno’s degree of guilt is arguably left for the viewer to decide.

I want to believe that Juno has good intentions. She expresses regret and offers apology. The trip is her imperfect attempt at healing. It’s tempting to write Juno off as unredeemable when considering the harm she’s caused, but I’ve never believed that humanity slots into easy categories. I just don’t think people are that simple. My attitude about her fluctuates between film viewings, between essay drafts. Even as I write about her now, I find myself at a loss for a way to satisfactorily describe her. Single words are bland dismissals that lack the nuance of full sentences, which in turn pale before a lifetime of simply knowing someone.

The decision to forgive will always be deeply personal; no answer is ever one-size-fits-all. But this I’m sure of: Juno should not be defined by any one action, let alone the worst thing she ever did. No one should.

Sarah could have tried to plan for every possibility. She could have imagined that Paul might be unfaithful. Remembered that he might one day die. She could have assumed that Juno might betray her. Surmised that she might one day lead them all to their doom. But if you always envision the worst possible ending for your story—if you conclude that every person might one day hurt you, or abandon you, or both—where does that leave you? Is a life free from pain worth it, if consequently empty of the connections that make it meaningful?

Without Paul, there would be no Jessica. Does Paul’s deception retroactively corrupt every instance of tenderness that bloomed from their romance? Does Juno’s final fateful trip erase the delight of all their previous adventures? I don’t think so. The smiles exist forever in the photograph. Past joy is real and inarguable, even if it holds a future loss in its golden center. 

the descent true ending

The Descent is a story with two endings.

In the American version of the film, Sarah manages to escape the cave. Bloodied and broken, she hurries to her car and drives away, only to turn and see the memory of Juno haunting her attempt to flee. By choosing vengeance over forgiveness, Sarah left Juno to certain death. And while she has physically departed from the horrors of the cave, she will have to find a way to live with the reality of what she’s done.

“Just because she gets away,” director Neil Marshall once said, “does that make it a happy ending?”

The UK cut pushes just a bit further past this moment. Sarah’s escape unveils itself as mere fantasy; she wakes up in the cave. Here she is joined by another hallucination— this time, her daughter. The camera slowly zooms out to reveal Sarah has no hope of escape, but she will spend the remainder of her life with the memory of the person she loved the very most.

As Marshall himself notes, the two endings don’t quite fall into the traditional shorthand of “happy” or “sad.” Nor is it as simple as “Sarah lives” or “Sarah dies.” These are just different permutations of grief and survival. More possibilities.

cure for fear

Fear is a kind of obsession. Naming what you’re afraid of can be a way of regaining control. Before the crawlers reveal themselves, they prowl the edges of the women’s awareness. But a fear that skulks in shadow cannot be defeated, for how can you fight that which you cannot touch, cannot see?

Something with limits becomes less frightening, somehow. A known entity. If you can see the other side of the chasm stretching before you, there’s a chance that you can reach it—even if it’s small.

I know now that you can’t prepare for every possibility. That there are infinite endings. That there is no way to know for sure whether you’re already on the other side of the hardest part of your life. And still, I return to these questions. Despite everything, I still wonder—

what’s the worst that could happen?