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The Descent (2005) — A Claustrophobe’s Worst Nightmare

The Descent

By now Neil Marshall’s horror masterpiece The Descent has been given its fair share of praise, but when a film succeeds this well can we ever give it enough? The film is now eleven years old but I still find myself revisiting it at least once per year, often more, which is strange considering I am quite claustrophobic. If you are familiar with the story of this film than you can understand why this would be an odd one for me to revisit so constantly, regardless of how good it is.

For those who aren’t familiar with the film all you need to know for the context of this article is that most of the movie involves a group of girls, who’ve gone cave diving, constantly squeezing themselves through the tiniest nooks and crannies, miles below the surface. Things are only made more complicated when they run into strange creatures living in the dark depths of the earth. I’m sure you can see how this is one giant anxiety trip for someone with a fear of small, confined spaces, like myself.

That being said, I cannot get enough of this movie and it is almost entirely because of my claustrophobia. Don’t get me wrong, this movie is a masterpiece regardless of your personal fears but this is one of those flicks that strikes me on a deeper level than most anything else. From the moment they first enter the cave, my palms get sweaty and my heart rate begins to increase at a rapid pace, and I love every second of it.

You guys know this, it’s why we all love this genre because the feeling of being terrified is an adrenaline rush we can’t get enough of. But when a horror film hits you on a personal level it becomes something far greater than your average scary movie. Even if you don’t share the fear, knowing how it can affect someone can also enhance the intensity of a movie. This is why I want to share what it is like to watch The Descent through the eyes of a claustrophobe.

I want to start with a quick story from my past that explains how I came to have this fear. When I was a kid, growing up in Buffalo, we always had harsh winters. One of our favorite ways of embracing that season was to go out and play in the snow. More specifically we would build snow forts and snow tunnels, we loved snow tunnels.

One winter while we were out playing in these tunnels I got stuck passing through a smaller one we had made. It was an absolutely terrifying experience and something that would stick with me for the rest of my life. The feeling of total immobility and the uncertainty of if you will ever get out was a kind of horror I never wanted to experience. I started to panic, scream, and flail around in hopes of somehow breaking free, which I clearly couldn’t do.

Thankfully my neighbor was walking by with his dog as I got stuck and dug me out to save the day, but I never forgot that feeling. I was too young to understand that this simple snow tunnel wasn’t going to trap me forever, a part of me really thought I was done for. I wouldn’t come to understand how this experience changed me until I was older and started watching horror movies like this one.

So what is it like to watch Neil Marshall’s cave dwelling horror film as a claustrophobe? Well, for starters there isn’t really a single moment in the film where I am able to feel comfortable. This is a movie where every single decision made, from the moment they enter the cave, is a decision I would have never made. They are constantly throwing themselves further into the earth to try and find an exit, and every foot deeper they go the more anxious I get.

The characters in this film are constantly jumping into confined spaces and small passageways, they even get stuck a few times. These kinds of scenes are incredibly realistic and every time they jump head first into another dark hole my heart races at the thought of what I’d be doing in these situations. This is all before the actual “horror” of this movie even shows up, a claustrophobe is scared before this movie ever tries to be scary.

Things are only made worse when the creatures of the dark show up considering they are now trapped underground, in small spaces, being chased by vicious creatures. If my heart wasn’t already beating out of my chest, it certainly was now. This is the point in the film where I think about how I’d find a nice, secluded corner to hide in and accept my fate.

It is hard to explain the exact feeling I get when I am watching these scenes, It is kind of like when you are scared of heights (which I am) and you get a peek over the railing at the top of a building and your stomach drops. It’s that kind of feeling for one hundred minutes mixed with a strong desire to just look away.

So why then, do I love to watch this movie so regularly? The answer to that is much simpler; because I love to tackle my fears. The whole reason I adore this genre like I do is because it is one of my life’s biggest fears that I overcame. So watching the movies in that genre that prey on my most personal fears is like taking that to the next level.

I don’t think I will ever get over my claustrophobia but I can at least get to the point where I am comfortable fighting it head-on if a situation ever called for it. It helps this movie is a masterpiece in horror but even lesser titles like As Above, So Below and a huge sequence at the end of this year’s Blair Witch strike that nerve in the same way.

You may have no problem with this kind of terror, and that’s fine but I hope understanding how this kind of experience plays out for someone who does can enhance the experience for you next time around. Take this knowledge and put yourself in the mind of a claustrophobe next time you pop in this movie and see if the first half isn’t just as scary as the finale.

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