“Love Each Day”: The Comfort of Death in The Descent

Death in The Descent is perfunctory. It is punctuation. A pipe through the head. A pickaxe in the neck. Neil Marshall’s modern horror classic was one of the first R-rated horror films I watched as I was leaving the Mormon Church in 2007 and I remember it most vividly for its body count — not unusual for the genre, of course, but new to me at the time, and bracingly so.

Mortality was at the top of my mind at the time. I had heart problems, yes. But more pressingly, my anxiety — which had always been inflected by my religion — was running rampant. Unless I distracted myself, the finitude of life was a near-constant preoccupation. I wasn’t scared of cave monsters feasting on my flesh; I was worried about far more mundane ends: dying in a car accident or withering away on a hospital bed.

But somehow I found the rhythm of death in The Descent comforting. As the spelunkers slipped through narrow passageways, venturing ever deeper into the Appalachian cave system, I felt fearful on their behalf, of course. But there was something soothing in the knowledge that fate was closing in around them just as surely as the rock. Certainty in and of itself can be calming, even when it’s certainty of an end.

Around that same time, my therapist ran me through an unusual thought experiment in one of our weekly meetings: “Imagine,” he said,“that I crush a bag of potato chips, dump them on the floor, and tell you to clean them up. What would you do?”

I said I’d tell him to get lost. He continued: “What if I had a gun?”

“Well, then I’d do it.” I had no idea where he was going with this.

But what he said next changed everything: “Now, imagine I take out the gun and I tell you I need you to reassemble each potato chip into its original form — or else I’ll shoot.”

Impossible. It couldn’t be done.

“So what would happen?” he asked.

“You’d shoot me.”

“And then?”

“I’d be dead.”

“And?”

“Well, I’d be dead.”

The point, he explained, was not for me to ponder some Saw-like scenario in which I was hunted by a sadistic psychologist who moonlights as a potato chip-crushing serial killer, but rather for me to accept that bad things — including but not limited to death — happen. They happen unexpectedly. And they are largely beyond my control.

Over the course of The Descent, the “final girl” Sarah Carter loses her husband, her child, and all of her friends, one of whom she’s forced to mercy kill. She discovers that one of her closest friends, Juno, was having an affair with her husband. And as if that’s not enough, she has to fend off a small army of terrifying humanoid creatures who have perfectly evolved to navigate the darkness of the underground caverns. Everything awful that could happen to Sarah does happen — and then some.

In the UK version, it is strongly suggested that Sarah dies at the end. American audiences watched her survive, leaving room for a middling and unnecessary sequel. Either way, Sarah is utterly destroyed through no fault of her own, a victim of circumstance. She can’t pick up the pieces and put them back together again; she’s just fucked.

Since 2007, I have used the “potato chip” trick countless times. Anxiety never fully vacates your brain, but you can often disarm it, I have learned, by simply accepting the worst possible outcome — and then being pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t come to pass. For example, if the fear is “What if my plane crashes?” I ask myself, “What then?” and respond, “Well, I’d probably die on impact.” There’s nowhere to go from there but up.

And I think that’s why horror movies console me. They take the worst possible things that can happen — like getting trapped in a cave with a pack of hungry beasts — and make them real. Watching death over and over again almost robs it of its power. On a technical level, yes, horror movies want me to feel anxious — what with all the darkness and Dutch angles and claustrophobic shots — but instead they allow me to project my anxiety outward, to render it abstract and representational rather than immanent to myself.

Horror films remind me that the end is coming. That there’s nothing that entitles a person to a pain-free life, nor is there some arbitrary threshold for the amount of suffering a person experiences in a lifetime before they’re given a reprieve. Sarah didn’t get that. Some people don’t — and when my life feels overwhelming, I try to remember that I’m not going to reach some cosmic quota after which it will all just go away.

The best I can do is to “love each day,” as Sarah’s husband, however unfaithful, liked to say. Because knowing that I’ll run out of days — accepting that I will — is what has made them livable.