I just started rock climbing at my university gym so I figured, why not address my fear of heights, darkness and small spaces by explori...

"There's Something Down Here...": The Descent and Fears of the Archaic Mother

I just started rock climbing at my university gym so I figured, why not address my fear of heights, darkness and small spaces by exploring a film where a bunch of women go rock climbing and the horrors that ensue? That’s how we arrive at The Descent, Neil Marshall’s trauma drama about a group of women who go caving and find themselves on the wrong end of darkness, cave-ins and did I mention albino man-monsters?

If you remember my post on Dog Soldiers last month, Neil likes to place women and their bodies at the center of horror, and while The Descent stars an all female cast, the same is true of this film. Instead of fears of the abject female body represented in the werewolf, Marshall uses the cavernous imagery of the cave to represent fears of descending back into the womb of the archaic mother.

According to Barbara Creed, the “ ‘archaic mother’ represents woman as sexual difference ” and she is present “in all horror films as the blackness of extinction…a force that threatens to reincorporate what it has given birth too” Think the damp and dark spaces of Alien where the astronauts discover the threatening alien life form that turns them into walking wombs via chestbursters.

This “blackness” finds strong parallels with the darkness the women of The Descent are plunged into, but another example of the archaic mother can also be found in Dracula’s castle from the Bela Lugosi film, with its “winding stairways, spider webs, dark vaults, worm eaten staircases, dust and damp earth” The archaic mother can be found anywhere there is a void that threatens the phallus with its otherness and absence.

The concept of the archaic mother can be easily applied to The Descent, as these women repel down into a dark, womb-like space that presents annihilation in the form of carnivorous man-monsters. Sam ends up in a menstrual soup to avoid the creatures and in the end escapes the womb in a dramatic birthing scene, climbing over piles of bones (marking the womb as a place of death rather than life) to burst out of the undergrowth and into the light.

There are sexual parallels at work here that even the actors recognize. On the making of featurette, several of the actresses comment on how a tunnel piece for the next scene looks like a vagina. One of them turns to ask the other about her lines in said tunnel, to which she replies “It’s a nice tight crack, but I think I can get through” the word crack doubling as slang for the vagina. Both actresses stifle a giggle when a crew member tells them the tunnel will be smeared with slime before the shoot. Tunnels need lubricant too.

When the actresses make the director aware of the tunnel/vagina connection , Neil only replies, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” Sometimes it is Neil, but there are other times when a cave can be a womb and a tunnel can be a vagina—and that time is now.


  1. Yeah... women crawling through an 'other' women's vagina...

    But if you look HARD enough...

    Sometimes crawling out of a hole in the ground is just crawling out of a hole in the ground.

    Maybe you should look at more current topics for debate.

  2. Great post as usual. Very thought provoking stuff. Love your perspective of horror.