A cult classic horror gets even creepier thanks to an unsettling new theory


Neil Marshall’s The Descent is one of the horror director’s best-loved movies. He may have risen to fame with his soldiers vs. werewolves horror actioner, Dog Soldiers, but this claustrophobic horror etched his name in rock. 

The Descent is a superbly directed subterranean slasher that still captures the imagination as it approaches its 20th birthday. Fans are still poring over the cult movie’s narrative, which leaves the door open for a few theories, including a particularly unsettling one that recently popped up to turn the film on its head. 

Here’s a quick and spoiler-packed refresher if you haven’t seen The Descent in a while. 

A year after losing her husband and daughter in a car accident, Sarah joins her thrill-seeking friends for a spelunking adventure in the Appalachian Mountains. As the friends confront the recent tragedy and damaged friendships, a rockfall traps them in what is quickly revealed to be an unknown cave system. Hopes of healing and repairing relationships in the group struggle as they realize that some kind of vicious humanoid species, which they dub crawlers, are in the dark caves with them. A frantic escape sees Sarah survive as a memorable Final Girl.

No wonder it’s a modern classic, and despite a poorly-regarded follow-up, interest in further sequels won’t go away. But what if we’ve been reading it wrong all this time?

The well-thought-out theory on the /r/FanTheories subreddit suggests that Sarah was the danger all along. Alongside some fascinating evidence to back up the plot readings, it’s notable that Sarah enters the caves with five friends and has to kill five crawlers to survive. 

The idea won plaudits for being a top-tier fan theory.

It also prompted early warnings that even if someone returned to test the theory, they’d have to buckle up for the “terrifying” film. 

Although, some were quick to point out that a chilling, lesser-seen end to the movie already exists. An extended ending for The Descent was released in the U.K. but chopped from the U.S. release for fears it was too depressing. Well… it does reveal the escape to have been a hallucination, with Sarah imagining her torchlight as a birthday candle. As the illusion disappears, Sarah is left in the darkness with the sound of approaching crawlers.

The extended ending at most hints at Sarah’s feelings towards her friends, whereas this theory jumps right down the rabbit hole.

The extended ending and this theory build on the dual meaning of the movie’s title — a descent into madness. In every cut of the film, parts of the plot depended on Sarah hallucinating, including her appearing to wake in an abandoned hospital after the early tragic accident. 

In the version where she’s a Final Girl, Sarah must become as savage as the crawlers and unlock her inner killer, to survive. Clearly, the more Sarah’s to blame, the more horror fans seem to like it. It’s a neat work around one of the major complaints — that for all its horror thrills, it’s essentially a creature feature. For some, the movie falls down a canyon as soon as the monsters appear. So maybe a more psychological and sinister reading will increase its popularity even more. 

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