Nothing good ever happens underground.
Only misery and torment could ever await someone in places where the sun cannot pierce. There’s never any real promise of good things to come when you find yourself walking deeper and deeper underground. Perhaps it’s the sensory deprivation that comes from being caught in total darkness, not knowing where you’re headed or where you’ve been and how quickly you lose your orientation of left, right, up, and down. Maybe it’s the claustrophobia that often accompanies underground treks. Subway tunnels that just barely fit your train car as it barrels quickly, too quickly, into the abyss. Caverns that, without warning, suddenly shrink so that you are walking sideways with your lungs pressed against the rocky surface. Maybe it’s just the person next to you that you are traveling underground with. Below the surface there are no rules and no structures. It is a lawless land where the sun does not shine. You are caught in this strange environment with no reference and very few outlets for escape. It’s grimly ironic that the dark tunnels that echo and magnify your terrified screams are also the same that separate you from anyone who would hear and/or care.
The underground world has always been associated with fear and death. Most religions and cultures assign the dead to a land beneath the earth’s surface. We naturally fear that which we cannot see or understand, and since we cannot see the world beneath our feet it seems to us almost immediately foreign and frightening. Hell, Hades, all realms assigned to the underground. If you’ve ever been to Rome and visit the Catacombs you will realize that you are walking around a city that was literally built on top of the dead and the dead keep the city’s foundations.
In popular culture and media, if you want to scare someone or create a setting for tension and fear, you go deep. The deeper you go, the more you feel your breath getting caught in your throat and your joints tighten. It is a perfect environment for capturing the worst of us and our fears.
Last month I saw a great film that took place almost completely underground. The Tunnel is a Korean film about a car salesman who, on the way home for his daughter’s birthday, gets caught inside a catastrophic tunnel collapse. While we get glimpses of the surface world watching his wife, various members of the rescue crew, the Korean government, and the Korean public, the majority of the movie is spent with Jung-Soo as he spends what amounts to months caught underneath the rubble and destruction. Jung-Soo is your average father. He is neither incredibly noble nor despicable. He is not a hero so much as he is a survivor. He has no extraordinary features or values that would separate how he handled the situation from how we might have perhaps done. In his ability to be so accessible and generic his fears and anxieties very quickly translate into ours. Imagine being knocked out and coming to your senses caught underground, with pieces of cement pinning you to your car and dangerously sharp pieces of metal inches from your face. Every movement, no matter how slight, could mean the difference between another day and almost certain doom as you disturb the chaotic balance of structure that keeps the entirety of the tunnel crashing down on you. The Tunnel is an excellent example of how the darkness and the isolation of being underground can make us so afraid. It preys on our fears and makes us think twice about entering that long tunnel to nowhere. Which is especially stressful for me because the Lincoln Tunnel is one of the best ways for me to get into New York. I could see a lot of people with serious claustrophobia finding this movie hard to get through. It does an excellent job of framing the very tunnel itself as the antagonist of the movie. It is large and menacing and reckless and it claims life and land in mere moments with no warning or second thought. It’s stressful, tense, and gripping, which makes it an excellent example.
Once again we find ourselves at the entrance of a long underground tunnel with no light on the other side. Only this time we’re in a train instead of a car and instead of the Korean film The Tunnel it is the Japanese graphic novel Dragon Head. I read this back in high school and, considering the protagonist was also a high schooler simply on his way back home from a field day, I found the series unnerving and almost too relatable. A powerful earthquake, preceded by a flash of mysterious light from the entrance of the tunnel, derails Teru’s train and destroys the tunnel it’s in. Teru is knocked out very early on and when he finally comes to, he sees in horror that most of his classmates and teachers have all been killed. Unlike The Tunnel which plays on our fear of the underground, Dragon Head does an excellent job of playing on the fear of what being underground can do to us. There are no teachers, no authority figures, and with rubble on both sides of the tunnel, seemingly no escape. The fear of being pushed to the brink of our civility and sanity is heightened and magnified in the vacuous cavern of the underground tunnel. You could give in to the crushing despair and trauma of not only being trapped but being trapped in a literal coffin filled with the countless dead bodies of friends and teachers. With no light and no reference there is no way for you to count the days as you slowly descend into depression or madness. Worse than witnessing yourself descend into madness would be to watch your fellow survivors get there much faster, and almost more willingly, than you. Teru has to very quickly recover from the initial shock as the seeming security of the underground tunnel unleashes feverish madness in other fellow survivors. There must be something about the idea of being so far removed from retribution or restriction that some people are almost immediately willing to surrender themselves to the darkness. People go crazy underground, perhaps because they feel they are safe from the gaze of others. This is no light read and is filled with mystery and loss and the darkest aspects of humanity. Dragon Head won the Kodansha Manga Award for general manga in 1997 and in 2000 won the Award for Excellence at the 4th Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize for its depiction of loss, fear, despair, and ultimately, madness.
Metro, The Descent, As Above So Below, Here They Lie, Etc
In both games and movies, underground settings are extremely popular for immediately placing the viewer in a state of dread and fear. It is not being underground that scares us. It is not who we are or who we might become. It is the fear of what may yet lie in the darkness underground with us. Often times in horror films and games there are moment of brief escape. We know as the sun goes up the demons must disappear. Even if for a brief moment we are given respite. But when you are underground, truly underground, there is no such escape. The sun does not shine and there is no way of knowing where, or when, you find yourself in the dark. This lack of knowing and awareness, deprived of our senses in a dark and quiet world, makes every shadow, every sound, every sensation that much more terrifying. I’ve played Here They Lie in demo on PlayStation and I’ve played both Metro 2033 and its sequel, Metro: Last Light on PlayStation. Both take place in a post-nuclear fallout world where survivors are relegated to surviving underground in the vast metro systems of Moscow. It is a tense first-person shooter with both human and, most terrifyingly of all, non-human enemies lurking in the darkness of the unexplored expanses of the subway system. The further you explore beyond the limits of your encampment the darker it becomes and the more frightening. I remember there were intense scenes when I was just not willing to step any further into the dark with nothing but my flashlight. That same sensation is captured only in virtual reality and in 360° sound. Shadows stalk you in the tunnels of Here They Lie and as they rush behind you, you can hear the raspy breath of whatever it is almost inches from your neck. Personally I love these games but that’s because I know how effective the setting is in creating the promise of terror.
Horror films are smart to use this to their advantage as well. The Descent made great use of minimal lighting and effects to deliver maximum scare factor. As Above So Below set itself in the catacombs below Paris with urban explorers in much deeper than they realized. It is again that combination of claustrophobia, darkness, and isolation that only the underground world can elicit. After watching these films you may want to think twice before going anywhere where you have to leave the waking world not behind but above you.
Apropos to the season of scream, thinking about the promises of the underground puts us in a great mood to be scared out of our minds. Often times it takes very little, once we realize where we are, to make us second guess every sound and sight.
Man: 86 Loneliness: 20