The Return of the Repressed in 'The Descent'

Updated on August 29, 2018

A usual narrative convention within the horror film genre is to pose a conflict between a sole feminine protagonist who must develop in character to overcome a monstrous antagonist. Film scholar Robin Wood applies Herbert Marcuse’s theory of surplus repression to the horror genre to explain the significance of the monster antagonist, and their relevance in relation to the feminine horror protagonist. This article will apply Wood’s analysis to explain how surplus repression affects feminity in horror films, specifically in focus to Neil Marshall's The Descent.

Firstly, the term ‘surplus repression’ according to Wood ‘is specific to a particular culture and is the process whereby people are conditioned from the earliest infancy to take on predetermined roles within that culture.’ If surplus repression were to work in relevance to dominant values, then the most apparent predetermined role for females would be ‘feminine passivity’. Through societal patriarchy, women are deterred to be actively creative and are encouraged to be emotional and intellectually weak. This notion is expressed in The Descent through the early representation of the protagonist Sarah (Shauna Macdonald). She is often, screaming, weeping and essentially struggling within the setting of a rough natural world where one has to be physically and mentally strong to dominate. Fundamentally, she does not obtain traits that are more conventional associated with masculinity, as Sarah's socially constructed ‘female passivity’ does not fit into the highly dangerous masculine environment surrounding her.

To survive Sara must take on her repressed masculine attributes and overcome what Wood describes as a 'surplus repression of bisexuality'. According to Wood; ‘[a] crucial aspect of the repression of bisexuality is the denial to women of drives culturally associated with masculinity: activeness, aggression, self-assertion, organizational power, creativity itself.’ Sarah must transform from the passive weak female, into the active masculine female. This transformation is signified through a mid-shot of Sarah rising head first from a pool of blood. The symbolism of birth, or in this case re-birth, portrays Sarah’s progression back to her repressed roles.


From this exact point in the narrative, she goes on to kill many of the monsters as well as one of her female companions, Juno (Natalie Mendoza). The interesting aspect of Sarah’s transformation is her intense levels of aggression. She becomes savagely barbaric when fighting the monsters. As well as using blunt objects to kill she also uses her hands, in particular, her fingers. A close-up portrays her fingers eye-gauging the grotesque face of one of the monsters. Actions like this arguably deny the process of ‘basic repression’ as well as surplus repression, as Sarah is no longer distinctively human, she is essentially as animalistic as the monsters she is fighting. The portrayals of this hyper-violent conduct from Sarah shows the deepest and earliest drives of human beings. As Valdine Clemens explains; the emergence of extreme violence in a passive character within the horror genre is ‘not simply to indulge in wish fulfillment of unacceptable instinctual impulses, but to unlock such doors and to reveal a fuller view of human nature that is generally held.’

The monster figure itself is highly significant in terms of repression. According to Wood the horror genre uses the monster as a ‘dramatization of the dual concept, the repressed/the other.’ This theory can be applied to the monsters of The Descent, as they represent the repressed masculine violence that Sarah must revert to for survival. Especially the figure of the female monster, which happens to be the first monster which Sarah kills after her “re-birth” sequence. Although the monsters are represented as “other”, through their aesthetics of scaly skin, claws and sharp teeth, they still seem to have an extremely similar anatomy of a “normal” human being. As Bruce F. Kawin’s case study of the monsters in The Descent observes; ‘[t]hey may once have been humans or may have split off from a common ancestor… there are males and females. They growl and squeak, and it’s possible that lets them communicate. They are subhuman creatures of the dark, as threatening as the huge black systems of the cave.’

The certain humanness of the antagonists in The Descent portrays a distinct link between the represented “other” in the monster, and the “norm” in the protagonist Sarah. As well as the physical representation, a link can also be conceived through the certain aspects of mise-en-scene. For example; there is a low angle close-up of Sarah crawling through a tunnel of the cave. In the background of this shot, there is a silhouette of one of the monsters with his/her hand clawed and stretched out. The lining and positioning of the shadow is placed to appear as Sarah’s own shadow. Therefore showing a direct link to Sarah’s repression as Wood states; ‘[t]he doppelganger motif reveals the monster as normalities shadow.'

In conclusion, it can be argued that it is essential for a feminine character to return the repressed drives of “normal” human nature to survive in the form of the horror genre. The protagonist must essentially adapt to the repressed state that is manifested in the representation of the monster and take back their socially repressed drives. As Freud states; ‘What is repressed must always strive to return.’

Works Cited

Clemens, Valadine, The Return of the Repressed: Gothic Horror from the Castle of Otranto to Alien (New York: University Press, 1999)

Kawin, Bruce F., Horror and the Horror Film (New York: Anthem Press, 2012)

Wood, Robin, ‘An Introduction to the American Horror Film’ in Grant, Barry K. (ed) Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press)

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