Earlier this week, I reviewed the recent episode of Lore that covered the legends and superstitions associated with mines and caves. This got me to thinking about how such underground sites have served as recurrent settings in works of American Gothic horror. In retrospect, it’s not hard to see why writers and filmmakers have turned again and again to the subterranean. Places of pitch-black darkness, caves and mines can be filled with threats both natural and otherwise; they can be populated with our own subconscious dreads as well as supernatural terrors. The history of cave- and mine-set scenes is a rich one, tracing all the way back to the origins of the American Gothic genre (the title character’s frightful battles with a panther and a tribe of Indians inside a cave in Charles Brockden Brown’s 1799 novel Edgar Huntly). Here’s my choice of eight exemplary works from books, film, and TV. This survey is admittedly subjective, and should not be taken as an attempted ranking of the eight greatest (I am well aware that classic texts by Poe, Lovecraft, King, and Ketchum are not included here).
This 1972 made-for-TV movie plays at times like a bad riff on a Planet of the Apes film (why would a winged gargoyle resort to riding on a horse?), and most of the eponymous antagonists look like outcasts from a Land of the Lost episode. But the makeup (done by the then-unknown Stan Winston) for the head gargoyle is amazing, and the Arizona-desert cave that forms the den for the devilish creatures is wonderfully creepy and labyrinthine. I remember being mesmerized by this movie when I saw it televised one weekend afternoon as a kid, and have no doubt it was a formative influence on my interest in the macabre.
Wait, I can hear you saying, isn’t Rambo an action-adventure hero? Anyone, though, who has read David Morrell’s novel knows that First Blood (1972) demonstrates a flair for the Gothic. The scene of the fugitive Rambo’s descent into a mine and forced traverse of a chamber teeming with bats and beetles is as harrowing as any ever featured in a horror film or book. Morrell immerses the reader in the grotesque muck and disorienting darkness right along with the viewpoint character, expertly chilling the blood.
“You can get dehydration, disorientation, claustrophobia, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations, visual and aural deteriorations, a cave can collapse, you can drown.” One of the characters reels off this list of potential dangers as her all-girl group of adventurers heads toward an uncharted cave deep in the Appalachians. Unfortunately, they will soon be able to add to the list, after they run afoul of a group of gruesome, carnivorous Gollums prowling within. Savagely scary, The Descent (2005) does for spelunking what the opening scene of Jaws does for skinny dipping in the ocean.
*My Bloody Valentine 3D
This 2009 remake relocates the 1981 Canadian slasher squarely to small-town America (the ironically-named mining community of Harmony) and offers some nice twists for those familiar with the plot of the earlier movie. Filmed in 3D, and concerned with the exploits of a homicidal, pickaxe-wielding coal miner, My Bloody Valentine 3D stages some eye-popping (literally, in one case) kills. Some of the graphics here do prove a bit cartoonish, but the underground scenes nonetheless possess a stark realism, thanks to their being shot on location inside a former working mine.
*”The Dark Down There”
Don’t be fooled by the author’s trademark grotesque humor and bawdy dialogue here. Joe R. Lansdale is also a master of crafting tremendously frightening scenes, as can be seen in this 2010 Weird Western story collected in Deadman’s Road. The gunslinging protagonist Reverend Jebediah Mercer battles a horde of Kobolds that have overrun a mine, and man, these are some nasty goblins. When they are not chewing off people’s heads and feet, they enslave humans and put them to backbreaking work in the mine. And their reigning queen, a bloated Kobold “pile of living flesh,” is so repulsive, she makes Jabba the Hutt seem like he belongs on the cover of GQ.
*”Lost in the Dark”
John Langan’s title suggests an exercise in primal fearmongering, and the ensuing novella (first published in the 2017 anthology Haunted Nights) certainly delivers the goods. The tale centers on Bad Agatha, a possibly inhuman predator who, according to Halloween lore, has made an old cement mine in the Hudson Valley her lair. The extensive scenes leading a set of hapless characters down into said mine demonstrate the terrifying heights that horror fiction can reach. With its thematic blurring of Blair-Witchy documentary filmmaking and make-believe monstrosity, Langan’s narrative begs to be brought to the big screen.
Edgar Cantero’s 2017 novel (which I reviewed here) is an incredibly witty postmodern mash-up of Scooby-Doo-style sleuthing and Cthulhu-Mythos-alluding horror. When a group of former teen detectives reopen the case that made them famous, their investigations take them deep into an Oregon mine containing a mother lode of bogeys: the carbon-dioxide-breathing “wheezers.” How richly eldritch does the tale get? Well, these creatures are merely the hench-things of a monstrous chthonic deity out of Lovecraft waiting to ascend to earthly supremacy.
*The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
There are plenty of terrifically eerie settings in this 2018-2019 Netflix series, but none outstrips the mine in the Greendale woods. The place is the site of a deadly cave-in triggered by a malicious witches’ spell (Chapter 7), and in the second-season finale (Chapter 20), demonic hordes are ready to break through the Gates of Hell located within the mine and inaugurate the End Times. For my money, though, the show’s best venture into the tunnels comes in Chapter 2, when a prank against the bullying jocks of Baxter High takes an even darker turn with a game of “Devil in the Dark.”