The "underground' is a tool that filmmakers use to manipulate the mood of the film. Here are some ways you can use it for your next film.
Think back to the beginning of the third act in Parasite, when Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun) stands before the dark staircase to a hidden basement and looks back into the camera and asks, “Want to come down with me?” It’s a terrifying moment because the audience is unaware of what is waiting for them down there.
Basements are creepy.
They are creepy because they are confined, dark spaces with only one exit for escape, but, even worse, they are underground. There is an ominous feeling about them—how deep are they? What is held inside?
Now You See It breaks down the vast collection of symbolic meanings that underground spaces hold that filmmakers use in their stories. Let's venture down together!
What We Fear the Most
In the early 20th century, Freud came up with a theory that there is a dark, inaccessible space in our mind called the id. His theory had a massive, cultural impact on how people understood their minds, which ended up sneaking its way into film.
Basements are a classic representation of what a character’s external or internal fears are.
For Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) in Home Alone, his fear of the basement comes from his lack of confidence in being alone and taking care of himself. Kevin overcomes this fear of being alone once he goes down there and confronts what he was most afraid of.
A character’s trauma is often brought to life in a basement. When a character enters the underground, they are also confronting their trauma. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice (Jodie Foster) recounts a moment in her childhood where she was unable to save a lamb from being slaughtered that traumatized her for life. Later in the film, Clarice doesn’t have to save a literal lamb, but a symbolic one that is about to be slaughtered by Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). For Clarice, Buffalo Bill’s underground lair is her purgatory where she has to overcome the trauma that has been with her for years.
In It, not only does Pennywise (Tim Curry in 1986 and Bill Skarsgård in 2017) live underground but he also shapeshifts into the children’s trauma because he feeds off of their fear. These films showcase how the underground is used to bring the characters' fear and trauma into the physical world they are living in.
A Safe Space to be Vulnerable
The underground isn’t just a scary place that feeds off of characters’ fears, it is also a form of protection. That protection can span anywhere from being protected from the monsters that are roaming aboveground, a safe place to cook meth, or an escape from the hardships of reality.
Underground spaces can be used to allow characters space to relax and unwind.
Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) from I Love You, Man has created his underground space into a mancave to escape the pains of the real world outside of the door. Basements can hide characters from literal and metaphorical danger. Seth’s (Jonah Hill) and Evan’s (Michael Cera) last sleepover in the basement in Superbad allow the characters to drop the “cool-guy” act and be vulnerable with one another. Some characters are unable to function in the real world and use the safety of a basement to protect them.
The enclosed space also allows the film to show the interpersonal relationships that characters have with each other.
A Little Bit of Heaven, a Little Bit of Hell
In 10 Cloverfield Lane, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is trying to figure out if the underground bunker is a heaven or a prison. This film showcases the tactics of a manipulative relationship; it might suck outside of the safety of these four walls, but the relationship isn’t much better.
This same use of underground space is used in Breaking Bad when Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Walter (Bryan Cranston) are bickering about a fly in the superlab. They can’t agree if there is a problem or not, and the high pressure, isolated space focuses on the interpersonal issues that both characters have with each other.
A Good Place to Keep Secrets
The underground can also be used as a way to hide secrets. In Don’t Breathe, a seemingly harmless, blind old man has a woman tied up in his basement. Or think of the Necronomicon that sits in the cabin’s basement in Evil Dead. There are countless examples of hidden secrets in the underground that makes everyone in the audience squirm uncomfortably in their seats, because there is no good way of escaping what is to come.
The power balance between characters can also be showcased through the underground and intense camera angles. Bong Joon-ho, known for his film commentaries on social class, uses the camera to pan up or down on the character depending on their social status in the film. In the beginning, the camera looks down on the family, but as they infiltrate the rich family, they gain control of the camera’s angles—that is, until the nuclear bunker is discovered. The family falls from the staircase and immediately shifts back into the position that they were in at the start of the film.
Basements are a powerful tool in storytelling. There are already so many ideas tied to what the underground represents. These ideas can be used to show the plot twist, a climactic moment, or reveals something valuable about a character. There are so many ways that a filmmaker can use the underground in a story.
What is your favorite underground moment from film? Let us know below!