(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Matt Donato and Ariel Fisher. In this edition: one of the scariest scenes in 47 Meters Down plays on our phobias.)
We all have our phobias. Some of us are arachnophobic (there’s a movie about this one!), nyctophobic (fear of the dark), coulrophobic (Pennywise wants a word), or, you know, any of the hundreds that exist. So, since it’s my turn to bring the scares this week, I chose one that plays on my very peculiar phobias that most people don’t know about: thalassophobia and megalohydrothalassophobia.
No, I didn’t just make those up. Yes, they’re real and they suck.
Thalassophobia is defined as the fear of the ocean or large bodies of water and their dark depths. Megalohydrothalassophobia, on the other hand, is a bit of a moving target. Essentially, it’s the fear of large things or creatures in the water, almost specifically underneath you, and even the vast emptiness of the ocean’s depths.
Now, believe it or not, this wasn’t my attempt at a hyper-specific flex. Instead, it’s setting the stage for my scene this week, and it comes courtesy of the underwater gong show that is 47 Meters Down.
Admittedly, there are many scenes in this movie that get to me. The whole damn thing is a big ol’ “nope” fest, and yet I keep watching it because, apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment. Today’s scene is a very simple one and it has literally made me run away from the TV thrice at this point.
We’re talking about the canyon and its potentially endless abyss.
47 Meters Down is about two sisters having a lovely vacation in Mexico when they make some poor life choices and wind up stuck in a cage 47 meters below the surface of the ocean. That’s not a spoiler, it’s literally in the name.
The recently (and unceremoniously) dumped Lisa (Mandy Moore) and her sister, Kate (Claire Holt), decide to do a little cage diving while on their trip. Kate, the certified diver and presumably more adventurous of the two finds a local guy named Captain Taylor (played by Matthew Modine, because of course) with a boat and a cage. Those are the only real qualifying factors Kate’s looked for here and, unfortunately, that literally and metaphorically bites them both in the ass.
The Story So Far
Right off the hop, this isn’t Jaws. But while it’s not one of the single most iconic movies of all time, it still has a lot to offer. Where the granddaddy of all shark movies gives us beautiful character development and moments of both calm and levity, 47 Meters Down offers none of that. It quite literally throws you in the deep end immediately and dares you to swim.
After admitting to Kate that Stuart, the MIA boyfriend, has actually left her because “he got bored,” Lisa confides in her sister that she only went on the trip to present herself as fun and adventurous so he’d come back. So, naturally, this means it’s time for drinks!
Kate drags Lisa out to the bars so they can both get their dance and drink on where they meet two cute guys. The next night they have dinner, get convinced to go cage diving even though Lisa doesn’t have her certification, but it’s just five minutes underwater in a cage, it’s totally safe!
That escalated quickly.
The next day, their new friends take them to Captain Taylor’s boat complete with rusted cage and gear. Every fiber of Lisa’s being is screaming “this is a mistake!” But she doesn’t want to be boring, so she convinces herself to relax. It’s no big deal, it’ll be fun!
Javier (Chris Johnson), Taylor’s employee, starts making a big show of chumming the water, something even Kate recognizes as a red flag. Yet they still convince themselves to go, even after Lisa damn near backs out.
After watching their new friends dive without incident, Lisa and Kate, both terrified, get suited up. They go in the cage, cage goes in the water, they go in the water. Sharks are in the water. Multiple sharks. One of them even eats their camera when Lisa drops it. Then, as if we didn’t see this coming (you know, from the trailer and the title of the film), the winch breaks and the cage plummets 47 meters down.
Up until now, everything felt relatively light, vaguely predictable, and very MTV.
From here on in, all bets are off.
After swimming up a few feet from the cage to get a radio signal, Kate manages to tell Taylor they’re okay but they need help. Javier’s coming down with a replacement winch to get them back up to safety, but in the meantime, Taylor tells them to stay in the cage: “It’s the only safe place from the sharks.”
Eventually, they see Javier’s flashlight way off in the distance and start trying to signal him over. He’s just out of range. One of them has to swim out to him, and Kate’s oxygen is at a critical level, forcing Lisa to make the swim and avoid the sharks.
As she makes her way out to Javier, she hides in the rocks on the ocean floor to protect herself from the underwater behemoths hunting her. Eventually, she gets to what looks like a cliff looking into an endless abyss. There’s nothing in front of her, nothing below her, and she has no choice but to swim out across this underwater canyon in order to get help.
She swims out into the endless nothing, the shots shifting from long takes of darkness and floating particles in the light to brief closeups of Lisa, petrified. The entire scene is a waiting game in near-complete silence. We all know there are predators in the darkness, but there’s no way to know where they are or when they’ll strike.
The abyss is so vast it feels like it might swallow you whole if something doesn’t grab you first. What’s worse is now she’s lost, unable to tell where she’s come from or where she needs to go to get back to safety. She has to now take a chance and hope she guesses correctly.
A masterclass in sustaining tension, this scene forces you to wait for what feels like an eternity before finally releasing the pressure and allowing you to breathe again. Even if only for a moment.
The Impact (Matt’s Take)
Would you believe that I almost used a different 47 Meters Down scare for my inaugural entry? There’s so much thrilling aquatic sustenance packed into a single pressurized tank, and to steal Ariel’s food analogies, it’s a bit like picking morsel after delectable morsel from a seafood tower. An oyster shooter, a king crab leg, a lobster claw dipped in melted butter — you can keep experiencing a new joy over and over, much like how watching 47 Meters Down is like feasting on an icy mountain of chill-you-senseless scares.
I understand this paranoia on a personal level, even the Megalohydrothalassophobia Ariel mentions. I vacationed at a neighboring lake not far from Lake Placid throughout my childhood where we’d swim and partake in water sports. Do you know what’s a terrible movie to watch when you’re already irked by murky depths that provide no view below? Lake Placid. Cut to a younger me floating behind a boat with water skis, bobbing up and down, convinced this would be the time he’s swallowed whole by an enormous reptile.
To me, that definition of Megalohydrothalassophobia bonds with my fear of the “unknown,” in this case represented outside spectral realms. In the same way I fear Paranormal Activity’s Toby because of his invisibility, holy buckets does this particular sequence in 47 Meters Down cause me to tremble because of everything Ariel outlines — we comprehend what’s out there, but can’t pinpoint where. It’s one thing to prepare for a Great White lunging forward like a torpedo from three football field lengths away. Dread settles in, but what if we’re not offered that chance to brace for impact?
“Just keep swimming,” a mantra of life or death. An open seabed crevasse enters view that could hold one, three, or 20 sharks. The horror of what we cannot see becomes the signature of 47 Meters Down, and all director Johannes Roberts needs is the deepest blues to cause paralytic reactions before a fin even surfaces.
We’ve seen Jaws, understand the threat sharks pose, and this precise sequence is an example of how our minds spin out of control to ensure recurring nightmares feature scuba dives through an abyssal void. Expectations teach us to prepare for a creature-feature attack. It’s almost worse how Roberts dangles bait and taunts us, delivering a fright that’s nothing but oceanic vastness and imposing landscapes.
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