The Creepiest Caves in Movie History
A deep dive on caves from iconic adventure and horror movies.
If movie tropes have taught us anything, it's that you shouldn't go into the basement, follow the source of ominous noises, or go spelunking, casually or more seriously, lest you're prepared for your day to go horribly wrong. Movie caves and their claustrophobic ilk are perhaps the biggest no-go zones of all, with something hiding out in their depths that should, under no circumstances, should be awakened or tampered with. But these films' protagonists and their unslakable curiosity for what lies beneath have provided audiences with countless hours of top-notch entertainment within these (super)natural underground wonders. From the very first cave that probably terrified you as a kid to the caves that grab you and won't let go as an adult, these are the creepiest caves in movie history.
The cave-cage in Ace in the Hole (1951)
What if the creepiness of the cave wasn't the cave itself, but what the cave represents? That's the case in Billy Wilder's 1951 masterpiece Ace in the Hole. Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a reporter who, having flamed out of jobs in bigger cities, takes a job at an Albuquerque newspaper. Outside of the city, in a small town, he discovers a story that could put him on the map again. A man named Leo (Richard Benedict) is hunting for Native American artifacts when he is trapped in a cave. Instead of immediately helping to rescue him, Chuck manipulates the situation so Leo can be stuck for as long as possible. The site of the accident turns into a tourist attraction and Chuck's byline has value again, but as Leo starts to wither away, Chuck's conscious roils. It's not the scenes inside Leo's holding place that make Ace in the Hole a terrifying cave movie, but the ones around it, all representations of how humans are drawn to sensational stories without considering how it affects their fellow man.
The Cave of Wonders in Aladdin (1992)
It's a kids' movie, they said. How scary can that cave be? Well, generations of children were traumatized when the Cave of Wonders emerged from the sand in Disney's 1992 hit Aladdin and opened its gaping maw. (This writer, for instance, famously ran out of the theaters screaming, embarrassing her parents.) The Cave of Wonders has the rare honor of being a cave that's actually scarier from the outside than it is on the inside. Inside, you get a vaudevillian song and dance number from Genie. Outside, it's a growling tiger warning that only a "diamond in the rough" may enter and swallowing its unworthy victims. Disney's animators used early CG-techniques to give the cave a dimension that the other landscapes in Aladdin don't have, adding to its terrors.
Secrets are great, when you’re in on them. Luckily, it doesn’t take an inside connection to get a great rate on insurance. State Farm® helps you keep more of your hard-earned dollars with surprisingly great rates. Getting the right coverage for your budget — with no secrets required — means more to spend on your preferred adventure. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.®
The catacombs in The Descent (2005)
When it comes to creepy cave movies, there's no beating The Descent. Directed with rigor and skill by Neil Marshall, who would go on to shoot many of the large-scale Game of Thrones battle episodes, this horror film understands that being lost in a tight, confined space is scary enough. For a good chunk of its runtime, the movie wrings an almost unbearable level of tension out of the scenario without the need to introduce anything supernatural or otherworldly. Then, in an almost sadistic manner, the script introduces cave-dwelling monsters to the mix to make everything even scarier. Not cool, Neil Marshall, not cool.
The skeleton cave in The Empty Man (2020)
Dumped in theaters with little fanfare by Fox in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, the cult film The Empty Man went on to find an audience on VOD, where it was discovered and championed by horror fans eager to celebrate such a strange, ambitious movie. Filmmaker David Prior grabs you from the opening with the windswept prologue set in Bhutan's Ura Valley, where a hiker stumbles upon a bizarre skeleton seemingly trapped in a cave wall. Why does this place have such a hold on him? In this case, the cave serves as the perfect visual metaphor for the process of watching the movie: You just want to keep going deeper and deeper into the mystery.
The underwater cave in The Incredibles (2004)
The Incredibles is one of the few modern kids' movies to put its characters in real peril, and the big reveal halfway through when Bob Parr (aka Mr. Incredible) realizes his swanky "work trips" to fight robots on a deserted island are a trap is one of the most nail-biting scenes Pixar has ever animated. Mr. Incredible escapes supervillain Syndrome's all-powerful Omnidroid by diving off the edge of a waterfall and slipping into an underwater cave, hiding behind the bones of his dead friend and fellow superhero Gazerbeam to avoid detection. Finding the skeletal remains of someone he once knew is scary enough, but the moment when Bob realizes Gazerbeam used his last moments to carve Syndrome's computer password into the stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling with his laser eyes is as chilling as any cave scene can get.
The Peruvian temple in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
If you're a cave pedant, please skip this blurb. There are plenty of moments in Indiana Jones that might not literally take place in caves, but, on an aesthetic (or maybe even philosophical) level, these are cave scenes. For example, are the catacombs in Indiana Jone and the Last Crusade, where Harrison Ford must confront a mountain of rats and hide underneath an overturned coffin, actually caves? What about the windowless titular Temple of Doom? We'll leave those questions to the actual archeologists. The best "feels like a cave scene" scene in the Indy series comes right at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark when our hero must outrun a giant boulder that crashes after him. Again, technically, he's in what appears to be an above-ground temple. But the image of the boulder rolling after him is cave-core through and through.
The cave system in Old (2021)
The hapless vacationers in M. Night Shyamalan's Old quickly find out that not only are they trapped on a beach that makes them old, but also that something inside the twisty system of caves that offers an escape forces anyone who ventures too deep inside to black out, their comrades forced to travel in after them and drag them back onto the beach to recover. Aside from that, the caves in Old are also the site of one of the most horrific deaths ever put to film, as one character's hypocalcemia forces her body to literally cave in on itself.