The Descent and the Martha Mitchell Effect
“The Descent opens with a bloody bang and never lets up,” proclaims the blurb on the DVD cover. That bloody bang, presumably, would be when protagonist Sarah loses both her husband and young daughter in a gruesome car accident just moments into the film. The movie then jumps cuts to one year later; Sarah and a gaggle of female friends are in forested Appalachia for a group spelunking expedition. These friends are well aware of the horrific trauma Sarah’s suffered, and hope the adventure will be therapeutic.
She’s still rattled, though—she wakes from nightmares of the crash gasping, jumps at the slightest sound, is never at ease and always a bit suspicious. As the team finds themselves in a network of caverns and caves two miles below the Earth’s surface, Sarah can’t help but notice things the others don’t, like the sound of muffled voices or quick glimpses of shadows dashing past. Her girlfriends are more concerned with enjoying themselves, and regard her misgivings as simply tricks of the mind. She’s been through a lot, they think to themselves; we’ll forgive her if she’s gone a little crazy.
Rattled. Traumatized. But hardly crazed—those weren’t odd plays of light or simple ambient noises keeping Sarah on edge. The girls were being hunted.
In psychiatric circles, it is not unknown for a patient to tell improbable tales that would seem to merit a diagnosis of being delusional. But sometimes—on more occasions than many mental health professionals would like to admit—those apparent delusions astoundingly prove to be true, and the diagnosis dead wrong. Some hypochondriacs really do have chronic illnesses, and there are those among the paranoid who are genuinely being watched. This sort of phenomenon is known as the Martha Mitchell Effect.
Students of Americana should be familiar with Martha Beal Mitchell. As the wife of the Attorney General of the United States during the Nixon years, Martha first made a name for herself as an outspoken (and often times drunk) critic of the liberal left. Richard M. Nixon himself seemed to appreciate that this so-called “Mouth of the South” was able to galvanize his conservative base. Relations between the two took an icy turn, however, when Nixon slighted Martha personally—and she retaliated by phoning the press with tales of scandal within the administration.
It wasn’t hard for her political adversaries to paint poor Martha as delusional; she did have issues with drink, after all, and wasn’t her polemic on the talk show circuit a bit like that of a loose cannon? Reports vary as to the lengths the administration went to in order to discredit her—the story cited most often is that she was heavily sedated by force and shipped off to the sanitarium. There wasn’t time enough to sign her in, however, before the Watergate scandal broke. Martha Mitchell was certainly vociferous, and quite probably an alcoholic. But as the unraveling of the Nixon presidency would prove, she was not, in fact, delusional.
If in daily life you encounter a man sporting a tinfoil hat to thwart those attempting to control his mind, it’s likely a safe bet that the person you’re dealing with suffers from delusions. But as the adage goes, be careful not to jump to conclusions. Far from being mad, Martha Mitchell’s allegations of government corruption turned out to be right on the mark. So, should you ever find yourself spelunking below the mountains of Appalachia, don’t be too quick to dismiss your seemingly paranoid cohort—if The Descent is any indication, there really could be monsters afoot.