Photo credit: Brendan Hamlett
This past summer, the world watched the saga of the 12 boys trapped in the Tham Luang caves with a mix of horror and fascination. Thousands of journalists flocked to the cave mouth, erecting a tent city high in the mountains of the Mae Sai district, while people in every corner of the planet watched shadowy footage — sometimes haunting, surreal live broadcasts — of the boys and their soccer coach huddled deep in the labyrinth. With each new detail — the boys slurped groundwater from the stony cave walls; their coach led them in meditation rituals to stave off hunger — the public fever seemed to rise. I was up late nights, scrolling through feed after feed on Twitter, poring over every article on the cave, obsessively watching every news broadcast I could find.
The story got under my skin because I have spent much of the last decade exploring caves and investigating how people think and dream and tell stories about subterranean space. What fascinated me was that the drama in Thailand was so familiar: merely the latest in a long series of subterranean rescue sagas that had brought the world to a halt. There were the miners trapped underground in Chile, who lived out so many nightmarish weeks in the darkness before emerging on the surface as beloved national celebrities. And there was Jessica McClure, a toddler who, in 1987, tumbled down a 22-foot well and spent two days in the dark before being rescued live on CNN. And a cave explorer named Floyd Collins, who in 1925 found himself pinned inside a cave for two weeks while tens of thousands of spectators flooded to Kentucky to watch him struggle for his life. All of these stories eclipsed their respective news cycles, drawing the world hungrily to their televisions and radios. Indeed, the saga of Floyd Collins has been called the “first mass media event” and the largest news story in the United States between the wars. Something about these narratives, where otherwise ordinary people make a treacherous descent into subterranean darkness, touches something deep and primal in our shared imagination.
The truth is, we have been telling versions of this story, in one way or another, for millennia. We have lived amongst caves for as long as humans have existed and for just as long, these spaces have evoked complex and visceral emotions. For the most part, it’s been repulsion, if not outright terror. Biologically speaking, we do not belong underground. As a species, we are evolved in almost every way for life on the African grasslands, raised on abundant sunlight, copious oxygen, and open horizons. The “dark zone” of a cave — scientists’ name for perpetually lightless chambers, such as the space where the boys were trapped in Tham Luang — is humanity’s ultimate haunted house, the seat of our deepest aversions.
[We] all carry in our core a quiet, primal desire to push beyond familiar reality.
And yet, something has always lured us into the dark. For untold thousands of years, our ancestors climbed again and again into the depths of caves, often pushing into the most obscure chambers, to the very ends of twisting muddy passages. On these dark-zone journeys they encountered astonishing stone formations and booming echoes — a world entirely separate from anything they knew on the surface. For premodern cultures everywhere, to enter a cave was to step outside mundane reality and enter the spirit world, to make contact with chthonic forces and ancestral deities. In every corner of the planet, when archaeologists explore caves, they find enigmatic paintings, footprints of frenzied dances, even skeletons of human sacrifices — all remains of ancient sacred rituals.
Today we in the modern West no longer perform rituals in caves, we no longer know the ceremonial prayers once chanted there — but the dark zone journeys have been passed down to us in the form of myths and legends. Everywhere, our forebears told dramatic tales of mortals descending into dark underground lands, entering the land of the dead, before returning to the surface under miraculous circumstances. The Greeks and Romans, of course, told of Odysseus and Aeneas descending into Hades, but so did the ancient Maya tell of subterranean journeys, as did the Norse, and the ancient Mesopotamians. Even Jesus Christ, in the so-called “Harrowing of Hell” from the Gospel of Nicodemus, descends into the underworld before ultimately rising into heaven. One of my favorite permutations of this story is that of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher, who enclosed himself in a cave on Crete for so long that his followers began to mourn his death; 28 days later, he finally reemerged, announcing that he traveled to Hades and returned to tell the tale. These stories of underworld descent and resurrection are deeply infused in collective human culture — they are part of the air we all breathe.
This past summer, when we watched the Thai boys and their soccer coach return to the surface after 18 days in the dark — skeletally thin, shell-shocked, but miraculously unscathed — it was a case of life imitating myth. We recognized their journey underground — just as we recognized the journeys of the Chilean miners and of Jessica McClure and of Floyd Collins — from our deepest shared ancestral stories. And we were entranced because we all carry in our core a quiet, primal desire to push beyond familiar reality, to venture into the dark and touch upon something larger than ourselves.
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writing, photography, and audio storytelling have appeared in The Economist, The Paris Review Daily, Discover, The Atavist Magazine
, and Outside
, among other places. A recipient of grants and fellowships from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the MacDowell Colony, he is currently a visiting scholar at the NYU Institute for Public Knowledge. Underground
is his first book.