10 Cloverfield Lane: The Depression Trap

10 Cloverfield Lane is currently showing on Netflix (May 2018) Please note, this post contains plot spoilers!


The film ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ has been discussed as a metaphor for abuse, but it is also, I think, a metaphor for the turmoil of our inner world when traumas from our past impede our capacity to live an authentic life in the present.


In the opening scene, Michelle, the female protagonist, leaves her fiancé Ben in the aftermath of a row. Their break up is not elaborated, but there is a sense that Michelle is acting in haste. As she drives away, Ben calls assuring her that their argument was emblematic of the struggles all couples face and urges her to return. But Michelle cuts him off. Moments later, she is involved in a collision and loses consciousness.


Michelle wakes to find herself trapped in an underground bunker, her leg in a cast and bound to the pipes. Attached to her arm is a drip, implying that someone has made an attempt to heal her wounds. Yet this apparent ‘care’ is incongruent with the setting. This is not a hospital. The locked room is bare but for a basic mattress and a chair. Devoid of comfort or care, her surroundings depict abuse, neglect and imprisonment.


Her keeper, Howard, justifies her confinement by explaining that he rescued Michelle from a toxic world following a chemical attack and Martian invasion. Her isolation and entrapment, he insists, is for her own survival. Under Howard’s controlling gaze, Michelle is unshackled and permitted to move around the shelter. In moments, she begins to distrust her own instincts and consider the possible truth in Howard’s narrative. Is he really keeping her safe? Or is he a murderous tyrant, luring her to a deadly fate?


To add to Michelle’s confusion is the presence of Emmett, a nonchalant, jovial young man who declares that he willingly retreated to the bunker, having helped Howard build it, begging to be sheltered from the contaminated outer world.   


What this film seems to me to represent, is the inner conflict we experience when we are in the grip of mental ill health as a consequence of past trauma. The three characters trapped in the underground bunker, with their conflicting narratives, symbolise the battle between the different parts of our minds. 


In each of us we have an inner oppressor, whose job is to ensure our survival. This is the part of us that demands our isolation, our surrender, in the face of imminent threat. Keeping us captive in our depressed state, like the sinister drip attached to the girl’s arm, our oppressor feeds us negativity, skilfully manipulating and maintaining our entrapment.


So we hear the drip-drip feed of our mind telling us: “You are not good enough, anyway.” “End that relationship, s/he will only abandon you.” “Don’t apply for that job, you will be rejected anyway." Our oppressor has a myriad of ways to drip-feed us toxic lies, all the while assuring us, like Howard, that this is the only way to avoid suffering in a dangerous outer world.


Emmett is the voice of denial. He represents the part of us that is naive, compliant, that trusts unquestioningly in our inner persecutor, that turns blindly away from his oppressive hold and denies the loss that comes with giving up a life for the safety of our unconscious bunker. This is the self that denies we have a problem. That vehemently insists: “Everything is fine.”


When we allow ourselves to recognise our mind’s entrapment, we face the possibility of freedom and that represents great risk. Risk of suffering. This is what Michelle is faced with when she attempts her first escape. She sees a woman on the outside, bleeding and wretched. Terrified, she turns back to her oppressor, relinquishing the keys to her liberation.


If we have been traumatised by a life of too much suffering, we may not feel able to survive. We will turn and return to our inner tyrant for protection, as if the only way to survive is to give up on life altogether. Even if this means a real risk of death, as the character Emmett comes to face when he can no longer deny the danger he is in. 


Michelle’s relationship with her fiancé Ben is portrayed not without fault but as, ultimately, benign. To borrow the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s term, it seems ‘good-enough.’ Only when she wakes is Michelle able to reconnect with her fondness for Ben. This reminds me of the way some people leave relationships, including therapeutic ones, prematurely. When we feel too threatened by feelings that we have not felt able to safely integrate into our experience, to process and work through, we may act out in haste.


For instance, if closeness and intimacy have been problematic and painful we will be unconsciously motivated to prevent these feelings from emerging. We avoid emotions that have long been repressed in our unconscious for the sake of our survival. We drink heavily, work too hard, even sever relationships that have the potential for healing. We do this because we need to avoid more suffering. 


But in doing so, as Michelle discovers, we risk crashing, trapping ourselves in a prolonged and perilous situation that sacrifices our autonomy and threatens our being. Depression, self-harm, eating disorders, addictions, all serve to keep us ‘safe’ in the unconscious bunker of our mind. But they keep us from living our lives and rob us of our freedom, kidnapping our soul.


In order to be free, the healthy part of us that, like Michelle, stays connected with our instinctual, feeling self, has to open our eyes to the danger we are in, sacrifice our naivety and stand up to our inner oppressor. As becomes Emmett’s fate, the obliging, passive self must be killed off before there is real prospect of freedom.


When Michelle finally eludes her kidnapper, she must continue fighting to circumvent the alien invasion, only narrowly escaping its grasp. I was not alone in my initial disappointment to realise her character was still not free. I thought it was over! Yet this is how it can feel when we are recovering from mental ill health and trauma. Just as we believe we are free, we may have one more battle to fight. At times, it feels relentless.


The ending sequence also made me think about the way we interact with the world when we are on our journey to recovery. When we open ourselves up to others, we experience an ‘alien’ world of difference. Difference in the other, and difference in ourselves. We come to know parts of ourselves we have not previously been able to know. And we come to realise other minds may not always understand our own. 


Difference is frightening. It implodes the feeling of oneness we first experienced in our mother’s womb. Our separateness and, by implication, our sense of aloneness, compounds our vulnerability. Like the alien ship, feelings of abandonment and loneliness loom large.


Yet, it is through relationships in the outer world, through interpersonal experiences, that we can truly recover, live life and grow. If we can bear to be with our ‘alien’ feelings, the ones that were long ago prohibited, if we can find a way to feel well-enough held through our pain, we can rescue our soul and discover ourselves as true survivors of our past traumas. We may even, like Michelle at the film’s denouement, take the route to help others through their suffering and trauma too.

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