Undersung Women in Horror Month Day 16: Juno Kaplan

To celebrate Women in Horror Month, I will be highlighting some of my favorite undersung female characters in horror films each day this month. These posts will contain some spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movies mentioned, do yourself a solid and check them out before reading all the way through.

Today I’m celebrating the infamous Juno Kaplan from the 2005 The Descent.

I almost wrote about Juno last week, but I chickened out. However, after reading Megan-E-Zombi’s post The Impossible Defense of Juno from The Descent, I feel emboldened to include this refreshingly nuanced character in this countdown. As the post I linked to points out, Juno commits three major crimes: she has an affair with her best friend’s husband, she secretly endangers all her friends by taking them to an uncharted cave system, and she accidentally kills one of her friends and leaves her for dead while the friend begs for Juno not to leave her to die alone. But is there another side to the story?

Just kidding I’m not stanning THAT hard for Juno

Any of these things would be enough to paint Juno as the “alpha male jerk” in a slasher film. But Juno is not just “the bad one who deserves to get punished” despite all of this. Juno is selfish and immature, but she doesn’t do any of these bad things out of maliciousness. And that space between good intentions and outcomes is one we should all be able to relate to, and an interesting one to see in a horror film character.

At the beginning of the film when Sarah wakes up after a car accident that killed her husband and daughter, Beth immediately holds Sarah. But we can see Juno in the background, overcome with guilt and grief, and seeming to feel like she will do more harm than good by trying to comfort Sarah. 

Later, Juno’s “protege” Holly is shown to be younger and even more reckless than Juno, providing a contrast in order to help us see some of Juno’s good qualities. Juno is immature, but she is also responsible and takes things seriously when it counts. She chastises Holly when needed for showboating or belittling her other friends. She makes her drink water to help offset an inevitable hangover the night before they go cave diving. She also tries to catch Holly when she recklessly chases after what appears to be light from an exit. 

While it is a huge violation of trust to sleep with Sarah’s husband, the movie hints that Juno is in love with Paul herself. Paul gives Juno a necklace that she kisses before crossing over a treacherous crevasse, indicating if there is something she puts stock in, it is her love for Paul. It doesn’t make the affair okay, but it does provide context that she isn’t doing it without her own sincere if not messed up reasoning. When she tells Beth, “we all lost something in that crash” it is incredibly self-centered but she still did lose something. 

It is frustrating to learn Juno led them to an uncharted cave system, and the movie does imply she may be more interested in her own ego-trip than doing it for Sarah, but I actually think the characters are misreading her. Despite her thrill-seeking enthusiasm, her behavior in earlier scenes at the cabin paints her as someone who wants to comfort Sarah, but doesn’t know how. Instead, she wants to make everything okay with a grand gesture without stopping to think if that is what the person wants. Again, it is immature and self-centered but not malicious. The road to being trapped underground with mutated killer humanoids is filled with good intentions.

It is understandable that Juno accidentally kills Beth, but the hardest thing for me was watching her leave when Beth begged her to not leave her alone to die. That is tough because you want Juno to at least be a companion to Beth in her dying moments, but she is so freshly re-traumatized after Paul, Holly, the creatures, and the sinking feeling of knowing she led them to the cave which inadvertently led to this. 

But after this point, something quite fascinating happens with Juno. She gets positioned as the final girl.

When she encounters sisters Rebecca and Sam in peril, she gets a hero’s entrance when she saves Rebecca from a crawler

She insists Sam tells them what they are up against, and then tells the sisters she thinks she knows a way out but they cannot leave without Sarah. This starts a fascinating redemption arc for Juno. But unfortunately for her, Sarah has stumbled across a dying Beth who tells her Juno “did this to her.” Even though it was clearly an accident, Sarah has been given one more reason to want Juno dead. And Sarah, unlike Juno, stays with Beth and ultimately mercy kills her. But then Sarah soaks herself in a blood pit and becomes increasingly animalistic in her attempts to escape. It is almost like Juno becomes a better, more considerate human over the course of the movie, but Sarah becomes more animalistic and undone. 

Unfortunately again for Juno, horror movies tend to value animalistic survival instinct & perceived purity over a solid redemption arc, so Sarah purposefully incapicates Juno and leaves her for dead. At best this is a foolish decision on Sarah’s part given Juno is the last survivor left and can clearly help her escape the situation. At worst it flips our sense of loyalty. Sure Juno has done bad things but she is not a bad person. But does this one deliberately hurtful act make Sarah a worse person? Is Sarah now a good person that did a terrible thing? And how do we feel about that versus a good person who did a lot of inadvertent bad things?

Those questions are honestly not rhetorical…I truly don’t know the answer and I’d be curious to hear other thoughts. But I do know that much like Paris Hilton as Paige in House of Wax, Juno is much more nuanced than she is given credit for on the surface. 

Hats (helmets?) off to you Juno for being such a thought-provoking and frustratingly relatable character.

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