Caves in fiction are generally portrayed as unsettling at best, frightening as a rule, and downright horrifying at worst.
There is good reason for this, as caves in Real Life can be extremely hostile environments to humans. The lack of light alone is enough to scare off many, and even the most intrepid explorer has to contend with hazards from rock falls to flooded areas to plain old hypothermia and exhaustion—not to mention the twisting, turning, often labyrinthine structure of the cave itself. Caves can be deadly, and we are not ideally evolved to inhabit them.
Many works of fiction will take these already present dangers to extremes, often while adding in the threat of some sort of blind subterranean predator or other creepy creature. And possibly a connected Ancient Tomb full of skeletons and curses. Maybe the cave is the monstrous skull of a giant beast that is occupied by villains or other monsters. Perhaps the cave in question was once occupied by such horrors but now lies empty and devoid of life, only for travelers to get the creepy sensation of Being Watched. Oh, and did we mention the possibility of slumbering dragons? Expect any character foolish enough to enter a cave who doesn't encounter one of these nasties to end up buried alive, skewered by a falling stalactite, burned by lava, or driven mad by the darkness, isolation, getting lost in a labyrinth and impossibility of escape. The lucky ones who do see daylight again will be shaken and possibly scarred for life by the experience.
The milder version of this trope, common in children's media, is when caves are simply depicted as dark and spooky places inhabited by bats and with chilly winds blowing out of them. Entering a cave is a common visual shorthand for confronting one's fears.
A Primal Fear. Subtrope of Nature Is Not Nice and often Forbidden Zone. A staple setting of the Doomed Expedition. Supertrope to Abandoned Mine, Sinister Subway, and Dug Too Deep. Sometimes illustrated through Cave Mouth, where the entrance to a cave resembles an engulfing maw, or Cobweb Jungle. May overlap with Beware the Skull Base, Beneath the Earth, The Underworld, Elaborate Underground Base, Secret Underground Passage, Eldritch Location, Thrown Down a Well, or even Underground City. Often present in a video game's Underground Level. Compare Eldritch Ocean Abyss, The Maze, Don't Go in the Woods, Hungry Jungle, Swamps Are Evil, Creepy Basement, and Absurdly-Spacious Sewer. Contrast Evil Tower of Ominousness. See also A Way Out of a Cave-In.
- 3×3 Eyes: the second act features a labyrinthine set of caverns, filled with deadly traps (so much that carelessly sliding your hand across a random wall may collapse the entire cavern) and infested with guardian monsters, leading to a secret shrine from which a Kunlun (a passageway to the Sacred Place) can be opened. For once, it is as dangerous to the villains as it is to the heroes.
- The Beach Cave in Toriko is a cavern connected to the sea where the elusive but delicious Puffer Whale can be found... but first one must cross a labyrinth of dark grottoes infested by powerful beasts like the Devil Orochi and other obstacles, deadly for amateurs. Much later in the story, Toriko has to navigate the Heavy Hole, an even more dangerous set of caverns where gravity is much stronger than usual.
- In Yaiba, the titular hero and his gang must wander across a series of dark, foreboding caverns beneath Mount Fuji to pass the trials of Ryuujin, each challenge costing the life (apparently) of a member of Yaiba's group, making it one of the darkest moments in the story.
- Robin (1993): Tim wakes up in a cave whose only entrance leads directly into the sea and is the obvious nest of a monster that his abducting humans as food.
- Wonder Woman (1987): Doom's Doorway is located in the mouth of a dark lifeless cave on the otherwise lush island and is surrounded by the memorials to those who have died keeping it closed. The space beyond the doorway is all dark underground passages full of monsters and suffering inmates leading to Hades' domain in the underworld.
- Aladdin: The Cave of Wonders, despite the title. It doesn't get any creepier than a cave shaped like a lion's head that can talk. The cavern will only allow entrance to a Chosen One, automatically killing anyone else. For the one that it does let in, there is one rule: only touch the lamp, nothing else. Aladdin does adhere to this, but his pet monkey, Abu, grabs a sparkly jewel. This angers the cave, and the whole place turns into a lava deathtrap that Aladdin and Abu barely escape. When they get out, Jafar betrays them and knocks them back down into the cave, which is now less lava-filled and more dark and gloomy.
- Frozen II: After falling down a waterfall, Anna and Olaf find themselves trapped in a dark, gloomy cave, paralleling Elsa's descent into the glacier at the same time. This is where Olaf dies and Anna has her near-Despair Event Horizon moment.
- Pooh's Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin: Following Owl's instructions, Pooh and company travel to a cavern referred to as "The Skull", which resembles a skull face from the exterior, to supposedly save Christopher Robin from the skull's eye. Upon finding Christopher Robin and learning that it was all a misunderstanding, they exit and find the cavern looks nowhere near as ominous as before.
- The "unofficial" Alien sequel Alien 2: On Earth involves a group of cavers being hunted down by parasitic alien creatures disguised as rocks.
- The Cave, an action-horror film set in a cave. A team of expert cave divers sets out to explore a previously unmapped underwater cave system that starts out simply harrowing and creepy—with strange noises, large, hairless mole creatures, and of course the water itself—and becomes life-threatening when falling rocks block their exit and trap them inside with eldritch Humanoid Abominations that attack them at every opportunity. The film's tagline:
There are places man was never meant to go.
- Cave is a 2016 Norwegian Psychological Horror film where three ex-military friends explore a freezing uncharted cave together and the hostile environment brings their interpersonal difficulties to the forefront.
- The Cavern is yet another horror film focused on a group exploring an uncharted cave system while being pursued by a supernatural threat. To make matters worse, the cavers' sanity rapidly deteriorates, and the film ends with a graphic rape and murder scene, implied to have been brought on by the setting.
- The Descent follows a group of women who go on a fun getaway and caving expedition. The trip quickly turns terrifying when a cave-in traps them inside and they are forced to proceed deeper in, encountering water hazards, dangerous falls, and a race of subterranean monsters with a taste for human flesh. None of them make it out alive.
- Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: As part of his Jedi training on the swamp planet Dagobah, Luke must enter a small but dark and thickly overgrown cave beneath a giant, gnarled tree, which has the property of manifesting intruders' deepest fears. He encounters a mirage of Darth Vader, whose head he cuts off only to discover his own face inside the helmet.
- A massive cave, based on a real cave system in Missouri, lurks in the background of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In the book's climax, Tom and Becky get lost in the cave and must find their way out, braving bats, darkness, and the man who turns out to be in there with them. Becky is so scared by the cave that she becomes basically nonfunctional, requiring Tom to get them out. After their escape, the cave is sealed by local parents to prevent a similar incident, unknowingly trapping the main antagonist inside, where he is later discovered having died of hunger.
- In the second Araminta Spookie book by Angie Sage, the main duo must traverse a series of cave-like underground passageways looking for a connection to a grotto on the beach. They are terrified the whole way, getting lost several times and mistaking a large mushroom for a dead body when one of them steps on it in the dark.
- In the children's picture book "Aunt Isabel Tells a Good One," the prince is kidnapped and held in the lair of the villains Odious Mole and Bad-Egg Bat, which is a dank, creepy cave full of stalactites, mushrooms, and icky-looking bugs. The heroine has to face her fears by entering the cave to rescue him.
- Enchanted Forest Chronicles:
- Downplayed in Dealing with Dragons. The protagonist is gainfully employed by a dragon as a cook and housekeeper, and she does her best to make her employer's cave homey, but she still finds it rather gloomy at times. Later in the book, she has to traverse a large connected system of magical caves with their own peculiar rules and dangers. The journey is portrayed as harrowing, but not terrifying.
- In the scariest chapter of Talking to Dragons, the main characters travel through the Caves of Chance, a large network of caves with peculiar properties. They are pursued throughout by a creepy, sapient, jelly-like lifeform called a "quozzel," which at one point causes a cave-in trying to kill them all.
- In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry and Dumbledore visit a cave where a young Tom Riddle had done something to traumatize two of his fellow orphanage residents. The cave, now home to one of Voldemort's Horcruxes, requires a blood sacrifice to enter, then crossing a pool filled with zombies to reach a fountain filled with a potion that must be drunk to retrieve the Horcrux. The potion greatly weakens the drinker, leaving them dehydrated, with no available water other than the zombie lake, and taking water from it disturbs the zombies. Dumbledore drinks the potion and is barely able to escape with Harry; years earlier, Regulus Black died stealing the Horcrux and leaving a fake behind.
- Bilbo and the dwarves learn the danger of caves the hard way in The Hobbit: They take shelter from a storm in what seems to be a small cave in the mountainside, but turns out to be the vestibule to the vast caverns inhabited by the evil mountain goblins, who truss the entire party and carry them deep into their lair. Bilbo escapes and runs blindly into the depths of the caves, ending up at a subterranean lake where he meets Gollum, who wants very much to eat him. The chapter is also where he stumbles upon his magic ring, which will later turn out to be the most evil object in the world.
- Kane Series: In "Two Suns Setting" Kane and Dwassllir, the last king of giants, enter a cave that is the the burial place of an ancient giant king Brotemllain. It turns out to be dangerously unstable, as well as inhabited by strange underground creatures including huge blind cockroaches and a sabretooth tiger. Kane barely gets out alive. Dwassllir doesn't, and the cave becomes also his burial place.
- Narnia Book 4, The Silver Chair: In search of the missing prince, the protagonists end up falling into "Underland," a civilization of Mole Men housed Beneath the Earth in massive natural cave systems. The whole area is decidedly Played for Horror, with the initial journey to the central city making use of all the frightening elements of a real-life caving expedition such as crossing dark waters and crawling through small, tight tunnels. There is a sense of claustrophobia and encroaching darkness throughout the Underland chapters, and to make matters worse, the whole place starts flooding after the climactic confrontation.
- The climax of The Outsider (2018) takes place in the Marysville Hole; a network of caves that are vast, dark, confusing and prone to collapse. Even before the titular Outsider made the caves its home, they were still dangerous. An entire rescue party who had been looking for two children lost in the caves became trapped by a cave-in and slowly perished in the dark.
- Warrior Cats:
- In the original territories, there is a cave that the cats call Mothermouth that, deep inside, contains the Moonstone, which is where the medicine cats and leaders speak to StarClan, the spirits of their ancestors. The cave is often considered to be creepy, and the characters must conquer their fear in order to reach the Moonstone.
- In the lake territory, there is a small cave system beneath ThunderClan and WindClan's territories. It was previously used in a coming-of-age initiation by an ancient community of cats who lived in the area, but not every cat made it out, since the tunnels would flood when it rained. In modern times it's haunted by the ghost of a young cat who died there, as well as a creepy all-seeing spirit-cat who has been around since the dawn of time.
- The Wheel of Time: The Pit of Doom is a volcanic cavern where the Dark One can reach in from his prison outside creation, making it an Eldritch Location that's feared even by his most powerful followers. He often constricts the entrance tunnel to threaten people with its jagged stalactites, to say nothing of what he can do to them in the Pit itself.
- In the Lore episode "The Cave," the host discusses a cult on the island of Chiloe and the rumors that circulated about a cave where the cult leaders kept their most precious objects, as well as chimeric beasts and deliberately disfigured humans.
- The cooperative board game Caves & Claws is premised on exploring a series of spooky caves looking for MacGuffin pieces. Unfortunately, the caves are sometimes populated by massive disembodied hands with eyes and long, dirty nails.
- Magic: The Gathering:
- "The Caves of Koilos" is a land showing the view from the mouth of a craggy desert cave. It has the unusual property of draining one life from the player each time it is used.
- "Cave of Temptation" shows a cracked, rather yonic rock formation around the entrance to a pitch-black cave.
- "Bloodfell Caves" shows a jagged, unsettling red- and black-toned cave.
- The sequel to Small World, Small World: Underground is set in an expansive subterranean cavern. The overall tone and color palette are darker than the original game, the races are more malevolent (including liches, cultists, and spider people), and the gameplay is more difficult.
- The board game Vast is set in a giant dark cave populated by a dragon, a horde of goblins, and an undead thief cursed to forever look for the dragon's hoard. What's more, the cave itself can have an malevolent intelligence of its own, as one player can take over its role, with the goal of collapsing and burying other players inside.
- One of the most common "dungeon" types in Dungeons & Dragons. Most settings will even have an entire Beneath the Earth realm where subterranean empires - most of which are extremely evil - reign.
- Bloodborne has a number of caves, with two standing out as particularly creepy. One is the underground swamp that connects the Forbidden Woods to Iosefka's Clinic and contains a lake of poison and enough dead bodies to conclude that this is where Iosefka dumped her less fortunate patients for years. The other is the Altar of Despair, the well-hidden holy of holies of the Healing Church, where the Choir hosts Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos — the Keeper of Forbidden Knowledge and a minor Eldritch Abomination in her own right.
- Cave Story: As the title suggests, the majority of the game takes place in a massive cave system. But most of the caverns are spacious and well-lit, and some even feature vegetation and farmland. They'd probably be a nice place to live if the local wildlife weren't inexplicably out for your blood. But there are a few areas that are genuinely creepy. The Core Chamber is dark, partially flooded, and littered with the bodies of destroyed combat robots, serving as an ominous buildup to a Climax Boss fight. The Last Cave (particularly the the optional version you go through if you have the Boost 2.0) is not only dark but full of lava, Spikes of Doom, tricky platforming, and aggressive enemies. And the secret final level, Sacred Grounds (aka Bloodstained Sanctuary), has the spikes, platforming challenges, and aggressive enemies dialed up to 11, while the scenery looks like you're descending into Hell itself.
- In Dark Souls: the Catacombs are a series of badly-illuminated caverns with necromancers, respawning skeletons and other deadly obstacles, but still a walk in the park compared to the following Tomb of Giants, a pitch-black abyss infested with very powerful and treacherous skeletons, as well as bottomless pits. No wonder the resident god of death resides at the very bottom of the cave system.
- In Dear Esther, the protagonist descends ever deeper into a series of increasingly dark, creepy caves, all meant to reflect his distraught emotional state.
- Being set on a Death World is scary enough, the caves of the planet Hoxxes IV in Deep Rock Galactic are renowned as some of the deadliest in the galaxy. However, the planet is brimming with riches, so the titular Mega-Corp sends in teams of highly skilled Dwarven Combat Miners to retrieve the riches. Standing in their way are swarms of alien arachnids, hostile flora, unstable terrain, searing and freezing temperatures, depending on what biome you happen to land in.
- Large caverns in Dwarf Fortress are excellent sources of metals, jewels, and magma for fuel. They also contain large "evil-aligned" beasts like Voracious Cave Crawlers (even underneath "good-aligned" regions), web-spewing Giant Cave Spiders, randomly-generated Forgotten Beasts, and magma pools dwarves can be flung in to or accidentally dodge in to. Unless the player picked a nasty location to embark in, the creatures in the caves typically cause the most trouble when there isn't a siege going on. Getting too greedy with Adamantine will result in digging in to Hell/the Underworld itself, which will cause a mob of demons to rush at the fortress.
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is riddled with caves, most of which are creepy. The best-case scenario is that it's the hideout of a bandit gang, but you could also stumble into a nest of frostbite spiders, a vampire's crypt, the lair of a necromancer, a den of falmer, or some other horrible thing. Ironically, one of the most dangerous things you can find in a cave is also one of the least creepy - a bear.
- Final Fantasy XII has Zertinan Caverns, a vast cavern overlooking an inland sea. There is a dust storm in its center, hiding an Esper and an army of zombies.
- In Hollow Knight, the subterranean ruins are only mildly creepy for the most part, even with something ominous in the air and hostile infected bugs everywhere. Then you get down to Deepnest, which is a unusually dark maze of narrow twisting corridors full of Big Creepy-Crawlies and hidden spike traps.
- Much of Kentucky Route Zero takes place on a dark, paranatural highway through a massive and seemingly endlessly looping cavern, which is an ambient metaphor for the crushing debt many of the characters are in. The game's themes explore folklore, and many sidequests involve ghost stories. Overall, the cave adds to the creepy, oppressive atmosphere of the game as a whole.
- Minecraft: Caving is one of the most popular activities in survival mode, and every auto-generated world includes massive, blocky cave systems full of both precious ores and undue dangers. There are a few aspects that make caves particularly creepy as opposed to the rest of the game: The lack of sunlight allows monsters to spawn at all times of day, the spiders that spawn in the abandoned mineshafts are more dangerous than the aboveground variety, lava is an ever-present danger, and to really drive home the atmosphere, a variety of extra creepy sounds are added to the game's ambiance—which tend to play at unexpected times, just to keep you from getting too comfortable.
- Rayman 2: The Great Escape has The Cave of Bad Dreams, where Polokus's nightmares are imprisoned. It is full of bones, rivers of brambles or pink liquid, arms that come out of walls and will grab and kill Rayman, one-eyed fire-breathing monsters that try to eat Rayman and respawning black caterpillars that leap around all over the place.
- Resident Evil: Near the end of the game, the protagonists Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine explore a series of caves accessed from the courtyard of the Spencer Mansion, which are inhabited by both Hunters and Web Spinners. The largest of these spiders, the Black Tiger, is fought as a boss. Lisa Trevor is also encountered in the tunnels as an enemy to be avoided.
- Ask A Mortician did a video entitled "CAVE DIVING CORPSES (my greatest fear)" about people who have died during cave diving expeditions, how rare it is for their bodies to be recovered, and how horrifying it is that many of them are still there in the caves. Especially noteworthy because Caitlin considers herself "death-positive", arguing that death and the dead aren't anything to be feared, but she makes an exception for "underwater cave diving corpses".
- Jacob Geller discusses this trope at great length in his YouTube video "Fear of Depths'', beginning with the Real Life example of Floyd Collins, an American spelunker whose death after becoming trapped in a narrow passage of Mammoth Cave became a media sensation in 1925, igniting a public fervor for macabre caving stories.
It seems like everything about a cave is built to mess with how we usually take in the world. The light is gone, the sounds don't make sense, and the space itself is . . . [laughs].
- Neopets: The Cave of the Beast is described as being dark, cold, and silent. The rocks look like jagged spikes, and the further inside you get, the more you hear scratching noises. With each step your pet will beg to turn back, and if you keep going, you end up with a Screamer Prank in the form of a roaring monster on a black screen.
- SCP Foundation: SCP-2935 is a space-time anomaly existing within a limestone cave leading to a parallel universe where all life, including both biological and non-biological, as well as any sentient entities, machines, computers and other "life-like" phenomena, ended. The final log from the alternate Agent Keller implies that something in the cave itself caused the apocalyptic event. The alternate Keller went through an alternate version of the cave to a third parallel universe where the life-ending event happened earlier — only to return to his own universe (the one described in the bulk of the SCP article) and find that the mass dying also happened there soon after he returned. Both he and the "prime" Keller encourage the Foundation to seal the cave up to prevent this from happening to our universe as well.
- Ted's Caving Page involves two experienced cavers attempting to explore an undiscovered portion of a local cave, and they wind up digging into the lair of something terrifying that they never get a good look at. Even before the creature appears, the darkness of the cave and its claustrophobically tight passages are described in harrowing detail.
- Gigantosaurus: Subverted. In "Don't Cave In", the kids are warned by Iggy to stay away from a certain cave resembling the jagged jaws of a big dino, which is supposedly the lair of the terrifying "Shriekasaurus". When Giganto showing up forces them to take shelter, the kids face their fears, and discover that the cave is actually a pretty fun place. It turn out that "Shriekasaurus" was made up by Iggy so his favorite place wouldn't get overcrowded.