A Descent Into Appalachian Madness

“In 2023, filmmaker Aaron Irons went missing in a cave in the wilderness area known as Jeffrey’s Hell. This documentary explores the truth behind what really happened to Aaron.”

Released in 2023, Aaron Irons released his debut feature-length film Chest, exploring the myths and legends of the Citico Wilderness area in East Tennessee. In Chest, a group of amateur filmmakers goes in search of a locked chest rumoured to be in a cave in Jeffrey’s Hell, a portion of the Citico Wilderness that has always been considered “evil”. In the follow-up film, Jeffrey’s Hell, Irons embarks on a solo hike back out to Citico in search of the legendary cave. When he goes missing and a manhunt comes up empty, his case is left unsolved. 


Jeffrey's Hell

The film opens with an interview with Irons himself, and is meant to set the tone for the rest of the film: Irons is on the edge of an existential crisis and is willing to go to great lengths to resolve himself. He talks about wanting to volunteer to go live on Mars, without his wife. The interview is longer than it needs to be and is more confusing than revealing. The real story starts fifteen minutes into the film when all of the cast members of Chest are interviewed about Irons’ disappearance after the fact. It feels like an old episode of Unsolved Mysteries from the early 2000s, with a montage of the interviews in which each person is asked the same questions. It’s repetitive and drags for a while, but quickly picks up the pace when questions are interspersed with footage of Irons at Citico. We see him park his Jeep and get out to call the rest of the group to find out where they are, and it’s immediately clear that Irons is the star of the show. 

With Irons as the central focus, Jeffrey’s Hell transforms into a great example of found footage horror. Watching the interviews gave an entertaining demonstration of the wit of some of the characters in Chest, enough to make us want to track it down and watch it next, but it takes up too much of the film’s runtime. It also raises too many questions, like why weren’t friends and family interviewed, as well? Why just the cast of his previous film? Why is the FBI involved? The meat and potatoes of Jeffrey’s Hell begins when Irons finds the mysterious cave and admits on camera that going into it alone is a bad idea. 


Jeffreys Hell

What follows is a truly harrowing depiction of an experienced caver who thinks he’s invincible and learns too late that he’s not. Irons has two cameras, one on his helmet and one in hand, and our view alternates between the two. He enters the cave with optimism, unsure of what he’ll find but thrilled that it exists. When faced with a steep drop, he chooses to spelunk. We follow him on a claustrophobic journey through the cave system, watching his fear and desperation grow as too much time passes. We’ve all seen cave horror before, but Irons has a few new tricks up his sleeve that will frighten and amuse viewers alike. (No spoilers here!) At some point, though, the atmosphere switches from cave horror to “bad psychedelic acid trip”, and it ends with a “wtf” that will have viewers frantically searching their memories for hints of what was to come way back in Irons’ initial interview. 

In a quote from the film’s website, Irons says: “This movie (Jeffrey’s Hell) is very personal to me. Filmed over the course of a year while solo caving and hiking, and occasionally bringing a friend or fellow caver along for the ride). This movie not only explores some of the legends where I grew up but is also a very personal look into my own brain and struggles with mental health, identity, and existentialism in the modern world.”  With that in mind, the intended impact of the film becomes clear, and a new level of understanding makes the fever dream elements more important. The fact that Irons plays himself in Jeffrey’s Hell exploring his own mental limits is just meta.

Jeffrey’s Hell will scare the absolute crap out of anyone with a fear of tight spaces or getting lost in the wilderness. Whilt it may need some polishing, the film is a thoroughly enjoyable watch if you don’t ask too many questions. 


We watched Jeffrey’s Hell (2024) at Unnamed Footage Festival 7

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