Analysis - "It was the trees themselves!"

With the exception of a mild fear of heights, I don’t really have any phobias to speak of, be they of bats or snakes or even spiders. I’m not afraid of the dark, enclosed spaces or open spaces either, unless I’ve read House of Leaves sometime in the last 48 hours. But I do have a thing about forests; as much as I love camping, they can really freak me the Hell out sometimes. And of course, I’m absolutely drawn to them both in real life and in a fictional context. Some of the most effective works of horror in the history of the genre are set in the forest, and I’m starting to think this isn’t a coincidence.

Perhaps the most famous example of woodland horror is Sam Raimi’s delightful and admittedly somewhat spooky The Evil Dead, starring the King of Chins, Bruce Campbell. The plot sees five university students taking a trip to a dilapidated old cabin in the Tennessee woods, playing an incantation and inadvertently summoning a veritable miasma of demons to their secluded refuge, leading them to be possessed and eventually disturbingly (and somewhat comically) mutilated one by one. But Raimi uses the forest setting to great effect as well, having the trees attack several characters—one time in a controversially sexual manner—in their attempt to escape from the forces they’ve unleashed. By the time Bruce Campbell’s Ash destroys the remnants of his friends the forest is as much of an obstacle as the demons inhabiting it. It’s more unintentionally goofy than genuinely scary but it sets the scene for much of woodland horror that would follow.

While Lars von Trier’s 2009 film Antichrist isn’t one of the scariest movies I’ve seen, it is, as I once mentioned, incredibly disturbing, and maybe the only example of “torture porn” horror I’ve ever enjoyed (well, “enjoyed”). Its combination of a woodland cabin setting and the instances of extreme bodily mutilation at its climax makes it a kind of “art house Evil Dead”—that is to say, more intellectually stimulating than Raimi’s film but not nearly as entertaining. It follows a nameless couple—“he” (Willem Dafoe), a psychologist and “she” (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a Ph.D. student—who have recently lost their young son after the infant crawled out a window while they were making love.

With his wife’s fully justified grieving turning into a form of anxiety, the psychologist suggests treating her with exposure therapy. By subjecting herself to an environment she finds threatening, she would theoretically be able to face her fears and move on (her husband ignoring the fact that grief isn’t a syndrome but a perfectly natural response to personal tragedy). The environment in question is Eden, the colloquial name for the cottage grounds they own in the woods and where she and their son spent the previous summer while she was working on her thesis.

While the forest setting of Evil Dead is very much standard horror fare, the Eden of Antichrist possesses ethereal, even dreamlike qualities. While on the train on their way to the cottage, the psychologist has his wife imagine herself approaching the lodge through the woods on foot. The sequence, pictured at the very top of this analysis, is a hypnotic and unnerving introduction to the location, and sets the stage for many of the bizarre occurrences that follow—including talking/self-disembowelling animals, raining acorns and a general sense of malaise. Where Evil Dead’s forest is merely the home to malicious spirits, Eden seems to have a life and intent of its own, one that in part leads the couple to do horrible, horrible things to each other by film’s end.

Continuing along this line of woods-as-aggressor is the arboreal setting of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project. While the movie is notoriously—and, if I may so, wonderfully—ambiguous about the nature of its true aggressor, the clues it leaves with the audience implies the ill-fated protagonists are taunted not merely by spirits but by the forest itself. From early on, film students Heather, Josh and Michael find it overly difficult to navigate the forest, even with the aid of a map. By the time they realize how dire their situation has become, they are—impossibly—going in circles, returning to the same stream crossing time and time again in spite of the straight path south they have taken. And while they are haunted by distant, unsettling sounds each night, at no point are the students able to determine a source for the recurring din. One can imagine the trees cracking themselves in half, the fracturing of their wooden bones echoing throughout the forest. While the students might try to run, they’re at a disadvantage by default: they aren’t just on their pursuer’s home turf; the turf is their pursuer.

The shifting, almost Navidson house-esque nature of the Burkittsville woods isn’t just restricting to The Blair Witch Project’s setting. I recommended Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novel The Red Tree earlier last month in preparation for Halloween but its inherent eeriness works its way into you all year round. Unlike the other listed works, it lacks a definite aggressor, corporeal or incorporeal. Rather, protagonist Sarah Crowe and her co-boarder Constance Hopkins are beset by paranoia, increasing distrust and their own respective pasts. The location’s history definitely plays a role—the eponymous tree, the reader learns, used to serve as a pagan sacrificial ground—but I get the sense that it’s not so much a backdrop as a catalyst of sorts, triggering tension, anxiety and even aggression in its inhabitants. And, like the Burkittsville woods of Blair Witch, it tends to be, spatially inconsistent. Travelling back from the Red Tree to the farmhouse they’re lodging at, Sarah and Constance find the intervening distance growing to an almost impossible length without any visual indication. While The Red Tree lacks any full out scares, its forest setting does much to burden you with a sense of disquiet after you’ve closed the book.

So why is this setting so effective? Why the woods, as opposed to an urban or agrarian environment? After looking over the above works, I’m starting to think it’s the inherent lack of control—specifically, a lack of human control. While people might carve out trails and build cottages under the forest’s canopy, ultimately it is still nature that is in control of this environment, and by extension anything in it. While walking under a forest’s boughs, we might gird ourselves with bug spray, trail mix and a compass, but regardless of our precautions we’re forced to surrender our safety to nature’s dominion, however briefly: the nights get a little darker, its sounds a little louder, and the walk back to the car always seems to take a little longer than it should. All of the above phenomena can be observed in most, if not all of the woodland horror flicks I’ve described.

(On a possibly tangential, possibly pertinent note, my dear friend Anjuli Baldwin pointed out why many of the reasons we love the forest—its sense of isolation, its lack of technology, and its sheer level of concealment—are also the reasons we find it so frightening. Food for thought.)

So it’s easy to see why 1.) forests make an excellent setting for horror, and 2.) how their intrinsic qualities actually play a great part in generating that sense of horror.

Needless to say, I’m not necessarily looking forward to the next time I go camping.

Other suggested works:

“His Face All Red,” by Emily Carroll (comic)
“Nature Trail Visit,” by TribeTwelve (video)

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