There is something in the forest.
Almost every culture on the planet has folklore about the woods and the creatures, good or bad, that dwell in them. In Norse mythology it’s the Milkwood, a dangerous forest that the heroes have to carefully tread through. In Malay culture, the unseen beings that may be helpful or malicious, depending on who you ask, lurk only in the depths of the forest. The Grimm Brothers send all of their heroes into the forest, where they find foe more often than friend. Hansel and Gretel meet a cannibal. Harry Potter meets werewolves and giant spiders. Student filmmakers meet the Blair Witch. There’s something in the forest, and it’s always been there.
The Hallow (2015) is an Irish horror tale, where the Hitchens family move from the relative comfort of London, England deep into rural Ireland. Adam (Joseph Marle) is to survey the forest adjacent to their property, while his wife Claire (Bojana Novakovic) fixes up the house for them and their newborn baby. Adam is a scientist, set to collect data on a forest his company is going to demolish anyway. The locals are unsurprisingly against this idea. The Hitchens initially dismiss it as small-town superstition, before realising there really is something in the forest. The Hallow, as the locals call it, are malicious spirits that will come into your house and take you back into the depths of the woods with them. They can turn you into one of them, or leave one of their own behind in disguise. The Hallow destroys the Hitchens family before they can destroy the forest, in a gentle reminder of who came first. Man vs nature rarely works out for man.
In The Witch (2016), a 17th-century family are excommunicated from their village and head off to live in the forest. They manage to build a house and live life for long enough until newborn baby Samuel is taken. There’s a witch in the forest, and she has begun her torment of the family. Samuel is killed and eaten, young twins Mercy and Jonas are transfixed by a goat that speaks to them (Black Phillip, a literal dark horned beast) and pre-teen siblings Caleb and Tomasin are lured, injured and manipulated by the animals in the woods. Tomasin, the teenage daughter, is accused by the family of bewitching them all. She rejects her family and embraces the devil, sorcery, and dancing naked in the woods. You can either destroy the evil or become it.
Twin sisters Sarah and Jess of The Forest (2016) have a different fate. They both find themselves lost, figuratively and literally, in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest. Called the Suicide Forest or the Sea of Trees, the real life forest at the base of Mount Fuji is known for its high suicide rate and stories of yurie (angry spirits). The sisters have depression and trauma from their parents’ death at a young age, and that is what leads Jess into the forest to contemplate her end. Sarah wanders into the Sea of Trees to find her sister and instead is haunted by the yurie. This forest’s dark secrets are manmade: Sarah and Jess’ demons are childhood trauma, and it’s real life that drives people to suicide. The different paths they take (Jess faces her trauma, Sarah runs from it) is what separates them in the Sea of Trees: Jess decides to live and is able to escape, while Sarah accidentally destroys herself. She is the only forest victim who doesn’t choose her fate: Adam Hitchens gives into the spirits of the forest to save his baby, Tomasin embraces the evil and saves herself, and Sarah denies the presence of evil until it’s too late.
While the dangers lurking in the forest is a universal theme, each film shows their cultures specific fears. In Ireland, the natural world is older than man and must be respected. The Celts worshipped among the trees and considered it to be sacred ground. Fairy lore is still strong in Celtic areas and even modern Pagan beliefs: the fairies of the forest will take your children and leave an impostor in its place. (That the Celtic sprites terrorize the English colonizers in The Hallow is surely no accident.) Japan’s yurie are lost souls who need a second chance to cross over, yet the American film sees them (and all of Japan) as foreign and untrustworthy. Sarah looks at Lolita outfits and live sushi with the same level of fear and apprehension as she does the Japanese schoolgirl ghosts wandering the forest. America doesn’t understand Japan, but in The Witch, it understands itself: America fears the devil above all else. There are no creatures, no ghosts, just the devil and his minions and no way to stop them. This isn’t a country known for its nuance, after all.
So what really lurks in the forest? Is it just the fear of the unknown, the fear of being lost and at the mercy of nature, the fear that anything could be lurking just beyond the trees? Were our early ancestors afraid of the forests the same way they were afraid when the sun went down, and the tales lived on to scare new generations? Does that explain why thousands of people apparently disappear in National Parks every year, gone without a trace? Why similar stories about forests that take people or send back doppelgangers crop up across multiple cultures, in multiple languages, from countries separated by oceans?
Perhaps there’s just something in the forest.