When was the last time you walked in the deep, dark wood? What did you see? What did you feel?
And would you walk the same path at night?
Across the spectrum of horror, fantasy, and speculative fiction, a wide range of stories, settings, and characters have the power to scare, perturb, and unnerve us. But ultimately, they all share one common understanding, exploited to make the hairs prick on the back of our necks:
We are all afraid of things and people we don’t understand.
Tales set in forests and woodlands follow us through every age, and provoke their own particular brand of fear. Here, it’s often what we can’t see that scares us the most, and inspires our imaginations to fill in the blanks in the darkness. The most everyday trees and shrubs become other, untrustworthy, unfamiliar, and ‘uncanny’.
In Freud’s 1919 essay, “The Uncanny,” he explores this particular type of fear as attached to everyday objects and settings that remind us of childhood, like dolls, or automata, or woodlands. He says; “Uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.”
In Freud’s native German, ‘uncanny’ translates to ‘unheimlich’, a term with muddled meaning but which captures the strange, eerie sense of the ‘unhomely’ – that which is familiar but not as we like it to be. This is the realm within which twisted realities lie – severed limbs, inanimate objects coming to life, and the darkness at the heart of the deep, dark wood.
And while horror, fantasy, and speculative fiction are genres in their own right, the uncanny is more a style of writing, the fostering of dread and doom, a building of tension, and the unnerving sense that what was familiar is now unfamiliar.
So why are woodlands and the uncanny so often found hand-in-hand in horror and speculation stories?
From traditional fairy tales and gothic literature to modern fantasy and horror, the natural world plays a vital part in creating the uncanny atmosphere required for dark and speculative tales. But – in a time of logic and reason – why does nature still have the power to terrify us?
The ‘deep, dark wood’ is both a magical realm and a place of danger. From a very young age, fairy tales teach us that the forest is a place where unexplained forces dwell (such as Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and more recently The Gruffalo), and as we grow, it’s hard to shake off the woods’ connections to an older, pre-modern world, especially when presented with an endless stream of gothic and horror stories set in the forests, such as The Blair Witch Project and The VVitch.
These stories all share the same theme: forests are the kingdoms in which we are the trespassers.
In the dark, stones have faces, and roots become grasping fingers. The unhuman becomes the inhuman, the almost human. Forests are teeming with the inanimate but living. Trees don’t move yet they grow, their insides wriggling with insect life. And as the branches block out the sun, how can we tell what’s watching us, planning its next move?
Forests are worlds beyond our world; ageless and ancient. Old age comes with wisdom, cunning, and the ability to outwit us at every turn, and from a threat of the ‘old ways’, we see uncanny seeping straight into folk horror territory, teeming with the dark magic, pagan symbols, and inhuman rituals we see in films such as Midsommer and The Wicker Man.
In the forest, we are a species apart. We are the outnumbered, the alien, and – in comparison to the trees – outsized. Even compared to the animals there, we are slow, clumsy, our mouths filled with bluntest teeth. It’s the humanesque ability to outfox us, coupled with the inhuman creatures of the natural world which contributes to the sense of uncanny.
Forest folk tales and myths are flooded with uncanny creatures – anthropomorphic personifications of wood, water, and earth. Naiads are walking water, while faeries – particularly of the Brian Froud variety – are flying twigs, eyes popping from whorls in wood. His designs for the forests of Thra in the Dark Crystal universe give life to creatures such as gelflings, landstriders, and podlings; all of which inhabit a space between human and animal, the space where we are unnerved by the confusion that comes with an inability to understand these creatures’ origins.
In my latest novel, Mothtown, half the book follows a man as he crashes through the wilderness in search of a door in a mountain. This story is juxtaposed by David’s origin story, which follows him from childhood to adulthood in a rural town. While the novel’s settings are grounded and relatable in their real-world physicality and detail, an unnerving sense of the uncanny looms over the story through the wilderness landscape. A pair of shadows stalking our protagonists, piles of oddly shaped bones left on a doorstep, birds with necks tied in knots, and a face moulded into the rock of the mountain all contribute to a growing sense of a living land which is more than the sum of its parts. The earth and the turf become the flesh and muscles of a creature which could turn or snap at any moment.
From speculative fiction such as Mothtown to modern filmmaking, the uncanny continues to perturb us, taking us back to the twisted fairy tales of our childhoods. As long as we’re able to remember and relate to our childhood memories, we will be haunted by the sense that these objects, places, and stories can become twisted, shrinking us until we feel small, powerless, and lost. Though we live in an age of reason, the uncanny still has the ability to squat amongst the familiar and smirk. It possesses the everyday objects in our home and gives them life, just as it transforms the forest into a domain of inhumanity. Eyes everywhere. Secrets hidden under roots. Populated by creatures born from wood and stone.
So next time you’re in the forest, stop. Take a quiet breath and look around. You might just see something moving that shouldn’t.