Stay Out of the Woods: Horror’s Tradition of Fearing the Deep, Dark Wilderness

“What went we out into this wilderness to find?” intones the patriarch of the seemingly doomed family at the heart of The Witch. The man and his kindred have been banished from the safety of their walled New England Puritan community, and after a journey through shadow and open land, they set up a new home at the edge of a looming wilderness. To the Puritans, the uncharted forests that were so prevalent in New England were a place to be feared. “The wilderness qualified as a sort of ‘devil’s den’;” writes Stacy Schiff, “since the time of Moses, the prince of darkness had thrived there. He was hardly pleased to be displaced by a convoy of Puritans.” In The Witch, the very thought of venturing into the woods is not to be taken lightly, and when two of the children secretly go deep within, only bad things follow.

The Puritans didn’t exactly hold a patent on the concept — early folktales used enchanted forests as stage settings witches, demons, trolls and more. Dante’s Divine Comedy opens with its narrator lost in a dark wood before eventually making his way into hell. It’s not the forests and trees themselves that instill terror — although at times, a dark path flanked with twisted, dead branches can certainly incite unease. Rather, it’s the unknown factor that contributes to dread: just how deep are these woods, and what could be lurking within them? Even now, well into the 21st Century, when natural forestry has been depleted and corrupted with safe paved roads that can helpfully transport the traveler back into the comfort of civilization, the hypothetical problem of getting lost in the woods still has a preternatural power. On top of this, struggling through uncharted woodland with the hope of coming out the other end, possibly scathed but otherwise alive, still works as a handy allegory (as it did for Dante). When, in the Joseph Kahn-directed music video for “Out of the Woods”, Taylor Swift stumbles barefoot through a gorgeously photographed wilderness that threatens to destroy her via wolves, fire, and Evil Dead-like vines, we understand that Ms. Swift isn’t really fighting for life against all that unpleasantness — after all, “the monsters turned out to be trees.”

Horror in the unknown wild is by no means beholden to American-set horror films. But there’s a distinctness to the American horror stories that makes use of the fear of the forest: America is, historically speaking, a new country, but there were cultures of peoples here long before the first “civilized” travelers crossed the sea and appropriated the land. The Puritans were terrified of what they couldn’t understand — both the woods around their new homes, and the Algonquian peoples who dwelled there. It was the Puritanical duty, they believed, to tame the bedeviled wilderness and convert the “savages” within. It’s as if the Puritan’s lack of understanding of both the wilderness and the forced-conversion of native peoples cursed the land, creating a haunted woodland in the process. In essence, when modern horror films strand their characters in the forest to be slaughtered, it’s like a dark, shameful, Bible-tainted past coming back for revenge

Now let’s take a trip through some of the more prominent titles, grouped by the nature of their menace. Follow me, I know the way. I think…

I. Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?: Backwoods Horror

As civilization expands to the point of overpopulation, and forestry depletes, a popular use of the woods as a threat in horror films comes in the form of “Backwoods Horror.” These are the films where a group of urban or suburban individuals — usually young, rude, and privileged — take one hell of a wrong turn and end up on the bad side of some piece of farm equipment wielded by an uncivilized redneck hillbilly. The most famous and effective film in this sub-genre is Tobe Hooper’s 1974 shock masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths,” warns the film’s narrator (John Larroquette!), “It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day.” Drawing from the real-life-horror story of genuine backwoods maniac Ed Gein, Hooper’s low-budget nightmare has the five youths in question come up against a family of cannibals who want to have them over for dinner in the absolute worst way. At the center of it all was the iconic Leatherface, a hulking, grunting chainsaw wielding monstrosity in a blood-slicked apron. While not set strictly “deep in the woods”, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre makes use of its seemingly uninhabited, middle-of-nowhere locale to ratchet up the dread.

Hooper’s film may get more prominence in horror history for it’s inhuman-seeming villains, but it wasn’t exactly charting new ground. In 1972, John Boorman’s Deliverance dropped four green city dwelling men into the backwoods of Georgia for a rafting trip. It’s all fun and male-bonding until the men run afoul of sadistic moonshiners. Deliverance reputation prevails to the point that when characters in films find themselves in danger of getting lost in some unknown southen locale, someone will be quick to quip that they’re stranded in “Deliverance Country”.

Texas Chain Saw director Tober Hooper stuck with the hillbilly horror with Eaten Alive, the relatable tale of a crazy hotel owner who kills people and feeds them to his pet crocodile. Quentin Tarantino would later appropriate Eaten Alive’s most famous line — “My name is Buck, and I’m rarin’ to fuck!” — for Kill Bill Vol. 1. Wes Craven’s 1972 nasty, no-frills The Last House on The Left had the filmmaker interpreting Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring as a reaction to violence of the turbulent times. “Last House was really a reaction on my part to the violence around us, specifically to the Vietnam war,” Craven said. “I spent a lot of time on the streets protesting the war, and I wanted to show how violence affects people. It blew away all the cliches of handling violence. Before that violence had been neat and tidy: I made it painful and protracted and shocking and very human.” In the film, two teenage girls are headed to the city for a concert, and find themselves abducted by a gang of psychopaths. The gang take the girls from the city to the uninhabited woods, where they proceed to torture, rape and kill them. However, the horror doesn’t end there, because these woods aren’t as far away from civilization as one might think. As it turns out, the parents of one of the murdered girls lives very close by, and when the gang ends up on their doorstep, it’s only a matter of time before parents learn of their daughter’s fate and enact a bloody revenge against the gang, who likely ended up wishing they had never left the city.

Many other titles play on the aforementioned set-ups. Southern Comfort enrolls in the Deliverance school by having manly-men come up against murderous rednecks; I Spit On Your Grave takes a far-more exploitative approach to Craven’s Last House with a woman seeking bloody revenge after being left for dead in the woods by rapists; both Motel Hell and Tourist Trap play with Eaten Alive’s “murderous proprietor of a backwoods institution” scenario, but Tourist Trap is so utterly bizarre — rife with what can only be described as magic, and also screaming mannequins — that it must be seen to be believed. As for the films spawned from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the list is endless and unwieldy, but includes Wrong Turn, Hatchett, Mother’s Day, the slick 2003 Texas Chainsaw remake and House of 1000 Corpses. For a nice palate cleanser, see 2010’s Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, which playfully and bloodily sends-up many of these films. And then of course there is the remarkably clever Cabin in The Woods, which plays and preys on tropes in a metacontextual manner.

II. A Perfect Place to Die: Summer Camp Horror & Death by the Elements

Personally, I can’t stand camping. Sleep outside, where there’s no indoor plumbing, no central air conditioning or memory foam mattresses, but there are plenty of insects? No thanks, I’ll be in my house with all my electronics on full-blast, running up the electric bill.

Still, some people enjoy the concept of the great outdoors, even though horror films and films of a horrific nature have taught us time and time again that if you go into the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. And that surprise is either a guy in a hockey mask ready to cut your head off or a bear ready to tear you to shreds.

The “Summer Camp” sub-genre of horror is well-known. 1980’s Friday the 13th had horny teens flocking into the woods to don unflattering jean shorts and run a summer camp. Unfortunately for them, someone was lurking behind the trees, waiting to ruin their premarital sex. It was the mother of a boy who drowned at the camp years ago, and with this set-up, Friday the 13th would cement a stance that might make the Puritans proud: any person who dared to fuck around and not take their hard work (well, as hard as summer camp work can be, at least) seriously would be struck down. Friday the 13th would spawn a dirge of sequels wherein the undead Jason would travel through the 80s and even into the 90s, slaughtering those trespassers who wandered into his woodland area. But Jason had some competition: 1981’s The Burning brought popular campfire tale character Cropsy to the big screen, as he dispatched a cast that included Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens. Coming so soon on the heels of Friday the 13th, The Burning didn’t have as much of an impact as the later film — at first. But Tom Savini’s memorable gore effects helped its cult status grow. Cult status was also exactly what enabled 1983’s Sleepaway Camp to stay on the radar for horror fans for years to come. On the surface, Sleepaway Camp is rote in its devotion to Friday the 13th’s set-up, and it might have faded into obscurity had it not been for a truly shocking twist ending that I won’t dare give away here.

The great outdoors aren’t just for horny teens, though. Adults like to take in the beauty of nature as well — although sometimes they happen to end up deep in the cruel heart of it against their will. Joe Carnahan’s immensely underrated 2011 The Grey may have seemed, due to marketing, to be another film in the Taken-vein: that is, another tale of Liam Neeson, Fatherly Ass-Kicker. But The Grey is a somber meditation on death and dying that just happens to feature CGI wolves. A group of oil-workers get trapped in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash, and must fend for their lives against the unforgiving elements (and those wolves). Nature-punishing-man played a big part in 1997’s The Edge, which employed a similar plane-crash set-up to strand three men in the Alaskan wilderness where they struggle to survive against the harsh Alaskan wild and a killer bear. Lesson to be learned here: don’t get on a plane flying over the Alaskan wilderness. 2010’s Frozen (no, not the Disney movie) stranded three skiers on a ski lift high-above a wolf-infested forest during a snowstorm, and things only get worse from there — skin peels, limbs shatter, guts are torn out. Recent Oscar nominee The Revenant is rich with the merciless, possibly even divinely ordained punishment of the wilderness. And whatever The Revenant lacks in story (which is plenty) it makes up for in breathtakingly brutal spectacle: the wilderness is cold and destructive, and a man is a fool if he dares to travel through it.

III. Forces Which Roam the Forest & Dark Bowers of Man’s Domain: Monsters & Other Woodland Nuisances

Not all threats in the forest are elemental or driven by sadistic human beings. Sometimes, death comes at the hands of blood-thirsty monsters or other paranormal causes. Sam Raimi’s 1981 The Evil Dead brought five friends to a cabin in the woods, and then tore them apart — literally. Lovecraftian forces unleashed by an ancient book soon turn humans into demons, and the only way to survive involves torrents of gore. Evil Dead was intended to be straight-faced horror, but it went on to spawn the more comedic — and seemingly more popular — Evil Dead II, which took the same set-up to slapstick territory. Ever-present, though, was Raimi’s inventive, moving camera, which at several points zoomed weightlessly through the forest — a malevolent, never-seen force coming through all that unforgiving wilderness to wreck havoc — the past catching up to lay waste to the future. 2013 saw an ultra-gory, but slightly uneven, Evil Dead remake that attempted to return the franchise to its more serious-roots. And while we’re on the subject of roots, the most memorable sequence from Raimi’s original involves a queasy moment when a female character is violently sexually assaulted by the very forest itself — gnarled, claw-like branches come forth and pull the unfortunate woman down into unrelenting clutches. Nature literally fighting back, in a truly repugnant manner.

In David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks, and, by extension the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, there’s something sinister in the eponymous town. Surrounded by Ghostwood Forest, Twin Peaks is a logging community, so it’s only appropriate that a place that thrives on the destruction of trees would find itself at odds with possibly supernatural forces emanating from the forest itself. Somewhere in that forest is the mysterious Black Lodge — a location opened by an act of violent murder, and home to the nightmarish Red Room, where an unlucky soul might find themselves trapped for years.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (originally titled The Woods) sneakily inverses the monster in the woods formula. All through the narrative, the audience is made to believe the characters are inhabiting a small, secluded village some time in the 19th century. The community lives mostly in harmony, but fears a pack of dreaded monsters who roam the woods. By the film’s close, however, it’s revealed that not only are the monsters fictional creations conjured up by the village elders to keep the community in line, but also that the story is in fact set in present day and that the village was a type of social experiment concocted by a group of people hoping to escape the troubled 21st century and return to a simpler way of life. Shyamalan has subverted the standard tropes, making the normally threatening inner woodlands a safe haven — it’s the modern, civilized society that’s the truly scary place.

The woods are home to an ancient Indian burial ground that can raise the dead in 1989’s Pet Sematary, adapted from the novel by Stephen King. While the woods themselves don’t play a huge part in the film, they’re always looming at a distance — and when the characters do dare trek into them, there’s hell to pay. An element only briefly touched on in the film but much more prevalent in King’s novel was the legend of the Wendigo, a creature from Native American folklore that could turn a person into a monstrous cannibal with just a single touch. The creature plays a much bigger part — or does it? — in Larry Fessenden’s 2001 film Wendigo. Fleeing the big city for a cabin in upstate New York, a family man grows convinced the Wendigo is involved with dark and mysterious forces in woods surrounding the cabin. Fessenden’s film deliberately toes the line between whether the forces at play are psychological or paranormal, but there is the real sense that something with real power holds sway over the woodlands.

IV. Nature Is Satan’s Church: Witches & Worse in the Devil’s Den

Lars von Trier’s 2009 arthouse shock-fest Antichrist focuses on a grieving couple who take up residence in a cabin in the woods, hoping to come to terms with their grief. What they get instead is a descent into a nightmare where pain is plentiful, animals are verbal, and chaos reigns. “Nature is Satan’s church” the main female character says, echoing the Puritanical belief of the “Devil’s Den”. The characters in Antichrist fail to understand their own emotions, as well as the emotions of each other, just as New Englanders hundreds of years ago failed to grasp the very landscape they inhabited. (Side-note: This piece has focused distinctly on films with an American setting; Antichrist was a Danish production filmed in Germany. The setting of the film, however, is never explicitly stated, and characters only speak English. Is it cheating to include it here regardless? Possibly. But it’s too good a film to ignore for the purposes of this piece.)

1999’s The Blair Witch Project became a horror sensation due to early buzz and clever marketing. The found footage horror film came at a time when found footage was not nearly as prominent as it is now, and the filmmakers and producers were able to trick many unsuspecting audience members into believing the film was a true story. Three young, inexperienced documentary filmmakers set out in the woods around Maryland to document the legend of a local witch. It’s not long before they’re stranded, and stalked by an unseen presence. The film’s director keeps insisting that getting lost in the woods is impossible — “This is America!” she cries. “We’ve exhausted all of our natural resources!” Yet the three main characters wander in circles, directed by a force they can’t understand. One remarkable element of Blair Witch was its ability to turn perfectly mundane objects you’d find in a forest — bundles of sticks, piles of rocks — into strange and ominous totems; we may never see the witch herself, but her presence is felt by the vary setting the characters are trapped in. The maligned but at times commendable Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 gave audiences the Blair Witch sequel they weren’t asking for. Instead of opting for found footage, Book of Shadows told a more traditional narrative while still taking care to stress the powerful presence of a malevolent force that haunts the woods. The Blair Witch herself was an Irish immigrant named Elly Kedward, and the surprisingly detailed Blair Witch mythos chronicles how she was more than likely a woman who practiced her own brand of primitive medicine; a practice which lead to the townsfolk branding her a witch, and leaving her to die in the woods during the harshest winter in history. With this legend is the ever-present theme that the American woodland are a cursed place; a place where the folly of the self-righteous bring about death and ruin for future generations to come.

The Blair Witch Project picked up its buzz at Sundance, and in 2015, The Witch did something very similar, leading to sold-out screenings and high anticipation. Finally released in 2016’s The Witch is one of the most effective portrayals of witchcraft and Satanic forces in recent memory. The power of the film resides in how authentic director Robert Eggers keeps things — like Barry Lyndon, there’s a natural realism at play, as if we’ve been transported back in time and are witnessing actual history rather than a recreation. That realism lulls the viewer into a logic-based mindset — “This is all so historically accurate, therefore there’s probably nothing supernatural going on.” But there are supernatural forces at work in The Witch, and when they fully reveal themselves, the audience is too engrossed in the narrative to know what hit them. There really is a Witch of the Wood, and if you stumble-upon her hut nestled among the trees, you best turn and go back the way you came. The Witch resides wholeheartedly in the 17th Century and thus makes the American wilderness seem all the more untamed. But that doesn’t mean the horrors of the wood are limited to the past. After all, there are still plenty of uninhabited places left across the land. Places where the sidewalk ends, the shadows grow longer, and the strange sound you hear echoed all around might just be a harmless animal scampering through the brush, or it might be something far, far worse — something coming to seal your doom.

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