The forest is a place we have very mixed feelings about. Forests can be calm and peaceful, full of ancient and natural beauty.
Until they’re not.
The forest, in so many ways, is a place we fear. They are dark and dense and overgrown, all too easy to get lost in. They hold secrets and mysteries, and creatures we’d rather not meet alone, far from home. And if the monsters of the forest don’t get us, then the forest itself will. The strange, malevolent powers of the trees themselves.
The forest can be a terrifying place. So we need a guide, someone to explain the mysteries of the deep dark wood. On this week’s episode I’m joined by Dr Elizabeth Parker to talk about the ecogothic, creepy woods and the things that lurk there.
Dr Elizabeth Parker is the author of The Forest and the EcoGothic: The Deep Dark Woods in the Popular Imagination. She is the founding editor of Gothic Nature: New Directions in Ecohorror and the EcoGothic, television editor for The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, and co-editor of Landscapes of Liminality: Between Space and Place (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). She has taught English Literature and courses on Popular Culture at a number of universities across the UK and Ireland and currently works at St Mary’s University Twickenham. You can read her full bio here.
The Gothic Nature journal has recently released Issue 2. Everything is free and open access at www.gothicnaturejournal.com, and the editors are always looking for blog entries, so for anyone interested in this episode, have a look!
Works & Authors Mentioned & Referenced
Dante: The Divine Comedy
Sigmund Freud: The Uncanny
Nathaniel Hawthorne: Young Goodman Brown
The Blair Witch Project (1999), dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez
Blair Witch (2016), dir. Adam Wingard
The Witch, dir. Robert Eggers
Max Porter: Lanny
The Village, dir. M Night Shyamalan
Sam Raimi, Evil Dead franchise
JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
David Attenborough, The Private Life of Plants (TV series)
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees
Algernon Blackwood: The Willows
If you enjoy the episode and want to find out how to support the show then click here for more information.
Looking for more on places in fiction? Then try this episode on Antartica
More creepy horror and gothic? This episode is on HG Lovecraft
Words To That Effect is a member of the Headstuff Podcast Network. Check out a whole host of great Irish podcasts here
Transcripts: Gothic Forests
Forest Ep Script
Hey, just before I begin this episode this is my last reminder that the listener survey is open for a little bit longer. Wttepodcast.com/survey. I’ve got some amazing ideas and feedback so far and I’d love to hear your opinions too. Wttepodcast.com/survey
I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect. Stories of the fiction that shapes popular culture
Well, I grew up in the countryside in Kent. And I grew up by some woods behind my house.
And I think the honest answer is that I just got fascinated by how different my feelings were about this environment. So it was where I wanted to go to be happy. It was where I wanted to go.
If I was sad, and I wanted to escape, it was sort of my safe place. But it was also somewhere that would like change immediately. If I heard a noise
or if it was slightly dusky or if my dog ran off
or like she even just looked at a tree, weirdly, I would suddenly just feel completely freaked out. So I think I was always kind of interested in that kind of dualistic relationship to the woods, I guess.
The forest is a place we have very mixed feelings about. Forests can be calm and peaceful, full of ancient and natural beauty.
Until they’re not. The forest, in so many ways, is a place we fear. Forests are dark and dense and overgrown, all too easy to get lost in. They hold secrets and mysteries, and creatures we’d rather not meet alone, far from home.
And if the monsters of the forest don’t get us, then the forest itself will. The strange, malevolent powers of the trees themselves.
The forest can be a terrifying place.
So we need a guide, someone to explain the mysteries of the forest:
So my name is Elizabeth Parker. And I published this book about creepy woods last year. And my background is, well I did my masters on kind of creepy dark retellings of Little Red Riding Hood, which led me further into the woods, and then got me excited about wanting to do a whole PhD on it, and then eventually turned it into a book. Otherwise, I work at St. Mary’s University in Twickenham, London.
So this is the third in my loosely connected series on places in fiction and popular culture. There’s been Antarctica and Deserts and in this episode I want to look at forests. More specifically I want to look at the forest as a strange, creepy, terrifying place. As a place that combines nature and the gothic: eco gothic as it’s called
And Dr Elizabeth Parker’s work is in precisely this area of the eco gothic. It’s an idea that that maybe needs a bit of explaining:
what I mean is, I guess kind of starting with the beginning of it, the word eco Gothic is a kind of amalgamation of the words ecology, and Gothic. So what you’re doing there when you say eco Gothic is you’re looking at that juxtaposition and going what happens when we put those two words or two ideas next to each other?
So first you’ve got the different ways that nature features in Gothic texts
we think about our big Gothic texts, kind of classic ones, new ones. Where do we find nature in there? And I’m thinking about kind of sublime landscapes, mountainscapes, forests, ice escapes, which will feature in the kind of big names like Dracula, Frankenstein, etc. And then also kind of the dark green Gothic, how plants come in foliage, how the ocean comes in Gothic animals, etc.
So that’s nature in Gothic literature.
Then you’ve got the gothic in nature
So how we think about the natural world, the nonhuman world, the more than human world, and how we find or see or kind of put the Gothic into that. So with that I’m kind of thinking about, I guess to put it really simply nature is something that’s really quite frightening nature that’s red in tooth and claw, where we’re kind of moving beyond [[what Smith and Hughes called]] the Wordsworthian tradition, and we’re moving into what’s frightening. And what Simon Estok calls eco phobia, which is just literally the fear of nature, the fear of the nonhuman.
The last thing to consider, then, is that gothic is not the same as horror. And so even though eco gothic and eco horror are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different
For me, that comes down to how we think about the word horror and Gothic. And I think horror is something that’s more immediate, it’s more events based, it often has humans at the centre of it. And when you’re looking at eco horror, you’ve always got that strand of nature’s revenge, right? Like humans have done something bad to nature, we’ve harmed nature, and we need to be punished for it. And nature comes back and does that. And in doing so it raises environmental awareness in some way. So when you think eco horror, the kind of the textbook examples of the 1970s creature features, so lots of like, you know, we’ve poisoned the sea and now there’s like, you know, monsters animals coming out, we’ve somehow got a nuclear power plant that’s leaking into things. And so again, we’re being punished by nature that we’ve somehow harmed.
And I think the word Gothic is very much tied to setting so when you say the word Gothic, I immediately think castles, convents, large houses, but I also think kind of spooky forest mountainscapes, etc. So I think eco Gothic encapsulates that sense of ambience and atmosphere and it doesn’t necessarily have the human at the centre. And I also think the word Gothic something that I really love about the Gothic is it encapsulates that sense of fear and desire at the same time. Which I think is something that you find in eco Gothic narratives.
So the eco Gothic is about ambience and atmosphere, and there’s this contradictory feeling of both fear and desire.
And the forest, too, has this ability to both enchant us and lure us in, while also repelling and terrifying us.
So why are we so afraid of the forest? Why are there so many stories – fairy tales and children’s stories, gothic novels, horror films – with terrifying forests?
Well, there are quite a few reasons, it turns out, lots of them interconnected.
One of the big ones is of course that we lose our way in forests – both literally and metaphorically. Going all the way back to the 14th century, it’s in a dark forest that Dante’s Divine Comedy begins, where the poet has lost his way. Now Dante had it really hard, he had to voyage through the 9 circles of hell, climb Mount Purgatory and ascend through the celestial bodies of Paradise before he found his way.
But, for the rest of us, forests are easy places to get lost in. Because they’re dense and hard to move quickly through, a forest doesn’t have to be particularly big to get lost in it. You might be a few hundred metres from the edge but have no idea. They’re vertical spaces, difficult to navigate in a very different way to the vast, open, and horizontal space of, say, a desert.
When you’re lost in the forest you’re cut off from the outside world, and there’s even a danger that you may lose yourself entirely to the forest. You see this in Victorian and early 20th century imperial adventure tales, where explorers are susceptible to (in inverted commas) “going native” or regressing, in forest and jungle spaces.
Being cut off from civilisation has very real dangers . Take your typical horror film:
like they always set it up to say, like, oh, I’ve got no phone signal, or, you know, there’s no Wi Fi here, I can’t get data. So again, you’re kind of lost from kind of modern civilization. And like you said, there it’s about getting metaphorically lost as well. I think there’s that fear that you’re not only going to lose kind of where you are geographically, but you’re also going to lose yourself, you’re going to regress in some way like this is a site of the unconscious is a space where your id is maybe going to champion over your ego. So there’s an awful lot of fears going on there about how how you can get lost.
We talk about things being uncanny, where the familiar is encountered in an unsettling way. The word was most famously used by Sigmund Freud, using the German unheimliche, and in fact, as Dr Parker pointed out to me, one of the examples Freud uses of the uncanny is of being lost in a forest:
“When every endeavour” Freud writes “to find the marked or familiar path ends again and again in a return to one and the same spot, recognizable by some particular landmark.” You walk in a straight line and end up back where you started. This, he explains, is uncanny.
So we fear forests because they are uncanny and strange and easy to get lost in. They are, to use a particularly apt word, bewildering, they lure us into the wilderness.
Strange things also happen in forests in relation to time.
the forest is tied to the past. [[That goes back to what I was saying just now about the idea that]] the forest in some ways is kind of timeless, or that time moves differently in the woods. And that’s something that we see play out on a lot of texts, I’m thinking, the recent remake, or recentish remake of The Blair Witch Project plays really interestingly, with time moving differently in the woods.
Forests are ancient spaces, outside time, and places where there are dangerous connections to the past. This might be in the form of the savage people who live in the forest, in opposition to the urban and the modern world outside. Or this connection to the past may have a religious element:
And this is the idea that in the woods there is no God, or in the woods there is the wrong God, or the wrong Gods plural. That this is a space of kind of pagan worship of blood soaked groves of, you know, nasty human sacrifice, all this kind of darkness, and that also its home and habitat to the devil. So you’ve got these examples, you know, things like Young Goodman Brown, where you go into the woods, and you’re going to meet the devil or things like The Witch.
So there are plenty of reasons to fear the forest. But how are these fears manifested? How do we see them reflected in fiction and popular culture?
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So, moving from the strange and terrifying world of Sweet Valley High to the strange and terrifying forest, how are our fears of the forest manifested?
Well, number one has got to be monsters. The forest is full of monsters, much like all those places we fear because they’re unknown. You know that thing on old maps where the cartographer has no idea what’s beyond the edges of the map and just writes Hic Sunt Dracones, Here Be Dragons?
And then there’d be all these little drawings of kind of creepy ocean monsters, or forest monsters or whatever it might be. And I think that comes down to the idea of, it’s really difficult as a human being to just kind of go, that’s unknown. Because the unknown is absolutely terrifying. And if you don’t have a word for it, or a face for it, or some kind of form for it, it’s just kind of completely overwhelming. So I think, you know, we’re imaginative creatures that we start to kind of give faces give forms, give names to that. And I think that’s where monsters come in.
So [when there’s something I mean,] you know, monsters, stereotypically they’re manifestations of our anxiety, but they’re also manifestations of the things that we don’t want. So if you start looking into monster theory, again and again, you’ll see this argument where the monster is really us like we think of the monster is the other but Dun, dun, dun, you know, plot twist, the monster is actually us, it shows us something about ourselves that we don’t like.
There are monsters in the forest reflecting the things we don’t want to recognise in ourselves. We cast things out into the wilderness because we are frightened of them or we don’t want to acknowledge them, and then they manifest as monsters lurking in those dark and forbidding spaces. Two of the most prominent monstrous figures we find hark back to two classic children’s tales with Gothic forests: Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. So, you’ve got the big bad wolf and the wicked witch, and all the variations on these two.
And these, I think they’re kind of classic monsters of the woods, that dominate a lot of our kind of textual examples. But additionally, I think you’ve also got a third category of, I think I rather uninspiringly call ambiguous monsters
, which is where you’ve got these monsters that don’t have a kind of clear form that they mix lots and lots of different things together. And I think that makes sense because monsters, in a lot of ways, the reason why monsters frighten us because they mix together the human and the nonhuman.
One of the best novels I read last year was Max Porter’s Lanny. It’s such an extraordinary book, inventive and unusual and with this just breath-taking section in the middle. It’s the story of a boy, Lanny and the village he lives in. And a third character: Observing everyone and everything, there’s a type of forest monster or green man: Dead Papa Toothwort. Like so many forest monster tales, the problem is not the monster, it’s the people. In the case of Lanny, when something goes very wrong, which I won’t spoil, the villagers turn on each other, gossiping, accusing and ultimately finding a scapegoat they can blame.
Another take on the monster in the forest is in M Night Shyamalan’s The Village, a favourite of Dr Parker’s
Warning! If you have got through the last 17 years of your life without seeing The Village, you’re about to find out the twist, unless you skip forward 30 seconds right now.
But the twist in that film is that it’s actually the elders of the village are dressing up as these creatures. And they draw heavily on mythology of why we fear the forest to create these monsters and to create their visuals. And they are that absolute kind of textbook mixture of the human and the more than human in a very disturbing way. They have kind of branches flowing down their backs. They’re also wearing red capes, they look like little red riding from the from the back, but they also have kind of wolf fur going down there front, they’re playing with that kind of monster element there as well. So that would be my kind of favorite monster text.
Sometimes, though, it’s not monsters lurking in the forest, it’s the forest itself. Take the film Evil Dead:
which has, you know, a very famous and nasty and brutal forest scene and it but it’s your traditional kind of cabin in the woods, horror film. And there’s a scene where a woman goes off into the woods, she’s attacked, and when she comes back, she starts screaming, that she’s been hurt that she’s been hunted. And the immediate reaction is, you know, did someone or something do this to you? Is there someone in the works? Is there something in the words and she says, No, it was the woods themselves. They’re alive. The trees are alive.
Which is particularly weird and terrifying to us humans, I think. We know trees are alive, we know they grow and move, but it just doesn’t really register.
there was a famous book a few years ago, I think it was by Peter Wohlleben called The Hidden Life of Trees, or The Secret Life of trees, something like that. And he talks about how all of us understand that trees are alive, we’d be like, Oh, yes, trees are alive. But at the same time, all of us kind of understand that trees are objects, or that’s how we conceptualize them
. So we background trees and plants. And we have something that is sometimes referred to as plant blindness, where we sort of forget that they’re alive
We talked already about time in forests, and I think the creepiness of trees moving is to do with speed. Trees work to a different time scale than humans, they live for hundreds sometimes thousands of the years. The oldest tree in the world is nearly 5000 years old, which is kind of insane. Trees obviously move and grow but it’s not until you see the process sped up that you see how deliberate and directed it is. I remember, years ago, being completely amazing at sped up footage of plants in a David Attenborough series, The Private Life of Plants. It was the first time I’d ever really seen how directed the actions of plants are, which we just don’t recognise because it happens so slowly.
This got me thinking about the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are similar too, as long-lived, slow moving tree shepherds, they painstakingly deliberate on everything, at a pace which seems incomprehensibly slow for a human.
So all of this is to say that if you’re walking through a forest and you realise the trees themselves are alive, and trying to murder you, it’s particularly terrifying.
But I think a text for me that that really effectively illustrates this is The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, which is kind of a famous, Uber eco Gothic texts in a way and when you start looking at origins of eco Gothic people talk quite a lot about Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen and that kind of era that has got quite a lot of attention. And The Willows if you don’t, if you don’t know, it is a novella in which two men go camping on this little island. And very slowly, the trees close in on them. And it’s, it’s unbelievably weird. And I mean, weird with a capital W, as well as a lowercase W, where they just kind of wake up and every time they look out, the trees are just a little bit closer. And to begin with, they think it’s in their mind, but it’s getting closer and closer and closer. And I think there’s something in that about the idea that, you know [[, trees do move and you know, we’ve all seen kind of sped up footage of plants growing of trees growing and you go, oh, my goodness, ]] they do move they are. They are animate they are, you know, they have maybe sentience isn’t quite the right word. But there’s, you know, there’s a logic there. So yeah, that would be an example that I would I would draw on. [[And then otherwise, I think, you know, there’s lots of stuff in film, people will often talk about the opening, it was quite early on in the film anyway, of the Disney film Snow White. So it doesn’t have to be a gothic text to have a gothic forest.]] And then a lesser known one, but one that I love would be Antichrist, which I’ll warn right now is not for the faint hearted. But if you are okay, with really, really disturbing horror, that’s a very interesting film to look up.
I haven’t seen this film. I’m not sure I want to, I’ll leave it up to you.
So, ultimately the forest can be full of gothic terrors in quite a few different ways. Certainly a lot of these fears of forests taking their revenge are linked to anxieties around how we treat trees and the natural world – about deforestation, the destruction of rainforests, climate change. We treat trees as objects but we know they’re not. We clear forests for agriculture and urban development, even though we know it’s self-defeating and destroying the planet. And so we can also take a certain pleasure when the trees fight back.
We will always, it seems, be conflicted by forests. Like the gothic more generally, we can enjoy the mixture of fear and desire, the opposition between the enchanted and the monstrous. The eco gothic has plenty more to say about our world, and there many more dark, creepy forests out there, where the snap of a twig …..could be anyone, or anything…
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening.
A very special thanks to my guest this week, Dr Elizabeth Parker. For much more on this topic you can pick up a copy of her book The Forest and the EcoGothic, and the paperback version of is just out with Palgrave. I’ll put links to it on the website
You can also check out The Gothic Nature journal, everything is free and open access, issue 2 is just out. That’s at www.gothicnaturejournal.com.
I’ll put links to the journal, twitter accounts, and everything else on the website, which is wttepodcast.com
There you’ll also find full transcripts, all 51 back episodes and lots more. The survey, as I mentioned is at wttepodcast.com/survey
And finally, to support this show and to get bonus episodes, pop on over to HeadStuffPodcasts.com and sign up to become a member. I’ll be posting a bonus section from this episode where Dr Parker recommends a book you have to read if you’re interested in this area.
And that’s it, I’ll see you very soon for the next episode.