Today I want to talk about one of my favourite settings for a horror story.
The forest is one of my favourite settings for a proper spooky story. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember, but when I tried to think about it I couldn’t for the life of me think why. I mean I love the forest, I love spending crisp autumn weekends wandering around the forests, watching the trees changing colour, picking up knickknacks (a habit I started as a kid and have never broken) watching out for wildlife and being chuffed to all hell when every year there seems to be more and more.
But why then, if I love the woods so much is it my go-to, best location for setting a scary story?
While it is possible to turn any location into a scary place with the right amount of subversion, I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. A forest is a place we learn to fear from a young age. Fairy tales, like the Brothers Grimm, teach us that the forest is where dangerous things, like monsters, witches and wolves live. But more than that, they teach us that the forest itself is scary, it’s easy to get lost and never be found, it is a place where the natural makeup of the land is dangerous.
I imagine in the days of Brothers Grimm there was a lot of danger to be had in the forest and these stories were, in part, created so people would be careful, children would not wander off and thus people would be safer. With far less woodland now than there was then this threat is no longer so great. Yet we hold onto the old stories and the fear they gave us.
That fear, cemented in us so early, stays with us well into our adult life. Not always in a literal way, many of us love going into the forest, it’s a place of escapism and natural beauty. But a lot of the forests we go into are managed, they are looked after, with well-maintained pathways and signposts. It’s wild and natural but in a very safe way. So, while our fear is no longer literal it can still be subconscious.
Writers, horror writers, in particular, know this.
They use the forest to excellent effect, it’s a place of discombobulation, easy to get lost in when you step off the path, easy to not see the threat, a looming presence in and of itself the forest can almost transcend the label of setting and become a character in your story.
To give just a few examples, Blair Witch Project for movies, the forest in this film is almost immediately threatening, the lack of visible threat only seems to highlight the threat from the location itself. For videogames just look at Slenderman: The lost pages, nothing quite gets your blood going the way wandering through the endless trees terrified that ‘he’ could be behind any of them, or behind you. For general stories look no further than the ever-growing urban legend about the stairs in the woods.
But are stories from our childhood that powerful, to still affect us now as adults? Are successful horror stories set in woods only successful because they play on our childlike fear of the place that we were afraid of as kids?
Is there more to the terror of the dark wood than fairy tales?