Thin wooden fingers scratch at your arms.
The scent of green and dirt overpowers you.
It is dark.
Behind you something cries out, echoing around the trees until you no longer know which direction the noise comes from.
You are alone.
The woods have always been a common setting in the horror genre. From modern found footage films like ‘The Blair Witch Project’ to the old fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm, we have been inundated with spooky tales set among the trees. But why are we so afraid of the woods? Why do we go back to it again and again for tales of the sinister and unknown?
Fiction, both film and literature, has taught us many things about forests:
- It can be so very easy to become lost in the woods. Trees blur together, paths disappear beneath thick bracken and fallen leaves. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you could end up wandering in circles, frustration leading to panic. This becomes worse when…
- You don’t know what else is with you. Just as it’s easy to become lost in the woods, it is also easy to hide within them. Wild animals can be dangerous enough, but what if there is someone else in the woods, hidden behind the trees? We fear the unknown, and there is a huge opportunity for the unknown in a forest.
- Forests can make the ‘normal’ sinister. The sound of a snapping twig becomes a pursuer in the dark. A strange animal call transforms itself into a creature you had never considered existing before now. The woods are a magical place, and can make it very easy for you to suspend your disbelief. But why is this?
I believe that every time we read a story, we keep aspects of it in our minds. When we enter the woods, even if we have been there a hundred times before, even if we are surrounded by friends and in no danger at all, we are aware of these dark stories. We step into the trees, and think back to those tales of witches and monsters. We know we are safe, that the stories are just that, but whispered at the back of our consciousness are three little words – “But what if…”
And we are right to think that, because tales of sinister forests are not always limited to fiction.
On 18th April 1943, four boys were exploring Hagley Woods near Worcestershire, England when they came across a large tree – a wych elm. One of the boys began to climb it, searching for eggs. Instead of eggs, he found a skull.
A human skull.
The discovery sparked a police inquiry, but to this day the victim remains unidentified. The killer unknown. But that was not the end of the story.
In 1944 the words “Who put Bella down the Wych Elm – Hagley Woods” were discovered scrawled onto a wall in Birmingham. In 1999 the 200 year old Wychbury Obelisk was defaced with white paint, “Who put Bella in the Witch Elm” smeared across it. Other versions of the message have appeared throughout the years up to the current day – keeping the mystery fresh in the minds of the public and reminding us of the dangers that can lurk in the woods.
Maybe we are right to be frightened of the forest. Maybe there is something sinister in the woods, lurking just out of sight. Are we sure we are frightened of the woods because we have read too many horror stories? Seen too many films?
Or maybe, just maybe, are we writing these books, making these films, because we know the woods are something to fear? That something hides itself within, waiting for the day you trail off of the forest path. Waiting to creep slowly closer and closer, until you feel warm breath against your neck.
Waiting until it is too late for you to run.