The Woods Are Lovely, Dark and Deep: Freedom and Fear in the Forest

The Witch 2015
[NOTE: The following contains spoilers of The Witch (2015), The Hallow (2015), The Ritual (2017), and The Scarlet Letter (but if you haven’t read that one by now…)]
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
– Robert Frost

And so ends one of Robert Frost’s most well-known poems. On the surface, a simple treatise on the beauty of nature and the power of its silence, but beneath that quiet eloquence lies a danger. The “dark and deep” woods sing to him a siren song of staying, of lingering too long with the snow and woods, of perhaps never leaving. But for the narrator’s wise horse who jingles him out of his reverie, our narrator may have chosen to stay in those woods forever. The allure of the forest, its beauty and its danger, means freedom for some and imprisonment for others. Find your true self, as Shakespeare’s lovers do in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and you will leave the forest better than you were. But what happens when finding your true self isn’t so pleasant? When what’s unlocked isn’t beauty or love or freedom, but rather a far greater evil than anything found in the “civilized” world?

Teens and the Puritan Mindset

Much of the ethos of American storytelling can be traced back to our Puritan roots. Back in the day when the Puritans were first setting up shop in America, they had a rather contentious relationship with the forest. Sure, it gave them food and shelter, but it also gave them small pox and bears. Oh, and it’s where the Devil pitched his tent. Early American writers like Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne played

Painting of Tom Walker meeting the Devil
The Devil and Tom Walker by John Quidor (1856)

on this fear in works like “The Devil and Tom Walker” and The Scarlet Letter, respectively. Old Tom stumbles across the deal making devil during a walk in the woods and “Good Time” Chillingworth is mistaken by the townspeople more than once for being the “Black Man in the Forest” when out collecting strange herbs and keeping too close an eye on the town’s favorite adulterous minister. The Puritans cultivated a healthy fear of the forest and American storytellers have been obsessed with it ever since. Follow the line through to today’s horror scene and you land somewhere between Camp Crystal Lake and that little cabin in the woods Ash takes his friends to. Replace Satan with Jason Voorhees or the Necronomicon and the stories don’t really change that much. Whether we’re talking Friday the 13th, Evil Dead, Sleepaway Camp, Cabin Fever, or even darker tales like The Last House on the Left, terrible fates await the young in the forest. Just like Shakespeare’s young lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the young escape to the woods to live free of society’s rules, which in horror-speak, usually involves sex and drugs and loud music. Unlike Shakespeare’s plays, however, this break from society’s norms brings not happiness, but blood… so much blood. Instead of finding missing spiritual pieces of themselves, these teens tend to find missing body pieces of their friends. Stray to far from society’s rules and norms, represented here by the literal journey from town to country, and you will be punished.

The Modern World

Others seeking a “better world” in the forest find an equally dark fate. I Can See You, Severance, even the “corporate retreat” subplot of Friday the 13th Part 6 feature urban workaholics seeking respite from their daily grind in the restorative splendor of nature only to find madness and murder. This more recent reinvention of the trope focuses not on lascivious teens, but on the mundane and the uninspired, on those too enthralled with concrete and steel for whom the “inconvenience” of roughing it represents the modern world’s disconnection with the natural world. These “soft” adults scoff at nature, mock it, and some even abuse it. Their tinny corporate lingo echoes through the trees of the forest — and the forest responds accordingly in one form of violence or another. 

[What follows is a spoiler heavy discussion of The Ritual (2017) The Hallow (2015) and The Witch (2015). This is a good place to stop if you have not seen these films yet.]

The Ritual (David Bruckner, 2017) evolves this idea even further. To honor their fallen friend Rob, four friends take a hike along the King’s Trail in Sweden. The story focuses on Luke, whose inaction during a store robbery may have contributed to Rob’s death. When Dom, another friend, injures his leg, the group attempts a shortcut through the forest. At this point, your Monstaphor alarm should be blaring. The group falls afoul of a strange creature living in the forest and the small village that lives in service to it. The New World bonds of friendship between the four men quickly dissolve in this pagan, ancient

Headless Antler Statue from The Ritual
The Headless Antler Statue should have been their first warning… (The Ritual/2017)

world. The movie ends on an ambiguous note, as Luke, marked by the creature, is given a chance to join the village. Was the creature offering Luke a chance at redemption because of his cowardice during the robbery? Could Luke have found his absolution by serving the creature? The question lingers since Luke rejects the offer and drives an ax into the creature. He escapes into and out of the forest as the creature wails behind him, back into civilization as a car comes into view. The creature’s need for sacrifice and the village’s willingness to feed it seem barbaric to us. But what of the apathy and the casual cruelty of the four “modern” men? Did Luke not “sacrifice” Rob in the first act in order to preserve his own life? The forest in this film seems like a place of madness to us, yet is it really any less insane and selfish than the world from which the men come? This dissolution of the social order is perhaps the darkest aspect yet of this metaphor, yet how much darker is it still when that dissolution involves a family?

 Family

From the vicious and visceral Antichrist (2009) by the ever controversial Lars Von Trier to the horror comedy Dead Shack (2017), families seem to fare no better than our previously mentioned groups. Corin Hardy’s The Hallow (2015) brings a young modern family into conflict with the ancient creatures of a nearby forest. Adam, a British conservationist, moves his wife and baby to the outskirts of a small Irish village to conduct research. They soon come to learn that the forest is home to the fairies of Irish folklore – the baby stealing kind. Science and reason give way to ancient magic as the fairies infect Adam. His transformation into one of the fairy folk becomes a race against time as Adam comes to believe the fairies swapped out his son for a changeling. Though some of the family survive, they only do so through a sacrifice to the Hallow of one of their own. In a chilling final image, we learn that while one may run from the forest, the forest may very well find its way back to you.

Bringing us full circle, Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015) takes us back to the jovial early days of Puritan America with a tale of a family exiled to the very edge of civilization, right up

The Witch 2015
The Witch (2015)

against the very edge of a forest, in fact. And in this forest dwell witches – baby-eating, juvenile-boy seducing witches – the kind of thing that really churns a Puritan’s butter. But for Thomasin, the beleaguered ingenue, this forest also represents something else. As the horrors of the forest infect her family, Thomasin increasingly takes the blame. The Forest destroys her familiar world, only to offer her a better one. When all is said and done, the forest invites her in and gives her freedom from the grey, suffocating world of the Puritans.

Early American literature and folklore taught us to fear the forest. Its natural beauty and freedom was the chaotic playground of the devil. Modern horror has made the forest no less treacherous or deadly. Demons, angry fairies, masked killers and countless other terrors await those of us trapped in the mundane grind of the modern world. For some though, for those brave few who stare unblinking into the darkness, the forest still offers freedom. Just be careful around strange cabins in the woods.

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