by Peter Engelmann, August 5, 2021
If we do a supernatural story emphasizing places we either create such places or we took inspiration from what we call an eldrich location. Places that create “in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers” (H.P. Lovecraft) both exist in our mind and in our reality.
In movies and literature, we see the products of explorations of an uncanny world with hidden trapdoors and places where the veil between our world and another dimension becomes thin.
However if we look closer into this matter things appear more complex.
What makes a haunted landscape?
In the first moment, we might think of a typical scenery as the dark forest, the lonely mountain plateau, or barren, windswept landscapes like Dartmoor. However, it might be good to make some distinctions. There is a cultural tradition that we might consider the shadowy landscape for example with twisted trees as a haunted place. The gothic tradition and romanticism built the framework for a long time. Hammer films referred to this gothic tradition and we find references in films like “Sleepy Hollow”. They are spooky. Sometimes there is a ruin of a castle or the remnants of a cloister.
What about landscapes and places that trigger a real sense of dread? In the first place, this is not something we make up. It’s about places that really exist. And it is not automatically the enchanted forest or the wilderness. It’s about a weirdness, a sense of disenfranchisement that suddenly overwhelms us.
This can be anything: A place where high voltage power lines cross, a desert, a shore, a river bed, a tundra landscape or the outskirts of a town.
It’s also the type of place or eldritch location we find reflected in modern horror as in the writings of Algernon Blackwood, H.P. Lovecraft, and M.R. James. TV and films capture these weird landscapes too. Sometimes there isn’t necessarily so much strangeness at first sight. Whistle and I’ll Come to You is a BBC television drama and an adaptation of the short story of M.R. James. It has some memorable scenes with a sheer endless shore in East Anglia. Normally there is nothing sinister about a shore but here it’s wind, weather, and loneliness that creates the feeling of being lost. In the story and in the TV play it is a place where the hero is unprotected. It’s not only a bleak landscape it is the vast openness that establishes the supernatural cosmic terror in the story.
H.P Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood’s stories are best known for their distinct rich sense of place. Both took inspiration from real places. Perhaps the most prominent example is Algernon Blackwood’s masterpiece “The Willows”. The story is set in some river wilderness of the Danube between Vienna and Budapest. The two heroes of the story get stranded there and experience some nearly indescribable cosmic horror. Blackwood himself did two trips with a Canadian canoe on the river Danube 1901. The journey inspired his most famous novella “The Willows”, a milestone of cosmic horror and fiction about the wonder of nature. There is both a sense of awe and terror here. It is both about horror and a deep and profound sense of wonder. Of course, the revelations are very scary but there is more:
An outstanding article about the sublime horror in nature.
Eugene Thacker wrote an brilliant article “How Algernon Blackwood Turned Nature Into Sublime Horror” about Blackwood’s novella The Willows from 1907 in Lithub. He mentions a couple of important things among them “the sense of a deep time”. Deep time is a concept undergoing different meanings referring to the unimaginable age of the Earth’s geology but having philosophical implications too. Some sceneries on earth trigger similar thoughts and emotions as when watching alien landscapes, i.e. pictures taken from a Mars rover.
One of the key points in Thacker’s article mentions a form of life embedded in nature but beyond our comprehension: “But what gives scenes like this their ambiance of otherworldliness is not that there are menacing monsters in the night, but rather that the entire environment—the mountains, sky, river, trees—are somehow alive, and alive in an impersonal but sublime way that far exceeds the taxonomies of the naturalist or the theories of the biologist. “
Let’s think about this – It means that in some moments certain places or locations challenge our very idea of reality. The world is not what it seems. In The Willows – as Thacker says – the narrator” seems even more uncertain of what “nature” is by the end of the story”. A “something makes its presence known”. I strongly recommend to read Eugene Thacker’s article which in my view is the best I ever read about the subject and The Willows.
Creating Otherworldly Landscapes
But how do we bring that experience to the reader or in the case of a movie to the moviegoers? Algernon Blackwood was a master in the use of language. A language which allowed the imagination of the reader to see what he has seen. He and other writers as M.R. James and the lesser known H.R. Wakefield understood that sense of place and how to let the story and the descriptions work together. Filmmakers however need to visualise, they need to give answers where literature can leave more room for the reader’s imagination.
Doing artwork and previzualisation or design concepts for The Forest Dark Feature Film I am currently exploring the potential of all our wonderful modern technology and see what rings true or not. So far the process is not so much different from the work of the writers. Getting that sense of otherworldly ambiguity means a lot of exploration. Visiting places, taking in the atmosphere and wait for different moods in landscapes is part of the research. Frankly, we never know how much the sense of place comes across on a screen when the movie was made. But keeping the great examples from literature as The Willows always in mind as a sort of beacon we know where we are heading.
In the end of his article about The Willows Thacker suggests that “Perhaps the natural is supernatural, and vice-versa” and the “weirdest” understanding might come from science – what nature is. That’s also what a camera is looking for when filming nature and putting it in the context of a movie: Trying to getting us closer to the enigma. Reveal what’s hidden in broad daylight. Get that sense of the double nature of landscape. Bring it to life as a character and – if we are very lucky – getting into a communication about the metaphysical implications with our readers and viewers.