The Otherworldly Ambiance Of Landscapes

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.

Silent Hill Or Personal And Impersonal Higher Dimensions Of The Other World

Multiple dimensions are a common concept. They work for fiction in film, series and books as in games. The idea of a multiverse as seen in the legendary Sci-Fi movie Interstellar by Christopher Nolan is a serious concept in science too. The concept also works as one of the explanations for supernatural encounters, mysterious missing cases and the unexplained.

There are important distinctions here. We often hear of a fourth and fifth dimension. In a more scientific sense these dimensions represent mostly layers of a another reality with different physical qualities. For example there is the idea of an alternate universe where times runs backwards.

These different “qualities” of spacetime are mostly impersonal qualities. They are not individually related to a person or observer.

Higher dimensions as we know them in myth, in the history of men’s culture and in the collective conscious have a different quality. This applies both to fiction in literature or film and reports of supernatural encounters. It’s typical that the experience is a personal one. The experience is related to the psyche of the participant.

Silent Hill as a prominent model

The famous 90’ties computer game SILENT HILL is a perfect example. The outstanding concept of SILENT HILL led also to two movies. Director Christophe Gans turned it 2008 into a psychological horror movie.

Silent Hill is set in a dreamlike city where there is a constant shift between different layers of reality. There is a fog world and an other world. In the dangerous and malicious other world the heroine’s or the actors in the game sometimes face monsters which seem to stem from their own unconscious. The same creature is not for everyone a monster. It depends on the individual’s condition.

There are many writings about the mythology of Silent Hill. Some say it’s not necessarily a multiverse. However this is not the most important point here. The thing is that Silent Hills appeals to many people because the set of reality feels familiar. There is sort of duality here we all know. Everybody knows our real daytime world and the more dreamlike night world or the other world we experience in dreams. There is a duality between “light” and “chaos” too, which reminds us a bit of the gnostic view of the world. Max Derrat provided very good and fascinating insights about this in his videos about the mythology of Silent Hill.

Silent Hill is as my The Forest Dark Feature Film Project a place where the boundary between real daytime world and the dreamlike nighttime world collapses. The interesting thing is that ordinary reality can shift into another state without a person changing place. All happens in the same place.

This concept we see in Silent Hill but also in a variety of stories, books, films, series or witness accounts of sightings seem to apply to certain zones on our planet. It is a good explanation why any place is felt differently. It explains why some people might have a nightmarish experience in a forest or a mountain or an endless wilderness whereas other people just see a nice tourist spot.

Is there a personalised other world?

But how is that possible? How could it be possible that another dimension creates not only individual visions related to the personality, the fears and even the past of the person involved but becomes real in a mere physical sense. It is even a personal, individual alternate dimension. If this is a fictional story me might say this is a convenient concept for the writer to propel the individual’s journey forward and illustrate the deeper dimensions of a character. We see this particularly in many ghost house stories: The main character has to face his past to be free. However the same happens in many real witness accounts. In alien abduction stories people see symbols which are related to their personal history. It’s the same with people who went missing had had strange visions.

There are different theories how this is possible. One idea is that what witnesses see in sightings is not what’s really going on. It might be something which is too big for the human mind to comprehend. Perhaps our mind “translate” this into something which seems familiar. Or there is an intelligence at work we don’t yet understand, which “steals” our images and experiences and uses it for its own agenda. Some witnesses of UFO-sightings report things which sound like a sort of stage play.

Synchronicity

Another theory is that the psyche is itself kind of another dimension and can manifest in a material sense. These theories follow the writing of famous psychologist C. G. Jung. His ideas imply the existence of a higher dimension which is both inside the mind and outside the mind/body. He described so-called-synchronistic events. Synchronicity, in simple words, is a different idea about causality connecting the inner personal life with events on the outside in the material world. It’s not like magic belief, it is indeed an empirical system. C. G. Jung recorded many of this synchronistic events. This is the most revolutionary idea and makes us rethink our very concept of reality. Max Derrat gives us an interesting insight in the synchronicity theory in his videos about Silent Hill too.

Dimensions with a conscious or the Gods?

Another idea: What if fields, spaces, alternate dimension have a sort of consciousness. Some people believe we live in sort of a simulation (yes, the matrix mythology). If the world if we see it is a simulation who is the creator? There is indeed the assumption the universe itself is consciousness. Maybe everything we see around us is kind of of a higher living being.

A common idea of science-fiction is that alien entities can not only create alternate realities but “borrow” our images and put them together in a new way like the experience astronaut Bowman has in the end of 2001. Haven’t we lately become “reality-builders” ourselves? Modern game-engines like Unreal Engine create whole photo-realistic new worlds with some clicks. You can use a preset as a portal. Perhaps there is somebody out there who can do this on a higher level we can’t imagine even in our wildest dreams.

One day we might see ourselves in a position as the hero of the Truman Show when he realizes he was inside a staged reality all the time. If so, is there an audience watching us, too?

Peter Engelmann

The Forest And The Fabric Of The Universe

Is there something that the forest and the cosmos have in common? What if we could look at the hidden fabric of the organic structure and the connections in the endless cosmos filled with myriads of stars and galaxies? Are there similarities and is there a network that will challenge our idea of reality? Science-fiction series as Star Trek – Discovery even suggest a similarity between the network of fungi in the forest and hidden gateways in the Universe.

An important discovery in biology coined the term “wood wide web”. This refers to the so called Mycorrhizal networks. These are underground connections between plants and trees and allow the exchange of nutrients, water, carbon and even information. Fungi create this underground network which resembles in some way the world wide web.

The mycorrhizal network is a hyphal network. This is a branching filamentous structure. The hyphal network is created by fungi. It looks like a basic structure model or a concept with strong similarities as the branches of trees, the structure inside leaves, the neural web inside the brain or on a large scale the connections between clusters of galaxies in the universe.

However the Star Trek Discovery creators brought this concept to another level. Here it is not only a sort of similarity. What if there is kind of a sub-dimension with such a network which allows teleportation between far distances within the universe? It would have been interesting to see the faces of decision-makers when the series’ writers pitched the idea of the spore drive in the first place. The whole concept is even for the most open-minded sci-fi fans hard to buy.

The idea in Star Trek Discovery is indeed that there is similarly to the “wood wide web” a network of fungal spores throughout the universe called the “mycelium”. What’s so special about them is that they could also permeate “sub space”. A ship which could have some “interface” with this network could travel from space to subspace and back again to space. Ethan Siegel described the concept excellently in a recent Forbes article.




Five Dimensions and Dune as a precursor

Of course, there is strong criticism about this concept, but if you add a fourth spatial dimension it could work as Ethan Siegel emphasised. Actually you have to think of a five-dimensional-reality (including time). It is indeed true that modern spacetime concepts include more than four dimensions. The root-network with the mycelium might indeed sound a bit far-fetched however it is less absurd if we take the idea not too literal.

Most of all this is not a new idea. Instant space travel between far distant points in the universe without a “journey” is a basic concept of Dune. In Dune there is the so-called Holzman-effect, which is also responsible for this kind of space travel. Furthermore there is a connection between biology and technical space travel: In Dune the “Navigators” are enabling this kind of travel. In Star Trek Discovery its the creature (the space tardigrade) in the first place and later the scientist.

The Fifth dimension is also part of Interstellar (even a Fifth Dimension is not mentioned in Dune and Star Trek – Discovery).

Is there a real cosmic root network like the Mycorrhizal networks?

We don’t know. The fourth spatial dimension is a theoretical concept. We can’t enter this higher dimensions so far. We have no clue that any “highways” or “networks” actually exist. However it would explain a lot of phenomena like suddens disappearances. Could people accidentially “fall” into that fourth spatial dimension and get caught in the network? Wild speculation. But what we see is that there is a tendency of self-similarity in the structures of the universe. Tree branches resemble neuronal webs. Neuronal webs resemble clusters of galaxies.

Another important factor is the idea that there could be physical and biological entities which exist not only in our dimension but in that higher fourth spatial dimension. They could travel instantly from one place to another and create any kind of supernatural effect in our dimension. It only needs to have some interface or interdimensional gates. Maybe a creature itself could become an interdimensional gate.

It might be a good model to explain many cases of high-strangeness and anomalies on Earth as orbs, mountain lights, strange experiences of extra dimensions, maybe even visionary experiences.

The Phenomenon Is Active

An expression we read sometimes in connection with a series of paranormal events or series of UFO-sightings as the Berkshire Sighting is that “the phenomenon is active”. Jacques Vallée used that expression. It is a very interesting and perhaps very accurate description of what is going on during episodes of UFO-events and other supernatural events like Berkshire Sighting.

There is a distinct concept about “zones” of the paranormal as the Bennington-Triangle, clusters where people go missing, dark forests with regular supernatural sightings, areas with light orbs like Hessdalen in Norway. The zones are–– often connected with the idea of portals or places where alternate dimensions overlap as Mount Shasta in California. It is a world that exists right here and which inspired The Forest Dark Feature Film Project.

The temporal perspective

A temporal concept is less familiar as the concept of places that are somehow disenfranchised from ordinary reality. However, we know about “waves” of sightings. It is however difficult to validate these “special times” when strange cases happen more often. If something happens it might trigger also false claims and the following reports might be inspired by the original sighting.

It is more interesting to look after events that happened during short time spans like a couple of days. This is what happened during the Berkshire Sightings. The beginning of the movie Close Encounters gives us a good impression of that type of episode. Sometimes many things happen in one night. And it’s really weird things – electronic fails, people see bigfoots and signs in the sky. There is all kind of supernatural phenomena.

The phenomenon is active – what does that mean?

The interesting thing is that if we use this expression it doesn’t mean a distinct thing like “visitors are now active”. It sounds a bit more like a mechanism or machinery. If we look at reports of a series of paranormal activity we might think somebody turned on a projector that generates holographic images among other phenomena. We know from the stories for example from the Bridgewater triangle there is often a mix of reported phenomena including orbs, creatures, Ufos, or poltergeists.

Researchers may hope that they could identify some sort of regularity but that is not how the phenomenon works. Places might not change, but most of the temporal events are not repeating itself in a kind of rhythm. However, there seem to be certain years when there is a heightened activity in these “hotbeds of paranormal activity” like the Bridgewater triangle. The first “Ufo-Encounter” happened there in 1760 followed by sightings in 1908, then in 1968 and the 1970s. There is no indication here that there is any kind of rhythm. It is more like time has a special-quality at certain moments.

The temporal perspective in the description of events might not offer explanations but it is a way to get a better understanding of the nature of the phenomenon. We see that there are two brackets here: Supernatural events happen within a certain area and within a certain time frame. The interesting thing is that inside this “bubble” of a changed-reality we have these reports which sound more like a wild mix of imagination: Bigfoot, orbs, winged creature, unnamed black helicopters but also strange visitors in a restaurant as in the Happy Camp events described by Jacques Vallée in his book Confrontations.

In some sense, this makes the stories more credible. It tells us that people experienced something which is beyond their understanding. We can only understand what we see. Perhaps we try to find something we know already, i.e. demons, aliens, or fairies to give it a name. It makes it easier to cope with these types of experiences. Often, the “more reasonable stories” are much more susceptible.

The cultural influence

There is a cultural influence on how we interpret these types of supernatural events. The celestial phenomenon over Nuremberg is a historical precursor of Ufo-sighting-series like in Berkshire. A broadsheet article from 1561 with the illustration and text by Hans Glaser shows balls and geometrical objects invading the skies. Modern enthusiasts interpreted this as an “ aerial battle of Ufos”. Witnesses observed hundreds of spheres, odd-shaped objects, and a black triangular object. As in the Fatima event, people saw the sun falling down. Of course, the event was interpreted as a sign sent from God. The Nuremberg event was followed by another celestial phenomenon over Basel 1566 and a series of events between 27-28 July and 7 August 1566. Again there was a battle in the sky mentioned. Knights were seen fighting in the sky. Historians emphasized that these were unruly times. It wasn’t so long before the apocalyptic Thirty Years War. There was also the plague. The medieval social system did fell apart. Climate change, the so-called Little Ice Age, made people suffer. It was a time of the collapse. In some ways, the phenomenon represented what people must have felt during these unruly times. This is not so to say that the events weren’t real but experiences are shaped by cultural context.

It is sometimes mentioned that these supernatural events work like a sort of control-system guiding mankind from its beginning. It is true that unexplained phenomena can change our belief-system. Whitley Strieber once concluded, “that the human species is being shepherded to a higher level of understanding and existence within an endless multiverse”. These conclusions make sense however it’s not much different as the late-medieval interpretation where the wonders in the sky were acts of God. We assume that the intelligence behind these phenomena (if there is an intelligence) is not so much different as we are. We don’t know that. What we know there is a reality out there, indeed the weirdest stories are real in some sense. There is an “active phenomenon”, however, we can’t see the phenomenon itself as what it is. We have to follow its traces. The phenomenon is there but it is not active at any time.  As forces of nature, it is unpredictable. If we visit zones imbued with the supernatural, the energy of the phenomenon we can’t expect what will happen.  The phenomenon disguises itself behind many masks.