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Magic Is Strong In The Forest

The forest as a magic realm is a prominent trope in almost any fantasy story and fairy tale. It’s sometimes a stereotype. The forest stands for the otherworld. Sometimes the heroes of the story want to reconnect to this otherworld. The forest is the place where reconnection seems possible. In some occasions the heroes perform rituals or they use psychoactive substances. Magic mushrooms are popular devices to reconnect or to experience deeper and spiritual dimensions of reality. The outcome is in certain cases unpredictable and a desperate attempt to recover what was lost:

In fantasy men is often a threat to the magic realm of the forest. Men destroy the forest. Men destroy the deeper, original magical dimension of reality. Often there is a fight between the original inhabitants, the fairies, the cunning people, the secret commonwealth and men. In fantasy often men is stronger. But the secret commonwealth, the little people, are going underground. Some say they return as aliens in common Ufo folklore. Instead of living in harmony with the higher realms men lives in a soulless technocratic world but which is haunted in certain moments.

There is an excellent overview in the article Where The Magic Things are: Forst in Fantasy Literature by Giovanna CHINELLATO, Sao Paulo/SP/ Brasil. She takes examples from works by J.R.R. Tolkien, Peter Beagle, Ursula K. Le Guin, George Martin, Patrick Rothfuss. The archetype of the magical forest was laid however much earlier in the myths of mankind, for example Gilgamesh and Volsunga saga.

Fantasy and Forest Horror

In forest horror the premise is not entirely different. However, the forces of nature can be overwhelming for men. The otherworld is ambiguous. The forest is a dangerous place. Attempts to connect with the spiritual realm or the elder gods end up in madness or even death. In the end the hero of the story can be another mysterious missing case, wandering around aimlessly forever as a lost soul in the forest.

The magical forest in horror is the forest dark. Nevertheless fantasy, supernatural horror and true stories or real accounts share a common concept: The forest as a living being. The concept bears some similarities with the Anima Mundi, the world soul: The idea of an intelligible entity, the inter-connection between all things, its omni-presence. This world soul can normally not seen in itself. It manifests in visionary experience and even ontological shock,

Plato speaks about the Anima Mundi as: “Thus, then, in accordance with the likely account, we must declare that this Cosmos has verily come into existence as a Living Creature endowed with soul and reason […] a Living Creature, one and visible, containing within itself all the living creatures which are by nature akin to itself”. This is, of course, encompassing everything, not only nature or the forest. But the forest is often the model. And it is in the forest the characters in a story seek unity, reconnection. In Forest Horror this can go terribly wrong.

In Forest Horror we often meet a truth-seeker, a hippie, a shaman, often a HERMIT seeking closeness with nature. That character is or pretends to be in contact with the forest, or the lord of the forest (often the magic soul of the forest is becoming a deity, for example the Celtic CERNUNNOS). The character has been for too long in the forest and is often a dangerous madman himself. Some screenplays use this constellation as dramaturgical trick, because then you don’t need to introduce some “forest demon” or similar things. (I make no exception from the rule with my own project here).

The more important point is that the truth seeking hermit gone mad presents a mirror image of the more optimist quest in fantasy stories. Giovanna Chinellato writes: “Given the, at least ideological, human-nature distancing and antagonism, characteristic of civilization (HARRISON, 2009), and considering that fantasy can have a recovery function (TOLKIEN, 2009), these fantastic forests can help humankind marvel at and reconnect with nature, possibly aiding in the development of a new and much necessary environmental awareness”.

Horror does not have that recovery function. It has a more cathartic function. It helps us to come to terms with realities. However, there is still a similarity between fantasy and horror: If nature is experienced as hostile it might be just a mirror or a consequence of man’s own wrong doing. In the forest dark we often meet our own darkness and our own inner demons.

How to express forest magic?

Either you look how to express the magic soul of the forest because you really believe in it or you need it for a story it always comes down to the same problem: We, indeed, might feel there is truth in it. However how do we show it? Unseen demonic force? Or positive magical vision? There are lot of temptations particularly in the era of digital effects. The problem is not, is it “good” or “bad, the problem is, does it feel right? This is perhaps a more challenging problem in horror rather than in fantasy.

Waiting Rooms In The Other World – Black And White Lodges, Bardo And Umbral Shadow Worlds

by Peter Engelmann, 4.23.2023

The Tibetan Book Of The Dead

In many cultures and visionary experiences, we find the concept of the intermediate realm. It is a spatial dimension in the other world. A limbo. A transitional state. However, it is not the same as the after-world because it is a waiting room. It is neither heaven nor hell. It is where people enter after death, or in visionary experiences. That place represents a concept in myth, antique drama, accounts of witnesses of near death experiences and religious writings as the Tibetian Book of the Dead. These writings often contain detailed descriptions of the intermediate realm, called Bardo.

The Bardo is a realm where the soul rests before it incarnates again. It is a state where people have lost their old reality. The life they had is no longer accessible.

The Tibetan Book Of The Dead contains descriptions of intermediary states between life and death. The term Bardo means a stepping stone in a stream.

In the Buddhistic world, the aspect of the development of the soul is central. Intimidating or even shocking visions are part of this development process.

J.T. Mathany writes in LITHUB, Adapting the Tibetan Book of the Dead: On Bardo or not Bardo, Ghosts, Prisons, and An Intermediary Void, “According to the Bardo Thödol (also known to the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead), the Bardo is an intermediary void where the departed soul must wander for forty-nine days, confronted by terrifying deities and illusions”. Further on, it is said: “In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, one’s soul must confront numerous illusions of life and suffering: past memories, cruel godlings, surreal landscapes that are part-Dalí, part-Bosch, part-nothing, and so on”.

Alteration Of The Original

The context of the development process in Buddhist thought is liberation. Liberation from a cycle of endless reincarnation. Liberation from suffering. The individual soul must do something to achieve liberation. Therefore, the title Book Of The Dead is also a translation mistake. The title was brought up by Walter Evan-Wentz, but the original “Bardo Thodol” means “Liberation through Hearing during the Intermediate State”.

Even more, the first translation into English was an alteration from the original. It is not accurate and propels a more spiritualist vision of the Bardo. The Book Of The Dead inspired the psychedelic movement in the 60ties. In our days, more accurate translations are available.

The central idea of the Bardo as an intermediate realm remains a constant in all versions, and it is the unifying concept with similiar spirtual ideas in different cultural context.

An Universal Concept

It is indeed a very universal concept. There is always the idea of an intermediate realm which is close to physical everyday world and another realm which is beyond our comprehension.

It is also common that this realm is a dark and dangerous zone often with a bleak threatening landscape. It is the forest dark. An unpleasant place as in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The otherworld in the Divine Comedy is the closest thing to the Bardo. Dante Alighieri took the rich imaginary of the catholic PURGATORY into his imagination. Purgatory comes close to the concept of the Bardo, even with some fundamental differences. But it is alway about an intermediary void, something in-between, a state in limbo. Limbo itself is a term for a spatial dimension as a waiting room: In catholic theology it is also a border place between heaven and hell.

The Bardo-Otherworld In The Movie Nosso Lar

In the Brasilien Movie Astral City, A Spiritual Journey (Nosso Lar), the protagonist finds himself in a sinister valley with tortured souls. That place is called the Umbral, which bears some similarities with the Bardo and the Christian Purgatory.

A difference here is that there is no reincarnation but an ascend to a sci-fi-like futurist heaven, where the hero learns more about his mistakes.

In both cases, the intermediate realm is a waiting room. However, in Christianity, it is a waiting room before entering the train to heaven (or perhaps to hell).

Traditionally, it seems that only dead people enter this intermediate realm.

However, there are countless visionary experiences and near-death experiences which describe a similar realm. Why should it be only for the dead? Or could also a living person travel consciously into this realm? There are fundamental questions here on one side. On the other side authors make use of the concept of the Bardo and constantly develop this further. We are familiar with many variations of the Bardo concept.

Modern visions of the Underworld

In modern stories and movies, there are often otherworldly-realms reminiscent of the Bardo intermediate realm. Most prominently, David Lynch’s White Lodge and Black Lodge are Waiting rooms. Here people can indeed return to the world of the living. In Stranger Things, there is a dangerous intermediate realm, the Upside-Down. We have also stories, which are set in this intermediary void where the people are either not know if they are dead or they think they are dreamed by another person.

Here it is worth to mention the original purpose of The Tibetan Book Of The Dead: A lama would read instructions to the recently deceased person. This should help the soul wandering in the bardo-realm to get out of the eternal cycle of life and death and to reach Nirvana.

Thus originally, we have a building with clear structure. There is a temporal dimension and there is a spatial dimension. It means a normal living being wouldn’t end up in that Bardo-Waiting-Room and this otherworld waiting room is strictly separated. But what if these boundaries collapse? Could that happen? Or could they overlap? The whole idea of ghosts are challenging the Bardo concept in a way. Because, we, the living can see them at certain times.

So, what would happen if these otherworld journeys would not be bound to biological life or death? At least it would pose a theological problem. Because both the Tibetan Book Of Death implies a higher order as the catholic Purgatory. Wrongdoings or your positive development influences the outcome. That implies, we understand the otherworld like a game according to our values. But we can’t really know what are the rules in this game. And we don’t know where the waiting room exactly is or who created that waiting room. Is it the underworld, a parallel world, a heavenly sphere, is it inside, or is it outside? Maybe we are already in a waiting room when we are still alive.

Modern human experiences shift the storytelling about the limbo into a less predictable direction, into a less organised world. Again in Twin Peaks the border between ordinary world of the living and the more dreamlike world of Bardo is blurred. It follows more the famous Edgar Alan Poe Quote: ““All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream”.

We are living in a transition zone

Reality, indeed, can become a transition zone, from the individual’s perspective. This can happen on different levels. We can go missing without necessarily being dead. We don’t have the final answers about the corporal realm or our status outside our corporal identity. Reality in certain moments is the Forest Dark itself. This is a thought which I followed again and again in the development of The Forest Dark Feature Film project.

There are unconventional concepts already in antique: In Orpheus the hero is a traveller between the world of the living and the underworld. It is a very interesting drama because it blurs the boundaries.

And we can take the waiting room concept much further. Both in fiction and in real life. Of course, we don’t find answers with pure associations. But experience tells us there are more possibilities than meets the eye. There are countless reports where people report a heightened reality, which bears some similarity with the Bardo otherworld or even purgatory. People which went missing tell often weird stories and their sense of time is confused. Alien-abductees tell story which sound very similar like being in a Bardo or in Purgatory. Dreams are resemblant sometimes to the Bardo State.

The Three Bardot

It becomes even more interesting if we look at the more detailed structure of the Bardo according to the Vajravanna (Tantric) Buddhism which developed the concept of the three Bardos. According to this the first Bardo is the Bardo of death where the deceased reflects upon its past life. The important one is the second Bardo: The individual encounters “frightening apparitions” without understanding that this apparitions are unreal. The danger is the consciousness becomes confused and me drawn into rebirth” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The third Bardo is the transition into a new body.

The interesting part lies with the frightening apparition: Who put them in place and why are they there? And why should they be unreal? What’s the purpose? Furthermore this sounds like phenomena which not only happen in the Bardo state. Frightening apparitions are not always necessarily something supernatural. It can be intimidating crossings in life, perhaps even people. That painful waiting room situation is also often a typical experience in dreams, where the dreamer feel stuck and is haunted by scary scenes.

Thus, it seems more like a somehow familiar experience. There is an otherworld not far from our everyday world. This world is often like a waiting room we already know. What we don’t know is what lies beyond. The Nirwana. The higher Otherworld. The Divine Realm.

The Other World In Challenging Times – Fantasy-writers As Mediators

Discussing higher realms, parallel worlds, the other world or simply philosophy is an easy exercise in peaceful times. But if war, natural disaster or a pandemic confronts us with existential fear and sorrow, these other worlds seem far away. There are times when we are deeply bound to the material world. Wait a moment. Aren’t visionary experiences often with existential crisis? Aren’t world shattering events heralded by archetypical visions? But this is a different thing. It is not about singled out experiences it is everyday life in dark times when the mind is filled with thoughts about the matters at hand.

Thinking about the other world seems on the one side not very useful in extreme situations and on the other side – even more important – the overwhelming reality of tough times often leads to disillusionment. This applies at least for people who have a positive attitude about higher realms. It is a similar question why does God let this happen.

What is the role of the other world in challenging times?

There is certainly no easy answer here. Instead this question might be the driving force for many things. Myth and modern fantasy tries to define the relationship between a (depressing) material world and the higher realms. There is a very good example. A writer which experienced desperation in the material world and later become one of the greatest writer’s of fantasy ever: J.R.R. Tolkien experienced the darkest aspect of life during World War I. But his later fantasy works, most of all the famous Lord Of The Rings are anything but escapist. Indeed, Tolkien is dealing with darkness all the time but putting it into a larger context.

As we know the theme of darkness is always paired with hope. Interpreters classified J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing as strongly influenced by Christian belief. It is certainly worth to discuss what Christian means exactly in that context. There is much expertise about this, but what’s interesting is that at the bottom we see that duality of light and dark. The conflict between light and dark runs through Tolkien’s epos, or better the eternal war between light and dark. This is the same dualism we know from many concepts about the other world and in cosmology.

Therefore it is an obvious thought that myth and fantasy is an attempt to better understand the crisis of the real world. Are we thrown into a battle between light and dark, between good and evil? It is impossible to say for sure what is an interpretation or what exactly is going on out there. Is the dualism in us or is it out there? However, there are many thoughts throughout history giving us some idea.

Does the other world reveals itself through archetypical forces in our world? Where does chaos originally come from? Where does darkness come from? The great works of literature, films and the weird tales are projecting the truth into our mind in the form of artistic images. How much we believe in this truth is an individual decision.

If you check interviews with Tolkien and other great writers you will find they are often reluctant to give us many clues what they exactly believe in or how to interpret their work. They are more mediators than inventors revealing what’s hidden behind the veil.


Early myth are stories about creation. They tell us where we come from. How evil came into the world. But they tell us also about hope. What if we are still in the middle of a creation process? It was again Tolkien who created a world which is not stable. It is a constant evolution but also destruction. A concept which makes sense not only if we look at the emerge and downfall of empires and advanced civilisations.

Perhaps this ongoing creation process is indeed an eternal battle between light and dark. We live in a shapeshifting world and only through myth we can learn about the larger patterns.

Perhaps the other world is closer as we think in the moment when we forget about it. It is clear that no mythical knowledge helps us in the darkness, in the crisis of the real world. When it comes to survival we need to navigate through the material world. But perhaps it is the trick to not get lost in the material world. There are some interesting suggestions in the recent Rings Of Power TV-series on amazon based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium, which he begun already in 1914.

One thought is the necessity to touch darkness in order to cope with it (Galadriel needs to meet Sauron). The other thing is the central theme of the creation of the three rings of power and its consequences. If we see it as an allegory it might suggest that men is always subject to powerful forces he can’t really control. Power corrupts them. These forces bind mankind. Nevertheless there is a strong belief opposing fatalism here. In crisis we may lose the other world for some time. But it was never far away. We can gain new strength. What the writers and many myth tell us is that we must fear corruption. We need to learn to fear ourselves. What we might become. Challenging times might indeed not the time to discuss philosophy of the other world, it is a time where we experience things on an existential level not on a reflected level. But there will be a time to put it into context. The other world is always there.

Otherworld As Apocalypse: Another Dimension Or A Prospect For The Future?

Usually, we think of the Otherworld in a spatial way. As another layer of heightened reality or another higher dimension. However, there is also a temporal dimension here. Prominent examples are mythical stories about a magical past. Most of the fantasy literature uses mythical past as a concept. It is the premise of most fairy tales. The mythic past is often reminiscent of medieval times. Or it is the Golden Age. It is a reality full of wonders, dragons, wizards and magic. In some stories this mythic dimension is destroyed for different reasons. It is then replaced by a bleak and soulless reality. That is a very familiar idea.

However, there is another prominent idea. This is an idea about an darker otherworld which is replacing ordinary idea in the future. It’s simple the apocalypse. At a closer look the apocalypse is a much more complex thing as we usually think. If we refer to apocalypse most people associate some sort of catastrophe or doomsday. And most of the time apocalypse refers to Revelation to John, also called Book of Revelation or Apocalypse of John. This is an important book in the Bible.

The Book Of Revelation is indeed a doomsday vision. Total destruction, plague, the rising of monstrous creatures. It is in some ways like a feverish dream with fear and terror. The four horsemen of the apocalypse appear, which present conquest, war, famine, and death. The apocalypse in The Book Of Revelation unfolds as drama. Seven seals are broken and the destruction and annihilation of the world as we know it happens.

A new kind of reality follows the destruction of the common world, which is the hope of believers. This new world would be some sort of Otherworld. And that part of the vision is important for believers and it played a crucial role for the early Christians in the first century. It was a useful “tool”. However, it triggered also fundamentalism and radical movements.

The Apocalypse Is A Genre

The idea of the Apocalypse is much older as the Revelation of John and was indeed a popular genre. It appears also in the Old Testament. As a genre there are certain stable conventions. There is a narrator, a prophet who has a visionary experience. The core of the visionary experience is a sort of revelation, a sort of new knowledge what reality is about.

This is the real core of the term. The Greek verb “Apo Kalypto” meaning ‘uncover; disclose, reveal’. It is the UNVEILING. If the assume that the Otherworld is the “real world” and we live in the world of shadows (see Platons Caves) it makes sense that Apocalypse can be the future coming of the otherworld.

There is also a psychological interpretation of Apocalypse going back to C.G. Jung which was suggested by Edward. F. Edinger in “The Archetype Of Apocalypse“. He sees the idea of the apocalypse not just as a genre but as an archetype, something like a living psychic agency which floats at the bottom of the unconscious.

As a vision the apocalypse was very vivid at critical times as the first century B.C.. Scientists in a documentary series by network ARTE pointed out that it was then a problem when the Apocalypse not happened as announced. Early Christians expected to experience the Apocalypse in their lifetime. Some of them even embraced the burning of Rome as sign of the Apocalypse.

Some scientists think that the “failed delivery” of the Apocalypse was helpful for the rise of gnostic ideas. Here the Otherworld is not the coming of a new world in the future, it is more another dimension. It is the real world which is hidden. The gnostics tried to get closer to this hidden Otherworld with the help of rites and practices.

Both conceptions are alive through all the centuries. These ideas are not bound to a certain religion. They represent very fundamental and mythological ideas. Most people are familiar with it in some way. However, both the Otherworld as temporal and the Otherworld as a spatial dimension are simplifications. These are useful models and also useful in a political sense. Christianity and other religions developed these models further because they suited their missionary efforts.

What should we believe in?

If we look deeper into visionary experiences or even our most advanced models of higher dimension in modern physics it is more like the Otherworld and ordinary world are not separated. The Otherworld is right here and it is happening right now. Let’s remember the original meaning of Apocalypse: Unveiling. We don’t see it because there is a veil. For example in near death experiences, but also in Ufo encounters there might be cases where the witness says he was transported to another place but the coordinates doesn’t suggest any meaningful “travel route”. The witness could have been anywhere. The problem – or if we want “the veil” – is that our brain is not really fit to think beyond spatial and temporal dimensions. Thus, we will live on with these conceptions.

In stories, movies and in series we always use “portals” as gateways between our dimension and the otherworldly realm. There are both portals between spatial dimensions but some portals seem have a more temporal quality. Time travellers use portals too. In folk stories often somebody enters a cave and returns a hundred years later. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks – The Return series shows a perhaps more accurate or more sophisticated worldview. It suggests that our world and the dimension of the otherworld are interwoven in many and mysterious ways.

Will the apocalypse actually happen?

What about all these myths and belief-systems suggesting that there will be a doomsday event followed by a new world, sometimes sort of a heaven, sometimes more a hellish uncanny Otherworld? Of course, there is no final answer to this. It is remarkable how vivid, active and powerful the “archetype of apocalypse” is. It is one of the most compelling ideas. Apocalyptic visions seems to be as old as mankind. They occur often in visionary experiences. They have ups and downs. Around the end of the first millennium apocalyptic thinking was very strong. As for the end of the second millenium there was a peak of doomsday predictions. Same in 2012. The End times is always around the corner. Remarkable a climate change at the end of the middle ages and the beginning of modern times was also a period where the doomsday expectation where high. The doomsday fever was accompanied by intimidating sinister apparitions as the celestial phenomena above Nuremberg. The plague and the 30 years war literally erased populated areas. It was indeed apocalypse.

However, there was no new beginning, no relief, no heaven on Earth after that. Nevertheless, the world-view changed, it was the beginning of the age of modern science. Thus, there was indeed some sort of unveiling. Perhaps, there is literal truth in the coming of the Apocalypse. We might consider to think in different time spans as we are used to. The coming of the otherworld could be also seen as a constant process. As we look into deep space with sophisticated telescopes we learn about catastrophes of unimaginable dimensions. Whole galaxies collide, radio and gamma bursts might destroy many worlds, monstrous black holes are lurking in deep space. Of course, there will be a doomsday. But not a day. It could be sort of a transformation lasting for eons. It is good not to simplify. Maybe it has already begun and we can only see vaguely through that big veil what’s really going on or what is coming.

So, what about all these apocalyptic visions with a sheer incredible imagination? This is where most of this stuff comes from. From the psyche. We have apocalyptic dreams, we have visions, premonitions, revelations and sudden overwhelming experiences. It is even true that apocalyptic imaginary is a dominant theme throughout all times. Therefore, there is some sense behind the idea of an archetype of apocalypse. Perhaps we may never know but it seems like an unknown source is projecting these images from somewhere in space in time directly into our consciousness. The frequency and the intensity seems to change, but it is a bit like what Jacques Vallée said that there seems to be somewhere a projectionist creating these images. Who, what or where that source is we don’t know.

Peter Engelmann, July 13, 2022