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.