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.

Black Fire

“Sometimes people see wildfires in Witch Mountains but the trees are not consumed. The fires are known as ghost fires or black fires” (The Forest Dark Movie Project).

What is Black Fire or a Cold Fire? It is mentioned in fiction, religious text and in sightings. It exists. Black Fire is a supernatural thing, a metaphorical thing and a physical reality. Indeed there is also a literally black fire which can be demonstrated in chemistry experiments: If a fire gets illuminated with a monochromatic light source (sodium vapour) and you put sodium ions in the fire the flames appear black.

A black flame is mentioned in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone.

Furthermore, black fire is for example mentioned by Deputy Hawk in Twin Peaks III when he explains the map to Sheriff Truman. He said that “there are two kinds of fire, similar to modern day electricity, but depending on your intention. Black fire symbolizes death and destruction, and probably the Black Lodge”


However Black Fire is not an invention by Lynch and Frost. It is an ancient idea which already occurs in connection with the Bible/Torah. In Jewish thought “Black Fire” is important.

The supernatural experience of Moses in Exodus 3:2 leads to the mention of black fire:

“There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. (Bible, New International Version)”.

The Midrash ( the biblical exegesis – interpretation – by ancient Judaic authorities) on Exodus 3:2 explains:

“From this they derived that the heavenly fire shoots out branches upwards, burns but does not consume, and is black in color; whereas fire used here below does not branch upwards and is red, and consumes but does not burn.”

Scholar and Rabbi Fern Feldman gives an excellent and very interesting insight on her website and opens up a new way of thinking about “black fire” and “darkness”:

Rabbi Fern Feldman: “It may be hard to imagine a black fire—perhaps it is counter-intuitive, or paradoxical. So what can we learn from this black fire?

The fire metaphor itself is multifold. It implies something awesome, powerful, something with the potential to give life or death”.

We learn that black fire is an ancient symbol for the sacred, the divine, the otherworld and there is ambiguity.

The Black Fire mentioned in Twin Peaks is also not always necessarily evil. As Hawk puts it it depends. The experience of black fire is more that we are able of overcome our boundaries and feel connected. “We become aware of a larger whole that includes all of it”, as Rabbi Feldman says.

 

Black Fire has an even longer tradition in Jewish History. It is said that the Torah is “black fire on white fire”.

“R. Simeon ben Lakish said: The Torah given to Moses was written with black fire upon white fire, sealed with fire, and swathed with bands of fire” and Yerushalmi Shelamim 6:1, 49d): THE FIRST THINGS CREATED – In the beginning, two thousand years before the heaven and the earth, seven things were created: the Torah written with black fire on white fire, and lying in the lap of God” etc. Source: Sefaria.org

Thus black fire is often a metaphor for something real, an expression of the divine. The gods can’t be seen in itself. One way they show their presence is through images which might occur paradoxical.

Black Fire is often seen as the fire of creation. That is why people are interested in it. Black fire is at the bottom of things. It is a hidden driving force. Black Fire might be also the Philosopher’s Secret Fire (Patrick Harpur wrote a book by the same title and describes it as something accompanying human history but which can’t be defined in a single way).

It is possible that black fire as a manifestation of something we can’t understand appears also in our days hiding behind other phenomenas like mysterious lights and many other.

In my story this is why people are drawn towards the forest dark. This is where black fire is more closely.

 

Manifestation: TheForestDark Tableau Video Installment No2

Lights, apparitions and other strange phenomena. The otherworld has many faces. It is said that the darker forces seem often to manifest itself in something akin to fire and electricity. This is a force the magicians believe they can use.

Electricity is a common medium. Perhaps there is more than meets the eye. It could be a medium for many things.

Fire is the symbol of transformation. It is important to survive. It can destroy. If it appears in the sky it heralds the coming of supernatural beings. The chariot of fire in the Old Testament is both threatening and awesome.

Fire and electricity play an important part in The Forest Dark. There is fire in the air. Unsettling paintings and reports as those from the time between the Dark Ages and Modern times remind us of the presence of another world.

Fire and something akin to electromagnetic forces appear often before the window to another reality get opened.

Sometimes it is a certain place at a certain time when such windows open. And sometimes there are people looking for these moments and these places.  Some people sense danger when the air is electrified, some not. In my story, I make use of some old legends, that there is a dark force inhabiting places which came to earth a long time ago. In some ways, it is the force which is like Fire and Electricity, but it expresses itself also in images.

The images we see in moments when we are close to the otherworld are often something more like a riddle. It is not like in the folklore stories. In visionary encounters, we see things which could have many meanings. Sometimes they are like symbols changing the course of people’s lives, sometimes they are like the dangerous lights seen in some forests.

It is maybe not what it seems but this force which is like fire and electricity can inhabit an evil spirit as John Milton said:

“Hope elevates, and joy
Bright’ns his Crest, as when a wandring Fire
Compact of unctuous vapour, which the Night
Condenses, and the cold invirons round,
Kindl’d through agitation to a Flame,
Which oft, they say, some evil Spirit attends”

(Paradise Lost)

The Origin Of Evil

Stories about the other world often explore the origin of evil. My work is no exception. The question about the origin of evil lies at the bottom both of philosophical work as work of art. In philosophy and theology, the question is often discussed as “theodicy”, which also implies the question why is there evil in the world?

Season Three Of Twin Peaks, already mentioned in the latest post “Ontological Shock“, is not only an example of a visionary experience but also a breathtaking meditation about the origin of evil by David Lynch in episode 8 of the outstanding series.

 

Episode 8 led to many discussions and became a milestone in modern TV, its central sequence of a nuclear blast turning into a surreal trip compared to Kubrick’s Odyssey 2001.

Along the convincing creative work of David Lynch there are a couple of remarkable things: on one side there is a near-literal visualization of gnostic ideas and also neo-platonic philosophy where things getting transformed from the world of ideas into the material world. The gnostic dualism has never been so obvious as in episode 8. On the other side, it evokes a feeling of a cosmic evil without explaining too much. On some level, there is no explanation necessary.

I wouldn’t even say this is an explanation of evil or the creation of evil (the appearance of Bob – the later killer-demon triggered that interpretation).

There could not be an explanation where there is no real explanation. There might be belief-systems or philosophical systems but episode 8 let us feel a darkness which can’t be understood in an intellectual way. There is no explanation. The atomic blast might not have created evil but perhaps it was something like a door-opener. If we imagine a universe full of life, full of conscience there are always elemental cosmic powers waiting in their otherworldly realm for an invitation.

Todd VanDerWerff is right when he writes in his article on Vox.com, “you can try to evoke evil in the audience”. What we can do in a movie or a series is that kind of meditation which let people remember something which they do know but what has been forgotten.





Furthermore, words fail to explain what evil is. What David Lynch does brilliantly in his work, is to make the invisible a visible and palpable thing through an atmosphere, through stories told in pictures and the interplay of actors who can express something which works like a virus and can possess you completely.


We get it that the ancient gnostic idea is true that the material world itself carries the energy of evil, that is is always around us and looking for expressing itself in horrible manifestations. You can show how it is always at work and be shaping our lives if we don’t care.

It always finds a way into our world, and there are endless forms or masks or ways of deception. It needs chaos to prevail and tempts us in ways we don’t imagine.

In the Forest Dark Movie Project, I will present my own vision about the origin of evil. I believe there is something we all know about this, but the definition is also a thing of individual belief and experience in life. A problem I see at the core of this question is that words fail to describe precisely what it is. As we have seen in “The Demonic Principle” even Goethe struggled with appropriate definitions.

Maybe there is even a relationship between creativity and the origin of evil. Longtime creative work is often also an attempt to express what is unspeakable, and it can be a gift or a curse to deal with certain things – it can mean for the artist to undergo his own dark journeys or he risks to become the sorcerer’s apprentice and gets abused in the cosmic battle between light and dark. Even more, the artist might be chosen a long time before by higher forces without knowing himself and given the task to communicate and to give us insight into the real order of the world.