7 superlatively spooky forests
By Matt Hickman, Mother Nature Network, 14 October 2016.
By Matt Hickman, Mother Nature Network, 14 October 2016.
If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise - “Teddy Bears’ Picnic”
It goes without saying that there’s nothing at all menacing about trees - big, beautiful, air-filtering, life-giving trees. We at Mother Nature Network, obviously, couldn’t be bigger fans. Woods and forests are even better. Large tracts of land dominated by towering woody perennials? Bring it on.
However, forests, already brooding, mysterious and frequently disorienting by design, are viewed in an altogether different light when you add freaky folklore, whispers of the paranormal and recent viewings of certain films into the mix. It’s funny how the same woods that we have no issue with traipsing through during the day can automatically transform into places of paranoia-tinged terror - What’s that noise? Did you hear that? - at night. After all, there’s no worse place to have your mind play tricks on you - or worse yet, be completely and utterly lost - then deep in a darkened wood.
Then there are some forests with reputations so sinister that many folks (superstitious locals, in particular) go out of their way to avoid them altogether, daytime or night-time. And yet it’s these same woods, especially those rumored to be straight-up haunted, that attract thrill-seekers, ghost-hunters and those looking to find out for themselves if the things that they read on the internet - or heard one time from their best friend’s cousin - are indeed true.
We’ve rounded up seven forests and woodlands known for being more than just a wee bit eerie. In most cases, these forests - most, but not all, function as protected nature preserves - come equipped with long and often macabre histories that have been embellished and inflated over the years for dramatic effect. After all, woods just aren’t woods without a good ghost story attached.
1. Aokigahara Forest, Japan
Photo: Simon Desmarais/Flickr
The Sea of Trees. The Suicide Forest. The Haunted Forest of Death. The Demon Forest. Japan’s Aokigahara Forest goes by many names, all of them spooky, unsettling and altogether somber.
Nestled on the northwestern base of Mount Fuji, this 14-square-mile swath of woodland is noted for being eerily quiet, exceedingly remote, devoid of animals and for boasting both an otherworldly beauty and aura of dread - this and the fact that many of its visitors, predominately middle-aged males, enter with no intention of coming back out. As the top suicide spot in a nation with one of the world’s highest suicide rates, there’s an undeniable sadness shrouding Aokigahara Forest. But this doesn’t stop tourists - that is, tourists who don’t plan on ending their own lives - from flocking to the forest for largely macabre reasons.
You see, Aokigahara also has a reputation as being rife with restless spirits. Paranormal activity - recently depicted in the largely panned horror movie, “The Forest” - has long been reported at Aokigahara, much of it predating the forest’s popularity among the suicidal. In fact, the forest is so overrun with vengeful spirits known as yūrei that even the trees themselves are “soaked in a malevolent energy accumulated over the centuries.” It’s worth noting that Aokigahara’s resident yūrei aren’t necessarily associated with those that have entered the forest to take their own lives. Legend has it that that, centuries ago, the forest was an active site for ubasute, a folkloric Japanese custom in which the elderly and the infirm are taken to remote locations by their kin and left to die by starvation or exposure. It’s the yūrei of these poor souls that remain trapped in the forest for eternity.
2. Dark Entry Forest, Connecticut, USA
Photo: Morrow Long/Flickr
Unlike the other wooded areas on this list, Dark Entry Forest - despite an ominous name that, in the words of the Washington Post practically screams “we dare you to walk through our totally haunted forest” - is private property. Translation: No rowdy teens or EMF meter-toting thrill-seekers allowed.
Located in the idyllic Connecticut town of Cornwall, this 750-acre swath of woodland is home to the ruins of Dudleytown - New England’s very own Village of the Damned. Not an actual village but a hilly and isolated section of Cornwall settled in the 1700s, the area later became synonymous with tales of death, disease and general misfortune. By 1900, the accursed settlement was abandoned altogether. In 1924, a collective of shareholders operating under the rather shadowy name Dark Entry Forest Association purchased the parcel. Much to the chagrin of modern-day association members, the creepy - and rather complicated - mythology surrounding Dudleytown never really faded away and the area has garnered a reputation for being a hotbed of supernatural activity.
And so, this secluded part of the Litchfield Hills that once, according to local lore, acted as a magnet for bad mojo, began, in the latter half of the 20th century, to attract a veritable parade of paranormal investigators, partying high-schoolers and at least one birding enthusiast with National Geographic. The release of the “Blair Witch Project” in 1999 and unwanted Dudleytown shout-outs from ghostbusters real (Ed and Lorraine Warren) and pretend (Dan Aykroyd) haven’t helped. And so, vigilant area residents, most of them descendants of the original shareholders, are reportedly not shy about calling the police and reporting interlopers. Yet folks show up in droves anyway, willing to risk arrest for illegal trespassing. After all, it seems that the more aggressive that beleaguered association members and authorities are about keeping people out, the more curious people become. Writes the Cornwall Historical Society: “Imagine if someone wrote that your home was haunted, even though it wasn't, and you suddenly had total strangers wandering around your yard, peering in through your windows, setting fires and leaving litter, invading your privacy on a regular basis. You wouldn't like it very much, and neither does anyone in Cornwall.”
3. Dering Wood, England
Photo: Tim Sheerman-Chase/Flickr
Some forests don’t blatantly advertise their notoriety when it comes to matters of the occult and ominous local lore. And why should they? But when an English nature preserve is frequently referred to as “screaming,” you know exactly what you’re in for.
In a neat coincidence, the Dering Wood - or the “Screaming Woods” as the 310-acre preserve is best known - directly abuts the village of Pluckley, Kent, which itself is famed for an impressive paranormal portfolio that’s earned it the reputation as England’s most haunted town. Pluckley and its many resident wraiths aside, the screaming associated with Dering Wood doesn’t refer to shrieks of horror emitted by the living - you know, local teenagers trying to scare each other silly. Rather, the titular screams are the mysterious, banshee-like wails that have long erupted from deep within the woods. (An 18th century highwayman murdered by vengeful villagers is believed to be the chief screamer.)
For obvious reasons, the Woodland Trust, which manages Dering Wood, fails to mention the infernal howling of anguished ghosts and instead opts to paint an altogether more pleasant picture of the semi-natural woodland, describing it as a “nature lover’s dream” where visitors will find “an amazing array of plants as well as wonderful wildlife, such as nightingales, dormice and many species of butterfly.”
4. Epping Forest, England
Photo: John+Elaine Chesterton/Flickr
Bestowed by Queen Victoria as the “People’s Forest” in 1882, Epping Forest is a 6,000-acre natural wonderland straddling northeast London and Essex. Comprised of fish-stocked lakes, cow-grazing grassland and dense patches of mushroom-studded woodland, Epping Forest is a massively popular spot with hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, anglers and birders. And ghost hunters.
Sylvan beauty and bountiful opportunities for frolicking in the great outdoors aside, Epping Forest has long been associated with murder and mayhem. For centuries, bodies have been dumped, unspeakable crimes have been committed and fiends and fugitives and of all stripes have taken refuge in London’s largest open space. As one might suspect, all of these highly unsavory goings-on, supposed satanic sacrifices included, have yielded a disproportionate amount of paranormal activity including wailing phantoms, assorted apparitions and run-of-the-mill restless spirits including that of infamous highwayman Dick Turpin.
In addition to Loughton Camp, the site of an ancient - and, apparently, ghost-ridden - fortification dating back to the Iron Age, one of Epping Forest’s most unnerving locales is the so-called Hangman’s Hill, a popular spot in which to leave your car in neutral at the bottom of the road and experience it roll upwards. While many have attributed the phenomenon to a clutch of car-pushing poltergeists, the slope is nothing more than an optical illusion-creating gravity hill. Still, it’s a super-spooky experience, supernatural provenance or not.
5. Freetown-Fall River State Forest, Massachusetts, USA
Those hailing from southeast Massachusetts likely need no introduction to the Bridgewater Triangle, a 200-square-mile cryptozoological hotbed of sorts rumored to be populated by various things that go bump in the night: swamp monsters, space aliens, Sasquatch, you name it. The most paranormally active area of the Triangle - the epicenter of bad mojo, if you will - is widely believed to be its southeast corner, home to Freetown-Fall River State Forest or, simply, Freetown State Forest.
Spanning more than 5,400 acres of dense New England forest, the state-managed tract includes 50-plus miles of trails and unpaved roads for hiking, biking and horseback riding in the warmer months and cross country skiing and dog-sledding during the winter. There are also ample picnic areas and a trout-stocked brook for anglers. Sounds nice, right? It is. However, Freetown State Forest, former stomping grounds of a murderous satanic cult, has also been the site of some truly horrific documented crimes over the years. Add to the mix haunted rocks, glowing orbs and diminutive troll-monsters named Puckwudgies and you’ve got an otherwise lovely forest with a serious public image problem. Still, boosters of Freetown State Forest prefer not to dwell on the area’s accursed reputation.
“Things have calmed down here. Now the forest has a more positive image with people,” Everett Philla of Friends of the Freetown-Fall River State Forest told New Bedford’s Standard-Times in 2011. “People want open space, so they don't think about the bad things. Most people realize what a wonderful place this is.”
6. Hoia-Baciu Forest, Romania
Photo: Swithun Crowe/Flickr
But of course Transylvania - a historical region of modern day Romania that, as popular culture would lead us to believe, is stuffed full of creaky castles, howling wolves and the marauding undead - is home to a haunted forest. Because why wouldn’t it be?
Not surprisingly, Transylvania’s Hoia-Baciu Forest is a total doozy. Located just west of Romania’s second largest city, Cluj-Napoca, the forest - often referred to as the Bermuda Triangle of Romania - manages to pack a whole lot of spooky into its petite one-square-mile footprint.
At the center of it all is Poiana Rotunda, a roundish clearing (read: a sparsely vegetated run-of-the-mill meadow) that’s rumored to serve as either a portal to another dimension, a landing pad for flying saucers or the site of a peasant village that was all but wiped out during a brutal massacre in the 13th century. Take your pick. Mysterious lights, disembodied voices, unexplainable apparitions, disappearing children, UFO sightings, magnetic anomalies, eerie fogs, malfunctioning electronics and some truly mangled-looking trees are just the icing on the proverbial cake. And even those who have entered the forest and emerged without having directly witnessed any sort of supernatural goings-on (i.e. stopped watches or the wailing ghosts of murdered peasants) have reported feeling anxious, nauseous, watched while in the woods. It’s also worth noting that locals really do steer clear of the forsaken forest, and have for centuries - a surefire indication that something is indeed up.
7. The Pine Barrens, New Jersey, USA
Photo: Miguel Vieira/Flickr
Spanning seven counties and a total of 1.1 million acres, the Pine Barrens - preserved as the New Jersey National Reserve - is much more than a simple forest. Claiming 22 percent of New Jersey’s total land area, the Pine Barrens is a vast and largely untouched coastal plain that’s home to a vast and diverse array of floral, fauna and freaky phenomena. (For more on the fascinating history and ecology of the region, do check out John McPhee’s excellent 1968 book, “The Pine Barrens.”)
As for the aforementioned freaky phenomena, the Jersey Devil - one of America’s most beloved crypids and New Jersey’s only designated state demon, the folkloric beast takes the shape of a fork-tailed kangaroo-bat-goat hybrid - reigns supreme. No contest there. However, considering the massive scope and desolate nature of the heavily forested region, there’s plenty of room for other paranormal this-and-that: headless pirate ghosts, spectral black dogs and the infamous Blue Hole, a remarkably cold and clear body of water that, according to local lore, is capable of sucking unsuspecting swimmers down into a watery grave.
Of particular renown amongst ghost-hunting types is an apparition rumored to haunt Old Mill Road, a lonely rural lane in the Pine Barrens community of Atco. There’s a super-specific - although some variations do exist - process that must be carried out in order to summon the ghost, which, according to legend, is that of a young boy who was hit and killed by a speeding car while chasing a ball into the street. At a designated point in the road, one must stop their car, honk three times, flash their lights three times and then kill the engine and wait. Eventually, a specter of the boy will emerge from the darkness, seemingly to investigate who is behind the wheel of the car stopped in the very spot in which he was killed. Shudder.
Top image: Bleak forest in winter. Credit: allispossible.org.uk/Flickr.
[Source: Mother Nature Network. Edited.]