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These Films Invoke Our Primal Fear of the Forest

What terrors lurk behind the trees? 

the hunt 2020
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  • Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

There’s nothing quite like the mysterious claustrophobia of being deep in a forest, the path ahead narrowing, forcing you to trust your compass and, if you dare, your own sense of direction. The forest is among the most mysterious of settings for horror, where its inherent unknowns can be utilized for the narrative. Want it to reflect your character’s mental state? Easy. Want it to serve as an anchor for a story’s key themes? Done. The forest contains such mystery that it lends itself well for the depths of horror. The recently released film Prey reminds us of its potential for terror and the threat of our own mortality. 

We took a deep dive into other filmic examples of how the forest was made to encapsulate your worst fears.

The Descent (2005)

The Descent has become a touchstone for modern horrorphiles. The tale of a group of adventurous friends going on a hiking trip in the Appalachian Mountains, only to end up uncovering something they could not have expected, is the stuff of modern-day camping nightmares. The friend group becomes trapped in a complex labyrinth of caves, hunted by otherworldly creatures. It’s a film that captures all the excitement about the forest, and how the more you go looking into nature’s inner sanctum, the more likely you’ll find something unexpected—maybe something you do not want.

Ravenous (1999)

Considered by so many as a cult classic, the 1999 film Ravenous pits the human will to survive with that of the human desire… for the flesh. U.S. army soldiers enter the forest to on a rescue mission. True to the harsh elements hidden in the trees, the survivors they seek to recover have succumbed to cannibalism and by the time the soldiers realize the full extent of their peril, they become hunted and killed to become the next meal. A slow burn in more ways than one, Ravenous gets under your skin, posing questions dealing with about what it means to be human, making you wonder if such human depravity is only relegated to the deep forest.

The Hunt (2020)

I remember when this film underwent controversy in advance of its release, largely due to the violent depiction of mass shootings in the face of recent school shootings in 2020 (including the shootings in Dayton and El Paso) resulting in delays and the sort of social media buzz that can only be derived from heated neutrality. 

The Hunt is essentially a modern retelling of Most Dangerous Game, wherein the idea is that an expert hunter, having slayed every animal, turns to hunting humans, the most intelligent and deadly game of all. Of course, The Hunt exacerbates such a premise, blurring the lines by making it more so a group of rich progressives gathering working-class citizens to be hunted down for sport. Expected twists and turns aside, The Hunt acts as a relic of the recent past, the forest backdrop becoming a veil for voyeurism.

The Ruins (2008)

One of the more “fun” films on this list, The Ruins is yet another lesson, much like The Descent, in being careful what you dredge up in the darkness of the forest. The premise here is simple, depicting two couples in search of thrills in Mexico, eventually hearing word of an amazing Mayan temple ruin in the depths of a Mexican jungle. They go searching and because it’s a film, they find it—only to discover more than they ever bargained for.

The Ruins feels so much like what it is, a mid-2000s film aimed to scare as much as to was made to relate to the twentysomething college students bored and seeking those same thrills. Nowadays, it holds up as a fun hour and a half of armchair tourism. But yeah, don’t go into the Mexican jungle. Probably not worth it.

Backcountry (2015)

This list wouldn’t be complete without this film, effectively the epitome of a nature-tinged survival horror experience. Alex and his girlfriend Jen go camping for the weekend only to find that the trails they had hoped to take are closed off and the park ranger warning them that they should try somewhere else. Alex is a seasoned camper and hiker, with the pride to match it so they go deep into the forest on their own. This is where things start to go wrong. Alex injures his foot and they end up making camp unknowingly in a patch of forest marked off for reasons they soon find out. Based on actual events, the couple is soon hunted by a hungry black bear that has their scent. It’s everyone’s real worst nature-related nightmare, waking up to the growls of a beast there not for your snacks but for you. 

Willow Creek (2013)

It should be mentioned that most found-footage film based in the forest could also make this list, including the groundbreaking The Blair Witch Project, the cult-favorite Trollhunter, and more.

However, Willow Creek sidesteps the rest for being more underrated and less-discussed. The film depicts the obsessive pursuits of Bigfoot by a man named Jim and his girlfriend Kelly. Jim believes he exists and hopes to uncover the truth behind the legend. Unsurprisingly they are drawn to Willow Creek, called the Bigfoot capital of the world, to investigate and film footage for a would-be documentary. When weird things begin happening, including their camping gear and stuff being tampered, suspicions run high: Might it be people fucking with them or Bigfoot himself? Only the forest knows the truth.