Essays Horror Film

Embracing folklore in horror film: comparing The Forest and The Ritual

Last summer, alone, I decided to watch The Ritual on Netflix. I’ll admit, despite being a horror fan and generally desensitised, I was spooked. The tension of the first half and the eerie imagery of the second half got me, but I enjoyed myself. I was clearly in a particular type of mood because the next night I saw The Forest come up on my suggestions. Always down for a horror movie rooted in mythology and folklore, feeling like I wanted to watch more people get lost in the woods for some reason, I decided to give it ago.

I was sorely disappointed.

I probably shouldn’t have been, given the film’s dire reviews, which I’d been aware of. The Forest, whose plot is based around Japan’s Aokigihara Forest in Tokyo, was released in 2016 to critical disappointment and controversy. It has a shockingly abysmal 10% on Rotten Tomatoes. In contrast, The Ritual, released in late 2017, has a fresh 71%. While there are many reasons for the disparity in the reception of these two films – including narrative pacing, visual effects, quality of acting, etc – I want to focus on one particular aspect: the utilisation of folklore in the setting and plot. In short, I believe that The Ritual utilised its source material to far greater effect than The Forest, resulting in a stronger film. And from this, we can start a conversation about how to effectively centre folklore in a mainstream horror film.

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The two films have a similar concept at their base: a group travels into a dangerous wilderness in a foreign country, where they are haunted by mysterious forces based on the folklore of the region. In both films, the main characters carry personal trauma into their journeys that is reflected in the mythology and quite literally embeds itself in the scenery.

Aokigahara forest
Aokigahara forest in Yamanashi, Japan – the setting of The Forest

In the case of The Forest, the setting is the Aokigahara forest in Tokyo. Aokigahara is infamous for being a suicide cluster site, which prompted considerable controversy when the film was released. The forest was rumoured to be a site of ubasute, the practice of abandoning the old or infirm in the wilderness in order to relieve the strain on resources during times of scarcity. The souls of these abandoned dead were said to haunt the forest and lure travellers into suicide. This is, at least, the narrative the film chooses to explain the haunted nature of the forest, though the practice of ubasute in Aokigahara has not been confirmed. Yoshitomo Takahashi in “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest” (1) links the forest’s association with suicide with the 1340 ritual suicide of a Buddhist monk. Takahashi also highlights the geological features that make the forest difficult to navigate and, therefore, difficult to escape once you’ve strayed from the path. In The Forest, Natalie Dormer plays two twins, though the point of view of the movie centres on Sara, who ventures into the forest with two guides to find her missing sister. As the film progresses, the trauma of her parents’ deaths becomes more prominent as she is haunted by the ghosts of the forest’s suicide victims. This culminates in a scene when she opens the door of a guard shack to reveal her childhood basement, the site of her parents’ murder-suicide.

The Kungsleden in Northern Sweden
The Kungsleden in Northern Sweden

In The Ritual, four friends set out on the King’s Trail, or Kungsleden, in Northern Sweden, for a hiking trip to honour their murdered friend. They decide to take a short-cut after one of them suffers a minor injury and quickly find themselves lost and stalked by a mysterious creature. Just as the ghosts affected Natalie Dormer’s psyche in The Forest, the creature stalking them also inflicts vivid hallucinations on the four friends. The film is told from Luke’s (Rafe Spall) point of view, who is wracked with guilt over his inaction during the robbery that killed his friend. His hallucinations are truly embedded in the landscape: the convenience store materialises in the woods, becoming increasingly enmeshed in the greenery each time he sees it. In the third act of the film, the two surviving friends learn that the creature stalking them is a Jötun, a giant of Norse mythology, who is served by a group of devotees who bring the Jötun human sacrifices in exchange for eternal life.

It is my opinion that The Ritual uses its folkloric source material more effectively in two ways: first, in its use of the physical and cultural landscape, and second, in the way the characters practically engage with the folklore in the narrative.

Both films, as mentioned, embed the scenes of personal trauma into the landscape of their settings, creating three layers to the films. The first, the actual recent past, is a personally experienced trauma. The second is the wilderness and otherness of the landscape. And the third is the deep history of the place, and the folklore embedded there. The Ritual is visually more effective at using the scene of personal trauma layered on the wilderness. The scene of the murder, the convenience store, appears in the forest covered in dirt and moss, littered with leaves. As the film progresses, nature further invades the hallucinated convenience store, blurring the line between Luke’s personal trauma and the fear of the wilderness, while The Forest does not take as much advantage of the creative possibilities of this kind of narrative device. The hallucinations are less visually embedded in the setting, making for a missed opportunity.

The modern cultural setting is also utilised better in The Ritual, though it does not actually appear that much. Despite being set in Sweden, modern Swedish society is not heavily present. In fact, it occurs only twice, both times as the spectre of lights in the distance. First as the lights of the hut that is the characters’ destination, and then again at the end, as light glinting off a car on the distant highway, a sight that proves Luke has escaped the forest and the Jötun. Modern society remains elusive, making the woods a place outside of present time and familiar reality.

In contrast, The Forest engages far too closely with modern Japanese society. It still wants to other its setting, but instead of holding it at arms’ length and creating distance like in The Ritual, it dives in and distorts Japanese society with offensive stereotypes that actually disrupt the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. To exoticise Japan, the film shows Sara being served a squirming seafood dish at a restaurant. To distance it from modern time, the morgue is depicted as a dungeon-like basement where corpses are laid out on slabs lit by flickering, dim light, guarded by a stooped old woman. Aside from being offensive depictions of Japanese society, these scenes jar the reader out of the setting. Are we really expected to believe a modern middle-class American woman would not know how to order sushi? That a highly technologically advanced country stores bodies in a dungeon instead of a modern morgue?

The second way The Forest fails in its use of folklore is in the way the characters engage with the mythology. In that, they barely do so at all. Sara is haunted by ghosts that lure her into danger and paranoia, and in the end, succumbs to the forest. A hallucination tricks her into slicing her own wrists, instead of the person she believes is attacking her. But her twin escapes… somehow. There is a scene of her running through the woods, beset by comically poor special effects ghosts. (Another point of departure – the special effects of The Forest’s ghosts are weak compared to The Ritual’s eerie and imaginative rendering of the Jötun.) And then she simply stumbles upon the search party and… that’s it. The surviving twin does not actually have to face or defeat the spirits that haunt her. They act like nothing more than set dressing, an obstacle to run around rather than through.

The Jötun – the creature stalking the friends in The Ritual
The Jötun – the creature stalking the friends in The Ritual

The characters in The Ritual much more directly face the material realities of the mythology they come across. To escape the forest, Luke actually has to engage with the Jötun. He escapes the site of sacrifice, burning it to the ground behind him and running into the forest. When the Jötun chases after him, he purposely turns into the illusion of the convenience store, symbolically confronting and embracing his trauma. In the final climax, the Jötun physically forces him into a kneeling, worshipful stance and reveals its final form. As Luke lies prostrate, he sees the corpse of his friend who had been murdered at the start of the film turn and look at him. In this moment of connection with the past, he’s able to strike out at the Jötun, making it bleed, before he runs and escapes the forest.

There is a physicality about this confrontation. The Jötun touches him, and Luke physically attacks and wounds the creature to escape the bonds of the creature’s territory. It is an intimate and direct confrontation, of both the personal trauma, symbolised by his running into the illusionary convenience store, and of the folklore in his brief submission to worship of the old god, which gives him the position to attack. The final confrontation is a visceral exchange of roars as the sun rises, and Luke escapes the creature. The viewer still gets the sense that Luke has been affected by this confrontation. Rather than running around it, he has run through and come out changed.

The Ritual is not a perfect film itself, and there are plenty of other issues that contributed to The Forest’s low rating, such as the effects, pacing, and performances. But I think the lack of engagement with the concept is what really sank the film from the start. To illuminate this central failing, I was inspired by an unlikely source – NBC’s afterlife sitcom The Good Place. On the show’s companion podcast, creator Michael Schur discussed the six questions he asked while writing each episode of the show. His sixth question was simple: “Are we making use of this premise?” That’s what The Forest – along with too many other films with folklore or mythology at their base – forgets to do. They forget to ask whether they’re making full use of the premise, and, when they forget to ask that question, the folklore becomes little more than set dressing.

  1. Takahashi, Y., 1988. Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 18(2), pp.164–175.

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