What is it about the forest? The tall and stoic trees standing above us like silent giants. The way a gentle breeze makes the woods hiss and a mighty wind makes them roar only adds to the mystique and ups the fear factor. Then watch the sun dip below the horizon as twilight turns to darkness, and the forest becomes something more ominous entirely.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in the woods lately. I’m training for my Mt. Kilimanjaro climb to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in March. I don’t fear the woods per se, but I understand why they’re often the setting for scary movies and ghastly legends. When you’re feeling good, and in control, the woods are a beautiful place. Fall and hurt yourself, or find yourself confronted by a crazed animal or deranged lunatic, and now the woods can feel like you’re in the middle of the ocean with no other ships around. You can sense the isolation, which is exactly what makes the woods call to some people yet frighten others. Out there, sometimes all you have are your thoughts, and that’s BAD_WORD scary for some of us because we’re afraid of what we might find inside.
The forest also offers the hidden factor. The idea that deep in the woods, we’re away from the gaze of anyone. That’s also frightening. And there’s a spirit to the woods. Not only are you surrounded by life in great abundance, but you somehow know that beneath your feet sits centuries of death. As plants and animals die, they enrich the soil for new life. The story of us sits out there in the forest. All of our imperfections, flaws, and fears, but also our triumphs somewhere among the swamps and trees.
In my book, The World’s Most Haunted Places, I include a chapter on Aokigahara Jukai—the “Suicide Forest” that sits below Mt. Fuji in Japan. The locals also refer to this place as the “Sea of Trees,” which makes sense considering how many people drown within it. These woods have the dubious reputation as being the most popular place on earth to kill yourself. Estimates are as high as 100 people per year who take their own life in Aokigahara Jukai—that’s almost two people per week!
While it’s easy to assume that some ancient curse or legend is to blame for the high suicide rate, the real reason only dates back to 1960. In that year, Japanese author Seicho Matsumoto wrote a book called Kurioi Jukai (which translates to The Black Sea of Trees). In his novel, two fictional star-crossed lovers who are forbidden to be together in this life head into Aokigahara Jukai to commit suicide so they can be together in eternity. I’m sure that story sounds familiar -- Romeo and Juliet had similar ideas, though they weren’t based in Japan.
This novel made the idea of taking your life in Aokigahara Jukai romantic. And soon real people went there to fulfill the same fate as the fictional characters. Those suicides made the news, others read the book, and the reputation grew. A stain has been left here in those woods. There’s a spirit to the place, and it’s a dark one. And now more people choose to end their life in these woods than any other place on the planet. That energy draws people in, and it’s tangible. And now those woods are both haunted and haunting.
Sometimes we need to face our fears to grow. Sometimes we need to walk through those dark woods and come out the other side better for it. That’s our challenge: not to avoid the forest entirely because of the monsters that may lurk inside. We should acknowledge they’re present, but know we’re equipped to face them should they rear their disfigured heads.
Since I wrote to you last month, I’ve been on the move constantly. I’ve had lectures and events almost every night, and I’m looking forward to the seasonal slow-down that’s coming soon. It’s a time for me to get back to research, and to adventures. But I do want to point out my last scheduled event for 2016: A Creepy Christmas Carol with Jeff Belanger and Dustin Pari – this stage show will take place December 8 at 7:30 PM at the Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland, Rhode Island. This show will save Christmas… and help you bring back the ghosts and monsters that have always lurked in the shadows of this holiday.