From Friday the 13th to The Blair Witch Project, forests have a long tradition in horror films as the place between the real and the imagined. Characters often find themselves questioning their sanity (and longevity) when faced with a wood's shifting shadows. In almost all these movies, the so-called "haunted" forests are totally fictional and devised for the story, but what happens when a film instead draws inspiration from a real-life habitat of horrors?
The Forest True Story
That's exactly what we will find out when The Forest hits theaters on January 8, 2016. The upcoming scarefest finds Sara (Natalie Dormer) on the hunt for her twin sister Jess, who's disappeared after wandering into Japan's Aokigahara Forest. As you can see from the trailer, the place is downright terrifying, but your fear won't be contained in the theater. That's because Aokigahara is a very real place, and it's concealed a deadly mystery for decades.
Here's the true story of a forest so scary, it inspired a horror movie.
Content warning: Graphic images ahead.
Tucked away past the bustling cities of Japan lies a hauntingly beautiful forest at the base of Mount Fuji. Aokigahara is a dense sea of trees that conceals its unforgiving truths, almost beautiful enough to distract from the ever-present air of death.
You see, Aokigahara is one of the world's most popular destinations for travelers looking to end it all (second only to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge), a distinction that earned it the macabre nickname "Suicide Forest." Depressed and lost individuals flock to the twisted trails as their final resting place, but what is it about this sylvan spot that attracts so much sadness?
A legendary home for demons
According to local folklore, the Suicide Forest is home to angry souls called yūrei, who have become so powerful over the years that they immerse the surrounding trees with malevolent energy. It's unknown how these spirits first found their way to Aokigahara centuries ago, but their presence has only grown stronger with each new tragic death.
A yūrei is created when a person dies amid a profound feeling of anger, disdain, or vengeance, and their souls are stuck in this world. These souls are committed to wandering, an after-lifetime spent appearing to people who find themselves off the forest's wandering trail. And they're not known for being friendly.
These demons imbue Aokigahara with a troubling sense of life, leaving many travelers feeling like the trees can walk right beside them.
A horrifying process for keeping spirits out
As reported on the Aokigahara Forest website, the guardians of the forest have a specific procedure in place for when a dead body is discovered. And with over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s, this is no light task.
When a body is found, these guardians take it to a designated room located on the outskirts of the forest where it's placed on a bed. Here's where it goes from respectful to utterly disturbing: there must always be a guard to sleep in the same room as the body. The workers play a game to determine who will be the unfortunate watcher, and this commitment to careful treatment of the dead shows just how real these spirits are to local denizens.
The fearful guards believe the popular belief that unsupervised corpses will result in active yūrei, who can dementedly advance through the building and even make their way back into the forest. These fallen souls are taken seriously, and if current trends continue, there will only be more unsettled souls adding to the forest's purgatory.
The statistics are daunting
As early as the 1970s, the Japanese government became so aware of the rising rates of suicide in Aokigahara, they started doing annual sweeps of the national forest to remove the bodies. The rates of people traveling to commit suicide have only rise over the years. In 2002, there were 78 corpses found within the limits of the sprawling forest, and only a year later, the number jumped to 100. Now that there are signs and professionals warning against suicide, 2010 saw 247 people attempt to end their lives with 54 succeeding.
Perhaps the most frightening part of this real-life maze of death are the bodies that have yet to be found, lost in Aokigahara and destined to rot beside those haunted trails forever. With such a chilling legacy, it's no wonder filmmakers are finding real-life inspiration in the most nerve-racking tourist destination in the world.
To see how The Forest expands on the legacy of Aokigahara, be sure to head to theater on January 8, 2016.