This article is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
There’s something scary about the woods, and not just because most of us would be bear food if we got lost in them. Forests are dark, remote, and elemental in a way few other places are. It’s easy to believe that if an ancient force (witch, old God, Sasquatch, whatever) is lurking in wait somewhere out there you’ll probably discover it under the cover of trees in the middle of nowhere. Forests are central settings in Grimm’s fairy tales and plenty of other bits of folklore, so it’s no surprise that horror filmmakers have capitalized on our childhood-ingrained aversion to the dark, dark woods.
Below, find our picks for the freakiest forest-set films in horror, chosen by Chris Coffel, Kieran Fisher, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Anna Swanson, Jacob Trussell, and myself. Don’t forget to check back at the site for a new horror list each day in October.
10. Pyewacket (2018)
When I think of Pyewacket, I think of dark blood oozing so thick that I almost gag. The cabin-home-set occult movie flew under the radar upon release last year — outside of our own list of 2018’s best horror movies — but it’s one of the most chilling horror films I’ve seen in years. Let’s put it this way: I’ve written about dozens of horror movies for this 31 Days of Horror Lists projects, and this is the only one that’s made me feel scared just thinking about it. In Pyewacket, emo teen Leah (Nicole Munoz) is angry and depressed after the death of her father and goes into the woods to summon a demon to kill her mother. From here on out, the movie presents a series of increasingly upsetting scares, all laced with a sense of deep wrong and unease as Leah realizes she’s crossed a boundary that can’t be undone. The forest outside Leah’s house serves as home territory for the evil she’s unleashed, and as she begins sleepwalking back into the undergrowth, the woods become at once her captor and her master. This sinister, dark-hearted film deserves a spot in your next double feature movie night, right beside Hereditary. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
9. Long Weekend (1978)
The scariest thing about the forest in Long Weekend is the humans who bring their drama into it. The film follows a married couple who are at odds with each other, and their toxicity causes nature to fight back. At the same time, there’s still fear to be found within the trees, and the idea that the entire surrounding environment could spell death at any moment is nightmare-inducing. Arrows carved into trees and other unexplained imagery only add to the forest’s ambiguity, suggesting that the location was a dangerous place long before these people found their way there. This forest is terrifying for sure, but you’ll probably root for Mother Nature raging against these obnoxious humans. (Kieran Fisher)
8. Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse (2019)
On my most recent rewatch of Hagazussa, I couldn’t stop thinking about light. More specifically: about the uncanny way light behaves in forests around dusk. After sunset, forests swallow light up. It turns unassuming groves into flat, black pitch with a silhouette you have to strain to see. Shadows transform into black holes, urging you off the path towards something murky and uncertain. The forests in Hagazussa have this power: a pulling darkness. These are forests that feel like they’re in between our world and somewhere else. A liminal space: beautiful, sinister, and teeming. Straying from the beaten path has a price. But for those of us who get a sadistic kick out of flirting with forbidden fruit, the rewards are sweet. I for one love to get lost in the woods now and again. Magic-mushroom murder spiral optional. (Meg Shields)
7. The Ritual (2018)
Netflix Original The Ritual is right on the border between more substantive horror (“elevated,” if you’re feeling annoying) and a fun one-off, but however you cut it, the thing is scary as hell. David Bruckner’s film drops us into the drippy, chilled forests of northern Sweden during a group of former college buddies’ hiking trip that’s already been shaded by a friend’s recent death. Far from civilization and without a guide or a happy thought between them, this all feels like a bad call from the start, but — imagine comedian John Mulaney’s voice here, if you will — it gets worse! The Ritual really knows what makes forests creepy, and it capitalizes on our fears of the darkly elemental part of nature with a cursed cabin, occult offerings hung in the branches, and a tendency for trippy psychological quick-changes that reflect the group’s deteriorating mental states. The film’s ending is divisive, but as they say, it’s not about the destination, but rather the nightmare-inducing journey. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
6. Deliverance (1972)
As someone born and raised in a city, I have to cite Deliverance as one of the greatest forest-set films simply for the fact that it justifies what I firmly believe to be true: we should stay away from the wilderness. John Boorman’s astounding and assaultive thriller follows four would-be woodsmen who venture into the Georgian wilderness and get more than they bargained for. The only thing scarier than the unforgiving back-country and its dense forest and rough rapids are the merciless locals whose depravity pushes the men to their breaking point. Deliverance is a brutal experience and stomaching it is no easy feat, but the reward is a shocking take on survival and a nihilistic examination of trauma. While the film may be famed for its dueling banjos, once the forest comes to the forefront of the narrative, there’s no winning any competition here. Only surviving. (Anna Swanson)