Out from the mossy earth rise enormous immortal behemoths, older than any man, who have seen death and destruction throughout the centuries.
Yup! Trees sure are scary if you look at them the right way. Storytellers have been eyeing these fierce fauna for centuries, searching for fearsome new ways to frighten their fans. Just this very weekend, the supernatural thriller THE FOREST will try to lure you into its worrisome woods with promises of grim delight. And while this new film may or may not succeed at presenting the most terrifying trees in the history of fiction, there are still a lot of eldritch examples that have taken root throughout the history of the horror genre, and the time has come to give them all their due.
These are the eleven scariest trees we’ve found in our weird and winding travels. Take shelter beneath their baleful branches… if you dare!
DANTE’S INFERNO: The Wood of Suicides
Dante Alighieri’s 14th century epic poem THE DIVINE COMEDY spends roughly one-third of its time in Hell (aka “The Inferno”), in which the author must journey through all nine circles of sin and punishment before he can rise up to Purgatory. Although not exactly a horror story, Dante’s vivid descriptions of eternal torment to this day remain grotesque and unsettling.
For example: The Wood of Suicides, where those who took their own life are permanently encased in trees and set upon by harpies. (Suicide was considered the equivalent of murder, if not worse, and remains a mortal sin in the Catholic church.) Dante plucks a leaf from one of these terrible trees, which bleeds and cries out, “Wherefore tear’st me thus? Is there no touch of mercy in thy breast?”, thus adding insult to the injury of being a scary tree.
THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS
John Wyndham’s post-apocalyptic 1951 novel is a strange beast, positing a future in which carnivorous, mobile tree creatures (possibly created by the Soviet Union) menace a human population that has been rendered blind by a meteor shower. So the concept is a little bit wonky, but the world Wyndham crafted would become influential to post-apocalyptic storytelling, and the idea of an entire planet of people, preyed upon by beasts they cannot see, stumbling throughout their cities in despair, is still creepy as hell.
THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS was turned into a feature film in 1962, a well-regarded TV mini-series in 1981, and another TV mini-series in 2009. A new feature film version has been in development for years but that doesn’t seem any closer to becoming a reality, so it’s probably only a matter of time before the rights to this sci-fi classic are once again… tree and clear.
THE EVIL DEAD: Lecherous Possessed Trees
Possessed, violent and disturbingly gropy trees are a very real threat throughout Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD trilogy (as well as in the 2013 remake) but it’s the vile vines from the original 1981 low-low-low budget classic that really get under your skin. Literally. As one of the ill-fated cabin dwellers flees into the forest, these trees rip away at her flesh and, yes, even violate her sexually.
The sequence, as terrifying as it is (and it most certainly is terrifying), was criticized as being unnecessarily malevolent and even misogynistic, and Sam Raimi reportedly agreed that he initially went too far with it. When his sequel, EVIL DEAD II, repeated the sequence with a new victim, Raimi left out the vicious molestation but this time let the trees finish their victim off.
Oh yeah, that’s MUCH better.
HANNIBAL: The Victim Tree
The serial killers in TV’s HANNIBAL, based on (some might even say “remixed from”) Thomas Harris’s acclaimed HANNIBAL LECTER novels, are among the most creative and artistic in the history of murderous fiction. The series is rife with elaborate crime scenes, including skin flaps elevated to look like angel wings, and Lovecraftian totem poles comprised of a lifetime’s worth of rotting victims.
But one of the most memorable displays in HANNIBAL (no small feat) comes from the sixth episode of the show’s second season, titled “FUTAMONO,” in which Hannibal Lecter has disemboweled a city councilman and posed him inside the trunk of a tree, alone in a parking lot, with poisonous flowers in the place of his many missing organs. It’s a threatening bit of theatricality, beautiful and macabre. In other words, classic HANNIBAL.
THE HAPPENING: All the Trees
Night Shyamalan’s 2008 sci-fi thriller isn’t one of the filmmaker’s most popular films (although many now believe THE HAPPENING is quote-unquote “so bad it’s good”). Certainly the awkward dialogue and strange non-plot aren’t the stuff that great horror movies are typically made of. On that we can all agree.
But Shyamalan’s vision of a world in which plant life strikes back at its human aggressors using a psychotropic neurotoxin, forcing them to commit suicide, is an intriguing one. (And it probably owes more than a little to DANTE’S INFERNO and THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, if you think about it.) Say what you will about Shyamalan’s later output, but this director knows how to capture malevolence at creepy angles, and THE HAPPENING’s scenes of mass suicide rank among the filmmaker’s finest moments… even though they’re technically found in one of his worst films.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN: The Whomping Willow
J.K. Rowling’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, about a put upon boy who discovers that he’s the chosen one (and he’s inherited a ton of money and he’s super famous and he gets the best friends in the world and wins all the prizes) takes a long, long time to get truly scary. But by the time HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN was published in 1999, Rowling was comfortable putting her young hero through the emotional ringer and pitting him face to face with murderers and beasts that could give just about anyone nightmares.
And although The Whomping Willow isn’t one of her most terrifying creations (the soul-sucking Dementors probably take that cake), it did turn out to be one of her most memorable. The Whomping Willow made its debut in Rowling’s second novel but only became important in her third. It’s a brutal battering ram of a tree that beats the hell out of anyone who happens to come near it. But if you can evade its bludgeons, you’ll find a secret passageway to an even weirder locale: the infamous Shrieking Shack. (Shudder.)
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS: The Hanging Tree
Everyone in Halloween Town is scary, but don’t hold that against them. It’s just their job. Look carefully at all of the colorful characters in Henry Selick’s 1993 animated classic (produced by and adapted from the works of Tim Burton) and you will find all sorts of creepy characters, like vampires, werewolves, a clown with a tearaway face, and of course… The Hanging Tree.
“Everybody scream! Everybody scream!” sings The Hanging Tree in the opening musical number, before the skeletons dangling from its branches add, “In our town of Halloween.” It actually seems pretty harmless until you receive a proper sense of scale. Look at our heroine Sally standing next to those skeletons. See how small they are?
Yes, those are dead children. Being scary may just be a day job, but The Hanging Tree may have taken his duties a just little too far.
POLTERGEIST: The Child-Eating Tree
Steven Spielberg and TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE director Tobe Hooper joined forces in 1982 for the revolutionary horror thriller POLTERGEIST, which brought the old fashioned haunted house genre into suburbia and scared the living hell out of every child whose parents were tricked by its misleading “PG” rating. This movie has murderous clowns and a man who rips off his own face in graphic detail. “PG” my ass.
And while it may be difficult for fans of POLTERGEIST to decide on the film’s single scariest moment (the clown is horrible, yes, but what about the swimming pool full of skeletons?), everyone can certainly agree that the tree is one of the most frightening effects. The gnarled branches snatch a young boy from his bedroom window, and his father is only barely able to save the child from being swallowed into the man-eating bark.
But hey, he did save the kid from being eaten by fauna, so maybe the old saying is true: there’s no such thing as a tree lunch.
OVER THE GARDEN WALL: The Edelwood Trees
Patrick McHale’s Emmy-winning TV mini-series OVER THE GARDEN WALL is fast becoming a cult classic, thanks to its beautiful animation, infallibly flawed characters and fearsome fairy tale revisions. The animated series tells the story of two brothers who become lost, and encounter a series of supernatural disturbances, magical beasts and talking animals on their perilous path back home.
Terrifying fauna abounds in OVER THE GARDEN WALL – just look at an early episode with the mysterious cult of pumpkins – but its greatest danger, The Beast, looms largest. The Beast is locked in an eternal struggle with a mysterious woodsman, who may be fighting the supernatural creature, or may even be in cahoots. And somehow it all ties into the ethereal Edelwood trees: in a rare (and extremely brief) glimpse of The Beast, we see just how much the fauna really means to the great deceiver.
PEANUTS: The Dreaded Kite-Eating Tree
Alright, this may be just us, but in Charles M. Schultz’s classic PEANUTS comic strip, there’s a tree with a giant mouth that torments depressed children by eating their representations of innocent wonder. Doesn’t that freak anyone else out? Seriously, if that was real, wouldn’t that freak you right the fuck out?
Anyone? Anyone? Come on, this isn’t cool, right?
Damn it. Moving on!
SLEEPY HOLLOW: The Tree of the Dead
Tim Burton’s obsession with creepy trees (see also: THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, BIG FISH, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, et al) hit its apex with the 1999 supernatural action-thriller SLEEPY HOLLOW. This imaginative adaptation of Washington Irving’s 1819 short story THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW changes the storyline so that the cowardly schoolteacher Ichabod Crane is now a cowardly detective instead, who uses scientific reason to solve a series of mysterious beheadings in the spooky town of the title.
All of Crane’s investigations lead him directly to The Tree of the Dead, a gnarled and warped piece of lumber from which the Headless Horseman flings itself out of Hell, and in which he finds a treasure trove of rotting, bodiless heads.
Gross, unsettling, morbid, and haunting in all of the most memorable ways. For horror lovers, maybe the best things in life really are tree.