Madness in the Woods: Representations of the Ecological Uncanny

by Tina-Karen Pusse (Volume editor) Heike Schwarz (Volume editor) Rebecca Downes (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 246 Pages


Since storytelling began, narratives of getting lost in the woods or of choosing to live in the heterotopian space of the woods have remained popular and are, at the time of writing, experiencing a new revival. The theory of ecopsychology supplies a productive paradigm for understanding mental well-being in a cultural landscape suffused with reimaginings of nature as ‘unspoiled wilderness’. The eco-psychopathologies presented in the essays in this volume range in origin from medieval literature to contemporary films and online games. The classic romantic or gothic trope of getting lost in the forest, but also its recreational function (forest-bathing) reflect mental states humans develop when they step into the culturally constructed entity of the woodland. These ecocritical analyses present different facets of such encounters.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgement
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Notes
  • Section 1– Literature
  • The Arboreal in Buile Shuibhne (Feargal Ó Béarra)
  • The Arboreal in the Irish Tradition
  • Arboreal Textual Nodes
  • The Arboreal as Locus Poesis
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • “A Voice! A Voice!”: The Foucauldian Silence of Mr Kurtz (Nick Kankahainen)
  • Introduction
  • The Medieval Wild Man
  • The Modern Wild Man
  • “Weird Scenes inside the Goldmine”
  • Speaking outside the Concept
  • Lost in Translation
  • Speaking in Silence
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • A Burst of Magic in the Shadows: The Woods’ in Marosa di Giorgio’s Poetry (Elena Campero)
  • “Everything That Exists Is in Conflict”: The Familiar–Unfamiliar Double
  • A Transplanted Woods from Italy
  • The Magical Refuge
  • Shadows in the Woods
  • The Natal Garden behind the Woods
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • “Extremely Nervous on This Earth”: Fairy Tales and Madness in Edna O’Brien’s In the Forest (Maureen O’Connor)
  • Refuge from Trauma in the Irish Woods
  • Negative Romance
  • Earth-Destroying Fantasies
  • (Inter)Subjectivity
  • Unendurable Fantasy
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Kindling Gatherers and Lost Children: The Peopled Forests of Kerstin Ekman (Jennifer Coralie)
  • The Wild, the Alien, the Beautiful
  • From Terror to Reverence
  • The Book We Can No Longer Read
  • The Language of Loss
  • Darkness and Deepness
  • Note
  • Works Cited
  • Scenes of Mad Pursuits in Allegories by Hawthorne and O’Connor (Helen R. Andretta)
  • The Woods of Evil in the Journey of Young Goodman Brown
  • Commentary on “Young Goodman Brown”
  • The Woods of Goodness in O’Connor’s “A View of the Woods”
  • Commentary on “A View of the Woods”
  • Concluding Statement
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • To Wander in the “Shadowed Land”: The Fearsome Enchantment of Tolkien’s Woods (June-Ann Greeley)
  • Introduction
  • First, Into the (Linguistic) Woods
  • The Medieval Perspective on Forests and Woodlands
  • The Bad and the Good
  • Tolkien and the Woods
  • The Hobbit: Mirkwood Forest
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Section 2– Visual Media
  • Eco-Sustainability, Nature, Gender and Trees: A Case Study of Avatar, How Harry Became a Tree, and The Tree of Life (Pat Brereton)
  • Roots of Eco-Feminism and Film Studies
  • Avatar (2009)
  • How Harry Became a Tree (2001)
  • Madness in the Woods: How Harry Became a Tree
  • The Tree of Life (2011)
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • At the Mercy of the Maddening Mother: Gothic and Medieval Constructions of the Haunted Forest in Modern Horror Films (Brenda S. Gardenour Walter)
  • Mother Nature Maligned: The Gothic Forest in Evil Dead and The Cabin in the Woods
  • Maleficent Mother Nature: The Forest as Wicked Witch in The Blair Witch Project, Suspiria and The Woods
  • Works Cited
  • Eerie Encounters: The Bewitchery of the Dryads in the Film The Woods (Emmanuelle Patrice)
  • Introduction
  • Forest Schools: Havens of Soul Transformation
  • In the Woods of Waking Dreams and Living Myth
  • From the Residual Soul to Soul Replacement
  • Threshold Possession: Natural Soul and Supernatural Matter
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • When the Forest Is Not Quite What It Seems to Be: The Simulacral Spaces of “Nature” in The Cabin in the Woods (Michael Fuchs)
  • Don’t Go into the Woods: Spatial Aesthetics in American Horror Cinema
  • Tropes vs. Goddard and Whedon: The Cabin in the Woods and Horror Conventions
  • Constructing Digital “Nature”: The Simulacral Forest in The Cabin in the Woods
  • Of Girls and Wolves: Objectifying Nature
  • Hyperreality and the End of the Anthropocene in The Cabin in the Woods
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • The Woods Are for the Poor (and Also for Monstrous Beings): Forests as Liminal Spaces in Spanish Films (Fernando Pagnoni Berns)
  • Introduction
  • Liberating the Internal Wolf: Exploring the Filmic Representations of Romasanta
  • The Woods as Purgatory
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Lost in the Woods: Procedurality and the Uncanny in The Legend of Zelda Series (Melissa Bianchi)
  • Liminality and the Lost Woods
  • Ocarina of Time and Other Uncanny Encounters
  • Notes
  • Works Cited


Since storytelling began, narratives of getting lost in the woods or of choosing to live in the heterotopian space of the woods have remained popular and are, at the time of writing, experiencing a new revival. In 2016, Annie Proulx captured three centuries of logging in North America in her novel Barkskins. Shortly later, in 2019, inspired by Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2016), Richard Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for The Overstory, a monumental account of how tree history and human history are lethally intertwined although they operate on enormously different time scales. Powers notes that attempts at successful interspecies communication, by means of either science or spiritual awakening, tend to place those able to communicate and translate on the brink of insanity in the eyes of others.

While literary naturalists praise the natural, sublime beauty of the woods, universal and national myths of the forest, which have prevailed from the era of early human settlement until today, include the dark, Gothic and uncanny side of nature. Puritan thought associated what William Bradford called the “hideous and desolate wilderness” with the danger of getting lost in the woods where pure souls might lose their sanity. Native American legends and European folktales depict the woods as haunted sites that house spirits and ghosts but also as places where challenges are overcome and into which a person might enter and emerge as somebody else. These human ideas of the woods as sublime spaces are universal. Ludwig Tieck’s Der blonde Eckbert, the text that gave birth to the German Romanticism movement in 1797, shows the forest as a place where enlightened and magical thinking collide, where Waldeinsamkeit, the forest’s solitude, is both a refuge and a prison, and where the slightest transgression of its enforced isolation unleashes murderous forces that oscillate without closure between insanity and the supernatural.

On the other hand, forests also feature heavily as recreational spaces and so-called “eco-tourism” hot spots for contemporary neo-romantics who may suffer from burnout and a general lack of enthusiasm for “civilisation” yet rely on the amenities of managed hiking trails. Tourists favourably inclined to the woods may feel “in harmony with nature” and experience renewed strength within such elaborate designed “wildlife” while also being protected from its dangers and discomforts by conveniently located sleeping and sanitary facilities and their own equipment. Such facilities allow customers to consume the forest as a product, as a “colonization of the imagination” (Cypher and Higgs), and the ←9 | 10→realisation of a deeper unconscious drive towards the wild, regarded as the antipode of civilisation and its discontents. This staging of wilderness is, in its very nature, a simulacrum, something that exists only virtually or in the contemporary imagination and that may, ultimately, be what Chuck Palahniuk’s nameless narrator in Fight Club calls “a copy of a copy of a copy” in reference to the artificiality of our world.

The theory of ecopsychology supplies a productive paradigm for understanding mental well-being in a cultural landscape suffused with reimaginings of nature as unspoiled wilderness devoid of human civilisation. While people increasingly feel the effects of climate change, pollution and ecological losses (of both land and species) in their daily lives, these changes present significant direct and indirect threats to mental health and well-being and have recently been linked to a range of negative mental health disorders, such as depression, suicidal ideation and post-traumatic stress, or to feelings of anger, hopelessness, distress and despair.

But what will follow from these findings? Will we seek to create pockets and fragments of a seemingly functional ecosystem, where well-being is connected to the environment from which the foundations of both biological and psychological life arise, and sporadically use these for recreational purposes? Or is the very desire to feel healed and at peace on a planet that is, at this very moment, in the process of being destroyed (at least for human habitation) the much more insane, mind-numbing response?

Connecting psychology and ecology, ecopsychology maintains that humans share what E. O. Wilson called a biophilic instinct,1 a connection with the natural world that causes them to react to potential and actual violations. As news on global warming, natural disasters, toxic waste and climate change increasingly dominate our informational input, environmental problems become environmental problems, which Theodore Roszak has illustrated in his seminal book The Voice of the Earth (1992). We thus encounter a psychopathology of the environment and the human being and consequently “see the needs of the planet and the person as a continuum” (14).2 Whether environmental disasters exist as experiences and consequences of global warming or are classified only as expected future perils, ecopsychology or environmental psychology argues that well-being is dependent on a nonthreatening and unviolated ecosystem. If a functioning and stable ecosystem is endangered or already destroyed, physical and psychological well-being is impossible. It is in this context that the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht established the helpful term of “solastalgia”, a combination of nostalgia, lost solace and desolation connected to a lost place and a culture formerly in harmony with an unspoiled natural environment. The term refers to feelings of discomfort and ←10 | 11→physical and mental sickness generated when an ecosystem is intoxicated, violated or destroyed. Albrecht draws on David Rapport’s concept of “ecosystem distress syndrome” whereby environmental impacts on certain places not only cause ecosystem distress but also human distress.

The eco-psychopathologies presented in the essays in this volume range in origin from medieval literature to contemporary online games. This shows how the classic romantic trope of connection to the forest also reflects the mental states human beings develop when they encounter the culturally constructed entity of the woodland. This is equally manifest in current cultural practices from “forest bathing” therapies, inspired by Henry David Thoreau, to the ubiquitous manipulation of Gothic tropes in contemporary media.

The environment of the magical fairytale forest that might transform into a dark and uncontrollable wooded hinterland is a backdrop for various film and popular television genres, such as the suspense thriller, the supernatural horror and the Gothic horror. Many contemporary works in these genres draw on historical depictions of the fairytale forest to explore environmental issues such as deforestation and pollution. Recent examples include La Forêt (France 2017), Zone Blanche (France 2017), Dark (Germany 2017) Stranger Things (USA, since 2016), and Jordskott (Sweden, since 2015). The reappraisal of the fairytale forest as an uncanny space in various media and across various cultures and time periods—from ancient European sagas to the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne to contemporary video games—shows how the woods have always functioned as a symbol of both recreation and the uncanny.

This collection of essays attempts to analyse the shapeshifting qualities and uncanny effects of the forest in a variety of media. The essays are not presented in strict chronological order but rather to showcase how eco-psychopathologies of the woods feature in different genres: poetry and prose in section one and films and games in section two.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Ecocriticism Environmental Humanities Culture Studies Uncanny Woods Forest
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 246 pp.

Biographical notes

Tina-Karen Pusse (Volume editor) Heike Schwarz (Volume editor) Rebecca Downes (Volume editor)

Tina Karen Pusse, Dr phil (University of Cologne 2004), is a Lecturer of German Literature at NUI Galway, and Associate Director of the Moore Institute. She has published in the areas of environmental humanities, gender studies, modern German poetry, autobiography, theory of laughter. Heike Schwarz, Dr phil, studied American studies, politics and philosophy. She completed her Ph.D on the representation of psychiatric diagnoses at the University of Augsburg. She publishes in the fields of psychiatry and fiction, film studies, environmental humanities, ecopsychology, medical humanities, dementia and disability studies. Rebecca Downes, PhD (NUI Galway 2017), works as an editor and independent scholar. Her dissertation on Mortality in late works by John Banville, Philip Roth and J. M. Coetzee was funded by the Irish Research Council. She has published on death in contemporary fiction, John Banville and Philip Roth.


Title: Madness in the Woods: Representations of the Ecological Uncanny
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248 pages