Real talk. I’m a bad person. I’m desensitized. I find dangerous subjects inspiring. When I hear about a fringe cognitive condition, that leaves lives in ruins, my creative juices start flowing.
“Wait what? There’s a guy who suffers from a permanent sense of déjà vu?” Drew rubs his chin. “That gives me an idea.”
Your private peculiarity is my writing prompt. Your brain disease is my brainstorm. Your phobia is my fiction.
I write supernatural horror and I’m naturally drawn to anything that makes the world seem weirder and more fantastic, even if it’s terribly tragic.
Tell me there are people who hunger for objects with no nutritional value, and I’ll write a story about an ad agency tasked with marketing bricks as food. Tell me there are people who get off on bee stings and I’ll write a story about a masochist who makes a cabin out of honeycomb. Tell me someone seriously suffers from a fear of long words and I’ll write a story called Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, just because I can.
My natural instinct is to pry your obsessive compulsion from your hands and give it to a character of mine, because I think it’s spooky, because I think it’s neat. Not because I want the world to understand what you’re going through.
Where Things Get Gray
Because I’m drawn to dark themes I’m drawn to places where bad things happen. I’ve explored an abandoned electrical plant where the then occupants smoked their diner out of light bulbs. I’ve crawled through caves where others have died of asphyxiation. I’ve tiptoed on train bridges where others have fallen.
The horror writer in me wants to go on an expedition through the runes of Detroit, see the abandoned mental hospital in the light of the moon. I want to hike the Golden Gate at night and listen for the cries of those who jumped over the side. I want to roast marshmallows at the site of witch burnings.
The horror writer in me is just that nasty. It wants to stare into the abyss through a screen on the end of a selfie-stick. It wants to tour the sites of tragedies dressed like it’s on safari. It wants to holiday in hell.
Enter the Sea of Trees
So when I saw the Vice documentary about the suicide forest in Japan I felt like a kid with a new set of crayons, so many creative possibilities opened up. Here is a place with numbers for suicide hotlines posted at its entrances, a place with signs that say things like “Think carefully about your children, your family” and “Your life is a precious gift from your parents.” Here is a place where security cameras keep a record of who comes in and who comes out. Here is a place where victims thread string through the trees so park rangers can find their bodies. Here is a place where an estimated 100 people go to die annually.
Was there ever a more eerie locale for a horror writer to set a story? The forest has its own subculture, its own world building, and its own mythology. The echo of so many traumatic events is like something straight out of a work of classic Gothic horror.
When I heard about the suicide forest the horror writer in me couldn’t wait to turn someone else’s homeland into my haunted attraction, to seek mysticism under the guise of broadening my understanding, to use these victims’ final resting place for atmospheric ambience.
And… This is where my conscience slowly flickered back on.
“Why do you think so many people choose this place to end their lives?”
“Maybe something in the forest calls them there to feed on their suffering.”
“That’s narrative logic. What do you really think?”
“That a tradition of stoicism has failed to provide them with healthy coping mechanisms and outlets to express their pain. A lot like school shooters over here.”
“Then why don’t you write a story about that?”
“Because that stuff is heartbreaking and difficult to approach. It requires a lot of research and self-examination. I’d have to confront my own problems with depression, my own struggles with masculinity, and difficulty with coping when I don’t get what I want.”
While the horror writer in me wants to find the occult in other cultures I probably shouldn’t use the Aokigahara Forest as my own private theme park.
I’d like to think that no topic is off limits and that empathy for the human condition gives everyone permission to explore another culture’s experiences, but there’s something about comparing and contrasting the west with the east, we do things like this, they do things like that, that feels wrong.
I believe the Aokigahara Forest is a fertile space for storytelling, but I think its secrets will reveal more than merely an oddity about Japan, but something universal about the human condition.
And… I think there’s wrong ways to approach it.
When Dangerous Inspiration Goes Wrong
Ever since the vice documentary on the Aokigahara Forest a lot of storytellers have taken a crack at it with mixed results. We writers are like kittens with string. We don’t know what we’re playing with until we’ve done some damage.
The 2016 horror film The Forest approached the Sea of Trees with about as much respect as you might expect. The hero is an American woman venturing to Japan to find her identical twin, believing her sister went to the Aokigahara Forest to contemplate suicide before ultimately changing her mind. Ghosts wearing burlap sacks for masks haunt the American’s dreams. This design seemed to be inspired by an image of a real suicide victim, from the Vice documentary, repurposed to be the latest horror icon of the month.
The Forest has a 9% on Rotten Tomatoes. With reviewers saying:
“It’s really hard to make a movie about the Suicide Forest that isn’t tasteless and exploitative.”
“The Forest is more memorable for being opportunistic than for being truly frightening.”
One Japanese critic went so far as to say, “The Forest comes off like a theme-park haunted house, complete with laughable skeletons that drop down from branches and look like they were purchased from the party costume aisle.”
It’s probably not a good idea for writers to present another culture’s people, at their most fragile, like freaks in a sideshow. It’s better to approach the situation from a place of compassion, but even good intentions won’t exonerate you from accusations of exploitation. Case in point…
Sea of Trees
In the 2015 film The Sea of Trees filmmaker Gus Van Sant tried to approach the Aokigahara Forest with a little more depth.
The film follows an American man who goes to the Sea of Trees to die only to meet a Japanese man struggling with suicidal thoughts of his own. Together they reflect on the events that led them there and struggle to find their way out. (Consider the rest of this paragraph a SPOILER.) It turns out the Japanese supporting character was a spirit guide there to help the American protagonist on his quest.
The Sea of Trees was booed at its premiere at Cannes and sits at an 11% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roadside and Lionsgate dropped the film, condemning it to a limited video on demand release.
The lesson here is skilled creators can approach dangerous topics with nuance and understanding and still miss the point.
… And sometimes vloggers approach dangerous topics in Toy Story alien hats.
And Then There’s Logan Paul
Famed YouTuber Logan Paul discovered a dead body hanging in the suicide forest. He narrated what was going through his mind rather than just shutting the camera off.
“This was supposed to be a fun vlog. Suicide is not a joke, depression and mental illness is not a joke; we came here with an intent to focus on the haunted aspect of the forest, but this just became very real.”
All the disclaimers in the world did nothing to conceal the fact that Paul was being a tragedy tourist.
Paul prefacing the video like a carnival barker didn’t help. “This is not clickbait. This is the most real vlog I’ve ever posted on this channel… Now buckle the fuck up because you’re never going to see a video like this again.”
Now the echo chamber of condemnation doesn’t need my voice to way in. As previously established my virtue signal is dim at best, but I can say that Paul’s trespass in the suicide forest has taught me something: in the pursuit of fuel for my imagination I shouldn’t dial down my empathy.
If you’re looking at a cultural phenomenon through a western lens broaden your focus to give your audience a greater scope. If you come at it from a place of mysticism leave it from a place of understanding. Find the commonalities of human experience. Enlighten while you entertain.
Remember these places aren’t sideshow attractions. Do your research, interview people from the culture you’re trying to understand, find an honest emotional connection.
If you use another culture to explore yourself don’t stop exploring once you’ve identified the differences. You need to keep digging until you touch on something universal. Only then will your story be meaningful.
My new short story THE PIGEON KING is OUT NOW!