'The Forest' Plays Suicide for Cheap Scares

The latest horror film "based on a true story" is a case study in culturally insensitive Hollywood marketing.
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During production of The Forest, woods in Serbia subbed in for the Aokigahara. (Photo: Gramercy Pictures)

During production of The Forest, woods in Serbia subbed in for the Aokigahara. (Photo: Gramercy Pictures)

If you’ve perused Instagram or Tumblr in the past few weeks, you may have come across an advertisement for a new horror film called The Forest. To the casual American social media browser, the Jason Zada-directed film might appear to be another cookie-cutter thriller set in a bleak place with a haunting history. The film stars Natalie Dormer as Sara, a young American woman who travels to Japan to search for her missing twin sister, Jess (also Dormer), who was last seen venturing into the Aokigahara, Japan's infamous "Suicide Forest." A haunting by indigenous spirits of the woods ensues.

But while horror movies often emphasize spooky lore in promotional imagery, The Forest draws its backstory from a real health crisis. The Aokigahara is the most popular destination for people to commit suicide in the Japan—and while the number of deaths fluctuate by year, the number of attempts increases annually. And while it may not be immediately apparent to American social media browsers, suicide is currently a national epidemic in Japan. In 2014, suicide became the most common cause of death among Japanese youth between the ages of 10 and 19, a phenomenon that has been linked to bullying and a competitive school environment. An average of 70 suicides were recorded per day in 2014. The problem is such a concern in the Aokigahara that locals have constructed signs urging individuals contemplating their death to seek help from families, friends, and suicide prevention organizations.

Even since it was released last Friday in theaters, The Forest has come under fire for whitewashing a spooky Japanese place. But the movie crossed a line even before it entered the cinema. In Japan and in the United States, suicide is a public health concern with roots in mental illness. The Forest's ad campaign, however, portrays it as an exotic spooky story fit to entertain a Western audience.

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Ads for The Forest have run frequently on youth-oriented social media sites like Tumblr and Instagram in recent weeks. They have emphasized the movie's exotic appeal for Western audiences. Most portray images of the movie's blond, white star in peril—often running or screaming—and sometimes with captions that define sinister Japanese words such as harae ("a ritualistic cleansing that washes away guilt and sin") and ubasute ("the practice of bringing an elderly person to the forest to die"). The ads focus on creepy details about the forest—including that "each year people set out to collect the bodies that were left behind"—and invite its English-speaking audience to envision what it would be like to visit. One ad presents a still image of a noose captioned with the text, “are you next?” The movie's website features "an immersive 360 that takes you right into the heart of the Aokigahara."

It's not the first time Hollywood has taken American viewers on a freaky tour of Asian culture. Hollywood re-makes of Asian horror films such as The Ring, Dark Water, and The Uninvited often replace the originals' Asian families with white ones; some, like The Grudge, show these white heroes moving to the East, where they are put in harm's way. It's not exceptional, either, for a horror movie to take place in a setting known for attracting mentally-ill people. Films like The Ward, Session 9, Gothika, and many others have set scary stories in psychiatric institutions—a trope that has drawn criticism for reinforcing stereotypes about mental illness.

The Forest ad campaign highlights these genre trappings in addition to one other: The film is "based on a true story." The names of the movie's Instagram handle (@theforestisreal) and website (theforestisreal.com) emphasize that its ghost story is set in a real place where Japanese people actually take their lives. Meanwhile, the pages' ads describe so-called "real forest facts" about the forest's "dense tree growth" and "many ice caves." From an insular Hollywood marketing perspective, the emphasis on reality may make some sense: "'Based on a true story' is an angle that always appeals to audiences, and it's particularly compelling when the true story behind a film is one of the gruesome, supernatural, or horrific," Movieline noted about the ad campaign. But The Forest sees Hollywood picking and choosing the "truth" it wants to tell. Japanese people, after all, are rarely depicted in the film's ad campaign.

The Forest ad campaign depicts the Aokigahara as a far-away, exotic, horrifying place. In the process, it obscures the fact that Japan's suicide crisis isn't so foreign to American viewers. Consider if Zada had set his film on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a suicide “hot-spot” in the U.S. that has seen over 1,500 deaths since 1933. Like in the Aokigahara, signs and phones have been installed along the bridge to prevent suicides; last October, California approved a deal to construct a $76 million safety net. In 2006, when the documentary The Bridge tackled the subject of suicides on the bridge, officials protested in the movies in the press; the film did poorly, too, at the box office. The topic is a particularly sensitive one on Tumblr, the platform hosting the movie's website—an odd choice, considering the site’s core user base is young teenagers, some of whom openly vent about their depression, even suicidal feelings. Perhaps that explains why, if one searches The Forest on the site, the “related” fields links to topics like “ableism,” and “whitewashing.”

Why did The Forest—and its ominous social media posts—appear to be a good idea in the first place? The film's director, Zada, has mentioned that the film's setting aligns with classic horror-genre tropes. "The Aokigahara, and what it does and shows to people, is, essentially, our bad guy," he told Fangoria last week, comparing it to The Dakota apartment complex in Rosemary's Baby and The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The Forest's script, he added, was tailored to be right for "today's genre marketplace." But the finished film also reflects, in part, Zada's personal touristic interest in the place. "After I was pitched the idea, I became obsessed with the forest," the director, who is from the San Francisco Bay Area, told Shockya.com. When he visited the forest for the first time, on a research trip for the movie, he described it as being "a very frightening place ... not a place where I wanted to spend the night."

Consider if Zada had set his film on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a suicide "hot spot" in the U.S.

It’s been heartening to see the English-speaking social media world protest the movie's focus on American cast members and perspectives. Even before the movie's release, several bloggers called the portrayal "whitewashed"; others even asked audiences to boycott the film. But it’s important to note that The Forest is not the first, and will not be the last, horror adaptation of Aokigahara made by and for Western audiences. In 2010 a low-budget film, Forest of the Living Dead, set its story in the forest, which was followed by the SyFy network’s similarly themed Grave Halloween in 2013. Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, another name for the Aokigahara, still has yet to be released stateside. When the Matthew McConaughey-starring film premiered at Cannes in 2015, it inspired several negative reviews.

Covering the Aokigahara forest in a fictionalized work is not, in itself, wrong or disrespectful. Brazenly advertising a fictional Westernized horror film with "facts" about another country's epidemic, however, can be. The Forest’s social campaign is scary, for sure, but not for the reasons it wants to be.

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