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The Creepiness of Japan's "Suicide Forest"

The Aokigahara Jukai forest is the world's creepiest suicide venue for a reason

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The old expression “whistling past the graveyard” reflects the longstanding unease that humans have around places associated with death, and the more gruesome and traumatic a death, the more likely it is that the place where it happened becomes tainted by the event.

Locations that were the scene of executions, such as the places in town squares where gallows were built or where beheadings occurred, are often linked with ghost stories, as are battlefields and mines where men have traditionally died violent deaths. In early 20th century England, it was widely believed that the spirits of miners who had been killed in previous mine disasters suddenly appeared to warn miners about an impending collapse of the walls around them. In some mines, the legend was passed down with the twist that it was the ghosts of the children of dead miners who delivered the bad news. In almost every mine, beliefs about the ghosts of miners killed in accidents haunting the very spot where they had died were common.

Hence, an association with unexpected or violent death is one of the main ingredients for giving a place a reputation for creepiness.

Dramatic suicides in particular are frequently associated with creepy places. However, the mere occurrence of a suicide does not seem to be enough in and of itself to make a place seem creepy—the site must possess additional qualities to bestow true creepiness upon the locale. For example, the number one suicide destination in the world is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but in spite of the estimated 2,000 suicides that have occurred there since the bridge opened in 1937, most people do not think of the bridge as a creepy place. In the universe of suicide destinations, the clear frontrunner for the title of “creepiest suicide venue” is the infamous “Suicide Forest” in Japan.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Aokigahara Jukai forest is a beautiful, dense, fourteen square mile patch of vegetation near Mount Fuji, Japan’s sacred mountain. It provided the inspiration for the 2016 horror film “The Forest.” The place has long been associated with mystical and supernatural phenomena, and in the 1800s it was a popular destination for abandoning elderly people so they could die alone and with dignity in the woods. In fact, it is described in a book with the somber title The Complete Manual of Suicide as “the perfect place to die,” and copies of this book have been found on the bodies of many suicide victims in the forest.

In spite of its long association with death, it is primarily since it was used by a Japanese novelist in the 1960s as the setting for a story about two lovers who end up killing themselves that it has come to be known as a suicide haven. Suicides are so common there (105 victims in 2003 alone!) that the area is regularly patrolled by police and teams of volunteers who seek to save people from themselves or to at least recover the bodies of those whom they could not save. Signs with messages such as “Please consult the police before you decide to die” and “Your life is a precious gift from your parents” are posted throughout the forest in an attempt to deter individuals who may be wavering in their resolve. Some individuals prowl the forest looking for the bodies of the dead so that they might rob them of any valuables that may still be in their possession.

Unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, the forest has all of the trappings essential for being creepy. A description from a 2000 article in The Independent sets the stage nicely:

This is a spooky forest, somewhere between the Brothers Grimm and The Blair Witch Project. The trees, both conifers and deciduous, grow tight against one another, with creepers draped around their trunks. The forest floor is a litter of fallen branches and great rotten logs, overgrown with a miniature jungle of feathery moss. This is a crepuscular place on the brightest of days; today, under the October drizzle, it is all shadows and indistinct shapes.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The lack of legibility in the forest is exacerbated by the fact that compasses do not work there because of the high concentration of magnetic iron in the rocky volcanic soil. Folklore has it that the spirits of people who have killed themselves in the forest call others to the place and then prey upon those who are sad by luring them off of the trails, deep into the woods.