Cryptobotany and Creepy Trees In Stories and Art

The film Get Out opens with an image of blurred trees, as if seen from a car window. This positions the audience right there with the characters, who are about to take a journey into your archetypal snail-under-the-leaf setting. Later, by lowering the camera close to the road, the trees seem to curve in on themselves, foreshadowing the claustrophobic, entrapped feeling. Sure enough, we even have a shot of a dead deer — if you remember Bambi from childhood you’ll recognise the dead deer as a symbol of vulnerability in the face of imminent death.

Here’s another creepy tree, this time from the film Tokyo Drifter. Some trees are comforting, other trees are creepy. What makes a tree (or trees) creepy, then? Can we put this particular creepiness into words?

Screen cap of a tree from Tokyo Drifter
Screen cap of a tree from Tokyo Drifter

The landscape that surrounds us is rich in folklore connected with the plants and flowers that dwell within it. Some of these are old and connect with the world of fairy. Some are more modern and relate to invasive species. All are fascinating. In this episode of the Folklore Podcast, storyteller and environmentalist Lisa Schneidau discusses the research which went into her book “Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland” and tells some of the stories related to our plant-based beliefs.

When artists utilise elongated landscape canvases, the height of trees can seem extra creepy. If we can’t see all the way up, what might those canopies be hiding?

Franklin Booth 'The Trees' 1920
Franklin Booth ‘The Trees’ 1920
Eyvind Eearle ca.-1958- Paul Bunyan animation cel setup for Disney trees
Eyvind Eearle ca.-1958- Paul Bunyan animation cel setup for Disney
Lynd Kendall Ward (1905 - 1985) 1932 illustration for his own wordless novel Wild Pilgrimage
Lynd Kendall Ward (1905 – 1985) 1932 illustration for his own wordless novel Wild Pilgrimage
Isono Hirohito (1945-2013)
by Boyd Hanna 1943 This is the forest primeval, poems of Wadsworth Longfellow cryptobotany

The trees of the illustration below are probably that way due to the wind, but the large trees on the right seem to lean towards the smaller trees on the left like monsters about to eat the smaller trees up.

Felix Vallotton (1865 - 1925)
Felix Vallotton (1865 – 1925)
'The Dream of Three Birch Trees' Cover by Antonio Rubino, 1949
‘The Dream of Three Birch Trees’ Cover by Antonio Rubino, 1949

How to explain the creepiness of the trees below, illustrated by Alessandro Tofanelli? I believe it’s a mixture of spindliness, spacing and shadows.

Alessandro Tofanelli Italian painter creepy trees
Alessandro Tofanelli Italian painter

As in the painting above, this one below from 1778 utilises the horror corridor effect. (Corridors are commonly utilised in horror films. Lines of trees are the natural symbolic equivalent of corridors in architecture.)

The Herepad in the Haagse Bos, Paulus Constantijn la Fargue, 1778
The Herepad in the Haagse Bos, Paulus Constantijn la Fargue, 1778

Symmetry in general can be creepy, especially when the symmetry is slightly off-kilter. Therefore, a line of trees along a mirroring lake gives off an ominous vibe, though I’m sure what’s happening in the sky is also part of the creepiness of the illustration below.

Arthur Henry “Art” Young (January 14, 1866–December 29, 1943) trees mirrored on lake, 'Peace'
Arthur Henry “Art” Young (January 14, 1866–December 29, 1943) trees mirrored on lake, ‘Peace’

When we hear trees talking to us, that’s a pretty good sign of hallucination. It’s also a very common one.

William Maw Egley – The Talking Oak 1857

THE FIRST HALLUCINATIONS I can remember from childhood are the faces in the trees. I saw them everywhere, especially at night. Whether they had a twisted laugh or demonic eyes, they were always scary. I have schizophrenia, and I still see the faces in the trees. I was diagnosed at age 20, and for the past 14 years, I’ve been committed to helping people understand what schizophrenia is—and what it’s not. These are the biggest misconceptions I tackle most often.

Top Ten Myths About Schizophrenia

But all of us are prone to seeing faces in things, and this includes trees.

Tony Meeuwissen for Encyclopedia of Fairies Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures by Katharine M. Briggs
Tony Meeuwissen for Encyclopedia of Fairies Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures by Katharine M. Briggs
Kay Nielsen symmetry creepy trees
Kay Nielsen symmetry creepy trees
Henryk Płóciennik creepy trees
Henryk Płóciennik creepy trees
Moon landscape with owl on willow trees. by Carl Strathmann ( 1866-1939), n.d
Moon landscape with owl on willow trees. by Carl Strathmann ( 1866-1939), n.d
Saturn float design by Carlotta Bonnecaze for the Visions of Other Worlds theme, Krewe of Proteus, 1886 cactus
Saturn float design by Carlotta Bonnecaze for the Visions of Other Worlds theme, Krewe of Proteus, 1886
The Sleeping Trees by Swiss artist Ernst Kreidolf
The Sleeping Trees by Swiss artist Ernst Kreidolf
Phantastes cryptobotany
Phantastes cover, written by George MacDonald
Aesop illustrated by Arthur Rackham
Aesop illustrated by Arthur Rackham
Arthur Rackham (British book illustrator) 1867 - 1939, The Man In The Wilderness, 1913, Mother Goose 1913 for the rhyme The man in the wilderness asked me How many strawberries grew in the sea
Arthur Rackham (British book illustrator) 1867 – 1939, The Man In The Wilderness, 1913, Mother Goose 1913 for the rhyme The man in the wilderness asked me How many strawberries grew in the sea
Moscowitz, Sam and Alden H. Norton (ed.) - Horrors In Hiding (1973) graveyard
Moscowitz, Sam and Alden H. Norton (ed.) – Horrors In Hiding (1973) graveyard
Allen Say, Under the Cherry Blossom Tree, 1974
Allen Say, Under the Cherry Blossom Tree, 1974

Spindliness is clearly scary. Look at Tim Burton movies to know that. Are spindly trees creepier than leafy trees because of the symbolism of winter, which is in turn connected to death? A winter deciduous tree is almost indistinguishable from a dead tree, after all. There’s also the zombie effect of a bare, deciduous tree ‘coming back to life’ in spring. Humans are wary of anything which seems to spring back to life. (I use the verb ‘spring’ mindfully there.)

At Flya 1902 Theodor Kittelsen tree winter
At Flya 1902 Theodor Kittelsen
Marten Toonder, 1950. The way this spindly tree frames the characters makes it seem creepy and ominous.

There’s spindly, then there’s ‘oddly shaped protrusions’ of the fantasy tree.

Tim White (1952 - 2020) 1980 book cover illustration for The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Tim White (1952 – 2020) 1980 book cover illustration for The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Dorothy P Lathrop from the book The Three Mulla-Mulgars, Oh but if I might but hold it in my hand one moment
Dorothy P Lathrop from the book The Three Mulla-Mulgars, Oh but if I might but hold it in my hand one moment
Alan Lee (born 1947) 1980 illustration for 'Merlin Dreams' by Peter Dickinson creepy trees
Remedios Varo (Anglès, Girona, Spain, 1908-Mexico, Mexico, 1963), of of winter, 1948, gouache on paper, 44 x 44 cm. National Museum of Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.
Remedios Varo (Anglès, Girona, Spain, 1908-Mexico, Mexico, 1963), of of winter, 1948, gouache on paper, 44 x 44 cm. National Museum of Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Long before Day of the Triffids, carnivorous plants existed in Gothic horror, including in vampire stories. This subgenre was pioneered by Phil Robinson who wrote “The Man Eating Tree” (1881).

In “The Story of the Grey House” guests stay at a secluded country mansion but are strangled and drained of blood by a demoniacal creeper growing among the shrubbery.

Another is “The Purple Terror” (1899) by Fred M. White.

Guy Billout cow leaves
Guy Billout cow leaves
Alix Berenzy Rapunzel creepy trees
Alix Berenzy Rapunzel creepy trees
Creepy, Crawly, Rustling, Bustling. From Tirelil Tove 1900 Theodor Kittelsen
Creepy, Crawly, Rustling, Bustling. From Tirelil Tove 1900 Theodor Kittelsen
Vladilen Budny (1961, Dushanbe)
Vladilen Budny (1961, Dushanbe)
The Botanist by Maxfield Parrish (1908)
The Botanist by Maxfield Parrish (1908)
Volvox or volvoce is an engraving by Grandville, from the Public and Private Life of Animals (1840-1842) collection of texts. It represents cholera and comments on the Second cholera pandemic (1829-1851)
Volvox or volvoce is an engraving by Grandville, from the Public and Private Life of Animals (1840-1842) collection of texts. It represents cholera and comments on the Second cholera pandemic (1829-1851)
I saw that leathery throat gape wider and wider as the beaker approached From Everybody’s Magazine, 1909
I saw that leathery throat gape wider and wider as the beaker approached From Everybody’s Magazine, 1909
Seeds from Space by Frank R. Paul (1935)
Seeds from Space by Frank R. Paul (1935)

AQUARIUM MANIA

The Public Domain Review has a great article about the golden age of aquariums.

from Philip Henry Gosse's The Aquarium (1854)
from Philip Henry Gosse’s The Aquarium (1854). An illustrative plates of coastal fauna and flora which appeared in Philip Henry Gosse’s The Aquarium (1854). This is the book which inspired the “aquarium mania” that gripped much of Victorian Britain in the mid-19th century.
Nudibranchia - Ernst Haeckel - 1904 creepy plant things
Nudibranchia – Ernst Haeckel – 1904 creepy plant things
Ernst Haeckel, ‘Sea Squirts’ (ascidians), from Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature), 1904 cryptobotany
Tigerlillia Terribilis — from Edward Lear’s Nonsense Botany (1871–77)
Tigerlillia Terribilis — from Edward Lear’s Nonsense Botany (1871–77)
Seeds from Space cryptobotany
Seeds from Space cryptobotany

Walking Trees

Gahan Wilson (1930-2019) cryptobotany
Poster. W. H Bradley. 1895 cryptobotany
Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta – Joris Hoefnagel, Flemish illustrator, 16th century cryptobotany
Pierre Brissaud (1885-1964) August 1930
Pierre Brissaud (1885-1964) August 1930

Meal One by Ivor Cutler

Ferns Work Together In Bee-Like (Eusocial) Colonies

Fruits and Vegetables Are Trying to Kill You: Antioxidant vitamins don’t stress us like plants do—and don’t have their beneficial effect from Nautilus

Professor Jonkin’s Cannibal Plant“, a short story in the public domain

Trees In Japanese Folklore from Curious Ordinary

Header illustration: The cover of DER ORCHIDEENGARTEN, considered the first German fantasy magazine.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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