It’s almost dusk in the middle of a forest in Sweden when I see her: a beautiful woman with long, flowing hair dancing between the trees just far enough away to almost look like a mirage. But I don’t really see her. The deep-voiced narrator in my headphones tells me she’s there as part of a short horror audio story I’m listening to titled Oven. “A milky white hand glistens and is struck by moonlight before returning to shadow,” the voice warns. “She’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.”
Looking through the thick haze of the afternoon mist, the carpet of moss and yellowing leaves of the forest still vibrating from the last rain, it seems possible that she really is there, lurking in a corner. without my knowledge. And though I know, or assume, that I’m alone in this square meter of trees and brush, I still find myself spinning my head, wondering if what I’ve heard is really there, or if it’s just my nerves.
She is called the huldra, the girl in the story whose role I don’t want to reveal to you, and she is one of the most familiar mystical entities in Swedish folk tradition. Depending on where you are in the country, it has other names, such as skogsrå or tallemaja, which translates to ‘pine Mary’. In Swedish folklore, she occupies a role similar to that of mermaids but for the devouring depths of the forest: young, beautiful and deadly, she has an uncanny eye for young men, whom she happily traps in an eternal curse after they tell him their names.
It is the basis of Oventhe audio story that constitutes a particular new travel initiative called Bewitched by Sweden, launched by the country’s tourism board, Visit Sweden. Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who has been dubbed Sweden’s Stephen King and originated 2004’s Leave the one on the right in, the 30-minute audio story can only be experienced in the country itself; it’s geo-restricted to country coordinates (although the restriction will briefly unlock on Halloween weekend) and is meant to be experienced deep in the forest. For Sweden, that means you can listen to the story in 70% of the country, if what’s there doesn’t find you first.
“Sweden has a unique nature that has spawned a long mythological tradition,” says Nils Persson, Marketing Director of Visit Sweden, of the incitement behind the Spellbound initiative. “Some of these characters were evil and could be scary, while others were considered friendlier. Over the past two years, the desire to experience something out of the ordinary has grown, and our goal is to inspire the world to experience something completely different with this initiative.
Like all oral traditions, Swedish folklore is deeply rooted in the country’s cultural history. It is detectable in holiday traditions, artistic traditions and, above all, in its geographical landscape. In the southern region of Småland, the country’s natural stronghold with more than 5,000 lakes and 400 nature reserves, dense expanses of birch and fir forests growing on carpets of verdant mossy growth seem, at a glance, especially to be homes for supernatural beings. It is in this region, on a small patch of land about an hour’s drive from the nearest large city, Jönköping, and right in the center of the southern tip of the country, that I get my first (hypothetical) glimpse of the huldra.
In Småland, stories are serious business. Not just child’s play, they are tied to understanding the lush and serene rural landscape of the area. Tales of trolls and dragons spring from emerald-green bog bumps and piles of stones (they’re said to be where a dragon’s treasure is), and a pair of crystalline lakes are the remains of three sisters killed by their oblivious brethren a long, long time ago. (There were once three lakes, but two have merged; according to history, when there is only one lake left, the world will end.) Even more exceptional natural phenomena, like Skurugata, a chasmic ravine carved into a forest near the town of Eksjö, has a story attached to it: a thief by the name of Tjuva-Jösse once hid there with his gold.
Tine Winther, director and professional storyteller at The Land Of Legends storytelling museum in Ljungby, Sweden, Småland, says these ‘stories are a reflection of history’, often offering insight into how people lived back when forests were scary voids to be avoided and when a misbehaving child can only be explained by some outside force like a troll swapping his baby with a changeling. They were often scary because they were also lessons.
“In the past, people believed that different creatures lived in the forest,” says Persson. “With this story, we allow people today to experience what it could be.”
And the experience is, indeed, a scary half hour for beginners like me. While you can’t expect major horror-level scares in audio history, there’s a surprising amount of dread that a loud, assertive voice in your ear and disturbing music can evoke for your meaning.
As Oven reaches its climax, the narrator almost begins to scream as an instrument screeches louder, a combination that in any situation will activate your flight or fight response. Perhaps the weakest part of the story is that it’s told in second person, which takes you out of its immersion since there’s no way to match what the narrator is saying. But Lindqvist’s writing, lively, dramatic and excessively descriptive, takes over this; when he writes about the pack of ghostly dogs chasing you, their paws shaking the ground beneath you, you can almost feel it.
When it comes to horror stories, Scandinavian folklore – characters like trolls, werewolves, changelings and versions of the huldra – have always been a staple of the genre. In the cinema, more recent images such as those from 2017 The ritualset in a Swedish forest, and Ari Aster’s critical hit in 2019 Midsommar ventured to rely more directly on Swedish folklore, although both came from American directors. With Oven, and Spellbound by Sweden, written by an already decorated Swedish author and produced by an entire Swedish team, there’s a sense of recuperation in the narrative – and a willingness to lean into the horror and creepier aspects of lore. .
“I think it’s brave enough to scare people,” says Cathrine Rydström, head of public relations and marketing at travel agency Destination Smäland, about Oven and Bewitched. “There are people who would disagree with that. I think it’s the most special campaign they’ve done. It’s about nature and it adds more dimension around it .
As I exit the forest after the story ends, I find myself noticing more pieces of this mystical world hidden just a layer beyond. A piece of tree lichen falling from a tree branch is a lock of hair from a huldra; a tree stump, a place where she could sit. If she is there, remember never to tell her your name.