The history of onscreen tree monsters ranges from fruit-chuckers (The Wizard of Oz) to window-bashers (Poltergeist) to heinous violators (The Evil Dead), but there's a seed yet to be planted when it comes to Northwest-specific arboreal horror. In this corner of the world, the possibility of the forest's imaginary revenge feels as deeply rooted as the first lumberjack's cleave.
Enter The Birch, a new Facebook Watch show stemming from a viral 2016 Crypt TV short. The 15-episode series (with installments between 10 and 20 minutes each) centers on a woodland spirit summoned to torment the fictional Oregon town of King's Point. Resembling a 12-foot banshee in a tan pencil dress, with a faun-shaped head and limitless limbs, the Birch is a striking, almost sculptural antagonist: still, mirthless, sparingly seen, and completely practical as an onscreen effect.
"The Birch that you see in the show is 100 percent the same one that we were interacting with on set," says Xaria Dotson, the Portland actor who plays the lead role of Evie. "When I first saw [it] on set, I was grinning ear to ear and couldn't stop. It was a pretty magical experience."
Practical effects proved one way, among many, that Dotson began inhabiting the grief-stricken Evie, who opens a Pandora's box of violence on backwoods bullies and opioid peddlers with her monstrous ally. A series of coincidences and connections bonded Dotson even more closely to the material. For one, the show's opening scene happened to shoot at Troutdale's Glenn Otto Park, where Dotson explored the woods as a kid.
What's more, there was no grand plan to cast a Portlander as Evie in the first place. In an interview with FanSided, executive producer Kate Krantz recounted how Dotson was the last actor she auditioned for the part, after feeling all but set on a Los Angeles performer. The 21-year-old Dotson had previously appeared in Season 2 of Netflix's American Vandal, which was also locally filmed, but had never nabbed the kind of screen time afforded by The Birch.
"When Kate told me her version of the story, I was absolutely floored," Dotson says. "Never in a million years could I have imagined I had a shot at something like this. I had gone into the audition simply hoping I did an OK job, thinking this was probably going to be the closest I would ever get to a lead role."
Though the series cycles through several characters' experiences to peel back the mythology and ambiguity of its central monster, Dotson's performance stands as the tone setter. Misanthropic but wishful, Evie must sell The Monkey's Paw-esque decision to unleash seemingly righteous violence on her enemies. As The Birch marked Dotson's first job in horror, she attempted an arsenal of methods to find the character. Evie's body language was key: "head low, shoulders shrugged with a stiff, heavy stomp." Dotson even took up nail biting to tap into Evie's nerves. At the most extreme, she would try generating a fight-or-flight response for scenes of protracted suspense.
"There were many moments in this show where I'd take a moment to myself to practically induce an anxiety attack, then step into the scene," Dotson says. "It could be tiring, but it's what worked the best!"
Dotson is likewise relatively new to horror as a viewer, but her tastes acclimate well to The Birch, which finds most of its power in the suggestion of folklore beneath a teen drama beamed through the latest prism of streaming TV. Like the Grimm fairy tales she grew up devouring or her affection for Pan's Labyrinth, The Birch plays on fears both grotesque and eerily natural.
"It makes sense that The Birch would take place [in Oregon]," Dotson says. "It almost feels like it exists in this realm of fantasy I might have invented as a child."
SEE IT: The Birch streams on Facebook Watch.