As the birch and spruce forests of Newfoundland’s southern coast begin to speckle and sparkle with bright yellow, a familiar and frightening figure returns to the autumn woods of the Miawpukek First Nation community in Conne River.
For those on a local walking trail, it emerges from the forest like a specter: a human-like figure who appears to be bound, their torso and limbs contorted into the trunk of a large birch tree—a variety that locals call “witch hazel.” Bark and wood take the place of skin and flesh. The figure bends unnaturally to its left, almost as if the tree is twisting in human-like agony, or had pulled a hiker off the trail and condemned them to be part of the forest itself.
While the shape is plenty creepy all on its own—at least for those who actually notice it—in 2022, community members and avid hikers Shayne McDonald and Ada John felt it was missing a little something: specifically, a head. With it, the two hoped to spread some Halloween cheer—or fear, if you like—to unsuspecting passersby. In 2023, the duo is bringing “The Lady in the Tree” back from a post-Halloween decapitation. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
In August 2022, when the couple first had the idea to take this natural, human-shaped formation and turn it into something genuinely uncanny, they had to get crafty. They got a styrofoam mannequin head and then turned to the internet for a face: a mask, representing Alpha, a very creepy character from AMC’s long-running zombie show The Walking Dead who wears the skin of a zombie over her own face. The pseudo-bark texture of the mask was perfect; it blended seamlessly into the gnarled trunk. They gathered some moss and more bark, and shaped her some eyes and a mouth, while the sparse, gray costume hair dangled off her head. McDonald and John affixed the head to the tree and then told no one what they had done. “When we first did it, we waited to see if anyone was going to notice it,” says John. “But she’s hard to notice even though she’s right by the trail, if you’re not really being mindful.”
“People have got to go up very close to realize this isn’t just the actual tree,” adds McDonald. “The torso, the arms, and the legs, that’s all Mother Nature. It just has an uncanny likeness to a person’s body.”
In late September, John let the secret slip and posted a picture of the Lady in the Tree to Facebook. The Miawpukek First Nation’s tourism, culture, and recreation director Colleen Lambert came across the post. It was the first she’d heard of it. “I saw that it was right here at home,” says Lambert. “I was pretty amazed actually, and had to go check it out myself because it just couldn’t be true that this tree was growing this way. But indeed it was, with a bit of embellishment.”
This community, like the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador as a whole, takes Halloween pretty seriously, says Lambert. She saw this new Halloween icon as a perfect opportunity to get the community on the trails. “It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up,” she says, “to get our community members to get out and get some miles in.”
Instead of telling people exactly where to find the lady, she proposed sending folks through an old campground turned walking area. Once people completed the challenge and found the lady, they could post a picture to The Lady in the Tree Facebook page to enter their names in a drawing for a Halloween prize basket. The page went from a handful of followers to more than 600. The community response was fabulous,” says Lambert. “The Lady in the Tree brought out people that we never saw down there before and that was quite pleasing as well,” adds McDonald. “It became an impetus for people to get out into trails. And we’d like to think that some of them have kept up hiking and visiting the trails since the lady first piqued their interest in the trail system.”
The lady was fated to become a celebrity. By October 30, 2022, 363 people—both community members and visitors—had posted or posed in pictures to enter the raffle. A local made a TikTok that went viral—more than four million views in its first two weeks, up to 13.4 million today. (Other posts of the video have garnered even more views—47.4 million in one case.) And because it is the internet, the theorizing (in earnest or in jest) began: Was she the victim of an unsolved murder, absorbed by the tree? Had she swallowed the wrong seeds? Was she subject to a (fictitious) 17th-century practice of tying people to trees and leaving them to die? A few even recognized Alpha. Lambert says the commission considered coming up with an official backstory (and a themed escape room), but they never settled on a terrifying tale. Perhaps one day, she says. For the time being, hikers, TikTokers, and even local children will continue to craft the lore.
When a second grade class visited, they came up with their own: She eats people, steals children, and could “go crazy” or “destroy cars.”
“Her name is Moany,” wrote one second grader. “If she came alive she would run out of the forest, but she is stuck in the tree.”
“She looks like she needs a bath,” concluded another, who named the lady Gracie.
“The lady in the tree is cool and creepy… Her name is Marve. If she came alive she would be my friend,” wrote yet another. “I think the tree is beautiful.”
But all the clout came at a price. In November 2022, the lady’s head went missing. It was found months later by a hiker and his dog. “The dog came back with a head,” says Lambert, “which is amazing, because it could have been anywhere.” The lady remained headless as winter turned to spring and summer. Finally, the Lady in the Tree is making a comeback for the 2023 spooky season, says McDonald, as he holds up the new mask with obvious pride.
There won’t be a community challenge this year, says Lambert, but she’s hopeful people will continue to visit the lady in the trails around McDonald’s Family Park, with respect to the tree and the land. “All we ask is that you treat it like you would your own backyard,” she adds. “You wouldn’t destroy, or litter, or any of those things in your own backyard. Enjoy it, take pictures, but try not to touch to the point where you’re going to damage her.”