This week on Horrible History, Emily tells us an onion of a story with layer after layer about the Aokigahara or Suicide Forest in Japan. Then, Rachel heads to Scottsdale to tell the story of Steven Steinberg, a man accused of the murder of his wife Elana Steinberg by stabbing her 26 times in 1981, in Scottsdale, Arizona – while sleepwalking.
Story 1 – Aokigahara Forest (Suicide Forest)
This story has layers upon layers of horrible – so lots of trigger warnings. It won’t seem like it is at first, but I’m a tricky little bitch.
The first layer, let’s talk about Mount Fuji, lay a little foundation, so to speak. So Mount Fuji was created through an eruption a hundred thousand years ago. And it’s right in the middle of Japan’s Archipelago, which is a fancy word for a group of islands. So like I said earlier, Japan is actually 6,852 islands. So the Japanese archipelago is thought to lie above the edges of five different tectonic plates.
So it’s like right smack in the middle of the skin puzzle, so to speak. So as we know these huge slabs move around and collide and slide under each other, that’s what she said.
That makes Japan more prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions than almost any other country. Now, because Mount Fuji is located just about in the middle and almost directly above where three of the plates meet. It has a super volatile history. It’s erupted violently many times in history, but the eruption I wanna talk about today is the Jugon eruption in 864 AD, which is 1,158 years ago.
Now this eruption happened on the Northwestern slope of Mount Fuji and it was the biggest eruption that it had in recorded history. It started in May and it ejected like a huge amount of cinder and Ash into the world. And that of course fell back down as far as the ocean, um, which is like miles and miles away.
And actually for 10 full days, it erupted. And because this is 864 we don’t even know how many people were killed, but presumably a lot, a lot with all the people, maybe every person probably. It destroyed homes and any businesses or any farms or animals or anything like that, that dared get in its way.
Lava spilled into this big lake that was called the tsunami lake and it boiled the water. So all the fish died. Of course. And as the lava hardened, it divided the one lake into two lakes. And the lava obviously like decimated the land. In addition to the lakes, it paved new flat lands. It created a bunch of like lava tubes, which are now caves under the mountain side at this point.
And it left all of Japan’s rulers, completely awestruck and inspired that they were like, we have to worship this volcano as a God now, okay. They thought that they had like divined this eruption, essentially. They thought that the Shinto priests had been negligent in performing religious rights and that angered the volcano and then it erupted and killed all of the people.
And so they were like ordering provinces, nearest to Mount Fuji, to like increase the amount of worship you’re doing to the volcanoes deity. So like a benevolent God, what came after the storm was not a rainbow, but a forest because all the lava that poured down into the valley below the mountain, settled and turned into these like pest rocks and then Moss grew on the rocks and that helped retain water.
And then over like a hundred years, obviously life grew and thrived, even though there wasn’t really any traditional soil. So it was kind of like this weird, interesting forest.
So they had a bunch of hemlock and Cypress trees that took hold and like snaked all over the ground and through the Moss and created this really thick forest that sat on top of all of these deep caverns. So a very interesting and uncommon forest. So that’s the first layer of this horrible onion, a devastating eruption killed hundreds of people probably, but the forest made there.
And made possible by these events is the next layer of the story, because that forest is known as the Aokigahara Forest, perhaps more commonly known as Japan’s Suicide Forest. Hence why I said I shall go first today. All the trigger warnings, because all the trigger warnings, we’re about to talk a lot about suicide.
So this suicide forest is technically known as the Aokigahara forest, but people in the area often call it the Juka forest, which means sea of trees. And they call it that because from the mountain, when you look down the suicide forest is like green all year round and it moves kind of like an ocean.
But enough talk about nature. Let’s talk about something worse. So let’s talk about what happens in the suicide forest and why? History lesson, I watched this interesting documentary about the suicide forest and there was this man interviewed and he was talking about this long tradition of suicide in Japan.
That like historically it actually begins with the samurai who committed SAPPUKU or Harry Carey in the 12th century as a form of ritual suicide by disempowerment. I always knew that Harry Carey or SAP PKU or whatever was like a samurai killing themselves. But I didn’t realize that it was by disembowling or cutting their stomachs open.
So samurai did seppuku as like a voluntary way to die with honor, rather than falling into the hands of their enemies and be tortured. So I kind of felt like that was an important note because it tells you a little bit about how Japanese culture views suicide, historically it doesn’t necessarily have the same negative connotation that it has in Western cultures.
So that’s kind of an interesting like nugget to remember another interesting historical note about this suicide forest is that legend has it, that in medieval times when food was really scarce and a situation grew really desperate, Japanese families might take like a dependent elderly relative, often a woman to a remote location such as this suicide forest and leave her there to die.
And so a lot of people claim that the history of the forest, like, and that history in particular is one of the potential reasons why this suicide forest like attracts people that want to end their life mm-hmm and this is there’s three real main reasons why people think of Aokigahara is second only to the golden gate bridge when it comes to the number of suicides seen on site.
So this practice of leaving your elders in the forest is the basis of the first reason. So in Japanese culture, when a person dies, their soul leaves the body and enters a kind of purgatory.
And when a proper funeral right, is performed, then the soul can go on to the ancestors and become a protective spirit. But if proper rights are not performed, or if the person dies by suicide or murder, their soul may become something called a Ure, which is a ghost like spirit that tends to like hang around the place where they died, tied forever to that location.
And this is a kind of haunting that is said to create a really dangerous energy. And so if people were regularly leaving their elders in the forest some people think that the Yury lurk in the Aokigahara forest. And so if someone is in the suicide forest contemplating taking their own life and they walk through a spot occupied by a Yuri, it might just push them over the edge. Cause they would like experience that dangerous energy and be like, okay, yes, I’m gonna do it.
The second reason that people think the suicide forest is so prone to suicide is that there’s actually a book to blame for the suicide forest. So in 1960, this famous Japanese. Writer named Sako Matsumoto published, um, a famous novel NAMI, no two or tower of wave. So in this book, the heroin and her lover make a Trek into the Aokigahara or suicide forest to complete suicide because they are in love.
But like society says they can’t be together for some reason. And so instead of it’s a very Romeo and Juliet type of thing, like, we’ll just sure, we’ll take our own lives and we’re gonna go into the forest. And it kind of romanticized this idea of like these lovers, like going to the forest. And apparently the book really portrays it as like a beautiful and peaceful way to end your life.
So a lot of people are like, uh, what the hell dude? Why did you do that? Because now everyone wants to go there. Yeah. Could we not romanticize suicide please? Here’s the thing that book was published in 1960, but as early as the 1950s, tourists were reporting encountering decomposing bodies in Aokigahara.
So let’s talk about a more like scientific ish kind of reason. Scientists have suggested that the answer to the mystery might actually be geological. Hmm. The simple fact that the whole forest is sitting on top of lava fields might lend itself to the reason behind why visitors are more comfortable taking their own lives, which is so interesting.
So they say that the volcanic rocks, which are made up of basalt may have some kind of piezoelectric material in them that generates an electromagnetic field and electromagnetic fields have actually been scientifically proven to impact brain activity. Um, which I think we talked a teeny bit about in the Dyatlov Pass story.
That was one of the theories of like, it must have been electromagnetic fields because people have come to find that it’s like proven to impact your brain activity. And some people think that like this combination of the magnetic anomalies in the area. With certain people’s chemical brain makeup could lead to an enhanced desire to complete suicide.
So essentially if someone’s contemplating suicide and they go to this area, there’s a chance that this like geological makeup of the land might make them just comfortable enough to actually carry it out. And so to this day, you will see a lot of evidence that people enter the suicide forest uncertain about whether or not they want to complete suicide.
And then some of them obviously do. So all throughout the forest, there are these strings like tied to a tree at the entrance of the forest, and then like wove in throughout the trees, deep into the forest. Cause apparently people who are really indecisive about dying will wrap tape or string along the trees along the way. So they can find their way out. Because it’s not like a hiking forest. It’s not a camping forest and it’s very, very dense. And so they don’t wanna like, people get lost in the suicide forest all the time. So people who are going in and maybe thinking about coming back out, wanna make sure that they can yeah. If they change their minds.
But unfortunately often the strings just lead you to a corpse. Cuz a lot of times they don’t change their minds. And there have been an abundance of them in the forest, since it was about, since it grew, we can’t possibly know the exact number, but in like current years, they tend to find about a hundred bodies a year.
And that’s within a really small forest. This is only a 12 square mile forest. It’s not a massive forest. Like that’s a lot of bodies to find. That’s a lot of really struggling people. And officials have even stopped publicizing how many people complete suicide in the forest because they just don’t wanna encourage people to go there anymore.
But it’s still a magnet for suicide to this day. There are actually signs at the entrance and like throughout the suicide forest that warn people about suicide and tell them not to do it. At the beginning of the forest, there’s a big sign that literally says your life is a precious gift from your parents. Please think about your parents and your siblings and your children. Don’t keep it to yourself. Contact the suicide prevention association and has the phone number on it.
There are always abandoned tents in the forest. Camping’s not allowed, but you’ll be walking through the suicide forest and see tents that are just abandoned there. Um, but there are a lot of really amazing people in Japan trying to do everything they can to stop people from using the forest to end their lives.
So they actually send groups of people into the forest each year to search for bodies. And then there are people out there who spend hours of their time walking through the forest on a regular basis. And when they come upon someone, they stop and talk to them and try to make sure that they’re doing okay and like offer positive words and encourage them to leave the forest safe and sound.
In the short documentary that I watched, which is on YouTube, it’s a vice documentary. It’s only like 25 minutes, totally worth watching this guide. Um, that was guiding the video crew was one of the people who went out into the forest to try to talk to people. And he actually came upon a tent in the forest while he was with his videographer.
And he asked the man inside and they didn’t show the man inside the tense face, like, but they just showed the interaction and he asked him if he was doing okay. And the man was really quiet and kind of seemed like he didn’t wanna talk. But the guy said like, he felt really nervous about why that young man was there in the forest, because he’s like, he doesn’t look like the type that hikes.
He kind of just told him like there are people out there that love you, like be sure to be safe or, you know.
Um, this is pretty triggering, but he said that he came upon a young man once that had just attempted to hang himself in the forest, but he had made the rope too long and so his feet hit the ground. And so he just was struggling there and. It was hurting his neck. And so he stopped the attempt because it hurt too much, which is horrific.
Then the guide sat there and talked to him. He said for over an hour and like talked to him about why life was worth living and, you know, talked to him about his family and asked him questions and just like had an hour long conversation with this young man.
And then the young man left the suicide forest that day and said like, he didn’t wanna take his life at anymore. I know I was like such an interesting little story and like, It’s like one person helped is awesome. Yeah. So that’s good. Yeah. So the other problem with the forest is that there’s a really great risk of getting lost there.
Locals say, they’ve been told many times as children, like, don’t go near the suicide forest one, it’s scary and dangerous, but it’s like really easy to getted it’s haunted. Exactly. And so I think, um, one of the main things that would make this, especially creepy to me is that this forest is completely silent.
Like no animals live there. You don’t hear anything while you’re there. Normally you’d hear birds or wind whipping or bugs, not here. The trees are so tightly packed together that wind. Blow through them. And then the tiny holes in the lava rocks completely absorb the sound.
If you yell for help, no one will hear you.
I would say it’s definitely a very sad, sad spot on this planet. Whether there are electromagnetic fields, or if it’s simply been deemed a great place to die, which PS, apparently in 1993, a book came out, it was the manual for how to complete suicide, which is fricking horrible, and it listed it as one of the best places to do it. Like it lists this suicide forest as a great place to go. Who wrote this book? That’s terrible.
It’s also just a really sad reminder, that there are so many people out there really struggling with mental health issues, not just in Japan, but all around the world, obviously. . And so I wanted to close my heavy story with a reminder to all of our listeners that your true crime moms love you. And even though life is really hard, that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone.
So reach out if you need help. In America, you can dial 998 to reach the suicide and crisis lifeline.
Story 2 – Murder of Elana Steinberg
It’s the evening May 27, 1981. 37-year-old Steven Steinberg was sitting in the living room, watching TV, while his wife, 34-year-old Elana peacefully slept in their bedroom. The couple’s adolescent daughters, 12-year-old Traci and 6-year-old Shawn, stayed awake for a while, excitedly preparing for the end of the school year. As Steven prepared for bed, he cracked open the sliding glass doors in the master bedroom, allowing the breeze to come in. This is the 80s, and it’s a safe, bougie community in Scottsdale.
Steven drifted peacefully to sleep next to his wife, until he was awoken suddenly by a blood-curdling scream. 2 men had entered into the couple’s bedroom. One man brandished a 10-inch butcher knife, and proceeded to attack Elana, stabbing her 26 times, while Steven tried to fight off the attackers to no avail.
At 12:07 AM, 911 received a call from Steven, stating that his wife has been murdered. Heartbreakingly, one of their daughters then picks up the phone, asking dispatch to please hurry.
Hurrying would do no good, as these were small-town cops with literally no murder experience. When they arrived at the Steinberg home, Steven dramatically burst out onto the front lawn with a bathrobe on, hysterically retelling the story that he’d told 911. Two intruders came in, killed his wife, and then escaped through the back door. At least, this was Steven’s story.
Police made their way through house, passing the two grieving children, and opening the door of the master bedroom to find Elana Steinberg slain, twisted in the sheets, covered in bloody stab wounds. Police carefully combed through the home, looking for any evidence of the robbery, which Steven earnestly claimed was the root cause of the murder. But there was nothing. The only place anything seemed to be off was Elana’s underwear drawer. All the other valuables had been left alone.
Police escorted Steven from the crime scene, taking note of his erratic behavior. He seemed talkative, but then would do things like bang his head on the wall. Steven stated that murders were two large white men, who held down the couple and asked where their jewelry was, then quickly yelled back that it wasn’t enough, so they held down Elana and started stabbing her. Steven had 1 singular wound, on his hand, allegedly because he was trying to stop the stabbing. At one point, Steven calmy stated to police, “there goes 15 years down the drain.”
Are your Spidey senses tingling? Because mine sure are.
So, police went out looking for the two attackers who killed Elana. But they were starting to feel as though something was off – there were no footprints outside, no furniture out of place, no signs of forced entry, nothing. And police were trying to be on it this time – this is not that long after Bob Crane’s murder, and, if you’ll recall, they royally fucked up that evidence that time.
Police did a good job sectioning off the bedroom at the Steinberg home, but they did let Elana’s family come to the home to gather in grief. So, they still aren’t awesome at this.
One thing they did get right? Recognizing that Steven Steinberg was acting pretty fucking weird. And he only had that one minor injury. And his wife was a victim of overkill.
Luckily for this investigation, Elana’s brother Mitch had the tea, and decided to spill it to police. He told detectives that Steven had an addiction to gambling, which he had been engaging in since before their marriage in 1966. Steven starting out only betting what their family could afford, but soon after the pair were married, Steven lost so much money that he did not tell his wife about it. And, as often happens with gambling addictions, he kept losing. And kept trying to win. Elana was the keeper of the budget in the Steinberg household, so obviously this secret came out pretty quickly.
Also, notable? Mitch told police that Steven had a hard time holding down a job. He moved the family to Scottsdale in 1975 so that Steven could work for Elana’s father. That business eventually went under, so Steven went to Mitch, who allowed Steven to manage one of the restaurants he owned. And I know you’ll be shocked to find out that he was still gambling. He was in debt about $8500 in 1980 – which would be over $26,000 today.
Business wasn’t great for Mitch either – he had to sell the restaurant that was managed by Steven; when it came out that Steven was a gambler, the buyers let Steven go. Unable to cope with being fired in a healthy way, Steven bet a large amount of money on a basketball game. Spoilers: He lost, adding another $6000 to his debt. All in all, he’d be in about $50,000 in debt in today’s money.
Mitch shared that he and Elana’s mother noticed strange men coming in and out of the home – trying to collect on Steven’s debts. Reportedly, Elana had called her mother, Edith, from a vacation in Lake Tahoe, after a violent altercation with Steven. He wanted to go to the casino instead of spending time with the family, and when Elana tried to stop him, he pushed her against the wall.
Detectives also learned that Steven had been the victim of attempted robbery before. In 1966, Steven had been tied up by 2 robbers who had stolen all of Elana’s jewelry. Bravely, Steven was able to escape from his shackles and call the police, and wouldn’t you know it? He got an insurance payout. And a few years later, another 2 men stole his car at gunpoint. He wasn’t injured during this horrible experience either. Years later, $4000 went missing from a cash register from Elana’s father’s business on a night in which Steven was working. And finally, when Steven was managing one of Mitch’s restaurants, there were multiple robberies. And one of those robberies recently happened. Like, really recently – the same night that Elana Steinberg was murdered.
So. Many. Coincidences.
Detectives started to think that maybe Elana was murdered due to Steven’s gambling addiction. Maybe, she was murdered in retaliation for his debts.
So of course, police confronted Steven about this. Elana was all of 5 feet tall and 90 pounds – robbers wouldn’t have seen her as a threat. Also, she was stabbed multiple times on her back and sides, which is inconsistent with the idea that a robber would be pinning her down, stabbing her front. Instead, this led police to the idea that Elana’s murderer was lying in bed beside her. And remember – it was overkill – and full of rage. It was indicative of hatred, not a random robbery.
Also interesting? Elana’s body wasn’t found in bed. Trigger warning – she was found on the floor, entangled in the sheets, indicating that she had tried to run away. Elana also had multiple defensive wounds on her hands and arms. This woman tried to fight back.
Steven claimed that he ran out of the room to tell his 12-year-old, Traci, to call the police, and Elana must have slid off of the bed while he went. But if you’ll remember, Steven’s voice was the first heard on the 911 call.
Police decided to search more of the house. Behind Steven’s mirror in the master bedroom, they found all of Elana’s jewelry. You know, the jewelry that was supposed to be stolen.
At this point, police are still thinking that there were 2 men who came into the house, but that Steven had staged a robbery to help him get out of gambling debt, and the guys he had helping him had gotten out of hand, and accidentally murdered Elana.
Finally, investigators caught a break – they lifted the blood-soaked mattress and found a 10-inch knife. Steven hadn’t hired others to stage a break-in. Steven Steinberg murdered his Elana Steinberg in cold blood. And this asshole wasn’t a genius – the knife came from the family’s kitchen – 66 feet away from the master bedroom. Intruders wouldn’t walk all the way there, all the way back, lift up the box spring and mattress, and stash the murder weapon – but Steven would.
Finally, Steven Steinberg was arrested for murder. He lawyered up real quick.
Prosecution was pushing for first-degree murder, but, for a while, Steven stuck to his story that Elana was killed by two intruders – wearing fake beards. I love this detail because he allegedly was having dreams about Elana’s death in which he would pull down the fake beards, each night a little lower, but he would wake up before he saw their faces.
In the real world, his fingerprints were on the murder weapon. And in the dream world, when he finally pulled down the murderer’s fake beard, he saw HIS OWN FACE. This guy is the worst kind of mediocre white man. Everything about him makes me angry.
The trial began in February of 1982, and the prosecution thought they had a slam dunk. They had the murder weapon. Steven had left the door cracked so he wouldn’t have to prove that burglars broke in. He spread out some of her underwear from the drawer, trying to make it look like burglars were looking for jewelry. He guilty, guys.
But the defense decided to take a different route. They blamed Elana. Awesome.
Steven’s lawyers painted Elana as a “shrill,” nagging, Jewish American Princess, trying to keep up with the Joneses. She made him gamble, you guys, because she wanted nice things. And she was so terrible to this poor guy – she even withheld sex! Steven just snapped eventually because there was too much pressure.
This is the world’s tiniest violin playing the world’s saddest song just for you.
12-year-old Traci took the stand during this trial. She testified that Steven told her to “shut your goddamn door” when she woke up after hearing her mother’s screams. Traci did just that, closing her eyes and feeling terrified, until Steven came in on the phone with 911. She stated that her parents used to fight about money, but it wasn’t just that her mom was nagging, she was upset that he didn’t have a job, and her father was just as upset back.
The defense knew they needed an ace after this testimony, so he came up with “The MacBeth Defense” AKA saying that Steven can’t be held responsible for Elana’s death… because he was fucking sleepwalking. A local psychiatrist agreed that Steven could have had a break with reality because Elana was so interested in spending money and she was pressuring him soooo much that he could have committed the murder while sleepwalking. An important note here – although both Shawn and Traci had a history of sleepwalking, Steven Steinberg had literally never sleepwalked before.
The idea of Elana Steinberg being a horrible shrew who pushed her poor, dopey husband to insanity really stuck with the racist jury, who seemingly had never heard the term “Jewish American Princess,” and associated all of Elana’s alleged negative personality traits with being Jewish. Also, these doctors for the defense argued that the overkill was just a repetitive motion in a dream state, and that a real murderer would have only stabbed someone once or twice, going for a kill shot, which isn’t true, but the prosecution and defense didn’t know any better. They also argued that many of the 26 stab wounds were “superficial,” meaning that only 4 of them were mortal, but actually they were deep – like, bone deep, but not deadly on their own.
Steven cried on the stand.
Fuck this guy.
The jury seemingly forgot about Traci Steinberg’s heartbreaking testimony. The prosecution wanted to argue for 1st degree murder, noting that the time it took to walk from the bedroom to the kitchen and back was premeditation, but the jury might not understand that premeditation could be only seconds of planning instead of weeks, but the judge basically was like, “these people aren’t that stupid.”
The judge was wrong.
Steven Steinberg was found not guilty by reason of insanity after only 3 hours of deliberation. It was the first time that anyone had been acquitted of murder due to sleepwalking.
In the state of AZ, after a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, before Steven could be let off the hook, he had to undergo a mental health evaluation. But the DA who had been prosecuting him left quickly after the verdict – I’m guessing grieving after a terrible conclusion the case. His lawyers argued that Steven had already been assessed by their own mental health team, so he should just be able to go, and a judge agreed.
Steven left, celebrating his release by going out drinking and celebrating. He allegedly stated that he only regretted spending 9 months in jail. He got drunk, molested a woman by grabbing her boob, making a joke about how horny he was after being in jail so long.
Have I mentioned already that I fucking hate this guy?
Letting a murderer go is horrible, so let me give you a silver lining. The state of Arizona realized they messed up. They changed the statutes around pleading insanity, placing the burden of proof on the defendant. There now needs to be clear and convincing evidence that someone was insane at the time of the crime, or that person cannot be found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Traci and Shawn refused to speak to Steven, let alone live with him. They were raised by Elana’s parents. Steven Steinberg was rejected by the community. He left Scottsdale and allegedly moved to Israel, but that may just be a rumor.
Elana Steinberg’s reputation was dragged in court – and I have to throw out there that I was disappointed in doing research about how very few articles there were about her, and the ones I read characterized her much like Steven’s defense did; however, her family, friends, and community remember her as a kind heart and a loving mother.
And that’s the horrible story about the murder of Elana Steinberg by yet another mediocre white man who was definitely not sleepwalking (in my opinion).