'The Blair Witch Project' Premiered at Sundance 20 Years Ago

A hit at Sundance, the film's longevity is due in part to its stunning ingenuity.

Blair Witch
Lionsgate

Perhaps more than with any other genre, watching a horror film for the first time sticks in our minds. I distinctly remember holding a blood red VHS case of Jaws, the terror as I hid under blankets watching Robert Wise’s The Haunting, the shock on my face during the final moment of Night of the Living Dead, and sitting at my kitchen table, white as a sheet, viewing The Blair Witch Project.

It was a Sunday afternoon, munching on Eggo waffles, while reality around me fell away. Was this film real? We rented this at Blockbuster, so these people couldn’t be dead…could they? I remember staring into the woody area surrounding my house after the film was over wondering what horrors lay beyond the tree line. As for sleep that night? Suffice to say it was a groggy Monday morning. All of these indelible sense memories burrowed into my mind, leaving me a winded and enraptured 11-year-old craving more.

The Blair Witch Project has survived for the last 20 years because of this lingering effect. A film so simple, scares so slight, that it unexpectedly filled us with a feeling of unending dread. The film is a testament to the longevity of horror and the burning spirit of young filmmakers. But it’s Blair Witch’s out-of-the-box creativity that still resonates with ingenuity today.

Beyond the scares, the viral marketing, the tie-in TV film (The Sci-Fi Channel’s The Curse of the Blair Witch), and the three prequel PC games, what I continue to find most impressive is how The Blair Witch Project was filmed.

The three actors — Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams — were found through Backstage, an industry magazine where actors can find local auditions. They were cast less for their verisimilitude and more for their improv skills and how well they could operate a camera. After all, the film’s directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduárdo Sanchez, were planning to drop the trio off in the woods to shoot this all themselves, only being given sparse instructions from their directors via supplies left in milk crates for them to find in their eight days of filming.

But generally, their directions were simple: film everything that happens. And Myrick and Sanchez made sure things happened. In an interview with Broadly:

“All the weird kind of noises and stuff is just us running around in the woods. When they wake up and there are rock piles outside their tents, we planted those, obviously. The stick figures—we hung them. We just led them around on a 24-hour-a-day stage play, really. We set up all the set pieces beforehand, and they would just follow our directions. They had a GPS unit we would pre-program daily [and] just let them know where they were supposed to go [and] the time they were supposed to be there. We shook their tent, we played sounds of little kids playing outside their tent, we made noises in the middle of the night, we led them to this crazy house at the end—we basically just played the Blair Witch.”

If acting is reacting, then Blair Witch’s performances are rooted in the external stimuli caused by their directors. Arguably, this is strikingly similar to the experiences of immersive theatre. From escape rooms to haunts, the immersive event has really cornered the market on experiential storytelling. In the case of The Blair Witch Project, they just decided to film their actor-participants and edit it together into a loose narrative. Whether intentional or not, Sanchez and Myrick effortlessly blurred the lines between experimental theatre and low-budget filmmaking, capturing lightning in a bottle.

There’s no better example of this than Heather’s iconic, climactic to-the-camera monologue. The simple lines, completely improvised, were not overly scripted to the point of suffocating the tension. The filmmakers leaned on the effectiveness of her pure honesty. Something that Heather, the actress, felt was weaponized against her.

“I don’t think there were a lot of female characters like that in movies at the time. Definitely I feel like things have changed a lot. There’s been a little more leeway for female characters. I won the Razzie for worst actress that year, and I think that was partly because of the character being judged, rather than the performance. She was a very driven woman who didn’t wear mascara and was on camera in 1999.”

This was not only the character expressing her own truth in a moment of fatalistic realization, but it’s also an actress being fully enveloped into not just her given circumstances but the very real conditions surrounding her. For 24-hours a day over one week, she gruelingly threw herself into her work, for a project that as far as she knew could have gone nowhere, and we viscerally see it all on the screen. It’s no wonder she was believably afraid. Like Peter Finch in Network, it’s captivating to see art pushed to the brink of exhaustion like this. It’s a feeling that is as rewarding as it is hard to define.

But despite public perception, The Blair Witch Project didn’t really give rise to the popularity of found-footage. That would come almost a decade later with the monumental success of the Paranormal Activity films, but it did solidify the methods as a new means to tell a classic tale. The film didn’t invent the “kids get murdered in the woods by a supernatural entity” scenario, but it was the first to trick us into believing that campfire story. A large part of the film’s success, after all, was balanced on the illusion that what we were seeing was fact. And it’s exactly in that promise of reality that I find the style to still be worthwhile, despite its inherent oversaturation.

In genre, it is difficult to fully immerse the spectator. One foot will always be planted firmly in reality. We know that undead hockey-masked slashers don’t exist, which gives us the allowance to enjoy in the goopy depravity.

But as we watch the mental faculties of these three students begin to unravel, purported to be truth, we can’t help but relate more than we typically would in horror. Found footage in the hands of adept filmmakers, can pitch-perfectly capture the overwhelming panic of being lost or trapped — a feeling we’ve all experienced — be it deep underneath the city of Paris, in the woods of Burkittsville Maryland, or simply on a packed train on your commute home. This nauseous claustrophobia, be it from the storytelling or the notorious shaky cameras, is a powerful emotion to evoke, and one that cannot be discredited when considering the subgenre.

We take a lot for granted with The Blair Witch Project today, especially after the oft-debated merits of its sequels. But I find we take it for granted mostly because the fourth wall that the original tore down has been rebuilt. It’s a style now with an artifice we can see through. The subgenre has found its tropes, many built directly from some of the more lampooned moments of the first film. We don’t think for a second that these movies are real.

But we once did. And that’s the perspective you should have when revisiting the film. Put the hype, the backlash, and the parodies out of your mind and try to imagine yourself at midnight in Park City on a cold January in 1999. You may find the experience profoundly more unsettling than you remember, showcasing that The Blair Witch Project is still eerie as fuck 20 years later.

Actor. Writer. Available to host your next public access show. Find more of my writing at Rue Morgue, Ghastly Grinning, Diabolique Magazine, and Grim Magazine.