The Chilling Message Beyond the Hype and Backlash of ‘Blair Witch’

By  · Published on July 29th, 2014

The Blair Witch Project

Artisan Entertainment

On July 30, 1999, The Blair Witch Project expanded to a wide theatrical release and raked in over $25,000 per screen on over a thousand screens, thus becoming the first sleeper horror hit of that late summer, one week before The Sixth Sense opened. The weekend of July 30th solidified Blair Witch’s status as a phenomenon, but to recognize it as a defining date of the film would be to misrecognize what Blair Witch did.

Rather than come about as an instantaneous cinematic event (in the way that the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain or the 25th anniversary of Batman have been nostalgically reflected upon this summer), Blair Witch’s reputation manifested as a slow unraveling over many months of speculation and word-of-mouth, from its chilling first-screening at Sundance to an Internet-based fury of speculation to a teaser attached to The Phantom Menace of all things. The film represented a first in many respects – transmedia marketing via the web, a jumpstart of the modern found footage subgenre – but it also bears its young age in surprising ways, whether in its analog aesthetic or the particularly 20th century character of its word-of-mouth circulation.

Despite that the film set the supposed standard for viral buzz-creation and found footage horror, The Blair Witch Project remains an important anomaly for a shaky tent-full of reasons.

In revisiting Blair Witch after a decade and a half of low budget found footage horror flooding theaters, it’s remarkable how different the film is from the subgenre it helped spawn – or, to be more historically accurate, creatively revisited. The Paranormal Activity movies (most entries of which I greatly admire) have developed something of a conditioned pattern for audiences that is shared across the spectrum of the subgenre: they depict a quiet moment – or repeat a series of quiet moments, like footage of a couple sleeping – and use that silence to build suspense toward an eventual, promised eruption in the form of a subtly creepy image or a jump scare. Work into a lather, rinse, repeat.

In an age of hugely distracted audiences, it’s downright remarkable to see a theater full of filmgoers know when to go completely silent, and to use that collective investment to participate in the suspense onscreen.

The Blair Witch Project follows a different pattern entirely. It is an exceptionally quiet film, and doesn’t engage in any true eruptions of terror until its memorably horrifying final shot. While there is plenty of screaming and several notably creepy incidents up to that point, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s film plays the long game in terms of suspense, building toward that last moment by compounding unease and, most potently, psychological unrest – because the majority of Blair Witch’s running time is not about a build towards conventional jump scares, but rather the respective mental breakdowns that its trio of characters endure as they reluctantly come to the hopeless and helpless realization that they are stuck in a labyrinth they cannot escape and are subject to forces they cannot see (let alone understand).

Beyond the found footage story device that made the film a subject of such hype-drooling media interest that it quickly transformed into a gimmick, The Blair Witch Project is a stark, justifiably frustrating portrayal of three people slowly descending into madness by circumstances far beyond their control. There is no sense that these characters bit from the forbidden fruit. They didn’t build a McMansion on sacred ground, have sex on a pile of drugs or deny the wrong woman a bank loan. Instead, Blair Witch features a group of student filmmakers slowly tortured and killed by the whim of a malevolent, supernatural witch simply because they’re there and because the witch can. If this film can ever be seen beyond its hype, backlash and technique, at the core of this film resides an unrelentingly chilling prospect against innocent curiosity.

And that is also what made the act of watching it – and the very potent sense felt during the first half of 1999 that it could be real – so scary, as it renders an audience witness to and complicit in the unimaginable subjection to fear these characters faced. The text that introduced trailers and opened the film is striking in its cold, informational, and concise description of a secured bad fate: it’s not just a horror film, but a record of certain death.

And it looks like it could be such a record. While actors Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams were taught camera technique in preparation for the film’s rather difficult shoot, Blair Witch thankfully maintains many evident moments of an amateur-ish aesthetic.

The question of why a character continues filming seems not to burden found footage now in the era of ubiquitous recording devices, and questions of professional-ish presentation are prevalent in an era of instant virality and the fact that all human beings despise vertical recording with phones. The Paranormal Activity movies practice a type of framing in which everything is legible and clear – one’s participation in and enjoyment of such films resides partly in their ability to search the frame for inevitable signs of creepiness like a ghoulish issue of Highlights Magazine. Even in 21st century found footage films that are set in the analog era – like Apollo 18 or Paranormal Activity 3 – a digital philosophy that assumes one can (and should) film and see everything pervades.

The Blair Witch Project, by contrast, looks the way that such raw footage might actually look during such circumstances. Cameras regularly slink to the ground, zoom into a dark abyss in which virtually nothing can be seen, and prevent a stable spatial orientation that even caused audience members to get sick during screenings. And the cuts between the film’s 16mm and video footage often suggests a great deal of time hidden between acts of turning the cameras on and off – in this truly analog context, endless documentation is not a possibility. For anyone born before 1990 who has ever watched a home movie that features a 30 minute shot of your grandmother’s carpet, or abruptly cuts between seemingly arbitrary glimpses of an event, Blair Witch rings surprisingly authentic.

But the film’s analog quality should not hide its digital innovation. Blair Witch is justly credited for paving the way for viral web-based advertising, and it emerged at the right moment of Web 1.0, when the Web was devoted to the seemingly lucrative possibilities of idiosyncratic ventures before this bubble popped and made way for information-gathering and social media. In such a context, Blair Witch was able to thrive as something of a mystery, something that demanded (in-person!) sharing and speculation. It also showed how to expand a narrative universe through developing a database narrative of other components not isolated to the film, with its website, teaser trailer, and television special providing histories and documents not acknowledged in the film itself, much like the role that videogames and short films played in advance of the Matrix sequels.

But Blair Witch also proved to be a cautionary tale of hype threatening to swallow the target hyped, with its metadiscourse transforming into a supernatural monster entirely all its own. Months of buzz and speculation, combined with some overwrought cross-marketing efforts (including a pop music soundtrack (!)), planted the seeds of a backlash that almost obscured any questions of the film’s merits. (The now-defunct Artisan Entertainment tried advertising a subsequent 1999 film by attempting to generate a conversation about it with the trailer for The Minus Man to less lucrative effects that ultimately hid a worthwhile thriller.)

It surprised Sundance audiences who knew little about it going in, but any experience of discovery was almost completely exhausted and drained by the time Blair Witch reached wide audiences a few months later. And that’s what makes any anniversary of Blair Witch only part of the story: it’s a film that existed far more potently before it was actually seen by most, a film whose release marked the beginning of the end of its existence as a relevant cultural artifact. Perhaps now, a decade and a half after the hype, we finally have the opportunity to see Blair Witch itself, unencumbered by its baggage, and appreciate the fact that something so odd, so raw, so fatalistic, and still so unlike supposedly similar films somehow found its way onto more than 1,000 screens 15 years ago.

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