My earliest memory of The Blair Witch Project is boredom. Upon its release in 1999, at age thirteen, I went to a screening with my mum (yeah, she rocks) but we didn’t get it. We found nothing scary about the film, instead making fun of Heather Donahue’s swinging snot, the silly twig stickmen over which they seemed to get in such a fluster, and the general feeling that nothing whatsoever had happened during those eighty-one minutes of shaky camera footage. It wasn’t until a few years later during a rewatch with my younger stepbrother that my life-long, fear-fuelled fascination with The Blair Witch Project was born. Seeing the mortal dread of my viewing partner vicariously awoke my own terror. This might have been the most important night of my horror-appreciating life, since the film has grown to become my all-time favourite. Few reviews/analyses on this site will mean as much to me as the one coming up. I’m going to argue that The Blair Witch Project is one of the most – if not the most – effective horror film ever made. Bit of an extreme statement? You bet. I goddamn love this movie, so prepare for many pages of discussion and dissection. Most will bail out, but that’s okay. It’s more for me than you, anyway.
Let’s talk those eighty-one minutes of shaky camera footage.
The Blair Witch Project, directed and masterminded by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, follows three students as they set out through the woods north of Burkittsville, Maryland to film a documentary about the Blair Witch legend, a supposed malevolent presence thought to have haunted Black Hills Forest since Burkittsville’s former years as the township of Blair. The three students, who take their names from the actors portraying them, are never seen again. We are presented with the footage from their equipment found in the woods.
The first act opens with an introduction to the three filmmakers, Heather, Mike, and Josh, who we find to be in good spirits prior to setting out on their expedition. The trio interview locals about the legend, with one man mentioning the name Rustin Parr, a serial killer from the 1940s who lived in the woods outside what was then Blair. He murdered seven children, claiming to be under the influence of the Blair Witch, taking them down to his cellar in pairs where he’d make one face the corner while he killed the other. (The website released with the film is still running, and has a thorough timeline of the Blair Witch mythology from February 1785 right up to the fictional public release of the found footage. I feel it’s important to make a distinction between the film’s effectiveness with all this extra background lore, and without. I find the movie most compelling when considered on its own, with only fleeting clues to go by, so it’s mostly from this perspective that this essay will proceed.) Following completion of their first day of filming, they share a drink in their motel room before setting out to begin their long hike the next morning. This first act unfolds in a traditional sense, providing some important foreshadowing and establishment of tone.
It’s hard to pinpoint one major inciting incident to take us into the second act, the film instead building piece by piece a sense that there is an unseen force working against the filmmakers. Once their journey into the woods has begun, and after some footage of the students at Coffin Rock, the site of five nineteenth century ritualistic murders, the students set up camp for the night.
As they hike deeper into the woods they find seven small stone cairns, mirroring the seven children murdered by Rustin Parr. Josh accidentally knocks over one of the rock piles. They camp.
And so begins a recurring pattern of increasing threat and malice, where with every cycle of day into night further signs become evident that they are not so much on the verge of immediate death, but that there is something unseen with a malignant desire to harass and torment the three youths. The two nights following Josh’s disturbance of the stone cairn are plagued by the sound of twigs and branches snapping all around them. They initially rationalise these sounds as the passage of forest animals or even locals but are unable to locate their source, and the sounds soon grow in intensity beyond these possibilities. They awaken in the morning to find three stone cairns have been arranged outside their tent, marking the first definite sign that they’re being targeted.
They are unable to locate their car. They happen upon a clearing in which a multitude of manmade twig effigies are suspended from trees. They hear children laughing in the middle of the night before their tent is shaken violently, sending them running in a panic through the darkness. Upon returning to the campsite the next day, Josh finds his backpack covered in ‘blue jelly shit’. Once their compass has failed them, causing them to arrive back at the same point deep in the woods from where they started out at the beginning of the day, they have no choice but to once again camp. The relentless rhythm of increasing danger with each passing night continues when Heather and Mike awaken to find Josh gone.
Following the sound of Josh’s tortured screams in the middle of the next night, Heather’s discovery of a bundle of twigs tied with a scrap of fabric from Josh’s shirt containing bloody teeth and hair, and the heart-wrenching confession Heather films apologising to their families for initiating the project (Mike had also been instructed to film a confessional; so far as I know it’s never been released), they follow further cries from the unseen Josh to an abandoned, derelict house. Strange runic symbols and children’s handprints adorn the walls. Confusion occurs as Heather tries to keep up with Mike while he races around the house following Josh’s wailing. The hysterical Heather finally catches up with Mike in the basement where she finds him facing silently into the corner of the room, just like Rustin Parr’s victims. She screams. Something attacks her. She and her camera drop to the ground.
Cut to black.
As with so many great works, The Blair Witch Project was a product of its time. Aside from the ‘90s-era video footage itself, the grainy quality of which withholds so much information from the viewer (an aspect continuously missed in found footage films since with their glossy digital visuals), its famously effective online marketing campaign wouldn’t have worked had it not launched just as the internet was becoming commercially available to the public. The global network had already caused an economic boom, changing the face of business and international commerce as many corporations took profitable advantage of this new worldwide connectivity. It was only a matter of time before inventive filmmakers used it to inject realism into a movie marketing strategy. Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick did just that, fooling many into believing that the story of Heather Donahue and her small crew of documentary filmmakers was true.
Audience naivety and a pre-YouTube/Facebook online landscape worked for it. The limitations of technology worked for it. The times worked for it. The movie’s website featured fake police reports, news articles, and interviews; ‘missing’ posters were distributed at its Sundance premier, with the actors listed as ‘missing, presumed dead’ on IMDB for an entire year (their parents even received sympathy cards from fooled family friends); and the excellent mockumentary short Curse of The Blair Witch (found as of this writing on YouTube, Vimeo, and as a bonus extra on the DVD and Blu-ray releases) was shown on the Sci-Fi Channel as a promotional – yet convincing – prelude to the movie’s release. Parallels can be drawn between Project’s attempts to convince audiences of its truth and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s implications of reality by way of its introduction, although the latter was doing so as director Tobe Hooper’s way of commentating on government deception of the time. (Check out the brilliant Ryan Hollinger’s thorough video detailing Hooper’s intentions in his video The Art of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Making Daylight Scary – more from Hollinger later.) Debate still rages as to whether the Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast really did spark panic across America in response to an imaginary Martian invasion, but if it did (and I truly hope it did) never since has a work of fiction fooled an unsuspecting public the way The Blair Witch Project did. For audiences, the horror of Black Hills Forest began before they even set foot in cinemas.
But the film’s status as a cultural phenomenon is so much more than an innovative marketing strategy, and remains a significant work even when viewed outwith the context of its time and release. Nevertheless, it’s always been a love-it-or-hate-it deal. Even slogging my way through the film aged thirteen, somehow bored out my skull, I still didn’t hate the thing, but many do. There’s been derision over the Heather Donahue character, claims the ending was a cop out, and of course the ubiquitous: YoU dOn’T eVeN gEt To SeE aNyThInG! Nevertheless, every critic worth their salt seems to have poured praise over Project. The legendary Roger Ebert gave it a rare four stars out of four, calling it “an extraordinarily effective horror film”; Mark Kermode, in closing his TV special The Blair Witch Phenomenon, called it “everything you’d hope for, and nothing you’d expect”; and you only need to glance over the summary of critical reviews on Rotten Tomatoes to get a feel for its interminable acclaim. Still, the opinions of critics aren’t the be-all and end-all, and no number of positive reviews would shed any light on what makes the movie so divisive.
The Blair Witch Project resides in a loophole, a bubble of incomparability that exists due to its abandonment of horror tropes and utterly singular style. No, it’s not the first found footage film, and yes, the thing’s been imitated endlessly since its release, but nothing before or after has matched its authenticity. There’s an inescapable feeling that what you’re watching really is a recovered artefact from a haunted forest, and that sense of reality is a result of the film’s rejection of so many storytelling customs.
Although its structure follows a semi-conventional introductory first act in which the three main characters and the world they will inhabit are established, the film’s rising tension is built in such a way that at no point do Heather, Josh, and Mike have the slightest foothold or advantage against their tormentor. It’s been written that The Blair Witch Project adheres strictly to the three-act format, but to me its structure doesn’t seem to tick these traditional boxes, instead relentlessly bombarding the characters with successions of traumas, increasing in hostility with a total absence of hope. In this context, the Fichtean Curve seems to match its structure better, a format that could be said to have more bearing on reality, since real life tragedies themselves rarely follow a three-act structure and are often mere descents straight into chaos. The short runtime compliments this continual rise in tension, accumulating in a climax of hopelessness and defeat. But categorising the film in such a way is meaningless. The film is a perpetual, relentless plunge into madness that defies placement.
The movie avoids all horror desensitisation of the time. In this shaky footage you’ll find no stars, no special effects, no gore (besides the bloody parcel of miscellaneous bits of Josh), and no musical score. At no point does Heather hook up with either of her colleagues; its lacking so much as a hint of romance is hugely refreshing. The film deprives itself of a marketable villain, its trailer, poster, and merchandise (and final product) utterly bereft of anything remotely akin to your Ghostfaces, Samaras, or Pinheads. As for the brilliantly minimal ending, the studio had the crew go back out into the woods to film alternatives which included Mike either hung from a noose, crucified on a giant twig effigy with a bloody chest, levitating amongst hanging stickmen, or simply standing in a trance staring at Heather. There was even talk of a towering twig effigy chasing them through the woods. In the end, less was more. The creators stuck to their guns and the original ending won out.
In addition, something was originally meant to appear on camera. Heather’s “Oh my god, what the fuck is that?” as they run screaming from their shaking tent was a real time response to a ghostly figure running alongside them (art director Ricardo Moreno wearing white long-johns, white stockings, white thermals, and white pantyhose pulled over his head; according to Sánchez in the Sundance Channel Afterthought, there were “a couple of ghosts” that night, so Moreno may not have been the only spectral figure out there) who ultimately wasn’t even picked up on her camera, but did coax some chilling hysterics. It’s true: you really do ‘see nothing’ throughout the film. The quality of the footage was actually degraded further in post-production, so even if there was anything to see (besides a guy in thermals) you probably wouldn’t be able to see much anyway. The footage’s degradation and lack of visual clues cause the viewer to reach for more and project their own fears, turning the grainy footage of trees and thicket into a kind of found footage Rorschach test. The whole experience is uniquely interactive. Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick turn the film’s shoestring budget into one of its greatest assets. They make everything that shouldn’t work, work.
This abandonment of everything audiences were (and still are) used to may go some way to explain the polarising opinions of the movie. If you judge it by the same standards of other films of its kind, then it may miss the mark for you. It seems at times more like some kind of art installation, an experiment in which comparison will yield no useful results. Ultimately, The Blair Witch Project is an example of what can be achieved by ignoring just about every seemingly essential genre rule and trope.
The roots of the found footage genre can be traced back to the epistolary novel, wherein the story is told through diary entries, letters, police reports, newspaper extracts, and any other written document the author can dream up. An early example of the epistolary novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published exactly one hundred years before production began on The Blair Witch Project, is an excellent example of the influence of the epistolary style on found footage. The novel’s introductory ‘disclaimer’ reads:
“How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them. All needless matters have been eliminated, so that a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief may stand forth as simple fact. There is throughout no statement of past things wherein memory may err, for all the records chosen are exactly contemporary, given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them.”
This is our first hint when reading Dracula that the written accounts making up the story will be given from individuals just as much in the dark as us. Jonathan, Mina, Van Helsing: they are experiencing events in tandem with ourselves. This is no work of time-given hindsight or recollection far after the fact, but a ‘live’ personalised presentation of events as they occur. Sound familiar?
Just as Dracula, or even Frankenstein, wasn’t the first epistolary novel, nor was The Blair Witch Project the first found footage. That honour is given to 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, with low-budget entries into the subgenre such as Manson Family Movies (1984), UFO Abduction (1989), and the cult classic Man Bites Dog (1992) also predating it. Most of its precursors fall under the ‘mockumentary’ banner, characterised by heavy editing and overlaid narration. In this sense, The Blair Witch Project really was one of the very first true found footage films, and did something legitimately new. Another of these copiously edited ‘mockumentaries’, The Last Broadcast, which premiered ten months before Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s Sundance unveiling, is sometimes mistaken as an influence on their film. However, Sánchez and Myrick had been developing Project since 1993, with Heather, Mike, and Josh setting up camp in October 1997, some five months before the premier of The Last Broadcast. Despite these predecessors, ask many casual horror fans the name of the first found footage and they will give The Blair Witch Project as their answer.
So what was it about this particular entry into the subgenre that made such an impact on both audiences and the industry alike, and where did the genre go from there? Now back to horror analyst Ryan Hollinger, this time with his video The Blair Witch Project: Why Is It Scary? in which he explains:
“It may not have been the first of its kind, but The Blair Witch Project brought found footage into the mainstream with a very unique marketing campaign that worked in synergy with its cinematic presentation. It wasn’t really until another low budget, found footage horror called Paranormal Activity dominated at the box office in 2007 that suddenly everyone jumped on the bandwagon of low budget, easy to produce films that made instant returns on investment, at which point found footage horrors became normalised, and came at us left right and centre – some good, others not so much.”
Ryan Hollinger, The Blair Witch Project: Why Is It Scary?
Despite there being examples of the found footage genre that deserve far more attention than they get (the J-horror entry Noroi: The Curse and, more importantly, Exhibit A – watch it NOW), some that push the very limits of horror (the August Underground trilogy: don’t judge me), others that are mostly ineffectual but somehow I still enjoy (The Poughkeepsie Tapes and The Dyatlov Pass Incident), and others still that are considered classics for good reason (REC, although I prefer the English remake, Quarantine, followed by the Spanish REC sequel, pretending they’re of the same continuity), the subgenre is now generally regarded with critical derision, and for good reason. As Hollinger explained, found footage has been saturated with quick, low quality studio cash ins, so it’s no wonder the poor old shaky cam’s made such a bad name for itself. Interestingly, despite The Blair Witch Project being regularly cited as the number one influencer on later entries into the subgenre, most actually take their cues from the aforementioned Paranormal Activity (an undeservingly scoffed at film by horror enthusiasts; it’s exceptionally effective) ramping up the jump scares to try and mimic its success. The well-regarded Lake Mungo does away with the tiresome jump scare formula with great results, but still can’t hold a candle to Project. Heather, Mike, and Josh’s footage remains its own thing, completely apart from the rest of the genre.
No other attempt at the style has prompted such levels of speculation and discussion as Myrick and Sánchez’s creation. Landing at just the right time – after the ‘80s slasher boom, right in the middle of the tired march of ‘90s/2000s post-slashers, and before social media and the filming-of-everything era took root – The Blair Witch Project wedged itself into fertile social and cultural soil for an interpretable film such as this. In an essay from the Columbia University archive (the author’s name is not given) the writer, in referencing another article, explores the role a new millennium may have played in its success, and details similar works whose impacts owed to their eras:
“In an August 31, 1999 NY Times article on The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, another blockbuster horror movie, Robert Sklar, a New York University professor on the editorial board of the left-wing film magazine Cineaste, speculated that its popularity might be driven by unease about the millennium. People are ‘spooked by all the things that are coming up at this time.’ He added that the horror genre has always been cyclical, and that its moments of highest popularity have coincided with moments of extreme social and cultural dislocation. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu were popular as silent films in Europe following the real horrors of World War I and Hollywood horror films such as Frankenstein and Dracula made their mark in the early 1930’s, when Americans were struggling with economic depression. In the 1950’s, as Americans were troubled by the atomic age and the cold war, films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers depicted alien invaders, giant bugs and nuclear experiments gone awry.”
So what was it? Was there subtextual imagery of Vietnam jungle guerrilla warfare? Has the misplaced pre-9/11 US sense of security resonated with later audiences? (“It’s very hard to get lost in America these days, and even harder to stay lost!” / “Because this is America, and it’s not possible!”) Or did the film tap into the rising abduction and paedophile hysteria that would reach witch hunt proportions through the early 2000s? These are tenuous speculations, but they do show how a film that leaves so much up to the viewer can spark the imagination and trigger discussion, in not so dissimilar a fashion to the slew of fan theories that have surfaced through the years (“Josh killed them!” “They time travelled!” “Rustin Parr’s the witch!”) The lesson’s simple: leave enough space between the lines and viewers will rush to fill in the blanks. In the same way that psychoanalysts try to lead patients into discovering answers and truths for themselves, films that give us the freedom to formulate our own theories and ideas – and, more importantly, project our own fears – are the ones that make the greatest impact.
In The Blair Witch Project, our doomed filmmakers set out with three main pieces of equipment: the CP-16 (a bulky 16mm black and white film camera, used to shoot the actual documentary), the DAT (digital audiotape sound recorder, used to capture the audio for the documentary footage), and Heather’s Hi8 colour handheld, used for her ‘making of’ behind the scenes footage. This combination of filmmaking tools lends itself to some ingenious directorial decisions, such as the audio of Heather’s cries in the final scene (picked up by the Hi8 in Mike’s hands as he moves around the house) being paired with her soundless CP-16 footage as she slowly descends to the basement, lending an eerie, disembodied feel to Heather’s hysterics. Transporting the bulky equipment across creeks provides additional complications for the characters, as well as worrying about returning rented gear. Another possibility their filmmaking setup provides is regular tonal shifts in the visuals, with the alternating colour/black and white interplay allowing us to witness their living hell through different stylistic palettes. Of course, the casual viewer will have no idea what the students mean when they refer to a ‘CP’ or a ‘DAT’, but this passing use of unexplained equipment lingo gives further weight to the feeling we’re watching genuine footage that hasn’t been dumbed-down for the sake of an audience. In the end, however, the most important role the technology plays is in the development and revealing of character, particularly the group’s leader.
Heather begins as a keen filmmaker, fiercely passionate and driven in her pursuit of the project. We are presented with a female lead less in the vein of what the archetypical ‘final girl’ came to be in the ‘90s, and more in the mould of Ellen Ripley or Chris MacNeil: flawed with a sometimes-hysterical edge, but with a remarkably steely resolve and determination. Yet Heather is an experiment in downfall by ambition. Is she the Victor Frankenstein of The Blair Witch Project? From Macbeth to Scarface, ruination via aspirations gone wrong has been a common trope in tragedy, and Heather’s continual denial that anything is amiss (and her arrogant pursuit of the project until the reality of their situation finally overtakes her hubris) draws parallels with the classic downfall tales. The film is arguably Heather’s story, who has a clear and satisfying (though tragic) arc, although the hyperrealism of the footage – as well as the aforementioned abandonment of so many tropes – ensures the spotlight doesn’t stay on anyone for too long. All three actors are given roughly equal screen time, a rarity in the found footage genre where at least one character is often relegated as The Camera Operator, and as such effectively rendered a non-entity (think Cloverfield/a large portion of Creep – the 2014 found footage, not the flawlessly-crafted 2004 London Underground horror. The 2014 film, in this writer’s humble opinion, deserves little of the boundless acclaim it enjoys.) Blair Witch gets around this by having Heather not only the presenter of their documentary, but also eager to film the making of the project itself, while the other two intermittently take turns on the Hi8 to give their unrelenting leader a taste of her own medicine once her incessant filming starts to grate on them. Such simple solutions for a problem so many examples of the subgenre trip over.
While Josh’s role was initially intended to be that of peacemaker, while Mike’s was to be the newcomer perspective of the audience (leading to much unease for the viewer once his sanity starts to buckle), Myrick and Sánchez pushed the Captain Ahab quality in Heather that she was apparently hired for. This tenacity lent plausibility to her insistence to keep filming even once their lives were clearly in danger, something many found footage films struggle with. The actors played on the conundrum of why someone would keep the tape running in the presence of such danger, offering up revealing dialogue in which she pleads with Josh, who’s grown tired of her constant filming and has turned the Hi8 on her, that “It’s all I fucking have left.” Most significantly, as Josh himself points out, “It’s like a totally filtered reality. It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.” To Heather, the camera has gone from the tool of her pursuit – Ahab’s ship, if you will – to a life raft. She’s lost at sea with no hope of survival and she knows it, but through the lens of a camera she’s able to separate herself from the constant threat of death. She’s able to remain on the water’s surface.
Is this what we’re all doing when watching horror, separating ourselves from death through the comfort of a screen? What about the rise of smartphones and social media in the years since The Blair Witch Project? Maybe we’ve all become Heather, burying our heads in screens so as to see life through a filter. Whatever role technology plays in the film, subtextually or otherwise, the failing of the group’s equipment brilliantly parallels the disintegration of their sanity. In his essay ‘How The Blair Witch Project Perfects Psychological Horror’, movie analyst CinemaWizardBoy writes:
“The possession of the map and compass signify the characters’ potential to navigate their surroundings, and in one of the film’s most intense scenes, the group’s cohesiveness takes a major blow when it’s revealed that Mike kicked the map into a creek when he found it useless. After this, the compass fails them when they use it to attempt to walk south all day, only by evening to find that they walked in a complete circle. As the group fails to utilize their navigational equipment, they fail to utilize their audio-visual equipment by being unable to capture the menacing presence surrounding them. The digital audio tape only records distorted noises when obvious sounds of yelling, footsteps, and laughing children are heard. Heather’s reliance on technology as a means of coping with the threat of death is a frequent point of contention among the group. She claims ‘this is all I have’ when fighting with Mike and Josh. Our reliance on technology to help us provide social order is evident as we descend into chaos when technology fails.”
CinemaWizardBoy, How The Blair Witch Project Perfects Psychological Horror
As there is binary opposition between the ‘good’ filmmakers and the ‘bad’ Blair Witch, so is there opposition between what’s real and what’s not. The students are rational, intelligent individuals, making their confrontation with the supernatural even more disquieting. What does it take to turn such grounded characters into leaf-eating, national anthem screaming broken souls rocking back and forth in the thicket? Whatever it takes, The Blair Witch Project has it.
Roger Ebert says of Heather’s agonising on-camera confession:
“Eventually her brave attitude disintegrates into a remarkable shot in which she films her own apology (I was reminded of explorer Robert Scott’s notebook entries as he froze to death in Antarctica).”
Roger Ebert, The Blair Witch Project
Robert Scott freezing to death in an unknown land; Dyer and Danforth’s exploration of that which was not meant to be explored in At the Mountains of Madness; the folk horror subgenre’s recurring theme of a protagonist’s tampering with ‘evil in the soil’, leading to their downfall: the tale of Heather, Mike, and Josh stands alongside the most harrowing discovery-gone-wrong stories. Aside from the external torments, the stripping away of technology’s reliability places the group deeper into the position of primal vulnerability at the hands of the natural environment. It could be argued that the trio’s dismissal of the warnings given by the locals before setting out, as well as their arrogant underestimation of nature, are the real enemies.
“Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst.”
Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature
Being unscripted, the lengthy audition process for The Blair Witch Project was steered entirely towards finding actors with exceptional improvisational abilities. Over the course of many months, scenarios were immediately thrown at prospective actors entering the audition room, such as, “You’ve been in jail for the last nine years. We’re the parole board. Why should we let you go?” A pause for thought of any kind meant rejection; they needed natural, innate improvisers. Heather Donahue’s response came without the slightest hesitation: “I don’t think you should.”
Of pre-production, production designer Ben Rock, in his illuminating eight-part DreadCentral Blair Witch making-of piece, said:
“Usually with pre-production you go through script pages, pull out elements that apply to your department, make lists, audition ideas for the director or directors. With the footage we were about to create, so much of what the it of it was going to be was fluid because one element at the beginning would pull on other elements at the end. We weren’t creating a movie which was figured out before we started; we were creating a massive funhouse to be discovered and documented by people who didn’t know what they were supposed to find – a different mindset entirely.”
Ben Rock, The Making of The Blair Witch Project
Once the rigorous process of scouting, designing, and planning the woodland trail had been completed, and the actors were briefed on the unusual proceedings to come (“They let us know that our safety was their concern, but our comfort was not.” –Heather Donahue) the crew and three actors headed out. Heather and Josh really did pick up Mike, and they really did stop at a 7-11 for snacks before making their way to the quaint town of Burkittsville where they ate at a diner, although most of the interviews were filmed at a nearby slightly larger town with planted actors. They stayed in a motel before setting out the following day for Seneca Creek State Park, the woods in which everything but the film’s finale would take place.
A large part of what made The Blair Witch Project feel so authentic was the long-form improvisational manner in which the actors were told to proceed. They were instructed to stay in character right through the eight days and nights of shooting, saying the safeword ‘taco’ to their fellow actors if they had to break character at any point, and ‘bulldozer’ to the crew hidden in the trees around them should they need to drop out. Their nails really were dirty and their hair really was unkempt, and not in the usual glossy Hollywood fashion. Similarly, their sleep deprivation and hunger were genuine (less food was given to them as the shoot progressed; by the end, each actor was living on just a PowerBar and a piece of fruit each day. The word ‘taco’ truly was a cruel choice of safeword.) In comparing the authentic feel of Project to higher budget Hollywood films, Joshua Leonard himself explained in an interview with Brett Mannes for Salon.com shortly after the release of the movie:
“I think what worked on this film is that we hit a stride where all self-consciousness disappeared and we stopped thinking, ‘Oh my God, I look like shit.’ I think what worked was the surrender to the process. Even in the realest American cinema that I see, there’s still not that sense that this is reality. There’s still that sense that you are watching a movie. And hopefully, if we did get our jobs right, that sense disappears when you watch this movie.”
Joshua Leonard, Something Wicked
Heather, Mike, and Josh’s dishevelment and exhaustion – the characters’ and the actors’ – were real, but it’s still important to point out their masterful performances. Yes, there was a reality to their eight days of shooting, but it was still an act, a fact consistently overlooked in appraisals of the trio’s efforts. Theirs are some of the most emotionally charged and convincing performances I’ve seen in any film, horror or otherwise.
Rarely did the directors or crew have to ‘break scenario’, but continuing with production designer Ben Rock’s aforementioned ‘The Making of The Blair Witch Project’ series of articles, he describes one such situation. Once Josh had been taken out by the Blair Witch (actually enjoying a meal at Denny’s followed by a Jane’s Addiction concert) and the two remaining actors were due to discover the wrapped up parcel of Josh’s bloody teeth and hair left outside their tent like a cat’s proud doorstep offering, it suddenly dawned on Rock they might not even open the parcel. He asked Sánchez and Myrick for permission to briefly approach the actors to tell them to open it. Here he recounts the exchange with Heather and Mike:
“‘No fucking way,’ both of their eyes said to me. Mike was especially done. ‘Look man,’ he said, ‘we just did a really good scene at the tent and it wouldn’t make sense for me now. I’m not going to open that thing up.’
Fuck. I get it – they’re tired, they’re hungry, they know today is the very last day and they’re ready for this shit to be over. I wasn’t the director and I didn’t know what to say except that the bundle needed to get opened.
‘I’ll do it,’ Heather said.
So relieved. ‘Thank you,’ I said, handing them the remainder of their supplies, and I walked back to the car, not knowing if I’d done the right thing.
I walked back to the car, exhausted myself with the beginning stages of a cold tickling the back of my throat.
And then I heard that scream. The scream/gasp Heather emits involuntarily when she sees the flannel bundle of bloody teeth and hair. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I felt her terror live as it happened. It felt so real, the kind of real that this entire exercise was an attempt to dig down into. It was working.”
Ben Rock, The Making of The Blair Witch Project
Heather, Mike, and Josh carried walkie-talkies so they could be given further instructions where necessary, and were told to follow directions given to them by the crew to ensure they would reach the designated campsites each night. GPS units pre-programmed with stopping waypoints would lead the actors to a milk crate (complete with bicycle flag so there’d be no chance of missing it) housing supplies and three plastic canisters. These three containers held details for each actor as to where their individual story was going, and they were to improvise all dialogue in line with these general directions. This improvisation led to authentic, real-life conversations that would never happen in a Hollywood scripted film. For example, I counted nine instances of ‘at this point’ during my last viewing (with even more occurrences in the unused footage). People do tend to repeat the same phrases in reality, particularly in times of stress, as well as parroting those around them. This subtle mark of realism was reinforced by the use of the word ‘fuck’ 137 times, according to a Christian, right-wing review brought up in the director’s commentary. Nuances such as these are against all scripting conventions, but completely true to life in a group and circumstance such as this.
To add to the feeling of spontaneity, the directions given to each actor in the plastic canisters were to be shown to neither of the other two, meaning that each character’s discoveries about their colleagues (such as the reveal that Heather had known they were ‘temporarily’ lost, or their learning of Mike’s kicking the map into the creek) were completely genuine. Each actor not knowing the others’ motivations leads to our experiencing of events alongside Heather, Mike, and Josh. There’s an unpredictability and disorientation, a sense of unknowing that we share with the three wannabe filmmakers that translates into a very real feeling that the footage is unstaged and disturbingly authentic.
But this authenticity isn’t enough – it still has to be frightening. The film’s terror manifests through various channels, from the unravelling of our group’s sanity (Heather’s own unhinging following curiously close to the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) to the gradual reveal that whatever is tormenting them is indeed supernatural and unconquerable. The woods are reconstructed as a place of violence and insanity. Our heroes are as unlikely to escape Black Hills Forest as from a sinking ship, the deadly ocean transposed into a maze of trees. The ruthless cycle of day and night lends an unrelenting predictability to the escalation of the threat, wherein the three students (and the audience) quickly come to understand that with each passage of daylight into darkness, this unknown danger – this force of cruelty and torture beyond our understanding – will ramp up a notch, and what’s more certain than the setting of the sun?
Like the shark in Jaws, theirs is a tormentor that can’t be reasoned or bargained with, except this tormentor can’t even be seen or understood, and certainly can’t be stopped. Our three filmmakers have nothing to go on other than Heather’s research and the (possibly unreliable) interviews with the townsfolk, rendering all their theories nothing more than desperate conjecture. In episode twenty of ‘The Faculty of Horror’ podcast, Alexandra West describes The World of Witches, a book detailing the history of witches she found in an antique bookstore in Toronto. She highlights a point made in the preface:
“The author makes a really great distinction in that the history of witches is told by the people who believed that these women were witches, not by the actual witches themselves. So there’s a sense of the story being told from the outsider, and what we have in The Blair Witch is three people going into the woods, going into this witch’s territory, and having to experience her world on her terms.”
Heather, Mike, and Josh cling onto scraps of second-hand information garnered from the locals, these ‘stories told from the outsiders’, but ultimately abandon this rationale as they descend into lunacy.
To emphasise this sense of unreachability, this feeling that the witch is a force outside of our comprehension, an alphabet used by medieval occultist Cornelius Agrippa called ‘Transits Fluvii’, from his third Book of Occult Philosophy written around 1510, (as well as the ‘Celestial Alphabet’/’Angelic Script’) was inscribed on the walls and around the doorways and windows of Rustin Parr’s house in a practice known as ‘threshold warding’, the occult custom of etching hex runes around entrances for protection. The twig effigies were inspired by symbols from the Transits Fluvii, leading to a kind of distorted perversion of the crucifix symbol. We’re given little, and since what we are given is not only handed to us through grainy, degraded footage, but also in such things as ancient forgotten alphabets and interpretable stone cairns, it is left to us to create the monster. The terror of the film isn’t the witch, but the unknown. Nothing is more frightening than a blank canvas filled with our own projected horrors.
In his essay The Blair Witch Project, Jonathan Wallace of The Ethical Spectacle references media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s ‘hot and cool media’, wherein each media invites different levels of user participation. He also gives his take on the malevolent force in the woods:
“The information presented on the screen is very spare – much of it is [digital] video; when it is film, it is black and white; whole minutes of the movie, in the woods at night or inside the tent, pass without anything on the screen. McLuhan’s point is that the viewer participates in a cool medium, supplying much of the missing information, while a hot medium makes the viewer passive by supplying so much information. The viewer must engage with Blair Witch; there is so little to the story that the viewer must provide his own fears, his own experiences in the woods, to fill in the blanks. Trying to analyze the movie as a logical act of story-telling is almost useless. To the townspeople, the Blair Witch is anything which frightened them in the past two hundred years. We cannot tell if the young people are stalked and killed by a supernatural force, one or more of the townspeople they met, or even by their own colleague – as the nightly noises don’t become recognizable until [Josh] has vanished. There is no Blair witch; there is only a Blair witch project, which, like many projects, ends very badly.”
Jonathan Wallace, The Blair Witch Project
In the end, the film proves that for all our progress and confidence as a species, we are still just lumps of meat, powerless and utterly at the mercy of the threat of a hypothetical entity such as the Blair Witch. Luckily for us Blair Witches don’t exist, but the reminder that we remain slaves to the uncharted darkness is a terror that trumps all others.
Filming for The Blair Witch Project wrapped on Halloween night, 1997. What followed were eight months of editing eight days’ footage – twenty-two hours of video camera recordings whittled down to mere minutes. It proved a masterclass in editing. The film’s strategy of stepping back and allowing the imaginations of its audience to dictate their terror worked, grossing nearly $250 million worldwide on its skimpy budget of $60,000, and making it one of the most successful independent films of all time.
There’s much more to the legacy of The Blair Witch Project than the attempts to turn it into a franchise. Despite the original creators’ plans to follow up with an eighteenth century prequel detailing the events of Elly Kedward’s banishment from Blair, and eventual transformation into the Blair Witch (mythology which Sánchez and Myrick had created before the movie even started filming, and is expanded upon in follow-up mockumentaries), nothing came after which could even stand alongside the original. From descriptions of their plans for the ill-fated prequel, Ben Rock – aforementioned production designer on the original – saw in Robert Eggers’ sublime 2015 The Witch something close to what could have been. In the end, what’s followed (as of this writing) have been two pretty ineffective sequels, various comic books, video games, a fictional dossier, multiple novels, and even current talk of a television series. Whenever I rewatch The Blair Witch Project, I can’t help but feel like these later efforts are only clamouring to turn the film into something it’s not. It was a lightning strike, an exception to every rule. Although this authentic, unparalleled piece of filmmaking can’t be weakened or diluted by the myriad attempts to continue its lore, all its follow-ups have – and will most likely continue to – miss the point.
In his collection of essays on the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King expertly summarised the effectiveness of the film:
“Blair Witch, it seems to me, is about madness – because what is that, really, except getting lost in the woods that exist even inside the sanest heads? The footage becomes increasingly jerky, the cuts weirder, the conversations increasingly disconnected from reality. As the movie nears the end of its short course (at just eighty minutes and change, it’s like a jury-rigged surface-to-surface missile loaded with dynamite), the video actually disappears for long stretches, just as rationality disappears from the mind of a man or a woman losing his/her grip on the real world. We are left with a mostly dark screen, panting, elliptical lines of dialogue (some we can understand, some we can only guess at), noises from the woods that might or might not be made by human beings, and occasional blurry flashes of image: a tree trunk, a jutting branch, the side of a tent in a close-up so intense that the cloth looks like green skin. ‘Hungry, cold, and hunted,’ Heather whispers. ‘I’m scared to close my eyes, and I’m scared to open them.’ Watching her descent into irrationality, I felt the same way.”
Stephen King, Danse Macabre
One of the greatest cinematic experiences of my life was attending a ‘secret’ remote screening of The Blair Witch Project as part of the 2019 Glasgow Film Festival…
…in the woods.
On that black March evening, once the coach had dropped us off alongside a muddy trail leading into the trees, a small group of us made our way along a woodland path lit only by our torches. We edged cautiously around hanging twig effigies, squinting through the trees at lit tents in the distance, before blood-soaked actors leapt from the darkness begging to be saved. The forest eventually gave way to a lake, rendered a lagoon of blood by surrounding red spotlights, until our path finally brought us to our destination: the ruins of Mugdock Castle. Food and drink were served amongst the crumbling walls before we were ushered into a marquee in which Total Film editor Jamie Graham gave a passionate introduction to the movie.
This tremendously well-done celebration of the film served as a reminder of what originally helped me find the horror in The Blair Witch Project. Sitting in the screening marquee with its tarpaulin rustling in the wind (not unlike the rustling of a tent), I found the audience’s gasps and collective holdings-of-breath augmented my own fear, just as my stepbrother’s reaction to the film had ignited that fear all those years ago. It’s this pliability that’s required for a work such as this to move you. Audiences must be ready to bend to its whims, to willingly succumb to the g-force of its rollercoaster. Viewers that get the most from these eighty-one minutes of unsteady footage are those empathetic enough by nature to step outside of themselves and truly enter another’s nightmare, and isn’t that a quality worth exercising? If you remain in your couch, you’ll get nothing. If you enter the woods with Heather, Mike, and Josh, you may live an experience this writer believes is unparalleled in the genre. There truly is no greater terror than that of our own minds, and Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s masterpiece drags the waters of that terror. In this cynical age of harsh judgement and criticism of films and music and all things creative, the flexibility that films such as this demand of us is a healthy reminder that we must open ourselves to the experience of art, instead of waiting for it to open for us.
Like Heather’s project, this essay has been doomed from the start. I set out to convince you that The Blair Witch Project is the most effective horror film ever made, yet we all know such claims are meaningless (particularly since I’ve not even seen every horror film ever made.) Art’s value is in its subjectivity, and the only substantial point I can make in this writing is that this movie shakes my emotional core on a level deeper than any other horror I’ve seen. It resonates with me profoundly, and I’m forever grateful that my eyes were finally opened to its weight and significance.
What would Heather have learnt from her outing had she survived? Maybe to think twice before arrogantly underestimating the power of the great unknown, and maybe I’ve learnt the same. In 1999 at one of its first screenings, aged thirteen, I underestimated The Blair Witch Project, only to later find in its shaky, grainy footage true horror. Never again will I underestimate the power of the great unknown.