The Blair Witch Project is the first movie I can recall in my life that was immensely popular and, as a result, became very popular to hate. The reasons were usually sort of samey: The camera shakes too much, it made the viewer feel nauseous, nothing happens, it’s boring, it’s this, it’s that, it’s whatever. Most of all, the people who hated it just didn’t think it was scary.
What people find scary is going to vary from person to person, so if The Blair Witch Project doesn’t do it for you, it’s not going to do it for you. But for those who enjoy the movie as much as I do, there’s a lot there for the viewer. It’s a real treat. It’s a real rarity in the world of films that it was such a huge, just phenomenal success at the box office and immediately became a piece of our pop culture fabric.
It was a sensation when it was released. It’s hard to convey just how big of a deal this movie was when it came out. It was the movie that sort of started viral internet marketing. Artisan, the studio who released The Blair Witch Project, just treated the found-footage style that we take for granted today as if it really was footage that police had recovered in the woods. They had the three actors at the center of the film lay low and pretend they were missing. They had a special on the sci-fi channel that created an entire mythos for the Blair Witch.
No one really believed that the movie was real, but it was fun to imagine. And The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first movie to pretend that its pseudo-documentary stylings were based in fact (Cannibal Holocaust did that two decades prior, but obviously wasn’t a huge box-office smash given its controversial-as-hell content including rape, torture and real animal killings), but it was just the right time and the right place. Everything worked together to form the perfect storm.
Unlike the slew of imitators and homages that have followed in The Blair Witch Project’s wake, the found-footage format for the movie is actually integral to the story itself. It’s not found-footage just for the sake of breaking the fourth wall with immunity, it’s a specific narrative design to put us directly in the perspective of the main characters. We’re with them every step of the way, seeing exactly what they see. And what they see lays somewhere deep within the shadows of the woods.
The plot, by now, is familiar: Heather, Josh and Michael (named after the real-life actors who played the roles), are making a documentary about the Blair Witch, a legendary evil that haunts the woods of Maryland. They interview locals who fill in some exposition about the witch’s history, some of whom may be mentally ill, others who may be pulling the kids’ legs. Some might be sincere.
Once they venture into the woods, they find that they have become lost. Trying to keep up their spirits up at first, they soon get on each other’s nerves and jump down each other’s throats. Whether supernatural or not, something is clearly out there in the forest with them and it doesn’t like them.
Ambiguity is The Blair Witch Project’s best asset. Venturing into the domain of a witch and seeing it, in all its evil glory, just isn’t scary. It might be for about ten seconds. It might be good for a jump or a jolt, or momentary chills, but it isn’t something to linger on in our hearts. What is scary, on a basic and very profound level, is the unknown. Being so horribly lost that you accept the fact that the land surrounding you is going to be the place where you die. The shadows. The thing that goes bump in the night. Giving a face to thing removes the absolute mystery that its existence is shrouded in. And when Heather says directly to the camera, “I’m scared to close my eyes, I’m scared to open them,” it’s absolutely chilling.
Whether or not there even was a witch in The Blair Witch Project is irrelevant. The final answer to that question is up to the viewer and the script and direction by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez makes that the entire point of the film. You can either believe that Heather, Josh and Michael were never really lost in the woods, but were being psychologically and emotionally manipulated by dark arts until they were so beaten down and weak with fear that they finally succumbed to it. Or, you can believe that these kids from the city who didn’t know a whole lot about wilderness survival got lost in the woods and locals from town, with malicious intent, fucked with them and slowly drove them crazy before killing them. If they even died at all. Whatever happens that isn’t explicitly stated is up to the viewer to decide.
No one is inherently afraid of witches, ghouls, goblins or monsters. What we’re all afraid of is much more primal or instinctual and The Blair Witch Project taps into that fear. When Heather say that nowadays it’s impossible to get lost in the woods, and they do just that, it’s such a great criticism of bravado, of being young and dumb and too confident.
After some more time, after the buzz and the perhaps even over-hype of this movie is forgotten and becomes legend, I think it will be regarded as a classic in the same vain as Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and even, yes… Psycho; I do think that the way it builds and builds into such hysterical fear is something to be considered, without exaggeration, Hitchcockian. I think it’s that good, the way it layers character development with completely unexplained terror. It’s a perfect movie to watch in October, when the wind has a chilling bite to the air and the falling leaves are scuttling in the streets.