I had to double-check the release date of the original Blair Witch Project. Sometimes, my teen years seem like a jumbled haze. I knew, only, that I was a teenager when I saw the film, and after googling its opening date, it appears I was a day shy of my fifteenth birthday when the movie came out. As Michael pointed out more recently when we watched the film, The Blair Witch Project sits at the inception of the “found footage” phenomenon, a film-making trend which would be furthered by other films, like Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity movies. The decision to create a film that appeared to be shot by the characters as the events were occurring was indeed novel, and was probably the reason so much hype surrounded the Blair Witch Project. Before re-watching the film, I recalled little of the film’s actual details, but what I did remember – still do remember, starkly – is the hype surrounding the film. It may well have been the most hyped horror movie of my time, which means it was no small decision to hide the fact that the recently released The Woods was really a sequel to the film and would ultimately be titled Blair Witch.
As I’ve learned later in adult life, it can be precarious to build unreasonably high expectations for any imminent event. Maybe I started learning this lesson when I was (almost) fifteen and The Blair Witch Project came out. By my mid-teens, I had been feasting on a steady diet of horror fare, and the release of The Blair Witch Project amounted to the highlight of my summer. I was prepared to be gloriously and unquestionably terrified, was prepared to behold a creation wholly unlike what I’d seen before (which kinda makes The Blair Witch Project sound like Frankenstein’s monster). And I guess I did glimpse originality, to an extent, but I couldn’t appreciate the film’s novelty because it didn’t scare me. This is a *slight* spoiler, so beware: I was really disappointed that I never saw the Blair Witch. Presumably, the filmmakers sought to establish her presence without ever showing her and assumed what the mind could envision was far scarier then what they could visually concoct, a strategy that dates back to Hitchcock. But I wasn’t satisfied with their attempt. As my post about the recently released Lights Out argues, there’s much to be said for a frightening ghoul or ghost in a film.
And while I still have a great appreciation for frightening ghouls or ghosts, my experience watching The Blair Witch Project seventeen years later was this: the movie is far scarier than I recall, and having people describe what the witch might look like without ever showing the witch works surprisingly well. The film showcases young filmmakers endeavoring to create a documentary on the elusive Blair Witch, who’s been haunting local lore for centuries. Heather Donahue (who is, in fact, played by Heather Donahue) leads a filmmaking team including Joshua Leonard and Mike Williams (who also bear the same names in real life). After interviewing several locals about the Blair Witch legend – a process which amplifies curiosity and suspense for the viewer – they take to the woods to find an obscure graveyard. As it turns out, these woods are not the “lovely, dark, and deep” woods of the canonical Robert Frost poem – dark and deep perhaps, but ultimately not lovely. They end up getting helplessly lost for days and angry at one another for their worrisome situation. As if the depiction of being lost in a giant forest weren’t unsettling enough, it appears they’re being hunted.
As such, the terror of the film seems to be threefold: first, they are stuck in a space-like limbo of trees and potential malevolence. I’ve referenced Yi Fu Tuan’s work on Space and Place Theory on this blog before (a concept that intrigued me and propelled my Master’s Thesis), and some of his observations seem apropos here. If space is vast and roomy, it is also the pinnacle of the unknown (whereas place is the familiar, the known). And the unknown can be alluring and enticing, especially for the intrepid explorer – which it is, at first, in the film. But if you’re wandering aimlessly, trying to get out of the woods, with limited rations, and you find that you’re going in circles (which happens to our unfortunate crew) then the vast roominess of space loses its appeal, and you feel like you’re being lost – even consumed – by the unknown.
The unknown, of course, gets scarier with the second key equation of the film: though we never see the fabled Blair Witch, we see her presence everywhere. That, or someone keenly intent on tracking the group mercilessly and scaring them for no apparent end is following them. But the non-cynic will assume it’s the Blair Witch. The symbols of her presence – which appear outside the group’s tent after nights they camp out – start benignly (e.g. a pile of rocks). But our witch’s shenanigans grow more unsettling as time elapses and hopeless, lost nights run into each other. If the sheer experience of being lost is not terrifying enough, the fear is augmented with the fact that someone’s ostensibly hunting the group, and not just hunting them, but hunting them methodically. Especially aided by an unnerving description of a strange woman that an interviewee provides early in the documentary, the imaginative audience member’s mind is leering with the prospect of what this insidious old woman looks like. And, as I’ve suggested in former posts, female ghosts, and especially the so-called “old lady ghost” are among the scariest. This probably holds true for “old lady” witches as well.
Finally, the film is scary because the characters turn on one another, and this frantic discord supplements the sense of chaos and uncertainty the film produces. As happens when things go devastatingly wrong in any situation, blame is tossed around, and people become both spiteful and paranoid. So it goes with this group. And every time they manage to come together, it seems that one person starts to lose their grounding, and so the group falls apart again. Thus, the movie hums a cadence of subtle, intense strife and borderline insanity as our characters are struggling to find their way out of a tree-filled third dimension.
All of this is to say that as a 32-year-old, I greatly enjoyed the film. In the horror industry, there are scary movies and not-so-scary movies. Among the scary movies, there are different gradations of fear, and different types of fear. As odd as it sounds, the type of fear depicted in this film reminds me greatly of John Carpeneter’s The Thing. Characters, in the middle-of-nowhere, are being hunted by an unseen enemy and grow restless, angry, and paranoid. Of course, in The Thing, we know one person is secretly the thing, which deviates from The Blair Witch Project, but other than that, similarities are apparent. Both films employ a fabulous archetype and execute it brilliantly. If you’ve not geared up for Blair Witch by watching the 1999 Blair Witch Project, I suggest you do so….now.