A Walk in the Woods: Disorientation and Pain in Blair Witch

Photo Credit – Blair Witch

We’ve all, I’m sure, heard the cliché “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  For example, for the fifth day in a row I hit the snooze button and expect to sleep an extra five minutes, when I know every time I use the snooze function on my cell phone I sleep for at least an extra half hour.  (As in, I click the button repeatedly every five minutes – for about a half hour – after the first snooze alarm goes off).  I naively think I can literally “snooze,” go back to sleep for five minutes, but to my frustrated chagrin, this is not the case.  Snoozing once inevitably leads to snoozing repeatedly, but every morning (or many mornings) I fool myself into thinking otherwise.

My approach to horror can sometimes be similarly insane.  While there are some legitimately fantastic horror movies floating around the cinema-verse, all too often (as I’ve hinted before) I’m duped by an alluring tagline of praise for a film and my expectations mount, only to be viciously deflated as I watch the film.  I’ve only recently started to reverse this cycle, but I didn’t even attempt to reverse it when news hit cyberspace that the much-advertised move, The Woods was really a Blair Witch Project sequel.  Though I was initially disappointed by the much-hyped first movie when it came out in 1999, I catapulted myself right back into a thick vat of sticky, half-founded enthusiasm for the sequel.  (This was, in part, because as I’ve written on a previous post, a second viewing of the first Blair Witch, years later as an adult, led me to a greater appreciation for it).  Happily, I can proudly say that I’m not suffering from a bout of insanity.  My decision to wait for Blair Witch with perhaps undue anticipation was vindicated: the film did not disappoint me.  As it turns out, having high expectations for some horror movies is not insane.

Note:  I will try not to spoil too much in my overview, but some small spoilers will likely occur.  Proceed across this written terrain with caution.

Heather, the first film’s lost protagonist, had a younger brother who was four when his sister disappeared in the woods.  That younger brother, James (James Allen McCune), has lived a life driven by a desire to investigate his sister’s story, to either find out what happened to her, or to find her, which he thinks is still possible.  Since almost 20 years have elapsed since the original Blair Witch Project, I found I needed to suspend skepticism a bit to accept his motive for entering the woods.  But he does head for the woods, with friends Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Ashley (Corbin Reid), and Peter (Brandon Scott).  While James, Lisa, and Ashely all seem moderately interested in and open to learning about the legend of the Blair Witch (though none of them are legitimately afraid of her), Peter is the prototypical naysayer, constantly scoffing at insinuations that the sprawling, expansive Maryland woods might contain a supernatural force.  Peter’s doubt was one of the movies only elements that I found tiresomely stereotypical, but, unsurprisingly, his doubt didn’t last long and was probably required for narrative balance; the group encounters some friendly confederate-flag loving folks who grew up in Maryland and are adamant about the truth behind the Blair Witch legends.

The film’s events begin with a hoax but culminate into some truly terrifying evidence that a malevolent force is afoot – probably the Blair Witch.  Legend posits the Blair Witch, in life, was stretched out on a rack in the woods and left to die.  In death, however, her powers are vast.  Some of the film’s most powerful scenes demonstrate the Blair Witch’s ability to pull her victims out of time, uncomfortably disembodying them from the entire structure of Western epistemology and metaphysics – a structure that operates off adhering to the hands on a clock, in conjunction with the placement of the sun, to make meaning of what “time” is.  This feat first happens on the night of the aforementioned hoax, when the entire group of campers wake up at 2 p.m.  (I stay up late and wake up late, so if it were an idle Saturday and I did this, I wouldn’t attribute the phenomena to the presence of a time-collapsing dead witch, but the campers do, since they all wake up in the mid-late afternoon hours).  More frightening, still, Lisa sets her phone alarm for 7 a.m. the next night. When it goes off, she awakes to complete darkness, the disappearance of one camper, and a slew of creepy, stick-like voodoo dolls adorning the campground.  This inversion of time is understandably unsettling, if living in the light is always a little safer and more comfortable than the dark.  To me, this was one of the film’s most chilling scenes.

Around this time in the film, the character’s chaos and insanity intensifies.  There is the disorientation that was depicted in the first Blair Witch Project, whereby the characters walk for hours and end up where they started (despite the presence of surprisingly useless modern technology, like phone GPS systems; the Blair Witch appears to be stronger than these).  The arguing and near-hysteria that mark some of the film’s scenes were welcomed and well-executed, amplifying the film’s disconcerting mood.  It should be noted, too, that by and large the characters in this film are likable, decent, even warm human beings, which made me invested in their well-being.  And the directing – through scenery and camera angles – does an excellent job depicting the severe emotional discomfort – even anguish – of the characters.  One shot rests on the face and neck of a character, bloody with matted hair, who’s trying to squeeze through a tunnel to save her life.  The camera rests on her writhing body and angst-ridden face, making the viewer feel her raw fear and physical discomfort.

The film mimics and builds off the first film’s decisions regarding the depiction of the witch, who is absent from our visual field for most, but not all, of the film.  The original film in this series, The Blair Witch Project, counted on the viewer’s imagination – aided by some legends and descriptions – to concoct an image of a witch who was never revealed but was theoretically more terrifying in the viewer’s mind than she would have been if she were given physicality in the film.  In Blair Witch, intensity mounts as more and more horrific things happen to our protagonists, but we don’t see the witch.  We suspect that the directors might show her in this film.  For myself, I was alarmed, and tempted to cover my eyes, whenever I thought her ugly visage threatened to appear.  A resurrected crone is always terrifying, especially if – as local lore suggests – one look at her face yields instant death, much like the head of Medusa who instantly turns men to stone.  Ultimately, we get some quick glimpses of a figure that might be the Blair Witch in the film, but the camera never rests on her for a significant amount of time.  This strategy is incredibly effective; the initially terrifying Insidious sacrifices a lot of horrific punch when the ghosts who we’ve glimpsed throughout the movie come out in full force and amble around seamlessly like a bunch of lost, aimless drunks.  In The Blair Witch we see enough of the witch to simultaneously scare us and let our imaginations take flight; what would a still shot of this ghastly female witch-ghost look like?

Of course, the lore of the forest is important in this film.  Just like Nathaniel Hawthorne sent Young Goodman Brown into the forest to witness evil and experience disillusionment (when all of the upstanding locals were revealed to be in league with the devil), so Blair Witch sends us into the forest, away from civilization and into all the attendant terror that occupies this unsettled space.  If Western metaphysics is a deluge of connected binaries (male, female, objective, subjective, soul, body, nature, society, and so forth), then man is connected invariably with “civilization” or “society,” – the settled, the tamed, the constructed.  Woman is always situated closer to nature (in our Western-ized logic), and for that reason is more untamed, unharnessed and dangerous.  It’s no wonder, then, that Blair Witch takes us away from the comfortable male-ness of “civilized society” and situates us, even in 2016, in the frenetic chaos of the unsettled woods, a forest ruled over not by a witch, but by the angry, highly powerful ghost of a witch, a jungle of vindictive she-ness.  To that end, like the original Blair Witch Project, the new film Blair Witch will leave even the most intrepid hiker hesitant to take her next walk in the woods.  You never know what force you might encounter.

A Walk in the Woods: Disorientation and Pain in Blair Witch

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