The no budget fake documentary that ushered in the “found footage” craze still holds up, like it or not.
I saw The Blair Witch Project before most of the rest of the world did, at The Charles, an arthouse theater in Baltimore. By that point, despite the massive amount of buzz, it was still unclear as to how much of what happened in the film was “real,” and what, if anything, had been embellished. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez played their cards close to the vest, and ran what remains the most effective ad campaign for any independently released film, including a memorably creepy short feature.
All I knew of Blair Witch going into it was that it was purportedly a documentary about a trio of college students who disappeared in the woods of rural Maryland while making a film about a local folk legend, leaving only their video footage behind. If I had read any critic’s reviews of it beforehand, I would have known that it wasn’t real, but the MISSING posters, the screen caps of panicked, terrified faces, the previously mentioned short film, that no-budget trailer that looks like it was cut in someone’s basement, made it all seem very plausible. It’s hard to imagine horror movies now without “found footage” as an almost ubiquitous subgenre, but in 1999 it wasn’t a thing. Horror was very flashy and CGI-based, with casts that often overlapped with whatever the popular WB teen show happened to be at the moment. This was something different. It felt…believable.
Hereditary and Midsommar are going to become iconic for their grueling, disorienting conclusions, but I can’t help thinking that Ari Aster was at least somewhat influenced by the ending of Blair Witch. Exacerbated by the fact that its filmed in first person perspective, it looks and sounds like what a panic attack feels like, as the camera frantically swings around, things go from light to dark to shadow to light again, and we can’t hear anything except screams and labored breathing. We don’t know what happens to the characters in the end, only that it is very, very bad.
The audience at The Charles filed out in silence after the movie was over, undoubtedly relieved, as I was, that the theater was in the middle of a city, with not so much as a single tree in sight. My then-husband, a friend and I walked back to our car, none of us speaking. It wasn’t until we got in the car and sat there for a few moments before one of us blurted out “What the fuck just happened?” That seemed to be the cue for the three of us to unclench and stop holding our breath. We spent the drive home, laughing but with slightly shaky voices, talking about how freaked out we were by the movie. I hadn’t seen anything that unnerving and effective in a long time.
It took less than a week after Blair Witch went into wide release for the “it wasn’t scary” people to emerge.
This wasn’t entirely surprising. Horror fandom is unique in that its fans often seem to find more to dislike than like about it. For every horror movie that lands with some people, there’s an equal number who are more than happy (in fact, they insist upon it) to explain why it’s not scary, and, in some cases, isn’t even horror (again, see Hereditary). It doesn’t matter that fear is subjective, if they aren’t scared by something, then no one is. With Blair Witch, the backlash was particularly vitriolic, thanks to the “maybe this really happened” angle. It wasn’t just “not scary,” it was “boring,” it was a “con,” and, that most favorite of meaningful terms used by cineastes, “overrated.” If people knew going in that it was a fake, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective.
Well, I’m here to tell you, having watched it again some years later knowing full well that there was no such thing as a Blair Witch, and that the three college students were all alive and well and actors, it’s still pretty damn effective. Even in the era of smartphones, where as long as you have juice you’re not likely to get hopelessly lost anywhere, the idea of being out of your element and far away from home is unsettling at best. One of the most impactful shots in the movie ends up being when Heather (Heather Donahue), Josh (Joshua Leonard), and Mike (Michael C. Williams) get out of their car for what will be the last time. As Heather walks towards the woods, she inexplicably has her camera trained on the car, as it gets further and further away. It’s a clever bit of foreshadowing that doesn’t hit you until after you’ve already seen the movie.
You try spending three days lost in the woods, on hardly any sleep, with people whose presence you gradually find intolerable, and see how well you do.
The primary complaint about Blair Witch, other than it’s boring (it’s not), is how quickly the group dynamic breaks down, and how the characters “overreact” to what’s happening to them. First, it’s important to note that Heather, Josh, and Mike aren’t close friends; in fact, they meet Mike for the first time the morning of the trip. Josh and Mike have no vested interest in the story of the Blair Witch, they’re there because Heather needed a sound guy and a video guy. Heather makes it clear that she’s in charge, she has everything figured out, she has the “how to survive in the woods” book.
When things start going downhill, of course it’s her they blame, and it’s made worse by the fact that she takes an inordinately long time to admit that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. But is that ever easy for anyone? You try spending three days lost in the woods, on hardly any sleep, with people whose presence you gradually find intolerable, and see how well you do. And that’s even without someone (or something) paying a visit to your campsite every night to leave cairns and hang crude stick figures in the trees.
As for how Heather, Josh, and Mike react when it becomes clear that they’re not alone in the woods, criticisms of that are similar to people who claim they’d know exactly what to do in an active shooter situation. A lot of people — not me, I’m a coward — are convinced that in the face of extreme danger, even if they’re not entirely sure what that danger is, they’ll coolly figure out a plan for safety and escape, possibly saving other people’s lives in the process.
This criticism as it applies to Blair Witch willfully overlooks the fact that (a) these are, really, just a bunch of kids, who (b) are lost in the middle of nowhere (possibly with an unseen force pushing them towards getting even more lost), while (c) being terrorized by something they can’t see, but can definitely see them. They can’t simply walk in one direction until they get back to civilization — whatever is in the woods won’t let them. They can’t stay in their tent until whatever is harassing them leaves — it leaves ominous signs of how close it can get, and later, a gruesome clue for what happened to Josh, who disappears in the night.
The funny thing about human brains is that they don’t always react well to danger, particularly if it’s danger they can’t see or understand. Oh, a few lucky souls might slip into autopilot and figure their way out, but most of us will turn into quivering, sobbing lumps of jelly, as Heather does, when she films herself apologizing to her and Josh and Mike’s mothers. When she whispers “I’m gonna die out here,” that’s not the voice of a coward. That’s someone who finally understands what’s happening to her.
In fact, far be it from a coward, the last thing Heather does is make a run with Mike to save Josh, whose cries they can hear from a nearby abandoned house. It’s a breathtakingly cruel trap that’s been set up for them. The audience knows this, but Heather and Mike don’t, and if your takeaway from the movie is that they were stupid for leaving the tent to go after Josh, that says more about you than it ever will about The Blair Witch Project.