Although Cannibal Holocaust (1980) may have been arguably the first ever found-footage horror film, The Blair Witch Project certainly both perfected and popularized the narrative device that is now a staple in the horror movie genre. Using an ingenious marketing campaign to create the most authentic possible audience experience, then-novice filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez achieved an incredible cinematic feat.
With a budget of only $ 60,000, the film landed a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records after raking in nearly $ 250 million. That is a ratio of a single dollar spent for every $ 10,931 earned. The smash hit was filmed in eight straight days. Released to petrified movie audiences in 1999, The Blair Witch Project‘s precedent resulted in a significant shift in both the horror genre and in movie marketing, paving the way for future found-footage ventures like V / H / S, As Above, So Below, Cloverfield, and the hit Paranormal Activity franchise.
Since over 20 years have passed, the initial shock and panic has long since died down; it is now widely known that the footage was totally fictionalized. With the air of mystery having dissipated, is The Blair Witch Project still considered to be among the scariest horror movies?
The Element of Realism
The Blair Witch Project mainly takes place in the Black Hills Forest outside the small Maryland town of Burkittsville, which is a very real place. Three film students, Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, are filming a documentary based on rumors they have been studying about the town legend, the Blair Witch. At the beginning of the film, they are interviewing townspeople for information about the lore and documenting eyewitness accounts of strange occurrences, such as a little girl mysteriously disappearing into the nearby forest.
The nature of the documentary feels very real, given that many of the lines are improvised and that editors deliberately degraded the film in post to give it a grainier quality. The creators set the independent film up for its wild success by making it as realistic as possible. Audiences truly believed that they were watching three eager students’ documentary that went horribly wrong. The filmmakers ensured they were delivering something authentic; the actors were not always privy to the directors’ decisions, creating moments in which the actors experience genuine fear.
Part of what made The Blair Witch Project so scary is that, upon its initial release, people truly believed that the events which occurred on screen happened in real life. People were horrified as they watched what they thought to be real people experience true fear. At the beginning of the project, the directors had the three main actors sign waivers agreeing to subject themselves to what was essentially psychological trauma. The actors play fictionalized versions of themselves, using their real names for the sake of authenticity and improvising their dialogue; what viewers see is alarmingly natural, because it is. They really did get lost in the forest three times during filming, and the creators decreased their daily food intake each day to increase confusion, frustration, and agitation with one another.
In one scene, one of the directors shakes their tent without prior notice, eliciting legitimate reactions. In another scene in which the actors are running, we see Heather’s face as she’s filming herself saying, “What the f ** k is that?” Off-screen, the film’s art director is running alongside them dressed in all white with pantyhose pulled over his head. In the scene during which Heather is filming herself close up and sobbing, she is actually crying out of real fear, lending to the film’s unsettling credibility.
The creators framed the project like a real documentary. A year prior to its release, they developed a website with details about Heather, Josh, and Mike’s project. To add to the anticipation and intrigue, the directors told the trio before filming that the people of Burkittsville believed the legend of the Blair Witch to be true. The trio did not find out until later that the creators completely made the stories up and that the “townspeople” were actors.
After the movie’s release, IMDB actually listed Heather, Josh, and Mike as missing and presumed dead. The crew put up “missing” posters at Sundance. Heather Donahue’s mother even received condolence cards from people who believed that her daughter was missing. The Blair Witch Project achieved a new level of horror never before seen, shattering skepticism and convincing many of a paranormal reality. This generated an overwhelming fear response from the audience. Die-hard fans swarmed Burkittsville, seeking evidence of the totally fictional Blair Witch for themselves (which would ironically form the plot of its sequel).
So, Is The Blair Witch Still Scary?
Even now, the lore is so well-developed that one could still at least think that the film is based on a true legend about the alleged witch. There is just enough ambiguity in the eyewitness descriptions of supernatural occurrences that one could easily assume that something strange, supernatural or not, was in fact taking place. Many of the vague rumors formed in the town of Burkittsville are entirely plausible. The story’s intrigue holds up fairly well today, such that it may prompt skeptical viewers to Google whether the film is based on true accounts, or at least accounts that were believed to be true.
There is still something about The Blair Witch Project that feels real. The believable performances, deliberately crude filmmaking, and detailed story still elicit fear among viewers. Scariest of all, perhaps, is the fact that we never actually see the Blair Witch. In the horror movie’s final scene, and arguably the most famous, Heather pans the camera onto Mike, who is standing in a corner facing the wall, unresponsive. It is unclear whether he has been possessed, has seen something horrible and is in shock, has given up hope, or is already dead. All possibilities are awful in different ways. All at once, they are overwhelming. This scene evokes a feeling of undeniable dread.
Throughout the movie, supernatural occurrences that can initially be written off as coincidences gradually escalate into full-blown malicious, evil energy that the characters, now frantic, cannot seem to pin to an individual. All of these disturbing things keep happening around them, suggesting that the witch’s control spans the entire forest. Hiding the witch’s vague identity is much more terrifying than the idea of perceiving it as a physical being. This ambiguity fosters a frenzied environment, which is great for eliciting audience fear. Also, because we never see the witch, the events seem much more plausible.
Since 1999, the horror genre has continued to develop along with great special effects and technology, so The Blair Witch Project has indeed aged a bit. Because the initial mystery and believability has long since passed, the movie is simply not quite as scary as it once was. There is comfort in knowing that the events that unfold in the film did not actually happen, and that comfort and security ultimately detracts from the overall fear factor. Unfortunately, in these post-truth days, it’s hard to really believe anything, ultimately weakening the terror of The Blair Witch Project.
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