In 1997, actors Heather Donaghue, Mike Williams, and Josh Leonard ventured into the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland to film a fake documentary about the legend of the Blair Witch. Two years later, their footage was released… and horror cinema changed forever…
Horror in the 1990s wasn’t really the place to look for innovation. It was largely dominated by teen slasher flicks and their sequels (The Faculty, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) or ropey followups to ‘80s horror classics. Two Child’s Plays, two Elm Streets, a pair of Halloweens and a third Alien had all come and gone by the time a strange little horror film made its earth-shattering debut in 1999. Purporting to be genuine – and terrifying – discovered footage of three missing filmmakers, The Blair Witch Project took the world by storm.
20 years on, The Blair Witch Project sits with a somewhat complicated legacy. It remains one of the most financially successful independent films of all time (recouping nearly $250m on a budget of just $60,000), and as of July 2019 sits at a cushy 87% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, it also boasts two Razzie Award nominations, for Worst Picture and Worst Actress, and arguably ushered in what is now one of horror’s most tired tropes – the dreaded Found Footage film. So how did Blair Witch come to be known as one of the best horror films ever made?
The phrase ‘a ruthless adherence to authenticity’ certainly plays a part. In casting, directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez sought out performers with strong improvisational skills rather than outright actors – people who could think on their feet and stay immersed in the scene. This was essential, because while not quite sharing the plight of their fictionalised selves, the trio were kept sleep-deprived, hungry, and frightened throughout the shoot. With only a vague written outline to work from, each actor would be given their own motivation for the following day’s shoot, one which often conflicted with their co-stars. From there, improv could create and sustain tension. The actors spent the eight-day shooting period hiking in the woods, sniping at each other and being routinely scared by the crew. But, as we well know, their commitment didn’t begin and end with filming.
A year before release, a Blair Witch website was set up to buoy the film’s claims of veracity. It contained a startling wealth of material, all of which was presented as completely real. Visitors to the site can see handwritten excerpts from Heather’s journal, photographs of the supposed manhunt for the missing filmmakers, even screenshots from news reports. “Missing” posters featuring Donahue, Leonard and Williams were distributed at film festivals, and the trio were listed as “Missing, Presumed Dead” on the IMDb. If photos weren’t enough, a True Crime-style documentary was even made (The Curse of the Blair Witch) which featured interviews with Heather’s film school professor, as well as local police. Myrick and Sanchez built the legend around the film from the ground up, filling in every possible crack, even going so far as to anonymously post about the footage in internet forums. It sounds unbelievable today, but it was so effective at the time that Heather Donaghue’s mother actually received condolence cards from people who believed her daughter was really dead.
The chillingly immersive marketing campaign worked beautifully in tandem with the sheer restraint of the film itself. One of the movie’s most exceptional qualities remains the confidence with which it holds back. There’s no cathartic build-up-and-release scares, no noises that just turn out to be the cat. You won’t find a single shot of the eponymous witch, and the squeamish can relax knowing that the film limits itself to one chaste peek of gore in the form of a bloody handkerchief. Instead, The Blair Witch Project is a good old-fashioned psychological nightmare. It certainly indulges in the odd horror tropes, but these are rare, and arguably its weakest aspects. Yes, the disembodied laughter of spectral children is spooky. But worse? Watching the increasingly desperate group walk south for 15 hours under the guidance of a compass, only to impossibly end up in the exact same spot, now with the knowledge that the woods aren’t going to let them go. It offers a more lingering kind of horror, playing on our most primal fear: the unknown.
This uncertainty is woven into the narrative throughout. From the very beginning, there’s not even a uniform legend to go on. True to real urban legend form, interviews with the townsfolk offer utterly conflicting accounts of who or what the witch actually is. The meaning behind the iconic wooden effigies the group find outside their tent are never explained. At one point Josh angrily suggests that perhaps the ‘witch’ is hunting them because Heather meddled with one, but it’s never confirmed. Later, when Josh disappears and Heather and Mike hear him screaming, another terrifying idea is floated: “If that was Josh, he would’ve said where he was,” Mike reasons. It’s never confirmed either way, but “If that was Josh” carries such a frightening connotation on its own that it isn’t necessary.
Simply put, the film use the restrictions of the found footage format to its complete advantage, in a way that many of its successors and imitators failed to do. Here, there are no convenient answers, no Basil Expositions, no neat narrative arcs. When we hear Heather screaming “What the fuck is that!” at something, whoever is filming is far too busy running for their life to pan left and let us see too. What actually happened to Josh? Why is Mike standing in the corner at the end? What is it that strikes Heather down? We never know. We’re given plenty with which to speculate, but no real answers – and that’s as it should be. It lends the film the authenticity that prompted audiences in 1999 to wonder if they really were watching the last moments of three missing kids.
It’s a sobering thought that something as immersive and seemingly real as The Blair Witch Project could probably never happen again – or certainly not in the same way. These days, we are (usually) a little more mistrustful of stuff we read online. The gritty ‘home movie’ aesthetic has been completely erased thanks to the increasing sophistication of personal cameras – feature-length films can be shot entirely on phones without a huge dip in quality. The Eye of Sauron that is Twitter would be able to dispel rumours of missing actors in minutes, and it’s difficult to imagine any modern horror that could hold its nerve long enough to never actually show you the monster.
This is never more evident than in the 2016 sequel. Simply titled Blair Witch, it follows Heather’s brother James as he leads a search party to find any remnants of his sister in those notorious Burkittsville woods. It attempts to retread many of the same beats as the original, but the execution is starkly different, and the results mixed. Take the moment when the 2016 group stumble across those familiar witchy stick figures. One is bound with strands of distinct purple hair belonging to one of the group, Talia. Sensing a hoax, a frustrated Ashley snaps the figure in half – only for Talia’s spine to snap along with it. Or else, consider the ending. Like Heather and Mike, our survivors end up cowering in the corner of that same ruined house – but now it’s explained that they’re doing so to avoid making eye contact with the witch, which is apparently fatal. We’re also given a brief glimpse of a spindly figure scuttling in the background. It’s spooky to be sure, but in the wake of the original’s great restraint, it all feels a little cheap. At no point do we feel that same queasy sense of realism, because it’s all overexplained and unearned. It betrays the nerves of filmmakers who knew they had no hope of recapturing lightning in a bottle. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s certainly not remarkable.
The Blair Witch Project may, to some, seem a little tame by today’s standards. But for better or worse, it kickstarted an entire subgenre and injected some vitality into the increasingly stale horror genre. More importantly, it proved that name recognition and a big budget are no match for a little creativity and some well-crafted scares. The franchise isn’t quite dead yet – Blair Witch fans (Blairites? Witchers?) of the gamer persuasion can return to the woods in August with a new first-person survival horror for Xbox and PC that promises scares aplenty. As for the rest of us? Strap on your backpack, grab your camcorder, throw your map in a river and start filming your snottily tearful final confessions – we may be spoilt for good horror at the moment, but there’s always time to revisit an old classic.