t’s hard to get lost in America, and it’s even harder to stay lost.”
Heather Donahue, the main character of The Blair Witch Project, says this, not only knowing that it’s false, but after she and her two-man film crew have already gotten themselves hopelessly lost in the woods of Maryland. They entered the forest just outside the town of Burkittsville, planning to film a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch, but wind up in the middle of nowhere, never to be seen again, except in the footage which makes up this movie about their disappearance, making audiences everywhere wonder if it was all true, if some evidence of the supernatural was finally caught on tape.
Of course, the whole thing was a hoax. The “real” story is that five graduates of the University of Central Florida concocted the idea to film a phony documentary using limited finances and a cast of unknown actors. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez auditioned prospects for a year before settling down on three actors to play the roles of… well, themselves. The filmmakers sent Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard into the woods for a week in October 1997, with only the bare necessities, recording equipment, and instructions to film each other no matter what happened.
October 1997 without a script, with instructions to film each other no matter what happened and with the recording equipment on their backs. The actors were then subjected to nothing short of a psychological experiment, in which they awoke each day to private notes they were meant to keep secret, conspicuous piles of rocks, and strange stick figures hanging menacingly from trees. At night, surreal noises came from the darkness: footsteps, cracking twigs, high-pitched laughter, and horrible screams. Throughout all of this, they had to keep the cameras rolling and improvise their lines, reacting as though it were all really happening. In a way, it was, and their generally horrified reactions underlined this “reality.” Myrick and Sanchez’s film disturbs the line between “reality” and “fiction,” telling us something about the ways we interpret legends and truth, history and memory. Moreover, The Blair Witch Project is only one piece of a larger mythology created through word of mouth, a website containing false newspaper clippings and pages from Heather’s “diary,” and other documentaries about their “documentary.” The phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project combines entertainment and marketing, to form a narrative larger than an 87-minute movie, what one might term “The Blair Witch Experience.” In an age when people habitually question truth and authority, The Blair Witch Project counted on that uncertainty as a means to commercial advantage. With each shake of a framed shot or line of stuttering babble, even the most jaded audience might fall into the movie’s trap. No matter how much we know this can’t be true, we are scared and feel pity for the three hapless kids.
Their naivete has everything to do with the movie’s commercial drive: the audience’s desire to be duped parallels that of the three “victims.” They enter a situation with presumptions hastily made, a belief in their own immortality, and trust in their immediate realities. Their only touchstone for knowing they’re still alive is singing tv series themes and smoking cigarettes. Heather, the self-designated leader of the group, blames herself, but then repeatedly distances herself from their situation by hiding behind her camera lens, keeping herself in the role of spectator. But these methods of maintaining control wither as the days progress and the group moves ever further off track. “It isn’t quite reality,” Josh observes, turning the camera on Heather. Just as Heather finds herself as much the subject of her documentary as the Blair Witch, the hunter become hunted, we can picture ourselves in a similar uncontrollable circumstance. We, too, realize that understanding of the division between fiction and reality may only be illusory.
As this line disintegrates in The Blair Witch Project, so do other cultural roles and rules. The codes governing masculinity and femininity, for example, suddenly reveal themselves as arbitrary behaviors and reactions to the world. From the get-go, Heather embodies typically male traits, those most often rewarded by our society: she’s self-sufficient, adventurous, and courageous. Mike is the first member of the party to break down, demonstrating an emotionalism and irrationality usually ascribed to females. Everyone can crack under pressure—it has nothing too do with being a man or acting like a girl. These are three kids lost in the woods and scared for their lives, and each has his or her breakdown point. The Blair Witch spares no one for a particular behavior, good or bad.
Horror is the realization that things you don’t know can hurt you. The Blair Witch Project brings horror back into theaters at a time when most “horror” movies are displays of gory special effects or self-referential humor (as in the Screams). Using techniques that would make the guys in Dogme 95 proud, The Blair Witch Project makes you see yourself projected on screen, anxious and afraid of the unknown: it’s coming, that’s all you know. The rest is a waiting game, as you can imagine what happens when the invisible inevitable takes its toll. In this way, the movie suggests, we are all naive, strutting around and denying a fundamental truth: we can be fooled. But the film is no mere practical joke: it reveals that in “reality” (we’ve got to watch out for that word), we only fool ourselves, we decide what is fact or fiction in any given situation. The Blair Witch Project makes us aware of that in multiple and innovative ways, through its narrative, the camera’s chaotic motion, and the phony legend. Looking to make a profit, imitators will latch on to this new way to make movies, but the effect of the Blair Witch is as transitory as the last word you just read. It’s doubtful any other future film will duplicate The Blair Witch Project. To achieve such an effect of the horrific and display of illusion will require new ideas and new ways to tell us about them in order to scare audiences who’ve experienced what happened during the last moments of Heather, Josh, and Mike’s on-screen lives. For now, though, the legend of the Blair Witch has left its mark, and the film industry will ever be the same again.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/blair-witch/