The Blair Witch Project (dir. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez , 1999) – Three students vanish on a trip to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their footage behind.
This post is part of Preamble to Halloween, an October marathon of horror features before the dawn of All Hallows’ Eve.
In 1998, the disappearance of three student filmmakers began making waves online. A website had surfaced, detailing the story of their vanishing alongside the myth of the “blair witch” they might have found. Online forums began to flood with theories by cynics and believers alike. The sheer detail was enough to pique the interest in web sleuths, eager to dive into their next true crime and unsolved mystery.
One year later, the footage of the missing students was purportedly found and released as a film known as The Blair Witch Project. All of it seemed real. Missing person flyers were distributed during its premiere. The cast was even listed as deceased on IMDb. And what could be scarier than genuine proof of the supernatural?
Of course, all of it was fictional baloney. It was later revealed that Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams were actors. Directors Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick were the actual creators of their on-screen lives and the blair witch mythology, despite have granted full filmmaking credit to their trio for credibility.
Yet enough people believed the stories and that was enough. All this intense build-up before its official release, made The Blair Witch Project more terrifying than it had any right to be. Any discerning modern-day viewer could only see it as pure chaos, where trembling cameras clicked on and off. The supposedly supernatural footage were grainy and less than revelatory. Some scenes were purely aural, revealing very little clue to what was actually happening.
What the film did right was to play on our natural fear of the dark and forgetting sudden movements. The actors also improvised without a full script and mostly stayed in character, which lent authenticity to their reactions to scares, whether real or imagined. Adding to the atmosphere is the endless flow of stereotypically creepy imagery, from cryptic symbols and alleged Indian burial grounds.
But a larger part of why it worked because of the clever marketing campaign, which helped build the audience’s preconceived notions. Preloaded with fear, their imagination was primed to put their own definition of scary monsters to screen. Imagining what was scary to them as individuals was more dreadful than anything that the filmmakers could put to screen.
Things wouldn’t have worked as well today, where Photoshop and deepfaking have made cynics out of us all. We barely believe reality as it is. The Blair Witch Project had happened during an opportune time in the 90s, when the Internet was not yet as rampant with “fake news” accusations. It had also been new then, such that the fabricated stories never had to fight for attention in R/UnresolvedMysteries.
In today’s Hollywood where the Internet stunts may very well fail to work, its predecessors had to work harder. On-camera hauntings like Grave Encounters and Paranormal Activity teased the veracity of their found footage, with the full-on expectations that people knew it was purely marketing. All that was left to be done was to add finesse to the gimmick and cut back on the trembling camera work.
Others relied on great concepts. The Houses October Built had its crew hunting down haunted houses, particularly the extreme haunt Blue Skeleton, which uses real torture to elicit genuine fear. Anticipation grows for a fictionalised McKamey Manor, a real-world torture chamber where participation is voluntary, yet requires a 40-page waiver upon entry. The house owners have been known for ignoring safe words to amplify the experience, a seeming criminal act that serves as perfect material for a horror film.
Be it the execution or concept that drew audiences, the imitators owe their varying successes much to its 1999 inspiration. The Blair Witch Project may not have been the pioneer of horror mockumentaries or even the best. Yet it worked incredibly well to popularise it, costing just $60,000 to make and grossing nearly $250 million worldwide.
In just 8 days of shooting, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick accomplished an exemplar of psychological horror, with their brilliantly executed lead-up and a genuine understanding of human fear. That, along with perfect timing, elevated a rough experiment to a deserving classic, inspiring an era of unsettlingly realistic films that we love for the nightmares they invite.