It’s hard to believe, but it has been almost 20 years since The Blair Witch Project haunted movie theatres. I was a graduate student doing a practicum in Ottawa when the first commercials starting airing on television. It’s one of the few films where I can still vividly recall seeing it for the first time. Movies like The Blair Witch Project are exactly why I created a section on the blog called, The Vault. Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, The Blair Witch Project is a landmark film that sent ripple effects through the horror genre.
Critics loved The Blair Witch Project when it was released and the small independent horror film absolutely lit up the box office. To date, it remains one of the most successful independent films of all time. Audiences were more split on the found footage indie darling. Even after almost 20 years, The Blair Witch Project remains a divisive entry in the genre. Yet in spite of its mixed reaction among fans, there is no doubt that The Blair Witch Project had an effect like few other horror movies and so today in The Vault, I take a look at the film’s lasting legacy.
A Master’s Class in Marketing
Years before videos or offensive Tweets were going viral on YouTube and Twitter, The Blair Witch Project was setting the foundation for what it would even mean to go ‘viral’. There are probably only a handful of films that were made before or after Blair Witch that have been marketed so effectively to audiences. By the time it was released into theatres, the little independent horror film had become ‘must see’ viewing for even mainstream audiences.
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez had created a full mythology before preparing a short screenplay treatment. That mythology was brilliantly distilled into a full website that treated this mythology as actual events. The website had fake missing person reports, police reports, witness statements, and news reel footage. The IMDb page for the movie had the three principal actors listed as ‘missing’. I recall standing in line, waiting to watch The Blair Witch Project in theatres, and overhearing a few people debating whether it was a documentary or not. Some horror fans may even recall The Curse of the Blair Witch mockumentary that aired on the SciFi Channel prior to the movie’s theatrical debut. Myrick and Sanchez managed to convince quite a few people that the ‘actors’ had disappeared investigating the ‘Blair Witch’ legend and that they would be watching real footage assembled from their recovered cameras.
Mainstreaming the Found Footage Format
Horror purists will argue that Cannibal Holocaust was the first true ‘found footage’ horror film, and they’re not wrong. But how many people have seen Cannibal Holocaust? That controversial exploitation film most certainly had an influence on The Blair Witch Project, but Myrick and Sanchez deserve credit for popularizing the format among mainstream audiences. Prior to The Blair Witch Project, I had never seen a movie filmed with the handheld camera approach. Back in those days, Cannibal Holocaust was hard to find in video stores. As a result, Blair Witch felt different from other horror films; it felt revolutionary at the time.
It’s The Blair Witch Project that deserves credit – for better or worse – for carving out a brand new subgenre in horror. Blumhouse’s Paranormal Activity franchise would solidify the ‘found footage’ as a viable financial direction for low-budget horror filmmaking, but it was Blair Witch that got the ball rolling. In addition, unlike many of the found footage films produced over the years, The Blair Witch Project has a genuine rationale for employing the filming device.
Perhaps the most common criticism of found footage horror films is the lack of a convincing reason for why people would continue filming while horrific things are unfolding around them. The Blair Witch Project doesn’t completely dodge this criticism. However, its faux-documentary style is an intentional design intended to offer some commentary on the public need to watch others’ tragedies. That is, there is a reason for using the technique to the tell the story.
Myrick and Sanchez’s indie horror was released at the end of a decade that saw the birth of the 24-hours news cycle.
Myrick and Sanchez’s indie-horror was released at the end of a decade that saw the birth of the 24-hour news cycle. It’s the same decade where people sat glued to their TV sets to watch OJ Simpson’s white Ford Bronco being pursued by police in real time. This is the same decade where millions of people watched daily updates on trials for the Menendez Brothers and Michael Jackson. The found footage technique in The Blair Witch Project, and its faux-documentary conceit, is essential for addressing some of these larger issues.
The Blair Witch Project is Scary
Contrary to some polarized opinions, The Blair Witch Project is a genuinely scary psychological horror film. Myrick and Sanchez do a lot of things right. A slow burn approach to horror requires a tricky balance between not showing too much too soon and just being plain boring. The Blair Witch Project slowly piles on its scares; it’s horror by a ‘thousand cuts’ so to speak. Most importantly, Myrick and Sanchez understand one the most basic premises of horror – sometimes what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see. When Heather screams ‘What is that‘ after the three campers are chased from their tent in the middle of the night, it’s a terrifying moment and you see nothing. Everything in The Blair Witch Project is left to your imagination.
…The Blair Witch Project is a genuinely scary psychological horror film.
Lastly, the conclusion of The Blair Witch Project, with Michael standing in the corner, remains one of my favourite ‘scary movie scenes’ of all time. It is one of the only horror film scenes to give me nightmares as an adult. After watching the movie for the first time, I woke up several times over the night and thought I could see someone standing in the corner of my room. What makes this scene work so well are the painstaking efforts to establish the mythology of the ‘Blair Witch’ earlier in the movie. It’s a fantastic payoff and one that shows the filmmakers had a tremendous amount of respect for their audience to piece together the story and really understand what was happening.
The Blair Witch Project is A Horror Classic
Over the years, I’ve learned to just ignore the criticisms of The Blair Witch Project. It’s a movie that I consistently re-visit every Halloween without getting tired of it. Even if you’re not as enthusiastic about the movie itself, it’s hard to deny the cultural impact of The Blair Witch Project and its role in the horror genre. Myrick and Sanchez’s little indie horror film popularized an entire subgenre and arguably showed how viral marketing could work just as well as mainstream marketing efforts. It’s also a reminder that no special effects or make-up can produce anything as scary as what our imagination can create.