It’s hard to believe, but it has been almost 20 years since The Blair Witch Project haunted movie theatres. Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, The Blair Witch Project is a landmark film. Critics loved it; audiences drove up big box office receipt. 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, there is no doubt that The Blair Witch Project had an effect like few other horror movies.
The Blair Witch Project a Master’s Class in Marketing
Before YouTube or Twitter, The Blair Witch Project laid the foundation for what it would eventually mean to go ‘viral’. Arguably, only a handful of movies made, before or after Blair Witch, have been marketed so effectively. By the time it was released into theatres, the little independent horror film had become ‘must see’ viewing. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez had created a full mythology before preparing a short screenplay treatment. That mythology was brilliantly distilled into a website that treated this mythology as actual events. The website had fake missing person reports, police documents, witness statements, and news reel footage. The movie’s IMDb page even listed the three principal actors as ‘missing’. At the time, no one had done marketing quite like The Blair Witch Project.
In 1999, the ‘found footage’ subgenre wasn’t a thing.
Horror fans may even recall The Curse of the Blair Witch. Prior to the movie’s release, the SyFY Channel aired the ‘mockumentary’ with much fanfare. Somehow Myrick and Sanchez convinced people that the ‘actors’ disappeared investigating the ‘Blair Witch’ legend. In 1999, the ‘found footage’ subgenre wasn’t a thing. The faux documentary approach convinced some viewers that they were watching real footage assembled from 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. Yet Myrick and Sanchez deserve credit for popularizing the format. Prior to The Blair Witch Project, audiences had probably never seen a movie filmed with handheld cameras. In the 1990’s, Cannibal Holocaust was hard to find in video stores. As a result, Blair Witch felt different from other horror films; it felt revolutionary.
It’s The Blair Witch Project that deserves credit – for better or worse – for carving out a brand new horror subgenre. Several years later, the Paranormal Activity franchise would solidify ‘found footage’ as a viable financial direction for low-budget horror filmmaking. But Blair Witch got the ball rolling. And unlike many found footage movies, The Blair Witch Project offers a genuine rationale for employing the filming device.
The Faux-Documentary Style and the 24-Hour News Cycle
Perhaps the most common criticism of found footage horror is the failure to explain why anyone would keep filming admidst impending doom. The Blair Witch Project doesn’t completely dodge this criticism. However, its faux-documentary style is an intentional design. There’s a subtext to the movie that offers 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.
The Blair Witch Project was released at the end of a decade that saw the birth of the 24-hour news cycle. It’s the decade where people sat glued to their TV’s, watching the OJ Simpson white Ford Bronco chase. This is the same decade where millions of people watched daily updates for the Menendez Brothers and Michael Jackson trials. The The Blair Witch Project’s 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 is a tricky balance. On the one hand, you’d don’t want to show too much too soon. Show too little, too slowly, and it’s just 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. That is, sometimes what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see. When Heather screams ‘What is that‘ after something chases them from their tent, it’s a terrifying moment. And you see absolutely nothing. Everything in The Blair Witch Project is left to your imagination.
…The Blair Witch Project is a genuinely scary psychological horror film.
The Blair Witch Project’s ending is another illustration of minimalist horror. What makes this scene work so well are the early painstaking efforts to establish the ‘Blair Witch’ mythology. It’s a fantastic payoff and one that shows the filmmakers had a tremendous amount of respect for their audience. No lazy expository dialogue. Instead, Myrick and Sanchez trusted the 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 a fan, it’s hard to deny The Blair Witch Project’s cultural impact. Myrick and Sanchez’s little indie horror film popularized an entire subgenre. Years before social media, they showed how viral marketing could work just as well as mainstream marketing efforts. It’s also a reminder that no amount special effects can produce anything as scary as our own imagination.