Originally published on September 12, 2016.
They say that part of the problem with addiction to the harder, more dangerous drugs is that no high feels better than the first one.
The Blair Witch Project got me. I have told the story a million times, the way one does with first loves. I watched it on opening night in a small town in my home state of West Virginia, thirty minutes from my house in the woods. Where I lived, there was no internet access (there wouldn’t be for a little while). My family had only had cable just long enough for me to catch the brilliant Curse of the Blair Witch documentary that had aired on what was then the Sci-Fi network shortly before the film’s opening. And that, combined with the pre-movie title screen explanation for the movie’s footage, was all that I knew about the film. So I was one of the (lucky) suckers who believed I was watching something real.
But it would be too easy to credit the intensity of this experience to the movie’s viral campaign. I’ve written at length about the impressiveness of that temporary con-job and it deserves that credit, but the brilliance of the theater experience of The Blair Witch Project is only partially explained by the supportive elements that occur outside of the movie’s runtime. What is perhaps more impressive (if less discussed) is the film’s on-the-spot invention and perfection of a new film language.
It’s a misconception that The Blair Witch Project started the found footage subgenre in horror (with Cannibal Holocaust released almost two decades prior) and it’s probably also disingenuous to give sole credit to The Blair Witch Project for the explosion of found footage that manifested in the back half of the aughts decade, given that the bulk of those releases came after Paranormal Activity leapt over The Blair Witch Project to become, percentage-wise, the most profitable film of all time. But what cannot be so readily contested is the assertion The Blair Witch Project, more than any found footage film that came before or after, was pitch perfect in applying its form not as an obstacle or a shortcut or a variation of normal narrative standard, but in a manner of telling the story so that it is enriched by the limitation.
After watching the Adam Wingard-directed, Simon Barrett-penned sequel Blair Witch, I spent the rest of my evening admiring just how precise and innovative that original 1999 film still seems. That isn’t to say that the new sequel is bad; it works rather well as an often unnerving and frequently fun experience that expands the cinematic lore of Burkittsville, MD without damaging or even obfuscating the original. But, because Blair Witch, like essentially every major found footage film since, is either less committed or less confident in its format, the timeline of found footage films still marks its best entry at its earliest stage. In theory, if The Blair Witch Project was culturally forgotten and re-released tomorrow, the reaction would or should be “They’re finally starting to get this right.”
The most popular understanding of found footage tells us that the aesthetic construct builds a sort of first-person perspective in narrative cinema. Cloverfield exemplified this utility by using its monster attack movie to metaphorically place the viewer in a terrifying 9/11-like situation. But even that understanding short sells the potential.
The Blair Witch Project doesn’t stop itself at the notion that found footage limits the viewer to seeing only what the characters see. Rather, Directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick (who thought of the concept when discussing how horror documentaries are more terrifying than narrative features) applied a more complex version of this rule. If found footage is constructed carefully and intelligently, then yes, viewers can only see that which the characters can see, but, the viewer does not and can not see everything that the characters can see. Expansion of this principle, particularly within a survival horror-based scenario, allows a layered richness to the characters wherein the telling of the story itself is an extension of their motivation, their psychological state, and, of course, their processing of plot information in synchronization with the viewer.
The Blair Witch Project was filmed strategically. A bare minimum 35 page script outline was given to the three actors—Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard, each playing a character with their real name—who ventured into the woods to await daily instruction and nightly torment, using a black-and-white 16 millimeter camera and an RCA handheld. They captured 19 hours of usable footage which was edited down to an 81 minute theater release. The opening chapter unfolds like a standard student documentary, with cuts between the two cameras on singular testimonies from interview subjects. The grittiness of the low-fi cameras, once the characters get lost in the wood and surrender their artistic ambition becomes another subconscious communication of authenticity. Their being lost in the woods with a camera looks very much like any of our family’s using a camera in the woods.
But it’s not just the visual format that heightens the deceptive sense of truth. As Sanchez, Myrick, and their actors/crew make use of indecipherable forest space as a method of disorientation (for both characters and audience), the characters, in a panic, do not film a story or seek subtext or construct scenes, which is its own form of storytelling through the teller’s abandonment of the story because of the story. That can only exist in found footage. Narrative films might have captured Mike’s discarding of the forest map into the river or at least traced indications of his mental spiral in the background of a scene sequence. But, because Heather, the main camera operator, is in an increasingly traumatized mental state, she has missed any tell-tale signs of Mike’s decline and, thus, failed to communicate them to her audience. Because of this, the information communicated by his maniacal laughter and subsequent confession lands in the viewer’s mind at the same time as Heather’s, the stress unfiltered through narrative telling. It is the purest form of the tried and tested adage “Show me, don’t tell me.”
Or, consider situations in which Heather makes a decision to withhold pivotal information. In one of the increasingly malevolent attacks on the campers’ makeshift campsites, Heather sprints from the tent, the 16 mm camera catching blurry branches while she screams “What the fuck is that?” repeatedly. But, in her survival-first state, she lacks the motor awareness to capture “that” as a narrative artifact. This is the cinematic equivalent of Theodora not explaining the pursuing terror and Eleanor not looking back in The Haunting of Hill House, arguably the most terrifying textual sequence in horror literature. But again, this too can only work in found footage as a narrative film’s conscious decision to absolutely withhold information only registers as a trick or an offense against its audience. This concept is re-applied when slapping hands assault the tent with the sound of giggling children surrounding the startled hikers (the sound effect was unleashed on the actors unexpectedly via Sanchez playing a recording of his young neighbors through boombox speakers).
Similarly, after Josh’s disappearance, Mike and Heather wake to find a tied piece of his shirt outside of their tent. After Mike refuses to look, tossing the bundle away from the tent, Heather sneaks away later to unravel the cloth. The very bottom of the camera catches a glimpse of organic material, which Heather immediately discards in a panic. Here, she makes a conscious decision not to document the contents of the makeshift package (later interviews revealed that the bundle contained real human teeth donated by a local dentist). In this instance, though, we have to consider more than just Heather’s decision not to show the bloody contents, but the rationale behind it. Here, Heather makes a conscious choice based upon an assumed audience, leaving us a calculation of determining who she is protecting from this information. Almost certainly, she has stopped thinking of her project and is considering that the footage might be discovered and watched by their friends and families. So, this terrifying twist is also at least a partial acceptance of the hopelessness of their situation and a sub-subconscious introduction of an element of sympathy, drama, and sadness.
By the time Heather wakes herself in the darkness to record a personalized message of apology to her family and Josh and Mike’s loved ones, her acceptance is complete, devastating, and expressed on her terms. This is the moment in which “the audience can only see what the character sees” works against the audience. While it has been spoofed endlessly by satire films and sketch comedy, this particular moment is one of the great human moments in horror film, a character made vulnerable by a performance made even more vulnerable by the found footage disallowance of narrative space. Heather turning the camera to herself in this situation means the viewer is suddenly the victim and her family, the character and her audience.
Since The Blair Witch Project, found footage films have preoccupied themselves with inventing ways to catch more information, rather than pursuing applications of selective information to build character psychology and insight and enrich the experience of the first-person position. The Paranormal Activity series kept itself alive through multiple sequels by inventing ways to make found footage function as narrative footage freed from the limitation of the character’s operation. Even the recent Blair Witch, a film which holds an undeniable respect for its namesake predecessor, separates itself by adding five cameras, each recording in high definition, and doubling the number of campers to establish expendable victims (which allowed the second act to operate as a sort of slasher film, an ironic customization given that The Blair Witch Project was celebrated by some for interrupting the stale pattern of late 90s slasher flicks). Because of these changes—more cameras, clearer resolution, more camera operators, simultaneous perspective—any moment of partial information or missed or unclear observation felt like a device, an inorganic design. With the disruptive allowance of multiple takes and angles when a character is chased in the woods or stuck in a claustrophobic underground tunnel, watching Blair Witch, at times, feels like having local folklore recited by someone with an Ivy League Masters Degree in Folklore. There’s a charm to it, sure, but you can’t help but remember that time you heard it from a more authentic source.
When I drove home from The Blair Witch Project, I held my breath along stretches of road cutting through miles of forest far too similar to the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland. I whispered a rushed speech of encouragement to the motor of my 80s model clunker and willed myself to focus straight ahead, to not let my eyes wander beyond the edge of my headlights. I wasn’t thinking about a monster or a witch. I was thinking about what I hadn’t seen and what I didn’t know, and I was thinking concernedly about those film students, who I stupidly thought suffered through a real supernatural attack, nearly paralyzed by my own empathy-rooted terror. No other horror movie, found footage or otherwise, has made me feel or think anything like that since. I am not even sure if it’s possible to recreate. But, boy, do I wish it was.
Featured Image: Artisan Entertainment