“I think the legend is unsettling enough”
It may not have been the first “found footage” film ever made, but for a seventeen year-old like me in 1999 The Blair Witch Project might as well have been exactly that. I still remember the marketing campaign, the newspaper ads and fictionalized legend trying to make us believe everything we’d be seeing onscreen actually happened. It purported that three co-eds (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams) went into the woods to shoot a documentary about a ghost/witch rumored to have murdered countless children buried around Burkittsville, MD. They captured interviews with locals, packed their bags, and ventured into the forest to never be seen again. It took a year before the authorities found their abandoned cameras. What’s onscreen is therefore what happened: every impossible detail.
There was an air of mystery surrounding its release that transformed it into an “event”. We hoped it’d come to our city and made sure to ignore everything until we could sit down and watch for ourselves. It obviously wasn’t real—no one would ever let the deaths of their children be edited together and shown for capitalist gain—but that didn’t mean we wanted spoilers pertaining to the witch, her creepy stick motif, or what ultimately occurs plot-wise. Approaching it blind promised a level of tension few horror films have equaled before or since. It became a worldwide phenomenon to the insane tune of almost $250 million dollars in box office gross against a paltry $60,000 budget and the genre has never been the same since.
I never watched it after that initial weekend in theaters, but not because it wasn’t good. I loved it. Found myself freaked out by the concept, entertained by the disintegrating dynamic between the three explorers, and engrossed by the distinct lack on a monster. We see rock piles and stick bundles; we hear children laughing, babies crying, and a lost filmmaker screaming for help. But no Blair Witch. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez couldn’t have drawn it up more beautifully, letting their audience infer the danger and creep to the edge of their seats once that dilapidated house is stumbled upon during the memorable five-minute finale bringing rumor to life while still relying upon our own imagination. I simply didn’t want that experience tainted.
This is the style’s caveat: once Pandora’s box opens, it won’t be closed. I wondered how impactful it would be upon a second viewing because I knew the endgame. It wasn’t long before people who never saw the film knew the image of someone slightly rocking as they face a basement wall in the dark. I wondered if the journey to that moment would earn my attention on its own merits now removed from the mystery. And in all honesty—surely helped by another seventeen years passing to cause me to forget certain details—its appeal is legit. After so many spoofs and copycats, I’d even say the acting is better than remembered. Williams, Leonard, and especially Donahue embrace their roles, authentically falling apart when the nightmare arrives.
It’s insane to think they shot in eight days on an improvised script. It makes sense visually considering supposed 16mm-shot scenes are worse quality than the VHS footage, but not in concept. The filmmakers unleashed their viral marketing on the internet before it became commonplace and even made a faux documentary about the legend for the SciFi Channel (it’s referenced in the film by an extra). For something so minimal, a ton of work went into its execution and impactful release. To a certain extent no one today can really understand the feeling we had back then. J.J. Abrams comes close mimicking it with his mystery campaigns and the 2016 sequel Blair Witch was announced as a different film to deflect prying eyes, but this one felt real.
Maybe it is cheesy when viewed without that context now. Maybe my continued appreciation hinges on intangibles that I was lucky enough to experience in the moment. Either way, I’m not sure the movie should be removed from those memories because they were an integral part of its success. And this fact doesn’t diminish it as a gimmick, it makes The Blair Witch Project into a site-specific art installation to be studied from afar in the knowledge it was a near-perfect stunner during the summer of 1999. Myrick and Sánchez ushered in a new era of horror that many people regard as born from amateur schlock. Nothing could be farther from the truth because this film was and remains the real deal.