In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary…
A year later their footage was found.
The Blair Witch Project opens with this title screen and then immediately proceeds into the documentary footage. That opening screen is all that you need to know. What follows is a film that after seventeen years still holds up and feels more real than any other found footage movie to date.
I was a high school sophomore in 1999. It was a time right before everything was about to change for us in terms of technology, social communication, and the speeds of which we utilized both. We were ALL about to be lost in the world wide web. Think of how vastly different the internet was in the five years from 1999 to 2004. And what about a decade later? Back then I remember signing onto my dial-up internet connection, the screeching of the phone line preparing to bring the knowledge of the world to my fingertips. So new and exciting and daunting. So of course the first thing I did was research a horror movie called The Blair Witch Project.
At the time there was a lot of speculation as to if The Blair Witch Project was real or not. You couldn’t ask for better marketing. Shortly after the film was completed, the promotional website www.blairwitch.com was launched. The site featured police documents, photographs, and even a timeline listing the major Blair Witch related events from February, 1775 to October, 1997. The website was a crucial factor in the film’s promotion and the popularity it quickly garnered. Was this real after all? Building the entire mystique and using marketing ploys was met with huge success and is one of, if not the first, best examples of viral marketing.
Hunched over the computer desk I watched 20-second interview clips that, at the time, took three minutes each to download. They were worth those 180 seconds as I was obsessed with the premise, the mythology, and the even minimal chance that this was real in any form. I wasn’t 100% convinced for quite some time, and this was coming from someone well-versed in his movie knowledge and who felt god-like with the powers of the web at his disposal. It was also half my life ago. How’s that for perspective?
When I saw The Blair Witch Project on its July 30th opening weekend I had a woman approach me in the screening. She was looking for her bratty teenagers and their friends who had been hopping from screen to screen, but it was obvious that they weren’t there. After explaining this to me she then glanced at the screen and you could see the genuine curiosity take her. Then, after sitting down next to me and watching a few more minutes, she looked over and asked, “Is this real?”
I had to break it to her the best way I thought possible…
She stayed for the rest of the movie.
I haven’t seen The Blair Witch Project since that first screening seventeen years ago until yesterday, but it has stayed with me for years. The film is horrifying. It looks and feels like something that any one of us could have done, and that makes it even more believable. The three characters go by their real names which actually resulted in worried friends and family reaching out to their respective family to see if it was true or needed anything. That’s how believable The Blair Witch Project is, and that realism on screen reinforces it. They all act like real people because, well, they are. They are flawed, annoying, make mistakes, and freak out.
There’s not a forced love story, there’s no jump scares, there’s no MacGyver level traps or rigged compasses to get out of their increasingly dangerous situation. The impending doom draws closer and closer with every passing second. There’s only what they see on screen and what they hear in the woods which is exactly what we are seeing and hearing, too. When Heather runs through the woods screaming that she saw something there’s actually nothing there that we can visibly discern, and that’s exactly how it would be running through the woods lost with only your camera light to guide you. Can you imagine waking up in the middle of nowhere and finding a pile of rocks next to your tent that wasn’t there when you went to sleep? Or being lost in the woods and doubling back upon a landmark that you already came across? And not knowing if that’s because you did something wrong or if there’s something supernatural luring you to a certain fate?
There wasn’t a definitive script for The Blair Witch Project. The actors would receive messages of what scenes or situations they were supposed to cover and then go about filming them. They really were out in the woods getting hungry and frustrated and feeling isolated. The approach to making a found footage film that is fully believable has never been so flawlessly crafted since. What’s amazing is that it’s such a simple concept, but nothing has reached the believability that The Blair Witch Project did. The only thing that comes close and also heavily influenced pop culture in a similar way was Paranormal Activity. But Paranormal Activity didn’t achieve it on every level like The Blair Witch Project did. The additional details that are on the original site were so convincingly done on every level as well. The site is a shitty one too! And it feels real because of that. It’s been seventeen years and I still recall navigating through it all. I remember exactly where I was sitting in my parents living room and what time of night it was, which, ironically was the witching hour.
In the years since its release there are more and more found footage movies being made. The majority are low budget horror films for simplicity’s sake, but most don’t follow the simple realism that The Blair Witch Project was able to convey and accomplish. It is also the most profitable film of all-time in comparison with its production budget (rumored to be anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000) and its total gross ($140,539,099 domestically and $248,639,099 worldwide). Other found footage movies are high budget films like Chronicle or Cloverfield and all have their own methods and set of rules within the genre. Sometimes the found footage method is just a gimmick, but when you utilize it to influence the story you’re telling the chances of making an impact that rings true in any film are higher.
The following is a documentary interviewing the friends and family members of the three lost filmmakers. It’s footage that was intended to be used for the films release when it was more of a mockumentary, but directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez decided to go with the found footage approach. The fake doc is called Curse of the Blair Witch and details more of the mythology of the urban legend and goes in depth with it. Everything in the aforementioned timeline above is gone over. If you are looking forward to seeing the sequel, Blair Witch, in theaters tomorrow and want some more background I highly suggest watching this.
The Blair Witch Project is a momentous accomplishment in film history. Years later it is still just as captivating and horrifying as it was the day it released. In another seventeen years I imagine that will be the same.
Read our full review of the sequel Blair Witch here.
His love of most things in entertainment can be summed up by having an English Bulldog named Spielberg and consistently asking if it’s Halloween yet.