One of my favorite things about mortal existence is when TV programming goes pumpkin-spiced in the fall. Not just the buffet of special Halloween episodes and, perhaps perversely, chopped-up broadcast versions of horror movies*, but the glut of compulsively-watchable spooky reality shows…if you can call heavily-edited tall tales about ghosts and hauntings “reality.” There are good reasons that reality shows and list shows are so ubiquitous though: besides being cheap, they’re irresistible to audiences, and what better subject than a good ghost story? Instead of drawing around the campfire, you’re drawing around the Samsung in the den for Ghost Hunters, Most Terrifying Places in America, Scariest Places on Earth, and golden oldies like In Search Of. And this compulsively-watchable, compulsively-believable product is the template and the inspiration for 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. The found footage story of three student filmmakers, led by Heather Donahue, wandering into the clutches of an unseen evil entity was so much more than its successful gimmick, but the gimmick itself had surprising depth.
Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez imagined The Blair Witch Project in a faux documentary format before switching gears to the found footage concept. It wasn’t the first found footage film though. That credit goes to Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 Italian exploitation flick Cannibal Holocaust, which evinced such realism as to get police involved, and 1998’s The Last Broadcast doomed its documentary crew a year before Heather’s cursed expedition hit theaters. But The Blair Witch Project** was definitely the first found footage movie playing at your local AMC. Any discussion of it inevitably zeroes in on this commercial success, a $248.6 million box office return on a $60,000 budget, pointing to its unprecedented internet-driven marketing campaign and the success of the hoax of the film students’ disappearance, even in the Information Age. Sometimes the implication seems to be that the marketing made up for a film that on its own merits probably couldn’t have succeeded. Perhaps, but I think it’s more complicated than that. I think The Blair Witch Project asks more of its audience than many horror films do, but that isn’t a bad thing. Especially since its marketing did something that really hasn’t been replicated – it told a story all its own.
The Blair Witch legend begins with Elly Kedward’s end, when in 1785 she was discovered taking blood samples from children in the Maryland settlement of Blair. The townspeople banished her in a fantastically harsh winter; further elaboration on the legend has them blindfolding her and tying her to a tree, the children accusers tormenting her, carving into her flesh, setting dogs on her, and finally hanging her. After her death, children began disappearing. The town of Blair became a ghost town in more ways than one, only to be rebuilt years later as the actual Maryland town of Burkittsville, and from then on, ritualistic killings connected with a ghostly woman followed every fifty years, culminating in the disappearance of the documentary crew in The Blair Witch Project.
The Blair Witch was invented by the filmmakers from whole cloth, but they invested their legend with the ring of true events. For real history nerds, the legend doesn’t exactly follow the pattern of American witchcraft persecutions, which usually afforded the accused witch the semblance of a legal proceeding and less lurid executions than you might expect from European witchhunts a couple centuries earlier. It doesn’t matter. It’s imaginable, with a little of Arthur Miller’s Crucible and Hawthorne’s fiction in the back your mind, maybe a dim recollection of the Bell Witch of Tennessee. I love that the lore they created describes such bizarre and disjointed incidents as the story of Eileen Treacle, who was supposedly drowned in shallow water by the Blair Witch, after which the creek where she drowned became plugged up with oily sticks for thirteen days, or the Burkittsville 7, children who were abducted and ritually murdered in pairs by a hermit at the behest of the Blair Witch. I love that it’s messy lore, that there aren’t neat correspondences between the deaths and disappearances attributed to the Blair Witch over decades. I love the ambiguity that comes with incredible, unexplained events that couldn’t possibly be true, but are sworn to by earnest people. Messy, irregular, ambiguous – which is how authentic ghost stories work, too. And to make the magic stronger, they used pinpricks of true things – real places you can visit, real people mixed in with actors — like the Blair Witch took pinpricks of the blood of children.
Some of the original Blair Witch lore is spun in the movie itself, as Heather interviews townspeople in Burkittsville and the first couple of successful shoots in the woods, but not all of it. For the rest, you have to go to one of two places. First, Curse of the Blair Witch, a fake documentary that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel in the weeks before The Blair Witch Project hit multiplexes, when many people still didn’t know it was a work of fiction. Myrick and Sánchez stitched the Sci-Fi special together from footage and stories that didn’t make it into the movie, and it featured all the hallmarks of post-Ken Burns documentary form: subject experts and witness interviews, slow, loving pans over primary source documents and illustrations, letters and diaries read with sober voice-over narration. They also included movie clips and a large section from a fake 1970s In Search Of simulacrum, Mystic Occurrences, where a truly amazing warlock explains the benign arts of wicca at some length. Because of the ubiquity of similar, ostensibly credible programming all over cable TV, Curse of the Blair Witch had a convincing ring of truth. And even though the filmmakers had eschewed their original Blair Witch documentary idea, the one they scared up from the cutting room floor was plenty eerie. I particularly liked that one of the featured experts debunks the Eileen Treacle story. Because what inspires confidence in a source like the source telling you it can’t be trusted?
The second place you’d need to go was the website, which Sánchez also designed, seeding it with more lore about the Blair Witch legend and mocked up photos and documents that established Heather, Josh, and Mike as really real people who had gone to prom and hung out at the quad and had families who were sick over their loss. The design was elegantly disturbing, greeting you with creaks and echoes and a white on black scheme that prominently featured the movie’s infamous stick figures. Heather’s Journal was my personal favorite feature, giving you a peek into Heather’s anxieties about being a woman in charge of two guys, her flirtation with magick with a K, and her own suspicion that Elly Kedward had been an innocent practitioner of folk magic, not an evil witch – a story that weirdly mirrors the same year’s Scooby-Doo and the Witch’s Ghost.*** The site remained with few tweaks over the years, simple enough not to burn through 2000-era modems, but creepy enough to still warrant the occasional curious visitor long after the hoax had been exposed. To my wailing and gnashing of teeth, the website was very recently ripped out and supplanted with (more conventional) promotional materials for the upcoming Blair Witch. Which is a pity. The website was still an important part of The Blair Witch Project.
Myrick and Sánchez considered a Blair Witch sequel (or prequel), but it didn’t happen. The mythology continued in a different sequel, the widely-reviled Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, plus comics, novels, and a series of video games. There were also two more documentaries for Sci-Fi by Ben Rock, the production designer on the first film and the guy who came up with those neat stick figures – the Burkittsville 7 and Shadow of the Blair Witch, the latter purporting that the events of Blair Witch 2 were based on real killings that happened in the wake of The Blair Witch Project’s massive popularity. The meta was as impenetrable as the woods at night.
I do love the film on its own. There are valid criticisms of the vomit-inducing shaky cam, the actors’ obvious inexperience with filmmaking undermining their credibility as student filmmakers, the doubtful idea that they would keep filming and/or lugging equipment beyond a certain point, and the lack of a conventional payoff in the film’s conclusion. If you hate those things, you hold that hatred close and know I respect your right to it, but I still love its cinéma vérité guts. Like story editors on a reality TV show, Myrick and Sánchez whittled down almost 19 hours of raw footage into the narrative they wanted, and that took a lot of work and careful judgment. The actors all did a fantastic job. I’m not usually a champion of the Stanley Kubrick School of Torturing Actors, but giving them limited rations, surprising them in the freezing night with witchy hijinks, and leading them to believe there was an actual Blair Witch legend undoubtedly galvanized their improvisations.
The achievement of The Blair Witch Project goes beyond the film though, and I think that’s what really makes it special. It’s not that the marketing just got butts in theater seats, but the ad campaign – the website, the hoax, the documentary, all of it – worked as the movie’s gatefold cover. There’s the concept of ergodic texts, texts that require the reader to do a little work to read it – solve a problem, hold it up to a mirror, solve a cypher. The Blair Witch Project doesn’t exactly fit the bill of ergodic art,**** as you can go into the movie totally cold and get a worthwhile experience. But you could go into Curse of the Blair Witch cold and get a worthwhile experience, too, and arguably as scary a one. It was a story that cooperated across media in a way that I don’t think has been fully appreciated or replicated. So the movie and the marketing, the marketing and the movie: they worked together in a way that was far from a lucky fluke. It was by brilliant, insidious design.
* It’s the way I first peeped classics of the genre like Night of the Creeps and Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II, and these bowdlerized versions fill me with fuzzy nostalgia. Plus, the tacked on scenes in the TV version of Halloween are unnecessary, but fun. More Donald Pleasance is always a good thing.
** I keep wanting to abbreviate as Blair Witch, but can’t because the sequel of that name will be out in September.
*** The Scooby Gang was similarly mistaken about Sarah Ravencroft.
**** Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 which I don’t actually hate, did have an element in the home video release called “The Secret of Esrever” that required you solve a little puzzle by finding hidden words throughout the movie. It was cute. The movie arguably uses continuity errors to its advantage in establishing a constantly unreliable world.
The Blair Witch Project is widely available. Curse of the Blair Witch was released as a VHS of its own back in the day, and it can be found as an extra on some versions of the Blair Witch Project DVD and blu-ray. It’s also available for streaming by itself on Amazon Instant and sometimes pops up on YouTube, Vimeo, and such places. Same thing goes for The Burkittsville 7 and Shadow of the Blair Witch. The original website is no longer, but you can poke around archived versions on the Wayback Machine. (Thanks, Carol!)
When Angela was very small, but literate, she saw the Headless Horseman episode of Little House on the Prairie, noted that the credits said it was based on Washington Irving, and thought that meant it was a true story. Hilarity ensued.