In The Desert Of Seth

By G. B. Marian

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The 1999 poster art for The Blair Witch Project

In this film, three college film students make a documentary about a legendary figure called “the Blair Witch” (who’s partly based on the real-life legend of “the Bell Witch”). This involves voyaging into the deep, dark Maryland woods one weekend to investigate several of the locations that appear throughout the Blair Witch’s lore – including “Coffin Rock,” where several men were found mutilated in the 1800s, and a house where a serial killer butchered several young children in the 1940s. Unfortunately for these film students, neither of them seems to know anything about backpacking or hiking, and they soon become lost and are forced to camp in the woods overnight. Weird things start to happen in the darkest hours before dawn, and as they become more frightened and confused, they start turning on each other. Could one of them be a dangerous killer? Are they simply being harassed by backwoods pranksters? Or could it be that the real Blair Witch is haunting them for trespassing on her sacred grounds?

This film made waves because it was probably the first “found footage” horror film to leave such a heavy footprint on popular culture. (There were other documentary-style horror films preceding Blair Witch – including 1998’s The Last Broadcast – but none of them were quite so frightening.) This was helped by several factors, the most important being the way in which the film was made. The actors played themselves, used their real names and actually camped in the woods during filming. Many scenes were unscripted, with the directors playing frightening pranks on the actors while they tried to sleep at night. What impresses me most about this film is that the characters don’t scream or act scared in the same stylized way that most actors do in films of this sort. When Heather Donahue screams, for instance, it sounds like an actual scream that somebody in real life would make if they were truly terrified for their life. As it turns out, this realism was achieved by the fact that the actors really were terrified and disoriented while making the film. This gives the movie an extremely uncomfortable air of authenticity, to the point that even some of the actors’ relatives were concerned that they had actually been hunted and murdered in the woods.

Then there’s the film’s ingenious – and some would say unethical – advertising campaign, in which it was marketed not as a work of horror fiction, but as an actual documentary. It was sold to audiences on the premise that its three lead actors really had disappeared in the Maryland woods in October 1994, and that the footage seen in movie theaters had actually been discovered at a real-life crime scene. (There was even a companion “documentary” – The Curse of the Blair Witch – that was made for the Sci-Fi Channel that summer, and it was extremely frightening in its own way.) Nowadays, everyone knows that none of this “Blair Witch” stuff is real; but back in August 1999, there was a great deal of confusion on the matter. Even I couldn’t tell if it was just make-believe at the time, and this ambiguous tension added to the film’s mystique. This was an example of taking the 1990s fascination with “meta-horror” to an unprecedented extreme. It certainly helped bring audiences into theaters, ensuring that the movie would become one of the most financially successful horror films ever made.

The Blair Witch Project is one of those films that sharply divides its audience, with most people either loving it or despising it completely. One of the issues causing this dissonance is the fact that we never learn what actually happens in the story; is it a ghost story, a demonic possession story, a psycho killer story, or what? It’s left for the individual viewer to decide whether there’s truly anything paranormal happening or not, and many people find this sort of thing frustrating. For people like me, however, it’s just another element of the film that makes it truly terrifying. I first saw Blair Witch with my mother on Friday, August 13, 1999, and I can tell you that I didn’t sleep very well for quite a while afterward. I kept lying awake in my bed at night, thinking about the film and imagining just what the horrible truth to its story might be. In my opinion, the things I saw in my own head on those dark nights were far more terrifying than anything the directors could have possibly concocted for our viewing (dis)pleasure.

Not my idea of a happy camper…

When my mother and I went to see the film, we had just moved to Texas and the closest movie theater was in Waco, which was about an hour away from us. (Yes, the very same Waco where the whole David Koresh tragedy happened.) It was generally more convenient to take the back roads to get there because we still weren’t used to life on the Texas highways (and that’s putting it nicely.) So once the film was over, my mother and I had to drive back home for an hour on that dark country road in the middle of nowhere, and it was extremely disconcerting. Now my mother was already well aware that I had converted to Paganism by that point, and I had already told her all about Seth-Typhon. So when I expressed to her my wild imaginings about what might happen if I ever crossed paths with something like the Blair Witch in real life, she just laughed and told me I’d be fine if I did. I asked her what she meant by that, and she said Big Red was a hell of a lot scarier than some angry ghost in the woods. And if I was in good with Him, she reasoned, then the Blair Witch would probably be too scared to lay a finger on me.

Anyway, The Blair Witch Project is, in my opinion at least, one of the absolute scariest films I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s definitely on my personal list of “Top 10 Films That Made Me Too Afraid to Sleep at Night.” Most of my favorite horror films no longer frighten me, seeing as how I’ve watched each of them a thousand times. But Blair Witch continues to give me gooseflesh all up and down my back to this very day. If you’re looking for something to scare the bejeezus out of you this Samhain season, and if you’ve never actually seen this movie, take my advice and give it a shot this year. (But whatever you do, avoid the 2000 sequel – Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 – like the plague. For Duat’s sake, I’ve seen Ke$ha videos that are easier on the brain and the stomach than that!)

As an addendum, I saw the new Blair Witch film (inventively titled Blair Witch) at the theater this past September. It was much, much better than Blair Witch 2, and I enjoyed it for the simple popcorn movie that it was. But while it was a sequel to the original film, it was basically a remake, rehashing all the same things that had already been done in 1999. The only thing they did that was substantially different was that they made it glaringly obvious that the Blair Witch is absolutely real, an element for which I have mixed feelings. The ambiguous nature of the original is one of the things I liked best about it, and actually getting to see the witch robs the story of its mystique. You could do a whole lot worse as far as sequels go, but if you’re interested in seeing either of these films, you should definitely try the original first.

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5 responses to “The Blair Witch Project (1999)

  1. Howie October 5, 2014 at 10:37 am

    I can relate – had a really hard time sleeping the night I saw that movie.

    Like

  2. katakhanas October 20, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    When I think of this movie, the phrase that comes to mind is Epic Marketing WIN! In the lead-up to the film’s release, the tremendous amount of word-of-mouth marketing based on the genius web landing pages that confused so many people (is this real life?) has not been paralleled by any product or service since. And to think that it was done on such a shoestring budget makes it all the more of an outstanding campaign.

    Liked by 1 person

    • G. B. Marian October 21, 2014 at 7:22 am

      Yeah, this film was definitely an epic win for independent cinema, which is something many film snobs seem to forget. When we think of independent films today, we think of “artsy” dramas and quirky comedies…But the market for these works was first established and made possible by horror flicks like Halloween (1978) and Blair Witch, which both continue to be two of the highest grossing independent films ever made. So horror films like these deserve a little more respect than they usually get from some of the “arthouse” crowd (or at least from some of the “arthouse” people I’ve known).

      Liked by 1 person

      • katakhanas October 21, 2014 at 11:59 am

        Well said! Yes, Carpenter’s Halloween is a true cinema classic that will forever stand the test of time! Superb film-making that has reached nothing short of iconic status.

        Like

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