On July 16, 1999, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s $60,000 independent horror film The Blair Witch Project opened in North America to reviews deeming it “the scariest movie ever made”. Riding a tidal wave of sensational festival buzz and an early internet marketing campaign that absolutely convinced audiences this was 100 percent real, the film broke records, became the most profitable film of all time, and catapulted the ‘found-footage’ sub-genre into mainstream popularity for the next two decades.
As with anything that takes over the public conscious and influences countless imitators, Blair Witch was inevitably met with backlash. It inspired two sequels that flopped with critics and audiences, and the overwhelming consensus started to suggest that maybe The Blair Witch Project was not all it was cracked up to be. Is it merely a product of its time that can’t possibly work in today’s cinematic climate? Is the found-footage genre itself just a cheap, lazy gimmick?
Now, I’ve seen this movie probably fifty times. I’ve always loved it. I personally consider it the scariest film I’ve ever seen. My mom took me to see it when it came out. I was nine years old and I still remember the combination of excitement and nervousness, sitting in a theater with a packed audience, awaiting what was being called the scariest movie of all time. It didn’t disappoint. There was something primal about it – so utterly real and raw and dreadful. The idea of a witch hunting you is scary enough, but as a child – and still to this day – it taps into something more elemental; the fear that we all have of being lost and alone. The idea of knowing you’re going to die, and that you’re going to die scared and cold and without anyone knowing where you are or what happened to you.
SO! Cut to: yesterday, April 13, 2019. Seattle Cinerama (the best fucking theater in the state of Washington and probably the Pacific Northwest), is having a 1999 film festival, and they’re playing The Blair Witch Project. I smashed my keyboard at the chance to get tickets to one of my favorite movies, not to mention one that I hadn’t seen in theaters in twenty years and ultimately SHOULD be seen in theaters with the best sound system imaginable. I’m here to tell you, and sorry it took me so long to get to the point of this article, that The Blair Witch Project is still absolutely the scariest god damn movie I have ever seen.
Let me just start by telling ya’ll a little about the atmosphere of this screening. Cinerama is a huge ass theater. This was nowhere near sold out. It was probably 1/3 full. So no, this wasn’t a showing of Marvel Movie #374. The great thing about this was that everyone picked seats that were relatively close to the center of the theater so there was very much an active group experience formed. A Cinerama employee came out to introduce the movie, explaining a bit about how seeing it for the first time at fourteen fucked him up. The audience cheered in recognition. This was an audience who had grown up with this film too. In the same row as me I noticed a kid with his parents, probably not much older than I was when I first saw Blair Witch. He looked excited and nervous, just as I was at the time.
Watching the film again in theaters, at the Cinerama no less, was a reminder that this was not some cheap gimmick that only struck lightening because of an early internet culture that allowed the studio to find an angle that lured in audiences. Yes, the marketing was outstanding and can never be recreated. We’ll never see another found-footage movie and truly believe it might be real. Fortunately, the power of The Blair Witch Project lies not in gimmickry, audience-duping, or clever marketing. It is, plain and simple, a work of sheer filmmaking craftsmanship with a genuine understanding of real human fears. As horror films go, it’s the real deal.
Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before: “Blair Witch is stupid! Nothing happens! You don’t SEE anything!” Yet, when audiences were given Adam Wingard’s 2016 sequel (enjoyable in its own right) and actually shown the monster at the end, it was met with tepid reactions and basically non-existent box office numbers. The Blair Witch Project utilizes one of the most important elements of fear, if not the single most important, by never showing us the witch. The flawless sound design gives an idea of what is in the woods (the insidious laughter of children, a baby crying in the distance, twigs crackling as if by footsteps), but we never even see a glimpse of the monster, even during the iconic “What the fuck is that? What the fuck is that??” moment. Seeing the movie again, I was reminded how terrifying that feeling is. Whatever our imagination conjures up in our heads is infinitely more terrifying than what the movie could actually show us. The cheap-as-dirt budget is not a hinderance, but an advantage. The raw, grainy video footage mixed with the lack of spot-on visual sightings makes for an experience that feels as real and as urgent as being there.
Now that I’m older and more well-versed in cinema (I think), there are moments in the film that I hadn’t taken into consideration previously that truly underline the horror. For most of the movie, Heather is the character who’s been calling the shots. She’s the director of the documentary they’re filming. She puts herself in charge every step of the way, even while ultimately uncertain about where they are heading. Her singular drive to create something memorable compels her to film at all times, even while Josh and Michael unravel in front of her. In many subsequent found-footage films, we watch as the characters continue to film during insane events in which clearly no one in that situation would actually be filming and it takes you out of the experience. ‘Paranormal Activity 4’ literally features a sequence where the main character carries her laptop around to film scary shit on her webcam. There’s no reason someone would do that at all. Yes, watching a movie sometimes requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, but the more Blair Witch imitations we’ve gotten, the less believable it’s been to see characters trying to film things for no other reason than the audience needs to see it. Directors Sanchez and Myrick brilliantly found a way around this issue, by making Heather’s insistence and ego part of her personality, and by extension, a commentary on the audience themselves, who are, after all, the ultimate voyeurs.
Late into the film, when Heather’s collected demeanor is finally shattered, Josh turns the camera on her. “You’re lost, you’re angry in the woods and no one is here to help you,” Josh pokes at her. “There’s no one here to help you! That’s your motivation. THAT’S your motivation,” he screams, trying to break her down even more. Crying and defeated, she screams back, “It’s all I fucking have!” The sequence is a brilliant, anarchist act of character development that doesn’t feel manufactured because it is an inevitable release of fear, shame, guilt, and the admittance that often our personal desires and ambitions are dangerous to those around us and ourselves.
Part of the very real terror of The Blair Witch Project is not the supernatural elements, but the disintegration of control. In one of the film’s sly moments of commentary, Heather says, “It’s very hard to get lost in America these days and it’s even harder to stay lost.” It’s a funny line of dialogue that speaks to the character’s own stubbornness while simultaneously cutting to the core of American ignorance. Despite all the horrible shit we see around us in the news and in our own lives, we tend to go about our day thinking, “Well that won’t happen to ME.” The brilliance of this movie, and what makes it so utterly visceral, is that we are these people. We do feel a certain control over our lives that couldn’t possibly be shattered in an instant, right? The experience of watching our three main characters lose control of their psyche, of their rationality, of their hope, is the ultimate horror.
Unlike many horror films that rely on comedic relief or a sense of bloodlust or fun, The Blair Witch Project doesn’t let the audience off that easy. It is a pure, relentless descent into an unshakeable, unimaginable nightmare. And yet, because it is so effortlessly grounded in reality, we never feel like we’re watching a MOVIE made by a studio with actors. At this point we all know it’s not real, but the effect is uncanny. Ultimately it doesn’t matter that it’s not real and it’s JUST a movie. Maybe the speculation of it being real led to huge box office returns upon release, but the staying power of The Blair Witch Project is all due to the fact that it is a fabulously assured, airtight, unrelentingly visceral, and genuinely frightening examination of the deterioration of control. In the film’s final moments, when Heather and Michael are following Josh’s screams into an abandoned house in the middle of the woods, we feel as helpless as they do on screen. The Blair Witch Project is the scariest movie ever made because it is a chronicle of everything we value as humans – hope, control, comfort – being stripped down to nothing but primal, urgent fear.