At film festivals in 1999 I began to hear buzz about a new horror movie called “The Blair Witch Project.” My first fascination with movies began while watching “Horror Incorporated” on television in the early 1970’s. As a teenager, I had graduated to the endless series of cheap slasher movies inspired by the success of “Halloween"; and I, in turn, had shot my own Super 8 knock-offs of these exploitation films with my friends. Although I continued to follow the genre into early adulthood, from “The Evil Dead” to the increasingly self-conscious, documentary-style films like “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and “Man Bites Dog,” I’d arrived at a dead end with Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” in 1997. Haneke actually created an anti-horror film, clinically exposing an authentic horror behind the spook house thrills: the voyeuristic complicity of the audience in ritual expectations of violence. “Funny Games” stripped away the bourgeois rollercoaster catharsis, leaving one only with a sense of guilt.
At this late, noncommittal stage of my relationship with the horror genre, my curiosity about “The Blair Witch Project” surprised me. Three simple words that I’d read in a film festival trade magazine lingered in my mind: ‘scary as hell.’ I discovered a website for the movie, at a time before promotional websites were the norm. The ingenious ambiguity of the project’s documentary status was first established online. I read an anecdotal history of the Blair Witch, which included terrifyingly straightforward descriptions of ritualized child murder. The site also presented photographs of the student filmmakers preparing to make a documentary about the Blair Witch and the materials that the police had found after the disappearance of these students. “The Blair Witch Project” purported to be a reconstruction of events, assembled from the recovered footage that the missing filmmakers had shot. If I felt an inkling of exploitation film contrivance about this information, a willing suspension of disbelief allowed me to accept that the film was a documentary . . . and I suppose that it ultimately is.
My friend Mark Vesley, who had also made Super 8 tributes to his favorite science fiction movies during the 1970's, called me at this time and asked if I wanted to see the “Blair Witch” picture that was scheduled at the Uptown Theater in July. I bought two tickets in advance for the last screening on the opening night. In other essays I've described movies that inspired recurring dreams, creating an ambiguous psychological space that lies on the boundary of memory and the movie screen. Previously, the movies had always preceded and then provoked the dreams. In the case of “The Blair Witch Project,” however, the dreams began two weeks before I even saw the film.
These dreams consisted of simple juxtapositions of unsettling images. I walked in the woods not long before sunset, anxious because I didn’t have shelter. A shadow moved in the distance through the trees. I stumbled across a figure made of wood; I must have seen an image online of the figures woven from sticks that appear in the film. I also recognized elements from Robin Hardy's 1973 “The Wicker Man," an eccentric blend of British Hammer Studio horror, sexually suggestive Mary Poppins-like musical numbers, extreme close-up photography of slugs mating and a twist ending of genuine gravity. In particular, my subconscious appropriated a disturbing shot of a dead rabbit in a child’s coffin more than once for my “Blair Witch” nightmares. I woke up gasping so often in the middle of the night that my girlfriend asked me to move temporarily to the guest room of her house.
When Mark and I arrived at the Uptown Theater in late July of 1999, I was relieved that I’d bought tickets in advance. The line for the screening extended around the corner from the theater entrance for two blocks and this line was for those of us who had already bought tickets. Everyone who was still trying to get a ticket had crowded into a busy intersection, blocking traffic, while police with bullhorns attempted to clear the street. I recognized with pleasure that “The Blair Witch Project” was clearly film-as-event, “Star Wars” at age 14 in 1977 again.
We stood in line, images from my dreams drifting involuntarily through my mind. I felt childishly giddy and nervous. We were positioned near the rear door of the theater, so that when the previous screening was released, we watched as sober-faced people emerged, muttering things like, “I’m never going to go camping again.” The line carried us forward, around the corner and into the theater. The audience took their seats, humming like bees in anticipation. The manager of the theater emerged in front of the screen with a mixture of exhaustion and obvious pleasure with the good business that he was doing. (I read later that this weekend represented the highest grossing opening in the history of the Uptown Theater.) He explained that when the show was done, we should exit behind the screen at the rear of the theater because they’d just added an extra show to accommodate the crowd outside. He walked up the aisle to the lobby as the lights began to dim and half of the audience jumped up with their arms above their heads in rock concert fashion, cheering to release their nervous energy. The first image appeared on the screen and everyone fell silently back into their seats.
For such a shrewdly manipulative film, the ending is surprisingly subtle: an image of a young man standing with his face to a wall. As the credits rolled, I struggled to process this final shot. A few seconds passed and then I remembered a story from early in the film: a child murderer turns one victim sympathetically to the wall, while he kills another. The movie ends in the mind about thirty seconds after it ends on the screen as one retrospectively assembles the puzzle pieces.
The “Blair Witch” filmmakers generally allow the horror to play in our imaginations rather than literally upon the screen. The film exploits the same lack of specificity that became one of Hitchcock’s trademarks. In “Psycho,” for example, when Lila Crane enters Norman Bates’ little-boy bedroom she picks up a book, opens it and her face registers shock. Hitchcock does not show us what the book contains. We are required, indeed encouraged, to project our own most terrifying, personal dread into the empty suggestion, as we also do into the darkness that surrounds the tent in “The Blair Witch Project.”
The directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, have said that “The Legend of Boggy Creek” was a primary influence upon their film; it had imprinted on them as children in 1973 as strongly as it had on me. The faux-journalistic authenticity of “Boggy Creek” is evident in “Blair Witch.” The filmmakers staged a fake documentary by means of authentic documentary tactics. They equipped the actors with cameras, a GPS device and general instructions, and set them loose in the woods to record the series of improvised, circumstantial reactions that would become the film during editing. At each GPS designated location, the actors received new guidelines or motivations and progressively less food; during each night the directors of the larger, conceptual film harassed them in their tent. The fictional ‘documentary’ that presents itself as “The Blair Witch Project,” is in fact a record of three young people confronting an elemental fear of the unknown and the dark, the archetypal version of the movie that I began dreaming even before I saw it. The sun hangs low in the sky; it will be night soon. Primitive figures made of sticks hang in the trees. A derelict house appears in the middle of the forest. The filmmakers captured for me Robert Frost’s occasional depiction of the woods as a force of chaos that consumes human attempts to organize the wilderness: ‘the slow smokeless burning of decay’ in “The Woodpile” or the image of the cellar hole of a ‘house that is no more a house . . . now slowly closing like a dent in dough’ in “Directive.” The fundamental folk tale dichotomies of light/dark, chaos/civilization, being/non-being function so intuitively in the film that the viewer is allowed to generate their own private horror.
As I wrote above, "The Legend of Boggy Creek" also impressed me greatly in 1973. Just months before I saw the film, my family had moved to a house in a forest near a swamp. I lay in bed at night during that summer listening to the heavy shifting back and forth of Bigfoot outside my window. If I squinted, I thought I could distinguish his silhouette against the darkness. And when I fell asleep, I had a recurring dream. I walked to school from this new house with a cornfield on my right and woods on my left. As I walked I could hear something moving parallel to me, unseen within the trees. If I stopped abruptly, the hidden presence took one audible step more and then stopped too. I knew that it was Bigfoot, walking in the woods beside me in a mirror image of my movements. As I stood and stared into the trees, he stood too, concealed, staring back at me. “The Blair Witch Project” provided me with just enough literal representation to set an internal anxiety working on that primal level of my childhood Bigfoot dreams. While watching, I stood on the edge of the woods that I had been dreaming since 1973, peering into the darkness that looks back into me. And every person that crowded into line on that July evening in 1999, eager to be a part of the movie-as-mass-cultural-event, also carried their own private dream of the dark woods into the theater with them.