At film festivals in early 1999, buzz developed about a new horror movie called The Blair Witch Project. My fascination with film began while watching Horror Incorporated on television in the early 1970’s. As a teenager I graduated to the low-budget slasher movies inspired by the success of Halloween, making 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 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 clinically exposed an authentic horror behind the safety of the spook house thrills: the voyeuristic complicity of the audience in ritual expectations of violence. Funny Games stripped away the rollercoaster catharsis, leaving one only with a sense of guilt.
At this noncommittal stage of my relationship with the horror genre, my curiosity about The Blair Witch Project surprised me. Three simple words 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 site presented the film unambiguously as a documentary. I read an anecdotal history of the Blair Witch, which included terrifyingly straightforward descriptions of ritualized child murder. The website also posted photographs of the student filmmakers preparing to shoot a piece about the Blair Witch and of the materials that the police 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 showmanship about this information, a willing suspension of disbelief allowed me to accept that the film was a documentary . . . and I believe that it ultimately is.
At this time my friend Mark Vesley, who had also made Super 8 tributes to his favorite science fiction movies as a kid, asked if I wanted to see the Blair Witch picture scheduled at the Uptown Theater in July. I bought two tickets in advance for the last screening on opening night. In other essays, I've described movies that inspired recurring dreams, creating a shifting boundary between memories and the movie screen. Previously, the movies had always preceded the dreams. In the case of The Blair Witch Project, however, the dreams began two weeks before I even saw the film.
These dreams were collections of unsettling forest scenes. 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. A figure made of wood lay in my path; I must have seen an image online of the woven sticks that appear in the film. I recognized elements from Robin Hardy's 1973 The Wicker Man in the dreams as well, an eccentric mixture of British Hammer Studio horror, sexually suggestive Mary Poppins-like musical numbers, extreme close-up photography of slugs mating and a twist ending of real gravity. In particular, my subconscious edited a shot of a dead rabbit in a child’s coffin from The Wicker Man more than once into my Blair Witch nightmares. I woke up talking so often in the middle of the night that my girlfriend asked me to sleep in the guest room of her house.
When Mark and I arrived at the Uptown Theater in late July, 1999, I was relieved that I’d bought tickets in advance. A line for the screening extended around the corner from the theater entrance for two blocks and it was for those of us who already had tickets. Everyone who was still trying to get a ticket had crowded into a busy intersection, blocking traffic, while police with bullhorns tried 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 through my mind. I felt childishly giddy and nervous. We were positioned near the rear door of the theater; when the previous screening was released, we watched as sober-faced people emerged, muttering “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 walked 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 was the highest grossing opening in the history of the Uptown Theater.) He explained that when the show was done, we should exit at the rear of the theater because they’d just added an extra show for the crowd outside. The lights began to dim and some in the audience stood with their arms above their heads in rock concert posture. 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 understand this final shot. A few seconds passed and then I remembered a story from early in the film: a child murderer turns one victim to the wall, while he kills another. The movie ended in my mind about thirty seconds after it ended on the screen as I retrospectively assembled the puzzle pieces.. The Blair Witch filmmakers instinctively allowed the horror to play in our imaginations rather than literally upon the screen, understanding the effective lack of specificity that became one of Hitchcock’s trademarks. We are encouraged to project our own personal dread into the dark that surrounds the students' tent.
But it wasn't Hitchcock that Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez cited when asked about influences on their film. The Legend of Boggy Creek had imprinted on them as children in 1973 as strongly as it had on me and the faux-journalistic tactics of Boggy Creek are evident in Blair Witch. The filmmakers staged a fake documentary by means of a contrived documentary production. They equipped the actors with cameras, a GPS device and general instructions, then set them loose in the woods to record the series of improvised reactions that would become the story during editing. At each GPS designated location, the directors of the film-within-the-film received new guidelines or character motivations and progressively less food; then at night the directors of the larger conceptual film harassed them in their tent. The fictional ‘documentary,' The Blair Witch Project, is an authentic record of three young people confronting an ancient fear of the dark; a movie generated perhaps in the collective unconscious, the movie that I also began dreaming before the screening. 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. This is the elemental stuff of folk lore and campfire ghost stories. The filmmakers also evoked for me Robert Frost’s 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.” Fundamental dichotomies of light/dark, chaos/civilization, life/death function organically in the film at a level that we all recall from childhood.
The Legend of Boggy Creek left a deep impression on me when I saw it in 1973 at the Amery Theater. I describe the recurring Bigfoot dream that followed that viewing in the title essay of this collection.
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 at the primal level of my childhood Bigfoot dreams. While watching at the Uptown Theater in 1999, 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 that evening, eager to be a part of the movie-as-mass-cultural-event, also carried their own individual vision of the dark woods into the theater with them.