Up until this weekend, I had never seen the now-landmark 1999 horror movie The Blair Witch Project. If you’ve met me, and we have had a conversation about The Blair Witch Project, please know that I was lying about my opinion the whole time; I made it all up like Keyser Söze. I knew actually nothing about what happens in The Blair Witch Project aside from the fact that the movie follows a woman who is very scared in the woods. I didn’t want to be spoiled, so I never read about its production, I never looked up the plot, I only knew what information was available from the movie’s famous poster: that it was about a little stick and a wool beanie. Before typing this sentence I thought the movie starred Shannen Doherty. The only thing I did know was that The Blair Witch Project started the found footage horror film trend, in the same way that Halloween jump-started the slasher film and Saw revitalized American gore. And I knew that, like Orson Welles’s alien broadcast, The Blair Witch Project was a horror sensation because it left its audience panicking — and barfing — that what they had witnessed was real.
In 1999, leading up to the movie’s premiere, the producers of The Blair Witch Project elaborately staged a marketing campaign to make the film appear to be the result of a real series of murders. While The Blair Witch Project was far from the first movie to stage a publicity stunt, it was one of the first to use the internet as a means to spread advertising through misinformation. The filmmakers flooded message boards with anonymous comments about the disappearance of the actors, and they created a webpage to pass along the mythology of the Blair Witch story — of course, without any recognition of its fictional origins. The result was that the initially $25,000 student film became a national sensation, a movie whose notoriety was driven by the rumor, insinuation, and suspicion that what was unfolding onscreen was real horror, not fiction.
So with the reactions of 1999 in mind, and with the reboot out in theaters this Friday, I pulled off the Band-Aid and experienced the Blair Witch phenomenon for myself. What holds up most about The Blair Witch Project 17 years after its premiere is its meta blend of documentary with fiction, which was a surprise as a first-time viewer, since the moment the title card flashed onscreen with the notice that the movie would follow a group of filmmakers, I reflexively cringed. By now, there have been enough found footage horror films for the idea to feel like a cliché, and too often filmmakers in movies are played by movie stars or wannabe movie stars and written by writers who want to signal their self-aware understanding of the film industry and film form. When you watch a found footage movie like Paranormal Activity, there’s no danger of ever becoming convinced that what you’re watching consists of actual footage of a real family in their home. Whether it’s Cloverfield or The Last Exorcism, the obvious artifice of the movie as a movie becomes a part of how you cope with your fear of jump scares and movie monsters. Even if you jump, you can always remind yourself that someone set up the situation you’re watching, that the play of shadows on the wall is the result of a man just offscreen waving a couple slats of cardboard, not whatever supernatural horror the movie claims to capture. But The Blair Witch Project is different. It is a horror movie, but rather than breaking the illusion of realism to inspire fear, the movie holds on to the illusion of realism and inspires dread. Maybe it’s because I’m from the Saw generation, but when I think of movies that intervene in the norms of horror filmmaking, I think of heightened aesthetics and convoluted story lines. So I went into The Blair Witch Project expecting to be desensitized to the onetime novelty of its shaky camera tricks, only to find that the single trick on The Blair Witch Project’s mind was to trick you into ignoring its tricks.
Most of The Blair Witch Project is spent in the woods, but the first 15 minutes or so of interviews leading up to the woods is genuinely disarming with its hokey and genuine man-on-the-street style. The movie is set in the mountains of Maryland, and sure enough every person we see at the start of The Blair Witch Project is a bona fide Appalachia crag-face. As the film crew talks to locals about the supposed legend of the Blair Witch, their accents are regional, not the faux-regional accents of Hollywood actors hired to sound like creepy hicks. Likewise, the actors who were chosen to play the film’s leads were all unknowns, but more than just being unknown, they look and sound like regular people. Their bodies are a little lumpy, their clothes are a little baggy, they have acne and body hair, they curse and mumble. And the style of the film conforms to the familiarity that those faces lend to the movie.
The Blair Witch Project wasn’t made with a traditional script: Instead, the filmmakers followed a 35-page outline that the actors and filmmakers used to riff scenes. And while most horror movies pace their scares from beginning to end, giving the film an even, if inorganic structure, The Blair Witch Project withholds fear for nearly an hour, letting the conflict between the characters build in a way that feels natural to a real crisis. All of the movie’s horror sequences take place at night, and these sequences — lit by flashlights, scored by the sounds of crickets and ragged breaths — are what feel most trite after nearly two decades of being normalized in the found footage genre that followed the movie. But these horror sequences probably constitute no more than 20 total minutes of the movie’s 80-minute runtime. Instead, we mostly watch lead characters Heather, Josh, and Mike as they get lost in the woods on their hunt for the story on the Blair Witch, the conflict building as Heather refuses to stop filming despite their circumstances becoming more and more dire.
I can’t say I was ever scared watching The Blair Witch Project, but I was interested in the uncanniness that the movie maintained well over a decade after its release, even knowing that the panic around it was the result of a marketing campaign and not a genuine episode. If fear at the movies relates to a kind of elemental manipulation of the senses — our natural evolutionary response to blaring sound after total silence or sudden movement in stillness — usually fear subsides as soon as you’re able to trick your body back into its feelings of safety. But the fascination that the The Blair Witch Project is still able to produce is all thanks to its tenuous position between the boundary of what’s real and what’s fake. Watching Heather Donahue break down in sobs knowing that what you’re watching is a performance still evokes a kind of horror, though it isn’t the visceral bodily panic of a more visually ambitious movie. If this isn’t real, what makes it feel real? If movie monsters are the result of movie makeup, what unseen force makes it possible to film a movie meltdown?
For people who watched in 1999, the dread that hung over the movie was the possibility that what was happening onscreen might be real. In 2016, what’s dreadful (and what’s exciting) is knowing that there was a time when people couldn’t tell the difference between reality and its illusion. As Mike accuses Heather in one of the few moments of quiet before the film’s dramatic conclusion, the draw of The Blair Witch Project today isn’t the familiar human desire to be afraid, it’s the far stranger desire to be derealized. “I see why you like this video camera so much. It’s not quite reality ... it’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.”