In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found. So goes the marketing tagline for the Blair Witch Project, a movie that landed like a meteor in 1999, taking advantage of a precisely the right time in U.S. pop culture history to combine a number of nascent phenomena—from online message boards and internet marketing ti the rise of reality entertainment and deliberate blurring between fact and fiction—to create one of the most memorable horror movies in history.
The movie begins with a brief description that in 1994, three student filmmakers—Heather, Josh and Mike—vanished in rural Maryland while filming a documentary about a local supernatural legend, the Blair Witch. Some time after the trip disappeared, their cameras were retrieved, and the footage that was recovered becomes the basis for the rest of the film. As we watch, we see the project unfold: Heather is the leader who wants to learn more about a creepy regional legend by interviewing folks from the area. Josh and Mike go along for the ride, and soon after arriving in Burkittsville, MD, the gang learns that they might be biting off more than they can chew. The locals they talk to don’t appreciate being filmed as some kind of curiosity, and they definitely don’t appreciate how little Heather and her friends regard the seriousness of the Blair Witch legend. To get to the truth, they’ll have to venture into the local woods, but they are warned the woods are haunted. Dauntless, Heather, Josh and Mike head out into the wilderness anyway…and record what becomes of them. It isn’t pretty.
There isn’t a whole lot to this movie, really. At just under 90 minutes, it feels a lot longer than it really is. And after a while, its faithfulness to a “found footage” format makes one wish that at least the subjects on camera were listening to music on their doomed hike through the woods. What’s more, the theatric version of the movie isn’t as effective as the a fake documentary on the Blair Witch made as a bonus feature created to help market the movie. But perhaps its greatest shortcoming is that it ages so poorly. A lot of movies don’t hold up well over time, but the Blair Witch Project really only works in a very specific time, and if you weren’t there to catch it then, you’ll never get the chance to experience how this movie could work when its forces aligned.
And align, they did. It is impossible to understate in 1999 just how much this movie dominated pop culture for a time. The Blair Witch Project was one of those unicorn movies that will never be fully replicated again. Made for $60,000, it brought in almost $250 million, becoming one of the most profitable indie films of all time. And central to its success, both financial and artistic, was how it was the right project at the right time to become something much more than a high-concept indie film that could be so easily replicated but never really duplicated.
Try to imagine the scene: People were still calling it the World Wide Web. Google was a year old and nobody knew what the hell it was. YouTube wouldn’t launch for another six years. Book lovers were losing their mind over some outfit called Amazon, which still wasn’t making any money. Netscape hadn’t yet lost the first Browser War and Firefox was probably just some hacker’s handle. There was no social media, just a gazillion message boards where the foundations of our current internet culture would be laid by people who were so busy having their minds blown at the ocean of content online that they couldn’t be bothered to fact check anything. It was the perfect environment for incubating viral content, fueled by an ability to learn enough about anything to be wrong about it.
The Blair Witch Project wasn’t just taking advantage of this landscape for marketing; it took advantage of it to make a whole movie, which for a lot people, was a genuinely terrifying experience even if they hadn’t seen it. Millions of people were experiencing the same heebie jeebies that come from having to sleep outside after a really scary campfire story.a really good campfire, and they couldn’t really explain it. It was just some crazy story from the computer that felt real enough to be believed, and even though they knew better, people gave themselves over to it. It was fun while it lasted.
Love it or hate it, there was once a time when everyone was defined by their take on the Blair Witch Project, and how much they were wiling to suspend their own disbelief to entertain the notion that a weird mashup of creepy folk tale, true crime and gruesome voyeurism might be more than just a movie. There are those who can’t stand this thing and write it off as a marketing stunt masquerading as a movie. There’s probably something to that, but this movie was never made for haters. It was made for believers. And for those who believed, this movie delivered.
For proof of this, look no further than the movie’s moment of truth, when Heather and her friends are well into their trip, have encountered a whole lot of dreadful weirdness, and are accosted by something outside of their tent. As they run shrieking into the forest—the actors no longer really acting, thanks to some quasi-criminal psy ops on the part of the directors to get some real terror from their players—Heather sees something off-camera and screams. We cannot see what she sees, which makes it so much scarier than if we could. Our imagination is our ultimate nightmare, and the source of our greatest horror: the need to know just enough to regret it.