Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s 1999 independent horror film The Blair Witch Project is best known for its use of the found-footage film technique. Though certainly not the first film, nor even the first horror film, to use the technique, Blair Witch is considered the film to have popularized it. The two directors came up with the idea in film school after deciding that they both found paranormal documentary films to often be more scary than the traditional horror film, so they decided to mix the two forms together.
The film’s marketing strategy was to first create a belief in the Blair witch story in the popular consciousness. They created a fake documentary film about the Blair witch called Curse of the Blair Witch that aired on the SciFi Channel in 1999 prior to the actual film’s release. They also created a website (now defunct) that adds details to the fictional legend, as well as the three missing film-makers. The original trailer for the film added to the claim that Blair Witch was created from the film that was found in the forest, which is also reiterated at the very start of the movie. Despite the fact that the film ends with credits, many audience members continued to believe that this movie was completely real.
The actors even believed that the legend was real, despite the movie being fake. In order to make the film even more realistic, the actors were given a 35-page outline of the mythology behind the plot, and were made to improvise all of their lines. Almost all of the events of the film were unknown to the actors beforehand, so there are moments of genuine fear within the film. For example, in the scene where the tent shakes, the actors had no idea and were generally terrified. Famously, the film was filmed by the actors themselves, which explains why the footage is often incredibly shaky and unfocused at times. The characters were also all named after the actors because the director wanted to do a similar tactic as was used in Cannibal Holocaust where all of the characters seem to be real people because there are real people out their with those exact names. In fact, the mother of Heather Donahue, who played Heather in the film, received a number of sympathy cards from people who thought her daughter actually disappeared in the forest.
Blair Witch was a total sleeper hit and earned a total of $250 million world wide on a meagre budget of $60,000. Officially, it is one of the most successful independent films of all time. It only took eight days to shoot and they returned one of the cameras at the end of the shoot to save even more money.
Heather (Heather Donahue), Josh (Joshua Leonard), and Mike (Michael Williams) venture into the Black Hills Forest near Burkittsville, Maryland (formally Blair, Maryland) to film a documentary on the Blair Witch for a school project. According to legend, in the 1940’s, a bunch of children vanished in these forests and locals continue to avoid going into the woods. Some townspeople, including Mary Brown, claim to have even seen the witch herself. After interviewing a number of locals, the three students enter into the forest to hunt for facts or clues pertaining to the legend, equipped with cameras, cigarettes, and some camping gear. After discovering a number of small piles of stones they soon also discover that they are lost and hunted. The stone piles suddenly appear surrounding their tent, despite the fact that they weren’t there the night before. Each night, they hear more and more ominous noises surrounding their tent. As they begin to panic, Mike secretly discards the map. One night, days after they should’ve been home, Josh mysteriously disappears. His severed fingers are found near the tent. Mike and Heather try to find Josh, but instead eventually come across a cabin. Inside the cabin, there are runes written backwards and black handprints on the walls and the sounds of Josh’s screams seem to come from everywhere. Heather has difficulty keeping up with Mike, who seems to have been attacked from behind while in the basement. When Heather finally gets into the basement, she sees Mike standing facing the corner of the room. Heather’s camera falls and the recording stops.
Notes & Quotes
- Blair Witch takes on some of the qualities of the rural gothic. The three main characters are creating the film to fulfill a project requirement for class, which tells the audience that they are all at least partly college educated. As they interview the locals, they openly chuckle at some of the locals’ belief in the Blair Witch. After interviewing Mary Brown, who claims to have actually seen the witch, this skepticism becomes even more clear, as the three filmmakers joke about the “crazy” Mary Brown. This skepticism is soon completely destroyed, and the three students are made to rely on their knowledge of other fictions, including The Wizard of Oz when Mike suggests they go East when Heather points out that the Witch of the West was the wicked one. They also directly reference Deliverance in such a way that it seems the actors (since the lines were improvised) were noting the connections between this film and the rural horror of all rural horror.
- The use of found footage is really exciting in The Blair Witch. Because it is (almost) completely filmed by the actors themselves, the audience takes on their positions in the film. Heather’s position is probably the most frequent physical position that the audience fills. This use of the camera, as well as the work that the audience does while watching Blair Witch is even directly mentioned when Josh takes the camera out of Heather’s hands and notes that he sees why Heather likes filming things so much, because it feels like “you’re not really here.” The experience of watching a horror film certainly does allow audience to experience horror, though at a safe distance.
- The hypermediacy used by Blair Witch also, perhaps oddly, makes it all feel more real. By emphasizing the fact that the medium in which this story is recorded is film, and infusing this fact into the story itself, the film becomes more realistic because hypermediacy causes viewers to feel directly connected to the narrative. It is the film itself that has been left and discovered in the woods, which we, the audience can now view from home. It’s like being able to directly interact with a major piece of evidence in a murder case or the haunted object from a horror film. The role of the audience becomes far more interactive: we must wonder if we will now be attacked by the Blair Witch for watching the film, we must behave as detectives to locate hints or clues recorded by the trio of film makers, and we must take on the roles of the film makers as we explore the haunted forest through their very eyes.
- Blair Witch also easily lends itself to an ecogothic or ecohorror reading. The forest itself becomes malevolent, not just the witch, because the forest seems to grow and causes the film makers to walk in circles, despite the fact that they were walking in one direction without turning. A common element of ecohorror is the loss of functionality of man-made tools. This absolutely happens in Blair Witch, as neither the compass nor the map are able to lead the team out of the woods (however the cameras and the batteries “which could power an entire third-world country” do hold up until the final moment). They never see a single animal while in the woods. Heather notes that “this is America” and they are therefore bound to eventually walk into a road or civilization, because there are so few forests in this country left- however, this doesn’t happen. The fact that this forest is so wild, and not subject to the maintenance of humanity, it is a pristine example of Estok’s ecophobia. Here Heather wishes that there was some human control present (that a road or a civilization could cut through the forest), however, the forest is all-powerful and all-encompassing. It has the power over these three human hikers. Finally, it’s interesting that the forest was chosen as the site of a witch. This is a very historical and American connection between the two: the wilderness was potentially dangerous to the early puritan settlers, and it was therefore the site of the devil, American Indians, and witchcraft, as opposed to the Christian townships and settlements.
- Finally, the Blair Witch‘s filming history provides a great case study in surveillance. The film crew followed the three actors through the forest and caused scary things to happen (sounds, shaking tents, appearing rock piles, disappearing cast members, etc) typically without their knowledge. The cast was also forced to eat less and less food as the filming went on in order to increase their panicked and frustrated reactions. The actress Heather felt so nervous about the filming situation and sleeping in a tent with two men that she supposedly secretly kept a knife on her person at all times.