Found footage with its anti-aesthetic filmmaking offers an interesting type of the horrific, one conceptualized not only by horrific material, but bound with how the audience experiences time. Although The Blair Witch Project was far from the first found footage horror film, it’s wide dispersal in the culture makes it a touchstone. Looking back at this production, it’s easy to see how time has withered what once made the film scary. The minimal propulsion of the story, along with the dated clothes, attitudes, now smack of anachronism. Stranger Things, along with the newest iteration of Stephen King’s It has shown us that nostalgia can be freighted with terror, but not anachronism. Yet that desire to look backwards towards a simpler time, even wilder time has deep roots in gothicism. Gothic novels were originally called romances because they offered a glance backwards towards a time still ruled by notions of chivalric love. Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Edgar Allan Poe’s Message Found in a Bottle, offer narratives that are found objects, the former in an antique drawer the latter in the vessel of the title. This notion of time passing, offers a great connection to found footage horror.
In “Nothing That Is Not There, and the Nothing That Is”: Language and The Blair Witch Phenomenon, James Keller writes about The Blair Witch Project, “Aptly titled a “project,” the film challenges the audience’s expectations regarding the spatial, temporal, and narrative limitations of the medium.” This challenge comes in both the way the movie is shot, a seemingly formless, jittering faux documentary, and the marketing behind the actual film. Around the time of the film’s release, the filmmakers used viral marketing to advertise. The synergy of this kind of marketing, coming at a time when the internet was exploding was fortintious for filmmakers who based their low-budget movie on the simple premise of a group of documentarians lost in the woods. Famously pasting missing persons posters of the actors around the Caan film festival, the viral marketing hinged on the movie being not a simple horror movie, but a true document of kids who disappeared.
This cross-promotion asks us to believe in the artlessness of the movie, not the manipulation of music, pacing, and cinematography. The Blair Witch was both a call back to a type of storytelling with roots in the gothic and in some ways a pop culture shot across the bow, eschewing filmmaking technique for marketing prowess. It is telling that the movie knocked John Carpenter’s Halloween from its perch as the most profitable independent movies. Carpenter is a low budget Hitchcock, emphasizing pacing, mood, music and genre storytelling to create suspense. Blair Witch is a sketch, barely fleshed out characters, creating the mythology they hope to explore in the documentary they are making in the woods. Frequently, the two complaints hurled at the movie are that the shaky camera is nausea inducing and that nothing really happens over the course of the film. Perhaps more to the point is the only thing the viewers want to see are obscured by the camera. The viewer is constantly flummoxed by the inability or unwillingness for the movie to be a movie. We want suspense or gore, the horrific or grotesque, the Blair Witch gives us only whiffs, jagged shaky shots that obscure as much as they describe. The viewer wants to look into the eyes of what is horrible or monstorious, to glance at the kernel of darkness.
What the film gives us is frustration and confusion, a movie that is uncomfortable to sit through, both narratively and physically. Very little of the actual dialogue is memorable. The trick of the movie is that tries to make us doubt that it actually is a fiction and so the dialogue must be run of the mill. Of the ‘oh’ and ‘ah; variety. Only Heather Donahue’s monologue holds us and is the most frequently cited piece of dialogue. Towards the end of the movie, she sits with the camera perched under her face, far from a closeup this is and upshot, something meant to show the sinuses and flood the camera with tears and snot. Heather says, “I just want to apologize to Mike’s mom, Josh’s mom, and my mom. And I’m sorry to everyone. I was very naive. I am so so sorry for everything that has happened. Because in spite of what Mike says now, it is my fault. Because it was my project and I insisted. I insisted on everything. I insisted that we weren’t lost. I insisted that we keep going. I insisted that we walk south. Everything had to be my way. And this is where we’ve ended up and it’s all because of me that we’re here now – hungry, cold, and hunted. I love you mom, dad. I am so sorry. What is that? I’m scared to close my eyes, I’m scared to open them! We’re gonna die out here!”
As pure cinema the monologue is perhaps the only real example of a scripted horror movie line. Heather encapsulates the entire film, underlining the monomania of making the movie, the hubris of dealing with forces outside of her knowledge and the general panic of what’s been lost. This is particularly effective not only because the last few lines prepares us for the scenes to come, but because her comments to her parents transport us out of the narrative, towards a safe place that is no less effective because the viewer is safe from danger. Framing this scene as a last will and testament of Heather and her crew, we understand it encapsulates the narrative past, the wild space projected backwards where anything can happen.
The sheer fact some viewers were and still are disappointmented with the film, comes from the conceptual nature of it. We are promised the revelation of some kind of dangerous knowledge. Like the grainy videos of Columbine, we expect to be shocked, for the film to allow us to look on the unknowable and come back from the otherside. Instead the film gives us terror, an obscure, peripheral view of the thing we’ve longed to see. The lasting coda is Joshua Leonard standing in the corner, face obscured, shoulders bowed from some unseen tormentor. This is perhaps the best symbol for a film that promises terror and then allows us only to experience the vague sight of those experiencing it. The viewer is only allowed to glimpse the position of those who are meeting their eventual demise. The viewer feels as if they’ve come so far, only to get a glimpse, a modest look of what happens when we disappear from the world. When the camera finally falls, the viewer is left to wonder what or who it was. We enlist horror movies to do many things, expecting some how to allay our fears by experiencing some more comparable form of the unknown. The Blair Witch succeed because the film promised the unknown and gave us the vagaries of the unknown. The viewer goes on a trip expecting to map out mysteries, only to find that space is unknowable, unquantifiable. Perhaps the addition of the word ‘project’ onto the movie title is not just because of the multiplicity of its marketing, and its transmedia storytelling. The last word is particularly apt because that’s what the viewer does with the entire narrative. The viewer projects, what a horror movie should be, what terror is and even how they choose to be unsettled.