Film * Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez * Nature is Scary * 1999
Memory is tricky, especially when you’re old like me. If asked before looking it up, I would have sworn that The Blair Witch Project was a mid-nineties thing, an assertion that I feel is backed up by watching the film. But no, it came out on the cusp of the millennium where everything got weird. I was twenty when this movie came out, but I guess I can forgive my memory because my brain as a teenager and my brain in my early twenties weren’t that different and everything from that era has a kind of flannel filter on it. Anyway, I totally saw this movie in the theatre, I totally fell for it, I totally got irritated with all three main characters, and still got scared. Found footage was a novel thing back then, I swear, and the marketing for the movie was pretty much perfect. I mean, anytime you can make a movie for $60,000 and make $160 million you did something right.
The film itself is pure simplicity. Three twenty-something amateur filmmakers head off into the woods and get lost. These filmmakers, who are college kids, are making a documentary about a local legend, the Blair Witch. The movie is comprised of “found footage,” which is purported to be film from the actual documentary itself and ancillary footage recorded by Heather, the director. It’s this ancillary footage that strains the credibility of the whole endeavor, by the way. It becomes apparent right away that the only way to properly tell the story is if there’s a person rolling film most of the time, even when not capturing B-roll for the movie they’re making. Since we’re in a pre-smart phone era, it has to be part of Heather’s character to compulsively film with one of the cameras. The film makes an attempt to explain this via Heather’s desire to make reality less real by filming it constantly, but it’s a fairly transparent attempt to explain how there is so much footage available.
That’s pretty much it. The beginning of the movie is simply setting the mood, which it does pretty well considering the budget. The team goes out and talks to some locals about the Blair Witch legend, and parses out some creepy details which become important later. Once they’re satisfied with their testimonials, they head out into the supposedly haunted woods that the Blair Witch is said to inhabit in an attempt to find evidence of her existence. They promptly get lost, because none of these kids have any outdoorsy skills at all. I’m surprised they were able to pitch a tent and start a fire, to be honest. So they’re lost, and they wander around, and they yell at each other a lot, and all the while creepy shit starts to happen to them at night. It’s really hard to spoil this movie, you know? Like, if you title your film The Blair Witch Project there should probably be a witch in it. Technically there isn’t, but you know some witchy shit is going down. The ending scene is a horror classic, and it definitely holds up.
Okay, so The Blair Witch Project still retains its spookiness despite the fact that most of the movie is the three main characters screeching at each other and/or huddling in fear in the dark. Like pretty much any horror movie, the plot requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief. However, instead of rolling my eyes at the dumb teen girl going up the stairs of the ancient haunted mansion to check out the mysterious kill-noises coming from the attic, in this I’m sitting here trying to figure out how people get lost in Maryland. I’ll admit my West Coast bias right here. Not only do I live in Central Oregon, which if you don’t know is like Outdoorland U.S.A., I also work for the Forest Service, helping visitors out who want to check out Newberry Volcano, which is incidentally about the size of Rhode Island. I bring this up because the East Coast is foreign and strange to me. Having lived my life in California, Oregon, and Washington, the states back east seem more like counties. When I visited Vermont a couple years ago, the countryside was beautiful but it seemed domesticated compared to the Northwest Cascades and the vast Southwest desert. Even here it’s hard to find solitude. In the summer you can climb up into the cradle of the Cascades, right up on the feet of Mt. Jefferson or South Sister, and you’re going to have dozens of strangers running around the alpine meadows and splashing around in the glacial lakes. People are everywhere, always, and while out here it’s absolutely possible to lose a trail and get lost fifty miles from the nearest road, I don’t see how that’s a possibility when you’re always like an hour away from a major city.
Being accustomed to being constantly around people and human structures is where most of the horror comes from in Blair Witch, because the movie takes that away. Obviously the trio of lost filmmakers find themselves alone due to supernatural, witchy means. I don’t know from experience, but it seems to me that finding your way out of the Maryland “wilderness” would take maybe twenty minutes. Regardless of my glib dismissal of East Coast forests, our three filmmakers follow a stream which would otherwise get them to a road eventually so we know the Blair Witch is behind all the spookums. The film manages to make an East Coast forest seem claustrophobic and terrifying, and it does so by removing the security blanket of early 21st century urban sprawl. Now obviously the city, or the suburbs for that matter, have their own inherent dangers. Yet if our intrepid trio found themselves stranded in like, Anaheim, it would be a comparatively trivial matter to get home.
The United States is huge, and even at this late date there are still vast stretches of emptiness and wilderness. Most of it is in the West, where I live. Sometimes I get bored and drive out into the middle of the Eastern Oregon high desert and there is nothing out there. And when you’ve driven twenty miles without seeing another car, and then you turn down a rutted gravel road and keep going, and suddenly there’s nothing by sky and sagebrush and the occasional ground squirrel, it can be unnerving. Once you’re way far out there, you almost don’t want to see another human, because god knows what kind of person hangs out in the middle of nowhere. I mean, besides me. Anyway, I don’t know that you can do that in Maryland now. But you could a few hundred years ago. The Blair Witch is, of course, a supernatural force, tethered to the land in a vicious and fundamental way, still lashing out against the crushing forces of modern urbanity.