Millennial Malaise 38: The Blair Witch Project

In Which It’s Very Hard to get Lost in America These Days

In the many retrospective pieces about 1999’s The Blair Witch Project I’ve read there’s a common refrain that’s intoned again and again: the movie has a unique power because we are no longer scared of getting lost. That the rapid integration of digital technology in our day-to-day lives has waylaid navigational fears and nearly erased them from the cultural landscape. Now obviously my reading is overly broad, but I think the thrust of this argument is flawed. The Blair Witch Project plays on a much more pernicious fear, one definitely tied to our relationship with technology, but still present in many points of the last 30 odd years. That we aren’t supposed to get lost anymore.

Writing and directing duo Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez are deftly able weave this theme into a heady stew of American terrors. Blair Witch is a movie not only a movie of losing yourself in the woods, but of local folklore, shifting legends, impossible geometries existing in the forest, the horror of murky low grade video, and how we use our relationship to media to sift through all these ideas. What’s fascinating is how deep these concepts go, but how distant they are in the cultural memory of the film. It’s outstanding success has led to 20 years of imitations and dissections, but few rarely are able to tap into what Blair Witch reaches for.

So let’s start with getting lost in the woods. That is the primary source of tension that the film draws from. When student filmmakers Heather (Heather Donahue), Mike (Michael C. Williams), and Josh (Joshua Leonard) head into the woods to make a documentary they are actually fairly well prepared. Yes their tent is too small, but they’ve brought food to last longer then the time they planned on staying, they have maps and compasses of the area, and they have made their intentions publicly known to the township near the forest. For all intents and purposes their trek into the woods has been accounted for, and by 1994 standards (when the film was supposedly recorded) it seems like they have their bases covered.

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And why should they worry about getting lost. This is the 90’s after all. The United States has become a mostly settled superpower on the world stage with all the latest and greatest digital technology at its fingertips. Why would one worry when you’ve got a camera to capture it all and as Heather puts it, “America has destroyed most of it’s natural resources.” And it’s the Maryland woods we’re going to, not some depopulated wasteland in the west.

And yet they do get lost. Something that shouldn’t happen. A fundamental break with the understanding of the cultural safety net. This the go-go 90’s, the world is being introduced to consumer digital grade cameras and the World Wide Web, we’re not supposed to get lost. But the woods have something else in mind. So the audience is left with the degradation of morale for our filmmakers. The dawning of a horrific knowledge, that they are gone beyond all sense of help. The form of the forest no longer complies with reality, maps and compasses can provide no greater sense of direction than aimless wondering.

This feeling of being knocked off axis then slithers its way into other aspects of the film. The first comes in the literal format of the movie. Blair Witch  is shot on handheld cameras, mostly in digital, but with a sprinkling of 16mm black and white film. At the time these were the two lowest grade formats an image could be captured on. The blurry blown out textures of digital video, or the high grain abstraction of 16mm, and they both allow Myrick and Sanchez to play tricks on the viewer. For the bad quality of digital video has been the source of fear ever since the format was concocted, the blurred image sneaking in faces and shadows into footage. Was that movement or just a blip on the screen? The high contrast of the film only makes some images more elusive. In the famous sequence of the crew running through the woods at night, all we see are trees. But those clumps of leaves and piles of moss could always be hiding something far more sinister in the darkness.

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This intangible shifting of the woods and the squirrely nature of the recorded formats taps into deeper legends as well. Before heading out into wilderness the the doc crew interviews the local township about the legend of The Blair Witch. What they are given is unclear and mutable. The witch has seemingly interacted with a few locals directly, building statues and rising from the mists of the river, but maybe she’s also just a representation of the horror of a serial killer. Whatever the source of these witchy tales it seems to transform and mold to different forms of fear. Possession, kidnapping, and murder all rolled up into some sort of evil presence that lingers in the woods. The passing of legends and the eventual inscrutable structure of the forest bring to mind the works of authors like Hawthorne and Lovecraft. That the malignant and unspeakable has rooted just below places we considered safe and fully known.

And how do we reconcile this terror of the undulating unknown with our modern understanding of the world. Blair Witch doesn’t provide a definitive answer, but it gives a glimpse at one. Heather constantly films the descent into chaos, and when asked why she responds by noting that the video allows her to contextualize what she’s seeing. If this nightmare scenario is recorded than some sort of sense must be made of it.

Alas it’s for naught, as Heather and Mike enter a decrepit home in the middle of the woods they are met with a dark fate. The cameras roll as Heather descends into the basement. Clunk. Heather and the camera fall over, rolling now over mostly silence. No screams or pleading from our crew but the empty ground. This whole trip was supposed to be clear, supposed to make sense, people don’t get lost in America anymore. The camera says otherwise.

Odds and Ends

  • Blair Witch is probably tied with films like The Matrix and The Sixth Sense as movie phenomenons that I wish I was able to experience first hand. Unburdened from the weight of history and critical discourse I can’t imagine how jolting the experience of watching Blair Witch in a theater for the first time would be. Alas I was probably too busy watching the Pokemon anime to notice.
  • The long and winding of road The Blair Witch Project’s staggering success includes a couple of bizarre follow-ups that tried to morph this thing in a franchise. First comes Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows directed by actual doc maker Joe Berlinger, and in 2016 the imminently forgettable Blair Witch. This year even saw the tepidly released Blair Witch video game. All of the power of the first movie just can’t be capture elsewhere.
  • The Blair Witch Project stands as one of the most financially successful movies ever made. Produced on a budget of around 60 thousand dollars with a final box office gross of around 250 million.
  • The breathless need for Blair Witch content  led to the creation of this absolutely bizarre Scooby Doo based parody, which aired only once on Cartoon Network on Halloween 1999. Which was only four months after the film’s theatrical release:

 

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Next Week: there’s ghost in the machines in the 2000 J-Horror cult classic Pulse