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The Blair Witch Paradox: Making and Breaking Found Footage Horror

Blair Witch Project opening text

More than blow up the found footage horror technique, The Blair Witch Project whipped us all up into a frenzy about the legitimacy of its claim. Did these three people actually go missing? Was the footage actually found? What kind of sicko is able to make money off of this?

Despite the insanity of the claim, some moviegoers in 1999 (myself included) still managed to convince themselves that the film was actually made up of footage shot by three missing film students. And just as The Exorcist genuinely freaked people out in 1973, audiences were leaving screenings of The Blair Witch Project in disarray. In hindsight, it seems embarrassingly naive to have believed any part of it, but found footage just hadn’t been experienced at the cinema before.

It became a bona fide cultural phenomenon, making an insane $250 million off the back of a tiny $25-30,000 budget.

Flash forward 17 years and it’s easy to see why: The Blair Witch Project remains one of the most visceral horror experiences of all time. The film is the perfect example of the dizzying (and nauseating heights) you can reach with this divisive style of filmmaking. There’s a reason the most iconic horror scene from the 90s doesn’t seem to belong in a horror movie at all: Heather’s desperate confessional, complete with runny nose.

Part of the problem of following in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project is that, beyond the found footage, it wasn't ever intended as a conventional movie. It was more of a social experiment. Directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick began the project at university with a subversive idea: give three actors cameras, a loose script and send them off to camp and film themselves in the Maryland woods for eight days.  

Tracking the actors via GPS, Sanchez and Myrick would run around in the woods nearby, making creepy noises during the night and leaving bloody tongues outside the actors’ tents. It was a production that, according to actor Heather Donahue (‘Heather’ in the film), the directors warned would “suck as much as you can possibly imagine anything sucking.”

Her co-star, Joshua Leonard (‘Josh’ in the film), says the whole experience was a nightmare.

“Starting on the second night, there was certainly a building of how much they were going to torture us. They were setting up sound loops of babies crying and children laughing outside the tent at four in the morning.”

After shooting, Sanchez and Myrick leveraged the fledgling internet of 1999 (and the public’s inexperience with it) to bleed their completely fictional story into real life. They not only created a website full of testimonials from police and locals about the missing characters, they dropped little hints and tidbits on discussion threads and even went so far as to pass out missing persons flyers for the actors at early festival screenings. By the release of the film, you had film posters, trailers, websites, videos, mockumentaries and eventually, your friends, all claiming the film was real.

Blair Witch: Shit just got unreal

And with such an undeniable legacy to contend with, it’s clear that the filmmakers behind the new sequel have steered well and truly clear of anything resembling the original. In fact, even with the found footage gimmick, Blair Witch is a shockingly conventional horror movie. In my initial tally, I can say writer Simon Barrett and director Adam Wingard have shoehorned in references from:

  • Cronenberg-ian body horror

  • 80s slashers

  • Monster movies

  • Classic haunted house fare (complete with lightning strike scares!)

Unfortunately, all of these competing dynamics keep Blair Witch from establishing the sense of reality that defined the original. It’s never really clear what the documentary within the film is supposed to be, nor is there ever a clear motivation for each character to operate their own camera. By the middle of the film, we’re cutting between footage from about eight different perspectives, including four nifty earpiece cameras, one DSLR, two old-school video cameras and a fucking drone. It’s not just a jarring experience being thrown between one flailing, screaming perspective to another, it’s an experience that cuts straight from scare to scare.

Doing away with notions of tension-building and organic character development, Barrett and Wingard instead throw out scares constantly for the full 90-minute runtime. Within what seems like only 20 minutes in the woods, we’ve already got the creepy Blair Witch stick figures appearing out of nowhere, trees being supernaturally ripped from their roots and characters being violently folded in half through voodoo trickery.

Big jump scares are effective, but they only get you so far. Blair Witch either forgets or ignores the fact that the original was terrifying because it did away with these conventional scares to keep it real. In fact, it was because of its dedication to maintaining reality that about half of all audiences hated the film: it just didn’t show you anything that was immediately scary.

And, beyond its frenetic messiness, that’s actually Blair Witch’s biggest sin: it shows you everything. In fact, it shows you so much that it all but completely breaks down the mythology the original film worked so hard to establish. Back in 1999, Sanchez and Myrick barely even gave you a glimpse of one of their main characters, let alone the goddamned Blair Witch herself.

The Blair Witch Project turned found footage horror movies into a paradox. It was its insane success that both allowed this sequel to exist and backed it into an impossible corner: how could we buy any of Blair Witch as real? We’ve seen the trick pulled off once before and there’s no pulling it off again. There’s no part of a 2016 audience that buys into the ‘this is actual footage’ claim, they just know the rabbit is sitting in the hat the whole time.

And, for better or worse, Barrett and Wingard have sidestepped this legacy altogether, instead opting to create a wild rollercoaster version of the original -- the Aliens of the Blair Witch franchise. It's the same lesson all found footage horror filmmakers have learned since The Blair Witch Project: do the shaky cameras, don't even try to pretend this could be real. 

We can go look at some crazy things on the internet together

That’s not to say we’re any better at separating reality from fiction. Entire cultural movements have been born of blatant lies posted online and thrived in the real world. And really, the true successor to The Blair Witch Project wasn’t ever going to be a big-budget sequel at the cinemas, it was going to be a creepy internet video that went viral.

The internet has become the perfect playground for the next generation of found footage, and pranksters have already been making their fiction our scary-as-hell reality. Now, obviously, throwing yourself headfirst into a 'creepiest videos' Googling is a terrible idea. The conundrum of found footage online is that, for the most part, it's impossible to really verify how or why these videos might exist. 

But this is the exact sweet spot The Blair Witch Project exploited in 1999: could any of this actually be real? 

In any case, here are some supreme examples of horror you can find online:

  • Marble Hornets: the less said about this, the better
  • Top5s: your one-stop shop for creepy videos, some more clearly bullshit than others
  • reddit's /r/nosleep: to be more specific, a two-part post to this infamous subreddit, where user skinna555 seemingly captures an attemped home invasion on camera: first part, second part
  • Paris Catacombs Lost Man Footage: the title says it all.
BlogSean Sebastian