What Were We Really Afraid Of? | The Blair Witch Project at 20

From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent”.- H.P. Lovecraft

At the turn of the century, a new subgenre of horror film began to take shape – the ‘found footage’ wave. Movies that were part of this movement took the idea of reality and twisted it. Their premises centre on footage recovered after a horrific event, which has been pieced together in almost documentary style.

Spearheading this movement was The Blair Witch Project, a sleeper hit by all accounts. Released in the summer of 1999, by the Halloween of that year the film was the biggest cinematic draw of the year.  Though it was not the first movie to play with the idea of found footage, it was the first to catch the public’s attention.

The Blair Witch Project was created by two film students – Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez.  They began to develop the idea as far back as 1993 with the realization that documentary horror was as frightening as actual movies.  In October 1997, armed with three relatively unknown actors in Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams – playing fictionalised versions of themselves – the five camped in the Maryland woods for eight days to shoot the movie in full.

After 24 hours of raw footage was shot, the editing process took a further 18 months until the final cut of 81 minutes was achieved.  The most incredible part of this whole project is the juxtaposition between the genesis and the result. On a budget of $60,000, the film grossed just under $250 million. This was the rise of the found-footage sub-genre. The need for a more direct form of terror was placed in audiences’ sights.

Part of the movie’s success was down to a new format of promotion, one which at the time was slowly being tapped into – the viral video.  In the days before the stronghold of social media, the idea of an advertising campaign projected through the internet was still being experimented with.  The filmmakers jumped on this and developed a campaign to create momentum for The Blair Witch Project. The questions – Was the movie real? Did this happen? – set the internet alight.  Viral videos spawned word of mouth and media discussions surrounding the film. By the time it opened, the public were more than intrigued and the micro-budget horror had become the must-see movie.

With no CGI, big-name actors or even a soundtrack, the film became the 10th highest grossing film of 1999.  The marketing campaign aside, how was this actually achieved? Quite simply, The Blair With Project put the audience back into a state of childhood. The way it was shot made it too real. Every word and snap of a branch was sunken into the audience-goers heads with an almost hypnotic effect.

When the three characters are alone in the woods – there to make a documentary about the fabled titular witch – the focus is completely on them and their feelings.  With no soundtrack to distract attention, the drama is instead built by the slow realistic release of frustration and terror as the trio fall prey to an unseen force. Adding to this realism is the excessive method acting. The haggard and disheveled look on the actors faces was created naturally as the filming meant long days and sleepless nights, a practice similar to endurance training practiced in the army.

The Blair Witch Project preyed upon our imaginations. In films, even since The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby, horror is typically a visual entity.  As time went on and advances were made, possibilities became boundless as to what could be made appear on screen. In contrast, The Blair Witch Project tore that down and instead fed the theatergoers’ brains with only suggestions of what its monster looked like, the way it floated and even the way it killed.

Not using CGI meant no horrific figure to disturb our dreams and cause nightmares. Instead, it was a creation of our very own devising.  The terror was dragged from the viewers’ darkest fears – childhood phobias. If we can’t see it, we make ourselves see it.

In the wake of The Blair Witch Project more found footage films appeared. These include Cloverfield, the Paranormal Activity franchise and The Gallows.  Some worked but others fell by the wayside. The sub-genre became something that lost its original shock factor quite quickly.

Now, audiences have become immune to found footage style horror. 20 years ago, however, it was a completely different scenario.

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