Things That Go Bump in the Night
A Look Back at The Blair Witch Project
It’s been over 20 years since I saw The Blair Witch Project in theaters shortly after its release. Back then, I didn’t have a cell phone. NO ONE I knew had a cell phone. There wasn’t any Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. When I went into the theater, I really had no idea what I was about to watch. That first viewing of the “found footage” movie left me both literally and figuratively shaken. (The bumpy camera footage left many viewers with a headache.) I remember feeling completely disoriented after the movie. Was the story real? The actors didn’t look like actors. The film quality was grainy at best. And in the grand scheme of things, the horror of the film wasn’t that far-fetched. The plot was simple: three film students hike off into the woods outside Burkittsville, MD, to make a documentary about a local myth: the Blair Witch. They never return. Their cameras are found much later. The story seemed like something that could actually happen.
Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick co-wrote, directed, and produced The Blair Witch Project. They were college students from the University of Central Florida. They wanted to create something within the horror genre that combined the documentaries and horror movies they had always found frightening. The film stars three unknown actors: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard. After some initial equipment training, the three college-age performers were given hand-held cameras and GPS coordinates, then sent off into the woods to improvise dialogue. The film feels fairly unscripted, helping give credibility to the idea that it was actually real found footage. Myrick explained in an interview with Vice that the directors would leave notes for the actors hidden in the woods inside “tiny little film canisters...so they were then told to read their individual directing notes and not tell each other what the other read.”
In interviews, Eduardo Sánchez has said: “We would leave them [the actors] alone as much as possible and then intersect with them at certain points with certain directing notes. It was mostly hands-off. We wanted it to feel real. We wanted them to feel like they were really lost.” Meanwhile, the film’s crew members were running around the woods at night, playing recordings of creepy sounds, creating piles of stones, and hanging the wooden figures in trees that came to be synonymous with the Blair Witch.
As part of the marketing campaign for the film, Sánchez, Myrick and producer, Mike Monello, launched a website that included the mythology behind the “documentary,” as well as photos of the actors - asking people to help look for the “missing” film students. While it is not the original website, a fairly close replication still exists here. Check it out. It’s pretty fun. The documentary within the film itself includes interviews with “residents” of Burkittsville, MD regarding the legend of the Blair Witch. The varying degrees in which these stories line up, despite being slightly different, make them all the more believable.
Much of what is truly frightening about the film is what remains unseen; there are no special effects, only scary figures made out of sticks. We witness through a first person viewpoint as our protagonists run through the woods, hearing screams and sounds off camera. Heather’s “selfie” monologue to the camera has become iconic since the release of Blair Witch. Many who have never seen the movie still recognize the intense close-up of Heather’s face as she cries, nose-dripping, while apologizing for getting her crew into this mess. The shaking camera footage is nauseating and adds to the viewer’s disorientation. The fear of the unknown is much more powerful than any jump scares or costumed monsters that could appear.
Back in 1999, film critic Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, said about the film:
At a time when digital techniques can show us almost anything, The Blair Witch Project is a reminder that what really scares us is the stuff we can't see. The noise in the dark is almost always scarier than what makes the noise in the dark.
The film continues to build in anticipation, until it reaches its climax at an abandoned house in the woods. The final scenes of the movie were filmed inside the Griggs House, a historic 200 year old building located in Patapsco Valley State Park in Maryland. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Mike Williams explained how horrible he felt during that final act, because his direction was to run through the house away from his co-star, Heather, leaving her scared and screaming. The ambiguity of the film’s ending is what really sells it. Rather than reveal the Blair Witch, Heather sees Mike standing in a corner of the room before dropping her camera and being (presumably) attacked by something we cannot see. Then the credits roll. Your imagination does the rest.
Originally budgeted for around $35,000, Blair Witch was produced for $60,000 and initially grossed $140 million in the US. The film went on to make a worldwide gross of $248.6 million. Over 20 years later, the residents of the real Burkittsville, MD still feel the effects of the film’s release. Sánchez has reflected that if he knew how successful the film was going to be he would not have used the town’s real name. Fans of The Blair Witch Project have stolen the “Welcome to Burkittsville” sign repeatedly; many have visited in hopes of discovering whether or not the witch is real. Unfortunately, some fans even vandalized or desecrated areas like the Burkittsville cemetery, leaving many residents with a bad taste in their mouths regarding the film.
As for this viewer, rewatching The Blair Witch Project more than 20 years after its release has only made me appreciate it more. Sánchez and Myrick - two recent college grads - used a simple premise, practical effects and a lot of improvisation to create something that changed the game within the horror genre at the time. Despite the knowledge that the movie is not a documentary, many fans (myself included) still get spooked by unknown sounds and bumps in the night.
Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro