Looking for the perfect Halloween movie to watch this autumn season?
Well, if you’re a fan of Paranormal Activity or V/H/S, you should watch the found-footage horror that inspired them all – The Blair Witch Project. Though it isn’t the first found-footage horror, it’s the movie credited with kick-starting the genre’s popularity.
The movie follows three amateur filmmakers – Heather, Mike, and Josh – who head out into the woods to make a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch. First, things start off relatively innocent, with the crew interviewing townsfolk about the Blair Witch. Then, they venture into the woods to explore sites associated with the Blair Witch, including Coffin Rock, a site where five men were ritualistically murdered.
Things start getting out of hand after they camp out the second night – after finding ceremonious piles of rocks, they begin to hear noises surrounding their tent. When they awaken, they discover cairns left outside of their encampment. Tensions rise between the three after this, with the three becoming increasingly frustrated and frightened when they can’t figure out how to get to their car. They begin finding voodoo dolls, hearing the sounds of children laughing, and receive disturbing “gifts” like human tongues wrapped in sticks. In the end, the Blair Witch nabs them all.
The film is incredibly low-budget, and really doesn’t have many traditional scares. You never see the Blair Witch, and there’s not much gore (well, aside from that human tongue). Most of the fright comes from watching the three friends become increasingly paranoid and agitated. Seeing Josh cry, Mike scream hysterically, or Heather’s famous monologue apologizing for making the documentary – these are the moments that build tension and cause intense discomfort. The sound design also adds a sense of eerie dread to the movie. Oftentimes, the camera is being held by a terrified Heather, who is shaking and filming random patches of dark woods. There isn’t much to see, usually, but the sounds of the trio’s haggard breaths, frightened grunts, and the ominous sounds surrounding them create a convincingly horrific atmosphere.
The realism of the film is also what makes it so spooky. Originally, the film was marketed as a true story. It advertised that the actors involved were real documentarians who died after the film was shot, and that the footage was recovered later. Advertisements actually had MISSING posters made up of the leads, and in 1999 the IMDb page even listed the actors as “missing, presumably deceased” for the first year it was out. In fact, the film and marketing was so convincing that Heather Donahue’s mother actually received sympathy cards from people who believed her daughter had died.
The incredibly well-done marketing is almost as interesting as the movie itself. The manufacturing of newspaper articles, faux police reports, and news footage makes it a truly horrifying and intricate multi-media experience. It was pretty genius, and led the movie to go “viral” even back in 1999, before going “viral” was even really a thing yet. Much of these fake documents are still available, and poring over these docs that flesh out the mythology of the Blair Witch after watching the mysterious final scene make the film that much more interesting.
The film’s marketing definitely paid off in 1999, since the promotional website garnered 160 million hits by that August. Eventually, the film became one of the most profitable indie films ever, gaining $248.6 million against a budget of only a few hundred thousand dollars. In fact, the movie was in the Guiness Book of World Records due to its incredible budget to profit ratio – they spent $1 for every $10,931 made.
Although we now know that The Blair Witch Project isn’t a true story, there are still plenty of frights to be had. The style of the movie itself is pretty convincing, thanks to the “documentary” style and the realistic script. Most of the dialogue was improvised, making it flow very naturally and believably. The actors’ performances after getting lost in the woods are definitely realistic – probably because the poor guys actually DID get lost in the woods at least three times while shooting, and had to have the outside film crew rescue them and lead them back to safety. In fact, when the characters realize they had been walking south all day only to end up in the same spot, that was a real reaction from the actors – they were genuinely upset when they realized they had walked all day for nothing. There’s also a scene where the three get scared when their tent starts shaking violently – this was totally unscripted, as the director actually ran out and began shaking their tent, causing them to freak out in real time.
The interviews in the beginning were scripted, but the director didn’t actually tell Josh, Heather, or Mike that these interviewees had been planted. The three actors actually thought people were responding honestly to their questions, so the expressions on the actors’ faces when they hear the townspeople’s answers are real. Again, the clever directing work made the movie much more terrifying thanks to the genuine responses coming from the actors. It really helped sell that the Blair Witch actually existed and lurked in the deep Maryland woods.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that you never SEE The Blair Witch. This led to a lot more speculation about the myth of the witch, and actually made it a little scarier. Your imagination can probably create a scarier image than what would have appeared on-screen. Funnily enough, this aspect was completely accidental. You WERE supposed to see the witch at some point. During a scene where the characters run out of their tent, the camera was supposed to pan over and show a figure in a white gown. The cameraman forgot to pan over, however, and they never re-shot the scene.
The intense final scene where Mike and Heather discover the dilapidated house in the middle of the woods is an excellent finale. The two shout desperately as they hear distorted calls for help from Josh. The house is seriously creepy and is a harrowing set piece. Seeing Mike standing despondent in the corner of the basement, bewitched by the Blair Witch herself, is a genuinely scary moment, even all these years later. Imagine seeing that in a theater filled with audience members holding their breaths as the camera falls to the ground – what an awesome cinematic experience that must have been for moviegoers who went to see the movie in 1999.
The overall believability makes it easy to get wrapped up in the film, even if you know it’s not real. If you turn the lights down and throw it on for a Halloween movie night, you’re just about guaranteed to get at least a LITTLE freaked out. The frightening shots of the forest really do make it a perfect flick to throw on for the autumn season – next time you find yourself on a winding empty road surrounded by woods, you’ll probably find yourself wondering if there’s some mythical Blair Witch-like creature lurking in the shadows.