There was a major buzz in the air. Word had spread about this movie with a witch in it, but it was called a “project” so it sounded like a student film of some sort. It wasn’t easy to see this film. It was mostly being shown in arthouse theaters across the United States. You’d have to be in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago or Austin or some other major city in the US in order to see it.
Eventually, word had gotten out that the Kendall Landmark Theater in Boston (well, technically in Cambridge) was showing this film. I was about 17 years old at this time and it wasn’t exactly easy for me to get to the Kendall Theater, since the Kendall involved some semi-complicated rides on the Red Line subway and then about 20 minutes of walking on top of that as well. Buzz about The Blair Witch Project, however, was growing even stronger. I mean, there hadn’t been buzz like this, especially for an independent film, since, well, since Run Lola Run, I suppose, which only came out a year earlier in 1998. The buzz surrounding Blair Witch, however, was even stronger than Run Lola Run. From what I was hearing, this was a MUST-SEE movie.
Blair Witch Project apparently became such a success in the arthouse theaters that it eventually got a wide release and, in late-summer 1999, it showed up at the nearest multiplex to where I lived, which, at the time, was the Showcase Cinema in Randolph, MA. Well, let me correct that: Randolph was the nearest multiplex at the time that actually had stadium seating, which was a new addition to movie theaters in the late-1990s. Stadium seating was a key upgrade and it made a hell of a difference. Gone were the fears of sitting behind a lady with big, poofed-out hair or a cowboy with a ten-gallon hat. Wherever you sat in the theater, you would have an excellent, unobstructed view of the movie screen. It was pretty much guaranteed.
One day in the middle of the week, me and a couple of friends went to an early matinee showing of The Blair Witch Project. I’m talking the earliest show here. It may have even been an 11am showing. Why did we go so early? No idea. But it ended up being the perfect time and it pretty much helped contribute to the perfect viewing experience. It’s possible that the theater was completely empty other than us, but I will play it safe here and say there were maybe a few other people in the theater. Either way, the emptiness of the theater added to the spookiness of the viewing experience. It almost felt as though you were lost and alone in the woods like the characters in the film. I’m not sure I would have been as creeped out as I would have been had I seen the movie at night with a packed theater.
What I remember more than anything else about seeing The Blair Witch Project that one morning in late-August 1999 was the theater’s surround sound. Yes, the surround sound. Again, the Randolph stadium-seating cinema was a relatively new theater, so it had the latest 7.1 digital theater surround sound or whatever the most top-of-the-line digital sound there was at the time. It was probably that THX surround sound. Remember how they would have that THX logo at the beginning of all the movies and there would be a sampling of intense surround sound to give your ears a taste of how good the sound system was? Yes, it was that era, folks. An exciting time.
Now, you would think for an independent film like The Blair Witch Project, a theater’s sound system would be neither relevant nor make much of a difference. You would think surround sound would be more important for a big-budget blockbuster movie like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (also released in 1999) or most definitely the action-packed soundtrack-heavy cyberpunk hit The Matrix (released in 1999 as well). As for The Blair Witch Project? Well, you would think a simple stereo sound would suffice or, hell, even 1980s-era mono-sound.
This is not the case, though.
Much to my surprise, surround sound turned out to be pretty much essential to optimizing the Blair Witchviewing experience. There are about seven scenes where the characters of Heather, Josh and Mike are sleeping in their tent and they’re woken up by sounds in the woods. Initially, these noises are what-sound-like handfuls of rocks being thrown against trees. Then, as we progress further into the film, there are the sounds of children giggling or babies crying. Even further into the film—when Josh has mysteriously disappeared—they are the sounds of Josh screaming. When you are in a theater that is practically empty and you hear these noises on a surround-sound speaker system, it literally sounds like these noises are happening all around you. In other words, it sounds like you are in a tent, in the middle of the night, lost in the middle of the woods, and these noises are happening all around you. Long story short: the surround sound made you feel pretty much exactly how the characters felt in the movie.
When the film finished and the house lights in the theater came up, I was sitting in my chair watching the credits that were underscored by creepy-yet-subtle atmospheric music—the only musical score in the entire film, by the way—and I simply remember being stunned. I know I may sound like I’m being dramatic here, but I don’t remember a movie ever leaving the kind of impression on me that The Blair Witch Project did. I remember sitting in my seat feeling paralyzed because I was completely blown away by what I had just seen. I was creeped out, yes, but I think, more than anything else, I was blown away because I knew I had seen something incredibly unique and amazingly brilliant. I remember saying to myself, “Ok, I have to get up now and leave the theater.” But I was dazed. I did eventually get up and leave the Showcase Cinema, but I couldn’t shake the shocked feeling all day.
Also, I probably should mention that I literally thought what I had just seen on that movie screen was absolutely real. Yes, I thought three student filmmakers went to Burkittsville, Maryland (formerly Blair, Maryland) and shot a documentary about the Blair Witch, got lost in the woods while they were shooting the film, and then, a year later, their footage was found. Even when all my friends insisted that it wasn’t real and even when I heard that the actress who played Heather appeared on Letterman or some other talk show to promote the film, I still thought it was all real. Talk about cognitive dissonance. I was in denial that it didn’t actually happen. Why? Because the movie was THAT convincing.
Ok, so I know a lot of you think I’m exaggerating here. You maybe have seen The Blair Witch Project and are saying, “That movie’s not really scary,” or, “That movie was all a buncha hype.” There was, indeed, a lot of hype surrounding The Blair Witch Project in 1999, there is no doubt about that, and judging whether a movie is good or bad is usually rather subjective; however, I was absolutely convinced that The Blair Witch Project was, all subjectivity aside, an objectively brilliant movie.
In order to test this hypothesis—that The Blair Witch Project was an objectively brilliant movie—I needed to make sure that the film withstood the test of time and also withstood the test of multiple viewings. I want to say that I went back to see The Blair Witch Project for a second time in the movie theater, but I can’t say this with absolute certainty because I don’t remember. What I do know is that, when the movie came out on video however many months later, I was sure to purchase a VHS copy as soon as it was available. After a second viewing and even a third or fourth viewing, I knew my hypothesis was proven correct. The Blair Witch Project was, indeed, not only a brilliant horror film but it was a brilliant film in general.
For the next several years, I would watch The Blair Witch Project almost every October to get myself into the Halloween spirit. I did this up until maybe ten years or so ago. This was around the time when I stopped watching VHS movies altogether, as the video medium was basically obsolete by this point.
Recently, however, I started getting back into VHS again, unearthed many of my old VHS tapes and The Blair Witch Project was one of the VHS’s I unearthed, the tape of which was still in excellent condition. Again, it had been about ten years since I had last seen the movie and I once again wanted to test and see whether the film held up after more than 20 years now. I also wanted to see whether the film was as brilliant as I remembered it to be. I was ten years older from when I had last seen the film and all the wiser. Surely this viewing would be the ultimate test to see whether The Blair Witch Project was one of the best horror films of all time. The hype and buzz that surrounded the film more than 20 years ago had long since cleared. It was time to put Blair Witch to the ultimate test of time.
So I popped the Blair Witch VHS into my VCR and gave it a watch.
I was not disappointed.
Again, I know this sort of thing is totally subjective, but I think I would have to say that The Blair Witch Project is perhaps the best horror film of all time. I know a lot of horror movie buffs will beg to differ with me. I realize that some people may prefer slasher films like Halloween, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. Other horror nerds would slap me in the face and insist that a film like Night of The Living Dead or Texas Chainsaw Massacre are much better horror films than The Blair Witch Project. Then, there would be the REAL horror movie connoisseurs who would probably point to some obscure foreign horror film that was made in Italy (like Dario Argento’s Suspiria) or in Japan (Takashi Miike’s Audition comes to mind). And then there are such horror classics as The Exorcist, Frankenstein, Dracula, Nosferatu…oh, and how could I forget Slumber Party Massacre 3…all great contenders for best horror film of all time. I am certainly not arguing that all of those horror films aren’t great horror films, but the thing is that most of those movies, with a couple of exceptions, are missing two main ingredients that The Blair Witch Project has.
One of these ingredients is that what happens in The Blair Witch Project is quite possibly something that could happen in real life. I know a lot of people are raising your eyebrows now, but hear me out on this. First of all, it’s very easy to get lost in the woods. We can all agree on that. However, it would ALSO be possible for there to be some sort of anomalous electromagnetic, Bermuda-Triangle-like phenomenon found in the woods that made us confused and disorientated, screwed with our compasses, made us hallucinate and ultimately drove us to insanity. On top of all that, I don’t know about you, but I think there is the possibility that an area deep in the woods could be cursed, whether it be due to Indian burial ground or Indian battle ground. Additionally, I think an area in the woods could be cursed due to occult practices. In Blair Witch, weird occult-like things happened at “coffin rock” and these dark occult rituals could have, indeed, opened a door that allowed very dark demonic energy into the woods. Ok, maybe you don’t believe in “demonic energy” or “opening doors” to lower dimensions or even Bermuda-Triangle-esque electromagnetic phenomena, but the fact of the matter is that the Blair Witch story *could* possibly happen. I mean, it’s not like this is Child’s Play where a possessed Chucky Doll goes around murdering people. The Blair Witch Project never shows the witch, we just sense her presence, so it therefore is true to what most people would experience in a real “haunting”, whether this haunting is actually happening or being hallucinated for whatever reason.
Actually, now that I think of it, you could toss aside the whole haunting element to Blair Witch Project and interpret the film as a completely non-paranormal story. Think about it: Heather, Josh and Mikey get lost in the woods. That’s realistic enough so far. Then, Heather, Josh and Mikey start hearing strange noises in the forest when they sleep at night. These noises could be attributed to hallucinations induced by the aforementioned Bermuda-Triangle-like geomagnetic phenomenon, the electromagnetic frequencies of which affect the brain, cause one to hallucinate and basically make a person feel as though they’re being haunted. But then there’s the ending. The “witch” finally kills Heather and Mikey, right? Ah, but what if that’s not what happened. What if what happened is Josh, whom had gone off missing by this point in the film, went psycho from being lost in the woods and sleep-deprived and hungry etc.—not to mention the fact that he was pissed at both Heather and Mike for losing the map—and then went and murdered them? That’s an interesting interpretation, but maybe it wouldn’t make all too much sense because, at the end, we see Mike standing in the corner, facing the wall, which we know is what the Blair-Witch-possessed Rustin Parr used to make the children do when he slaughtered them back in the 1940s. Also, how do you explain the weird witch crafts made out of sticks and stones that the three film students encounter in their travels through the woods? There probably has to be some paranormal element to that, but I suppose you could also chalk it up to a real-life coven or some other ritualistic occult-like-behavior being done by the locals.
Ok, moving on now.
The second ingredient that Blair Witch has that other horror films don’t have is that it’s realistic as hell. And I mean the acting and also the way it was shot. From what I understand, there was only a 35-page screenplay written for the film, mainly as an outline, and the rest of the film—including all the dialogue—was improvised.[i] In fact, for much of the filming, there was no director or film crew even present; Heather, Mike and Josh were literally in the woods by themselves and doing all the filming themselves. According to one YouTube video I happened to stumble upon, some of the Burkittsville townies, especially the mother and the baby that are interviewed at the beginning of the film, weren’t even acting or aware that they were in a real horror film; they simply thought they were helping out a few student filmmakers doing a small project.[ii] Having made some short films in my day and also being a former film student, I was surprised to hear that there was all this improvisation being done because this approach to filmmaking usually results in a messy disaster. Filming in this experimental, non-scripted way was, indeed, risky, but for Blair Witch it paid off bigtime because the acting in the film ended up being shockingly realistic.
Take one scene, for example, while Josh is in the car and he’s explaining to Heather that he has to check his depth of field chart to make sure he’s operating the 16mm film camera properly. He explains to Heather that the lens he uses on the camera is confusing because the focal measurements are listed as meters, not feet. Heather insists that there are foot measurements on the lens in addition to the metric measurements, but Josh hazily says, no, there aren’t any or actually there are, but he’s not supposed to use those. By the end of the scene, we don’t even know what he’s really saying, nor do we know the point of the entire scene. We’re left feeling a tad unclear about what they’re even talking about and what Josh is even talking about. In other words, the exchange between Heather and Josh is so non-contrived and therefore realistic that you literally feel like it was a real conversation caught on a video camera.
There are several other examples of this throughout the film. One other notable scene that comes to mind is when Mikey is sitting in the woods, taking a break from hiking, and he’s expressing some frustration. He snorts and stumbles with his words and is about to say something but then doesn’t say it but then Heather insists he say what’s on his mind and he says he doesn’t like having the video camera in his face all the time. If you watch this scene, it simply doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie. The “dialogue”, if you even want to call it that, is so “method” that it doesn’t even feel like written dialogue and I guess that makes sense because, again, the entire film’s dialogue was supposedly improvised.
In fact, the acting is so realistic and incredible in this film that it’s surprising the actors didn’t win any Oscars. Heather Donahue (now known as Rei Hance), the actress who played Heather, actually “won” a Razzie for Worst Actress due to her Blair Witch performance, which is a travesty, because her acting in the film is insanely brilliant.[iii] At the time of its release, there was this big bandwagon of people who said she was annoying and everyone made fun of her big crying scene where the tears are streaming out of her eyes and the snots are pouring out of her nose (the parody in Scary Movie comes to mind), but please watch that scene today and tell me it didn’t deserve an Oscar. And, boy, what about the very end where she’s screaming in hysterics, “Miiiiiiiike! Miiiiiiiiike!”. I mean, that’s not a horror-movie scream. That’s some hyper-realistic, terrorizing, hysterical shrieking you would literally hear from a person who feels they are about to die.
Speaking of that end scene, I need to talk about how that sequence in the abandoned house was shot and how friggin’ brilliant it was. I’m talking about how the audio is separated from the video throughout much of this climactic finale. What I mean is that we are often watching the film from Heather’s point of view shot on a silent 16mm camera while the audio we hear is always from Mike’s Hi8 video camera. This is super-disorientating because we are in Heather’s point of view at many times, so we would expect her screams to be close, but they are, instead, heard in the distance. This needed to be done because audio has to be recorded on a separate device like a NAGRA or a DAT when you are shooting on film unlike a video camera where video and audio are recorded onto the same tape simultaneously. I’m not sure if the filmmakers knew the end result of cutting back and forth between cameras while using a single audio source would be disorientating for the viewer or perhaps it was a happy accident.
|Heather's 16mm POV at the very end of the movie.|
In addition to the film’s sound design, the use of the hand-held Hi8 video camera also helped create a feeling of disorientation for the viewer. Watching the film today, I don’t find the hand-held shaky camerawork as jarring as I remember finding it when I first saw the film in the theater. I don’t know if I’m more used to hand-held videos these days since there are so many on social media and YouTube etc. or perhaps the shakiness of the camera was more noticeable on a giant movie screen. When you research the film online, you will inevitably stumble upon stories about people who vomited or had seizures from the motion sickness of the film’s camerawork.[iv] Those stories, of course, could have been lore created to help market the film, but I can also see why people prone to motion sickness may feel as though they need to pop some Dramamine while they are watching the film.
Aside from its disorientating effects, the hand-held amateur-styled video also helps add to the movie’s realism, especially the parts where the video would start recording just a beat after the actor would begin speaking. In other words, the very beginning of the dialogue would be cut off with a pop because the camera hadn’t begun recording yet. It may have been edited this way on purpose, but it’s also possible that this was unintentional since all the filming was being done by the actors themselves and so much of the dialogue was improvised. Either way, the end result is a greater feeling of realism.
Long story short: realism is key when you are trying to make a truly horrifying film and The Blair Witch Project is probably one of the most realistic-feeling horror films ever shot and therefore one of the most horrifying. Upon doing further research, I discovered that there was actually a plan to reveal the witch at one point during the movie. I think it’s when Heather is running from the tent and hysterically screams, “Oh my God! What the F*** is that?! What the F*** is that?!” Supposedly, there was an actor or actress dressed as the Blair Witch and Josh was supposed to pan his camera over to the left at this point, but he forgot to pan over and the witch never got revealed.[v] This was definitely a happy accident because, if the witch ever did get revealed, it would have ruined the entire film. Of course, most non-indie horror films, especially those filmed these days, would have been pressured (probably by studio executives) to have a “jump scare” reveal of the witch along with other spooky computer-generated elements. Although these kind of jump scares and special effects can be horrifying in their own way, it’s the very fact that they are “effects” that immediately render the horror movie less realistic and, thus, much less horrifying than a movie like The Blair Witch Project turned out to be.
So what do you think? Am I crazy to call The Blair Witch Project the best horror film of all time and perhaps one of the best films of all time? I mean, you have to take into consideration that this film was made in a way that was completely unprecedented and audaciously experimental. The filmmakers basically gave Heather, Josh and Mike a couple of cameras and some audio equipment and then had them go camp in the woods for eight days. Each day, the actors would get some notes telling them what to do or how to act for the day, but, other than those notes, everything was completely improvised. The film crew was never even present “on set,” as they mostly hung out—dressed in full camouflage, mind you—in the outskirts of the woods, occasionally setting up props—like piles of rocks on the ground or creepy stick figures hanging from trees—for the actors to stumble into and/or react to in an organic, non-scripted manner. The actors did all the filming themselves and, for the most part, never broke character unless of an emergency, in which case they would say the safe word “taco” and everyone would get “real” for a few moments. If there was an even bigger emergency, the actors would use walkie-talkies and say the word “bulldozer,” in which case the film crew would go and help them.[vi] To paraphrase the 1997 Backstage casting call for Blair Witch Project, the safety of the actors was the film crew’s priority; the comfort of the actors, however, was not.[vii] Each day during the shoot, the film crew provided less and less food for the actors to eat, forbade them to ever shower and overall tried to get them as stressed and uncomfortable as they possibly could without putting them in actual danger.[viii] The end result of all this was perhaps the most authentic performances ever to be put onto film. Normally, an experiment so ambitious would have turned into a disaster since the success of film shoots usually depend on a well-scripted and well-coordinated production schedule, but the makers of The Blair Witch Project decided to roll the dice and it paid off both in the sense that the film was such an artistic success but also in the sense that it was such a financial success as well (The Blair Witch Project was shot for about $30,000, but it ultimately made a whopping $250 million at the box office worldwide).[ix]
|The creepy "stick figures" hanging from the trees in The Blair Witch Project.|
When you take all of the above into consideration, I think you have no choice but to conclude that The Blair Witch Project is, indeed, the best horror film of all time, even though it may not be a favorite horror film of yours. As far as it being the best film of all time, it is most definitely a contender for that as well. Also, I must say Heather Donahue’s performance in The Blair Witch Project is one of the best female performances in cinematic history. Like I said before, her performance definitely deserved an Oscar and there ought to be an official public apology for ever having given her a Razzie. You know, just the fact that Heather Donahue was given a Razzie for her performance in Blair Witch Project proves that we are still incredibly dumb as a society and are especially dumb when it comes to being exposed to new forms of art. It always takes us a good 20 years or so to appreciate new art in a way that it fully deserves. The indie filmmaker John Cassavetes used to make a joke where he would pretend he was a viewer watching one of his films in the theater and he would scream, “A new experience?! Oh, no! Anything but that!”[x] Don’t get me wrong: it’s abundantly clear that Blair Witch was embraced by many people when it was released (as the box office earnings prove), but I’m not sure if the full cinematic experience that was The Blair Witch Project was ever fully appreciated until years later. Blair Witch Project certainly provided a cinematic experience unlike any other up until that point and very few movies will ever come close to matching such a cinematic experience in the future. Even though many “found footage” films have tried to match and/or outright imitate the Blair Witch experience, they never even came close. Blair Witch Project will always be a rare, one-of-a-kind film.
MATT BURNS is the author of several novels, including Weird Monster, Supermarket Zombies!and Johnny Cruise. He’s also written numerous memoirs, including GARAGE MOVIE: My Adventures Making Weird Films, MY RAGING CASE OF BEASTIE FEVER, JUNGLE F’NG FEVER: MY 30-YEAR LOVE AFFAIR W/ GUNS N’ ROSES and I TURNED INTO A MISFIT! Check out these books (and many more) on his Amazon author page HERE.
Also, be sure to check out Matt Burns’ 30-minute paranormal documentary A Parallel World (below). The documentary was not necessarily influenced by The Blair Witch Project, but it certainly has a similar kind of vibe:
Other trending articles by Matt Burns that may be of interest to you:
I Dream of Dream Machine (a memoir of the local video arcade)
NEVER FORGET the Fun-O-Rama (a traveling carnival memoir)
A Love Letter to the Emerald Square Mall (about the death of the shopping mall age)
[i] “The Blair Witch Project.” Wikimedia Foundation, 2 October 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blair_Witch_Project.
[iii] Meslow, Scott. “The Blair Witch Project’s Heather Donahue is Alive and Well.” GQ, 16 September 2016, https://www.gq.com/story/the-blair-witch-projects-heather-donahue-is-alive-and-well.
[iv] “Now Playing – The Movie Review Podcast.” The Blair Witch Project, Episode #542, iTunes, 20 October 2015.
[ix] “The Blair Witch Project.” Wikimedia Foundation, 2 October 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blair_Witch_Project.
[x] Carney, Ray. “A meditation on the neglect or deprecation of Cassavetes’ work in his lifetime by American critics.” Ray Carney: Film and American Studies Boston University, https://people.bu.edu/rcarney/cassoncass/critical.shtml. Accessed 12 October 2022.