In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary…
…A year later their footage was found.
– The Blair Witch Project (1999)
So begins one of the most successful horror movies of the 20th Century. It is, I think, undeniable that The Blair Witch Project re-wrote the rule book of modern horror and paved the way for the countless “found footage” horror features to follow. None captured the suspense, paranoia and sheer terror of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s $36,000 masterpiece.
1999 was a great year for film (seriously, check it out), but there was a buzz around The Blair Witch Project that most of the more expensive, more flashy flicks didn’t have. The film had one of the most intricate and immersive online viral marketing strategies in history. I didn’t see the movie at the cinema, having heard from a trusted friend that it would be better enjoyed “on the small screen, in the middle of the night”. I did, however, throw myself into the maze of online supportive material. I watched a documentary about a 1940s child murderer called Rustin Parr, who claimed in his interrogation that he did what he did because the voice of an old woman told him to. Burkittsville locals, I learned, believed this voice to be that of the Blair Witch. I learned that the Blair Witch was called Elly Kedward who, back when the town was called Blair, had lured the town’s children to her home and bled them. Accused of witchcraft and exiled from the town Elly was set upon by the locals; tied to a tree, tortured and left to freeze to death in the bitter Maryland winter. Come spring, there was no sign of her body, no remains at all. I still hadn’t seen the movie, which I knew to be about some missing filmmakers who must have been following the same clues I was now hoovering up; I knew all about the history that drew them to the Black Hills forest in 1994.
Of course, none of that ever happened. There were hour-long documentaries available about Parr and books and papers documenting the Kedward case. But it was all a brilliant fabrication, a tapestry of horrors sewn by the writers/directors of The Blair Witch Project. I was enthralled. Websites and message boards spoke of the terrible fate of the only Parr victim to survive – Kyle Brody; Fuzzy videos claimed to show the witch herself stalking the woods; Scans of ancient photographs of first Treacle search party, taken hours before their horrific slaughter, made me familiar with Coffin Rock. It was all made up! I still hadn’t seen the film, but the tie-in book, including the surviving pages of Heather’s journal, left me an expert of her every move.
I remember the first time I watched The Blair Witch Project. It was on a tiny portable TV/VHS combo at a friend’s house. We drew the curtains and turned up the volume. For the next 80-or-so minutes we were silent, still and entirely convinced that we’d just witnessed film history. I remember pausing our scratchy pirate VHS copy and slow-scanning the last scene. We scrutinised every flickering frame, determined to see every little thing. Maybe we’d see something even the film compilers had missed! Maybe we could solve the mystery ourselves! By this point, after weeks of internet research and an hour and twenty minutes of evidence, we had completely forgotten that it was all a fiction. We were investigators following lead after lead. We were hooked on the myth, just like the unfortunate triumvirate whose terrifying end we had just witnessed. I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing The Blair Witch Project for the first time. Never. Heather Donahue, Mike Williams, and Joshua Leonard were my friends and I mourned them.
The stars of the film were unknown to me. I was a film buff but I didn’t know the actors in this film. They used their real names and operated their own cameras and sound gear, I learned. They worked mostly without a script and much of the fear they showed on screen was real. They really were out in the woods, being terrorised by night and bickering in the rain by day. Christ, maybe it was real after all! A few years later, while watching a TV show called Taken, I saw Heather Donahue. She was one of the shady government bad guys. The spell was broken somewhat; she was in something else. I felt a little sad. It’s silly, looking back, but there it is. But I didn’t allow my enjoyment of my favourite horror film to be tarnished. I still adore this film.
When the movie was released on home video (no DVDs for me back then) I saw the film (at last count) 30 times. I remember distinctly thinking “you should probably stop counting the views now, 30+ will do as an answer should anyone ask…” – It’s still a film I can sit down and watch. Is “formative” too strong a word? I was never a massive horror fan but this…! This was something else, transcending traditional horror. I was – and am still – an expert on the film. Not so much on the making of it, but on the legend around it. I made stickmen and hung them in my room; it was to be the first tattoo I’d ever get (I didn’t ever get it). I was still regularly re-watching the film when Empire magazine informed me that there was to be a sequel and that it was to “eschew the ‘shaky cam’ technique that nauseated so many cinemagoers first time around”. Taking place a year after the discovery and release of Donahues’s footage, Blair Witch 2 promised to explore the existing lore of the Blair Witch while expanding on the legend in a whole new way. I was overjoyed! I was more excited than I had ever been over a film. Surely they couldn’t fuck this up? Surely it would deliver?
Find out if it did next time…