Shot in just eight days on a $60,000 budget, The Blair Witch Project is the epitome of indie filmmaking. That’s partially why its success was so ground-breaking. With little resources, three actors, and a small crew, the crafted film was one of the most talked about horrors ever… and probably one of the scariest. It stuck with people when it was released in 1999, and it sticks with them now. Famously so, the unconventional aspects of the film were so effective in marketing and presentation that it led to audiences believing what they were witnessing was actually real—and all the more terrifying because of it. People even bought into the authenticity-suggesting advertising so much that actress Heather Donahue, whose name was used for her character, was believed to be dead… to the extent her mother received sympathy cards.
The narrative consists of three student filmmakers: Heather, Josh, and Mike. The trio venture into the infamous woods to make a documentary about a local legend named the Blair Witch (fun fact: the actors believed the town’s mythology was real and weren’t told the people they were interviewing on camera were actors). As they journey deeper into the dense trees, they begin to lose their bearings and start hearing things go bump in the night. What follows is a mysterious frenzied panic and fight for survival as well as a worsening list of who the culprits of the disturbances might be.
The first time I watched Eduardo Sánchez and Kevin Foxe’s creative horror I was swept away by how much of a descent into madness it is. The lore is chilling, and the threat which hangs over the characters’ heads is palpable, but what really settled it as great was the use of location. The woods are unending, and the concept of getting lost in them is unsettling without the need for any supernatural elements. Half of the terror comes from the fact they can’t find their way out. The knowledge that something is watching and following them only adds to the hysteria, and watching the trio lose their grip on their surroundings sends chills. They begin to turn on each other and screw up, making the dynamics important because they needed to work together but were getting progressively irritated and hopeless. The cast’s combativeness in their performances was helped along by manipulation from the directors, such as lessening their food supply on set as the days went on.
If there’s one indisputable fact about terror, it’s that fear of the unknown provokes distress. The answer to why the film is so hair-raising is that it takes full advantage of human instincts. To feel secure we need multiple things: knowledge of the ground under our feet, food and water, and a general sense of safety. These things are stripped from Heather, Josh, and Mike until they have little in the way of mental strength. They are run down emotionally and physically, making whatever is lurking in the dark seep into their skin and bones, lessening their chances of escape.
“I’m scared to close my eyes. I’m scared to open them.”
A lot of horror fans today are let down by how many new films rely on large amounts of unearned jump scares, with a lack of atmosphere and genuine creativity, movies, such as the sequel to the very one we are talking about here, are called cheap in the scare department. The shame in this particular context, which needs to be understood about The Blair Witch Project, is that it works because it shows us nothing. There’s not a single jump in the entire runtime. It runs purely on its breath-hindering tenor and suggestions.
In this film, night-time brings about long hours of disruption and fear. When the sun goes down the group is forced to set up camp in a tent as night after night the events that occur on the outside worsen. What starts as strange noises easily blamed on animals becomes an indisputable hunt, with cackles and breaking branches getting closer and closer. In the dead of night, their field of vision is undermined. They can only see as far as the light of the camera will let them. The use of the single camera does wonders because the perspective covers so little ground. There’s no chance of a warning or surveillance of what hides in the dark. We can only witness what the lens is pointed at, and in the jittery hands of its holders, that isn’t a lot. With the directors not even present during the shoot, the realism in what we are seeing and registering as hand-held documentation is genuine. Even with the knowledge that it’s fictional, it’s still unnerving.
The isolation and vulnerability are what work most magnificently. Even cooped up together in their tent, there’s no feeling of ease. The fear-soaked souls are at a loss to the elements around them and are under attack from all sides. The sound design does an impressive job at creating a radial perimeter of noise. The frights come from all around them, and give the impression the students are being closed in on from all directions like prey waiting to be pounced on. The restraint of whatever is playing with them is a creepiness hard to shake. They could’ve done whatever they wanted but chose to wait and play the long game—insinuating some semblance of tactics, which is far more worrying than mindless monstrosity.
With clues and symbols littered throughout the film, the mystery of the witch, or whatever it may be—I think I’m in the cult camp—is one of the film’s most prominent factors. With so little to hold onto, the paranoia and theorising is part of the experience. Searching for answers and logical explanations is part of how people rationalise what they don’t understand, but everything shown only amplifies the trembling. The waiting is draining, every ounce of the characters’ energy is used up in their adrenaline and alarm. The rustle of the leaves and crunching of the woodland floor penetrate and fill the airspace with total dread.
While having the makings of a forgettable C-movie, The Blair Witch Project ruffles feathers with its use of the unknown and understanding of the psychological deterioration that comes with trepidation—making it a cultural landmark. If anything can be learned here, it’s that originality takes the cake (I hope I don’t sound pretentious here; I do enjoy trash, too). And a less-is-more approach can be the way to the teeth-chattering thrills people buy tickets for. It went on to make over $248 million worldwide, making it one of the most successful independent films ever made.