In #WatchWithTNM this week, we revisit found footage horror film 'The Blair Witch Project' which still inspires discussions.

Blair Witch Project camera close up screenshot Screenshot
Flix Flix Flashback Friday, October 16, 2020 - 16:28

“It was my fault, because it was my project. Everything had to be my way. And this is where we've ended up and it's all because of me that we're here now – hungry, cold, and hunted. I love you mom, dad. I am so sorry. What is that? I'm scared to close my eyes, I'm scared to open them!” says Heather huddled in her tent in the middle of the woods, with the only light on her face coming from the camera she is speaking into. Half of her face is close, very close to the camera that catches her nostrils flaring and shrinking as she sobs and shudders, her tears forming and spilling from her eyes.

A shot from this memorable scene from The Blair Witch Project is what features on the 1999 film’s poster too. Actor Heather Donahue, who plays her namesake, a student filmmaker making a film on the urban legend of the Blair Witch, says these chilling words towards the end of the film, shortly before the climax. Two decades later, this found footage horror film directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, remains a trendsetter, and a classic in its genre – because it uses the viewer’s own imagination to deliver the most terrifying scares.

Found footage horror has evolved and become quite popular in the last two decades or so and for good reason. Not only does it allow flexibility to makers in terms of budget and production, it also allows a viewer to see protagonists and characters at a much more personal level, that appears unscripted and raw. And fear, above all, is a raw, unfiltered emotion. A lot of horror plays with viewers’ imagination to induce the scares, however, found footage horror with its shaky filmmaking, focuses on taking the viewer on the journey with the characters. It focuses not on aesthetic filmmaking, but sometimes leaves the main event happening on screen just out of eye view, piquing imagination, curiosity, and fear in effective ways.

The Blair Witch Project utilises all of this, and then goes a step further. At no point does it show any sort of supernatural beings, any levitations, anything that’s happening just at the corner of the eye; and therefore, the horror it creates is almost entirely a product of the viewer’s imagination. The setting, of course, adds to it – Heather leading Josh (Joshua Lenonard) and Mike (Michael C Williams) into the forest in Burkittsville, Maryland, to document the legend of the Blair Witch. The stage is set with the townspeople’s interviews about Robert Parr, a hermit, who in 1940s, kidnapped seven children to murder them in a house in the woods, supposedly on the witch’s orders.

The students have nothing but a map and a tent they pitch at nightfall to help them traverse the woods. The two-day shoot turns much longer than anticipated as they get lost; cairns (human-made stone moulds used as burial monuments, among other things) start showing up outside their tent, and the trio stumble on creepier occult-like symbols made from twigs hanging from the trees in the clearing. However, beyond the setting too, it is the characters’ own dwindling hopelessness, hunger, and fear that make The Blair Witch Project a stunning watch two decades later.

The use of sound in any horror film is crucial (try turning off the audio and watching a scene, you’ll know the difference). With no other background soundtrack, The Blair Witch Project combines off the camera sounds and the audience’s trepidation and interpretation of what’s happening to create a chilling effect. You cannot help but crave to know just who or what is causing footsteps all around in the dark, where the just out of reach children’s giggling is coming from, and how could Josh be screaming and calling for his teammates after disappearing, seemingly into thin air. Are Heather and Mike just losing their minds, or is something spooky actually at play? Is the Blair Witch real? Or are the townspeople messing with the newcomers?

We never really find out, even right at the end. Decades later, there continue to be several interpretations of The Blair Witch Project’s frightening and abrupt ending – Mike standing eerily still facing the corner in a dilapidated house (Parr’s, according to some theories) that shouldn’t exist, just like the children who were killed were apparently made to stand; while a hysterical Heather is knocked down and silenced off camera.

While ambiguous endings are not exactly new to horror films, The Blair Witch Project continues to inspire discussions around how it concluded and what could have happened, and if you are willing to fall down the rabbit hole, you may find yourself swayed by more than one interpretation. That, perhaps is the beauty of this horror film – it shows you nothing except the very human reactions of its protagonists.

There are no apparitions, no ghosts, no witches (physically, at least), no ghouls that we see in the film. Compare this to the likes of Paranormal Activity, which too created quite the buzz in the found footage horror genre. However, the latter did show things moving on their own, and in some instalments, even supernatural elements. The same goes for other found footage horror films like As Above So Below, The Taking of Deborah Logan, Grave Encounters, The Last Exorcism. However, by leaving so much to the imagination, The Blair Witch Project guarantees scares that may not perhaps make you jump out of your seat, but they’ll keep you creeped out, hooked and curious enough to find out...but afraid of it too. Heather perhaps sums up the feeling best – “I'm scared to close my eyes, I'm scared to open them!”   

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.