Quite often, movies, books, music, television shows, and other pieces of pop culture serve as a reflection of the time when they were made. Sometimes they are very much rooted in that time, and no longer feel relevant in the decades that follow. Occasionally, though, they maintain every ounce of the power they were infused with when they were first created, and in a way, they become timeless. These are the pieces of art that endure, that hold up. The purpose of this column is to look at the pop culture of the past, and determine if it does indeed hold up.
“And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, 1886, Beyond Good & Evil
I first saw The Blair Witch Project at the Angelika Film Center in New York City in the summer of 1999, when it first hit the screens, pop culture, and our public consciousness. My dormmates and I went to a late night showing that was completely packed. I was scared shitless. I grew up in the country, surrounded by forest, and I’d always hated being near the woods in the dark. After that movie, I refused to do so. The second time I saw it, safe in my apartment, I had to pause the movie twice because I was getting too worked up. That was about a year after it first came out. So it’s been over a decade since I’ve seen the movie that arguably initiated the found footage horror subgenre that we have to thank for Cloverfield, [REC], the Paranormal Activity series, and many more — for better or worse, depending on if you are a fan of the genre. I happen to be, as it routinely scares the shit out of me.
So, after years of watching films of this genre, and being routinely scared by them, how would I react to the granddaddy of them all? How does The Blair Witch Project hold up?
First, a synopsis: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams (these are also the actors’ names) are film students who take to woods of Maryland in October of 1994 to film a documentary about a local myth, the Blair Witch. Only the students never return from the woods. The movie begins with a title card detailing these “facts”, as well as setting up the premise for the movie: that everything the viewers are about to see comes from the footage of the students’ Hi-8 video camera and CP-16 film camera that the police recovered from the woods. From there the movie is a mix of color and black-and-white, of the footage for the documentary as well as behind-the-scenes footage taken to document the making of the documentary. The footage shows the students gathering information about the myth from local townsfolk — learning about a witch, a serial killer, strange happenings — before venturing into the woods. The further they go into the woods, the more lost they become, and the more strange things happen around and to them until the sudden, disturbing and ambiguous ending.
First, I want to say that this time around, I noticed the techniques of the film far more than in the past; these techniques have informed the found footage films that followed, essentially becoming the conventions of the sub-genre. All of the attempts to make it as realistic as possible, from the choice of non-photogenic “actors” to the shaky-cam and incoherent sound recordings that are similar to the supposedly real television series Ghost Hunters. The switching back and forth between cameras to indicate which is for the documentary — the black-and-white — and which is for the making of documentary; the consistent use of point-of-view camera shots to establish the viewer’s entrance into the film, which I’ll come back to later; the breakdown in the group’s dynamics as the person who wants/needs to keep filming butts heads with those who think things have become far too serious and dangerous to focus on always filming; the organic ratcheting or intensification of the dissolution of the characters’ relationships that coincide with the escalating horrors. These conventions appear again and again in this sub-genre.
Blair Witch’s scares, like many other found footage movies (although noticeably not from the Paranormal Activity series), come from the POV shots. As things go bump in the night around the students, they and we experience it simultaneously. As the students turn the cameras, with their feeble lights, towards the dark woods, we the viewers are as limited as they for what we can see and hear. The darkness swallows their cameras, envelopes the students, and thus surrounds the viewer’s perspective on whatever is happening. Unlike other horror movies, we never get the special privilege of learning something about the monster that the victims do not know. All we know is what they know. Their reactions become guides for, and mirrors of, our own. As their uncertainty grows, so does ours: we experience the same tension of an intensifying questioning of what is happening. Their distress of being hunted is akin to our distress of needing an end to the uncertainty. We both keep searching the darkness at the edges of the cameras, searching for the monster, which only makes us more susceptible to the “jump scares” when they come. We search the darkness for respite from our uncertainty, but the more we search, the more the darkness fills us with uncertainty as it refuses to give up its secrets. Thus the POV technique builds the uncertainty that is the foundation for the distress that builds in the pit of the stomach.
SPOILER ALERT: Do Not Play If Haven’t Seen
But there were also techniques and sequences that previously I bought into but now, after years of seeing such films, I could not simply suspend disbelief. In a couple sequences that are the black-and-white documentary, the supposedly “found footage” was suspiciously edited so that there was a voice-over. For instance, when they are filming at Coffin Rock, the footage shows shots of the area while Heather’s voice is heard reading the legend of the rock. Are we meant to believe the police that found the footage did this editing to enhance the artistic value of the scene? And the famous scene towards the end when Heather is crying into the camera — the only time the POV shot technique is broken — feels fake now because of how often it was lampooned in pop culture.
Overall, because of how often I’ve seen found footage movies, it is hard not to be a cynical critic watching Blair Witch. It is harder to get into a movie when you can see how they want you to get into it. And yet, at the end of it, I was again left with the desire to not turn around, to not look into the darkness. The movie has the ability to create a resonance in the viewer who truly immerses him/herself in it through those POVs. It’s like playing a video game or MMORPG where you experience the world through the eyes of your avatar. There’s this sense of being present in the world, with others in the world, that help to make the world and what happens in it feel real.
But I don’t think I was reacting that way this time. I was resonating with the previous times I’d seen the movie, and how scared I’d been at those times. The last time I paused twice, at key points of on-screen hysteria, because I was remembering what happened and how it impacted me the first time I saw it. For awhile after seeing it at the Angelika, I could not recall the final shot without fear shooting through my heart. All of these reactions, their remnants lingered and had just enough of an effect to get me fearing the darkness, even to this day.
In the end, then, does it hold up? In an age of found footage movies inundating us, and the obsession people have with recording everything POV on their smartphones and sharing it via YouTube? If you can shut off the cynicism that comes from all of that, and if you can let yourself go and stare into the abyss with Heather, Josh and Mike, then I think you can still be scared by how the abyss is staring back at you. Because that is a primordial fear, a remnant of our animal ancestry. Nothing scares as much as the uncertainty of the darkness. So turn off the lights, turn off your cynicism, gaze into that abyss, and maybe the Blair Witch will gaze straight into your soul.