“But the car’s not far - we’re just not going to be able to find it in the dark.” - Heather
It’s the stuff of urban legend: a trio of college kids goes missing in the woods and a year later their video camera is found, the surviving footage documenting the last terrifying hours of an inexplicable ordeal. The filmmakers (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez) spun their non-existent budget into part of the narrative of the film itself. Three kids (the actors, using their real names of Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams) in film school take two cameras into the woods in order to make a short documentary on the Blair Witch, a local legend in the Maryland backwoods. The characters interview real locals on camera about the legend.
The approach runs into a few problems: excessively shaky camera work for one, an unfortunate side effect of Heather having never used a camera prior to the shoot and receiving only a two day crash course in its use. At points, the characters are a bit too self-conscious about the requirement to film, lapsing several times into “oh look at the neat thing the directors must have left for us, let us look at it and ogle.”
The film excels though in its “found footage” niche, never breaking the wall and transitioning into third person story telling. The actors actually lived much like the characters lived during the duration of the eight day shoot, harried by the directors all night, kept on short rations to drive them squirrelly. It was like method acting on crack, the actors goaded into the tension and fear of their characters and ordered to film themselves all along. Basic cues and direction were given via notes left in milk crates each morning, but the bulk of the reaction and dialogue was improvised on the fly by the actors themselves. If I was one of the actors, I probably would have started to suspect that I was actually in an elaborate snuff film about half way through shooting.
The film starts slowly, introducing us to the characters getting ready for their foray into the woods, meeting with locals, establishing their relationships in that typical student gray area somewhere between friend and professional acquaintance. For the first half of the film, there is little to be scared of, just the gradually mounting feeling that something is not right with the woods. Their early problems seem to be bad luck and happenstance, taking far longer than expected to hike seemingly short distances. Heather seems to be botching the reading of the map. Pouring rain slows their progress down to a miserable pace. They struggle across a flooding river and log bridge, stumbling across a clearing with seven piles of rocks, the number of victims claimed by the Blair Witch. This is the turning point at which the vague threat of the woods closes in like a fist on the three characters.
The tension ratchets up through the rest of the film as they get more and more lost, finding themselves back where they started after hiking for fifteen hours. Noises, laughter, strange symbols and piles of rock appearing around their tent in the night. There’s never any explanation, any pattern, it’s the classic chaos of the boogieman story, never seen, only sensed. The film’s brilliance (and necessary limitation) is that it never ever shows the shark. Even in the final moments of horror, nothing is actually seen. Psychological horror uses context to generate horror in the mundane, fear in a handful of dust. In that sense, The Blair Witch Project is one of the most perfect psychological horror films ever made, with hardly a single frame of footage drawing horror from anything but its context. Rustling noises aren’t scary, pouring rain isn’t scary, piles of rocks aren’t scary, a guy standing in a corner isn’t scary. But all of these things can be terrifying enough to induce coronaries if surrounded by the right context. The screen is an impenetrable wall that lets us look closely at things that would be horrifying in person, but it also gives us the false confidence to dismiss the little nagging fears. The things that aren’t scary once the sun rises also aren’t scary seen through the protective filter of a movie screen. Psychological horror aims to rip down that barrier and truly make the audience empathize on a visceral level with the characters.
The Blair Witch Project feels like an urban legend throughout, playing up that ancient fear of getting lost in the woods, that paranoia rooted in the unknown that has grown more acute as we’ve caged nature over the centuries and held it at further remove. It’s no coincidence that the nominal leader of the three (Heather) is a control freak, abrasively confident when everything is proceeding according to plan, and disintegrating when circumstance moves outside the planned box. The entire film plays on our need to control, shoves a control freak into a situation where the rules don’t work. Use the map, follow the compass, head back the way you came, find the car, follow the river, these are all logical steps, but it assumes rationality holds any sway in these particular woods. At no point do the characters caught in the snare of chaos try to figure out what the new rules are, upon which logic these woods depend, if any. The most egregious “person doing something stupid in a horror movie” moment is the point at which Mike admits that he threw the map into the river because it was useless anyway. It’s at face value indefensibly stupid, completely irrational, but at the same time it’s precisely the right impulse.
There is a repeated futile complaint by the characters that this sort of thing just doesn’t happen, that people don’t just vanish in America, not realizing that once they entered these particular woods, they weren’t really in America anymore.
“It’s not the same on film is it? I mean, you know it’s real, but it’s like looking through the lens gives you some sort of protection from what’s on the other side.” - Joshua
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com.