My first job was working at a small movie theater in Harlan, Kentucky when I was 17. It had four auditoriums and, in 1998, it cost $4 for evening shows. Needless to say, we didn’t get many indie movies or festival award winners. I had watched a special on the Sci-Fi channel (back when it was spelled without y’s) about a group of kids going into the woods to film a documentary about a local legend and then disappearing forever.
It was amazing.
My friends and I knew we would never get such an indie movie in our theater anytime soon, so when it was announced to be playing in select cities, we found the closest one in Cincinnati and hit the road. We arrived around noon and the small theater already had a line around the block. By the time we got to the counter there were only two tickets left. Not for the current showing - for the midnight show. We took what we could get and tried to figure out how we were going to kill 12 hours until our showing.
When the time finally arrived, the theater was completely packed, but it was eerily silent. We all sat there glued to the screen, soaking up every moment of the film. The only audible scream from anyone came at the very end of the movie when the camera violently hit the ground. It was fascinating to see so many people there to experience a movie and not yell at the screen or try to scream and scare their friends next to them. It was a movie that people had come to get lost in.
So why should you care about the Blair Witch Project? It certainly wasn’t the first found footage horror movie, as anyone that’s ever seen Cannibal Holocaust will gleefully tell you. It’s far from the first independent horror film to gain recognition and make a ton of money. What exactly did Blair Witch Project do?
It saved the horror genre.
The 90s were an abysmal time for horror in America. The only successful franchise was Scream, which was actually MAKING FUN of the genre. If you want to call Silence of the Lambs and The Sixth Sense horror, feel free, but I have a hard time calling a police drama and a movie about a friendly ghost psychiatrist horror. Japan was creating a style of movie that would be emulated for the next decade, but in the US, there was nothing. It cost too much money to take a chance on something no one was watching. If it didn’t have a group of young, attractive stars in it, you might as well not even bother.
But there was nothing sexy about Blair Witch Project. There were no superstars, no cameos from legendary actors, and no movie monster that could be turned into a franchise. By all standards at the time, it had no business even being made. That’s what made it so spectacular.
At the time, any big horror movie had an iconic character to carry a series. It would become a Halloween costume and a logo for the brand. What Blair Witch did was exemplify that less is more. What makes a sound in the darkness so scary compared to a sound in the light? It’s the unknown. When you see something, no matter how scary it is, you can start to humanize it. In your mind you can start to get used to it and eventually it stops being as frightening. Jeepers Creepers is a great example of this. The first 30 minutes of that movie is absolutely terrifying because you only catch small glimpses of this creature. After a while, he gets so much screen time, not only is he no longer scary, he’s sort of goofy-looking.
You didn’t know what to be scared of in the Blair Witch. Is it a crazed man in the woods? If so, then what was up with those creepy children that starting pounding on the tent? Was it a spirit? A witch? A ghost? What on earth was up with that bag of teeth and blood and hair and whatever else was in there? We have nothing to grasp onto, except the fact that this is something that could be anywhere and it could show itself at any time, but it chooses to toy with us. It has an agenda and a plan. Plus, they’re lost in the woods! It’s a complete feeling of dread because, no matter where you go, you’re still within its reach. There is nothing but helplessness and that is the most terrifying feeling of all.
A parallel can easily be drawn from what makes Blair Witch scary and what always scared us as kids. As kids, we were constantly scared of the dark. We were scared of the thing that could be under the bed, in the closet, outside our window. Basically, we were scared of our own imaginations. The Blair Witch Project used our imaginations against us and took us back to our childhood when we would lay in bed and give an evil form to every sound we heard.
But let’s get past the actual film. Because as brilliant as it is, I understand that no movie is going to appeal to every person in the world. Toy Story 3 has a 99% on Rotten tomatoes, which means 4 professional movie critics deemed it as a bad film. That’s astounding. What Blair Witch did was send a message to Hollywood that paved the way for so many modern horror classics. It showed studios that they weren’t necessary. You didn’t have to have a huge financial backing to create what you wanted. It didn’t have to go through a team of executives to make it more commercial friendly. You can make the exact film you want to make and if it’s good, people will notice.
Again, it was far from the first independent horror movie, but there hadn’t been a movie get this much buzz on so little in decades. Sure it spawned dozens of inferior copycats, but studios began looking for new voices. Just because you weren’t established didn’t mean your idea lacked value. Paranormal Activity wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Blair Witch Project. Who knows if the majority of most modern horror movies would have been given a chance if it weren’t for Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick taking a risk and (cliché incoming) following their dreams. No one was doing found footage. No one was disguising their movie as an actual documentary. It changed the entire face of the genre.
Thanks to the internet, we’ll probably never have a story like Blair Witch again. You can’t convince millions that your story is real when all you have to do is Google the title and find every detail about the movie. It may have been the last, great tale we were allowed to believe. If you love it or hate it, one thing is for sure; you should respect it. Because without it, countless stories would have never been told and we would still be settling for whatever a room full of old guys in suits decided we would be able to see. Heather, Mike, and Josh may not have found what they had hoped for in the woods, but they blazed a trail that is still being used to this day and should be celebrated for years to come.
Rob is a writer and comedian based in Louisville, KY. Follow @robfee on Twitter.