Dave and Chuck the Freak

‘The Blair Witch Project’ Was A Moment That Can’t Be Replicated 

I remember the first time I heard of The Blair Witch Project. Today, it’s a film with legendary status among horror fans (and, possibly even more so among marketers). It was a film veiled in mystery. But in 1999, the internet was still in its early days. The concept of “spoilers” wasn’t really a big “thing” yet. You could actually go to a movie without knowing everything about it.  And that was the experience of a friend of mine, who saw an early screening. He was a horror film fan and – to my surprise – actually seemed kind of unnerved by this film. I asked him a few questions about and he said, “Just go see it.” He seemed like he just didn't want to continue talking about it. I remember seeing a poster for the film with a close-up of a girl’s eyes: she looked cold, tired and scared. It wasn’t the over-the-top expressions we normally see on the faces of victims in horror films. There was a sadness there. Her eyes conveyed real dread; it was as if she had accepted that something terrible was going to happen. Also - notably - her face wasn’t recognizable. This wasn’t a movie or TV star. The tagline on the poster, right above her face, said, “In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary… A year later, their footage was found.” You were forced to wonder: “Is this real?”  https://youtu.be/MBZ-POVsrlI?si=qbCDL9RsKdwgey9C Yes, it seems naive today, but lots of people believed that The Blair Witch Project was a documentary film pieced together from footage shot by three student filmmakers: Heather, Mike, and Josh. They were played by Heather Donahue (who is now known as Rei Hance), Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard. They used their real names, adding to the blurring between reality and fiction. And, of course, none of them were famous yet. You couldn't "Google" them; Google wasn't a verb yet. Then, as now, movies were often marketed on the starpower of the cast; most films have at least someone you’ve heard of.  On top of that, the actors apparently kept a low profile during the promotion of the film. Again, this was in the early days of the web: you couldn’t just look things up the way you can now. There was no social media. Today, there’s so much information available at your fingertips; that wasn’t the case in ‘99. But even back then, movie fans could go to the then-new Internet Movie Database to look up information about a film. And IMDb listed the three actors as “missing, presumed dead.” Today, you could fairly easily investigate if those actors actually were missing or dead. But back then, you couldn’t.  There were other things that, by design, led the masses to believe that this was a “real” story. These days, nearly every movie has a website and social media accounts. That wasn’t the case back then. But the official Blair Witch website (which now redirects to Lionsgate’s official site) went live a full year before the film hit theaters. It also led unsuspecting visitors to believe that it was documenting a real story, not a fictional one. As The Drum points out, it offered a timeline of events of the Blair Witch story and had biographical information on the “missing” filmmakers. The Drum notes that the site got more than 20 million pageviews before the film hit theaters; that would be an impressive number for a new film (or a documentary) in 2024; in 1999, it was a mindblowing figure.  As horror film blog Bloody Disgusting recalls, the Sci-Fi channel (which has since been rebranded as SyFy) aired a fake documentary Curse of the Blair Witch. This was brilliant marketing: there was never an acknowledgment that this was fiction (other than that it aired on a network that specialized in science fiction). “Through archival footage and interviews with friends and family of Heather, Mike and Josh, the hour-long special presents itself as a serious documentary about the ‘real’ story behind the (then) upcoming Blair Witch Project.” Bloody Disgusting also notes, “While there are occasional excerpts from the film to hype up its release, the meat of the special consists [of] expanding the mythology behind the titular witch and the crimes inspired by her story.” Back then, most people generally believed what they saw in media; this was well before the era of disinformation, misinformation and “fake news.”  The film itself was shot and edited brilliantly; to the layman (and maybe even to some film experts), it looks like it was pieced together from found or recovered footage. Seeing a film made up of that kind of footage was surprising; it wouldn’t be today, as everyone has the ability to be a filmmaker and documentarian with their phones. And even then, we may not always believe that the footage that we’re seeing is “real”; we all know about filters, deepfakes, greenscreens and A.I. Those things didn’t exist back then.  The Blair Witch Project's premise was fearsome: three filmmakers go into the woods to investigate a legend and soon realize that there is something very, very wrong. Sure, The Blair Witch Project had an incredible marketing campaign, but the story held up. It’s still scary and compelling today.  And here, we have to give a shout out to Rei Hance, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez actually left the actors in the woods with cameras and gave them some direction, but much of the movie was improvised by the actors, who really sold it. The reason why so many people thought it was a documentary was because the actors did such a credible job making you believe that they were in true danger.  The actors have recently made a push to get retroactive royalties from the film, which grossed nearly $250 million. Per the New York Times, the trio did not make a lot of money for the movie (they say that Hance said she was paid $1,000 for two weeks of work). They were eventually paid $300,000 when they were bought out of their 1% stake of the film. Leonard told the Times that they weren’t involved in the buyout negotiations.  And this has become more relevant recently, as Lionsgate has announced plans to revive the franchise. Again. You’d be excused for forgetting about 2000’s rush-released Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2; even the 2016 sequel Blair Witch pretended it never happened. And most fans who have seen either or both of those flops have tried to forget about them. They added nothing to the story and only served to detract from the original’s impact. However, per Variety, the next attempt at reviving the franchise will be produced by Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, a company that owes some debt to The Blair Witch Project. Blumhouse Productions is known for horror films that are made on a low budget and yield tremendous profits, including Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Sinister. The thing about horror movies is that the villain has to be compelling for you to want to see more installments, whether it’s Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddie Kruger, Jigsaw, or Pinhead. And most fans will admit that each of those villains loses their impact after a while; most franchises become parodies of themselves after a few chapters. In The Blair Witch Project, we don’t really see the Blair Witch. What we’re really afraid of is the unknown. The lucky few thousand who saw the film before the world realized that it was really just a movie are the ones who got the film’s real impact. And that’s something that this franchise can never really reproduce. 

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