“I’m scared to close my eyes, I’m scared to open them! We’re gonna die out here!”
Okay, I get it. Looking back 20 years, it’s easy to eyeroll at 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Goodness knows it has been mocked ever since its release, including a pretty great Scooby Doo parody.
But I maintain that Blair Witch was great then, great now. The story unwinds like a modern dark fairytale. Young people mess with things they ought not mess with, go into the woods, meet a witch, get some body parts lopped off, and wind up murdered in the witch’s house. Tale as old and creepy as time—I love it soooooo much.
I’d argue a lot of CreepyPasta mythmaking culture (Slenderman, Search and Rescue, etc.) is derived from Blair Witch’s style of differing accounts of the supernatural elements, vaguely defined dangers, and varied documentation. As a creator, it’s energizing. You want to go off and figure out your own pile of creepy fake documents and interviews, cultivate your own urban legend mythos.
I’m even willing to wager that the Marble Hornets Slenderman videos will have a bigger long term impact on the collective unconscious than Blair Witch. Yes, perhaps because of the murder you’ve already heard about from my old home of Wisconsin. But genuinely, if someone of the Millennial age or younger is walking through the woods alone, you’ll be looking over your shoulder or peering nervously into the trees because of Slenderman rather than the Blair Witch. And that’s not just generational. Slenderman, unlike the Blair Witch, is an actual tangible villain. While the Blair Witch has a vague outline of a character, the malevolent presence of the film has no true face. You can’t look for something in the trees if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
In spite of what the dark forces at marketing will tell you, villains are not what make up most great horror. Great horror does not hinge on bringing a villain to you, it’s about what journey that villain is a part of. A single great attraction does not a road trip make. If the car ride is boring, if the snacks suck, if you run out of gas, I don’t care how awesome the Cheese Castle* at the end is.
In terms of something that will provide you with an experience, something that will mess with you after the movie ends and you turn the lights on, The Blair Witch Project is truly great. The Blair Witch Project deeply understands a universal human truth, which is: Fuck The Woods.
Okay no, the woods can be super great. I’m lucky enough to live near plenty of nature preserves and hiking trails. I love going for a walk in the woods. I love to feel utterly surrounded by life and yet totally alone. (Honestly, aren’t trails the worst when that solitude is punctured, even by totally polite fellow hikers minding their own business? “The Mountains Are Calling and I Must Go!—Me! Just Me! You Go Away!”).
But also, the woods and the wilderness are dangerous places. Trails and park boundaries make things seem tamed, controlled, and known when they are the exact opposite.
In Blair Witch, of course, our young 90s filmmakers fall into this exact trap. The 82 minute movie includes a lot of walking around in the woods. Most of it doesn’t actually include supernatural elements, but more the rising expectation of their appearance. Days go by and creeping dread rises. Everything will be fine if they can just get back to the car. Or a road. Or anything other than trees and creeks. Shouldn’t be too hard. And after all, this is 1990s America. The woods just aren’t big enough to get lost in. Right? But the car and the end of the woods never come.
Sure, there’s a scary witch and maybe all the kids she murdered chasing you. But the isolation is what is focused on. You are lost and you are fucked. Even without director Heather sucking at reading a map or Mike throwing away the map (or a witch’s supernatural influence making them screw up), the scenario of unprepared people tromping off into the woods and disappearing is extremely plausible.
And it’s very easy to forget that. It was easy to forget in the 90s, even when Christopher McCandless got so lost in his own Manifest Destiny romance that he starved to death in a national park. Unfortunately, people are still getting injured or dying on that very same trail because the bus that McCandless died in has become a shrine to the curious yet careless.
And hey guess what: if you get lost in the woods someday, you could totally walk for 15 hours and wind up right back where you started, no witch needed. Before computers, our brains figured out the curvature of the earth and the distance to the moon. But put us in a thick forest and tell us to walk straight, and we’re screwed.
In 2016, a hiker on the Appalachian Trail stepped 80 paces off the trail to relieve herself. And those 80 steps were the difference between her continuing her hike and her death. Geraldine Largay was a 66 year old hiking the AT, who survived 26 days utterly lost in the Maine wilderness. Yet her body was found 2 years later, less than 3,000 feet from the trail. She probably never actually strayed further than a mile from where she was supposed to be or where rescuers were searching.
You may be thinking, okay, but this is the era of smartphones and GPS. It isn’t that easy for this sort of thing to happen anymore. But again: this was in 2016. Our constant access to communication in familiar surroundings is easy to mistake for a reliable, literal lifeline. Largay did have a cellphone—but couldn’t get service, and she was likely made more confused by wandering around trying to find a signal to call for help.
The untamed earth, which actually makes up an awful lot of the planet, doesn’t care about modern technology. It is beyond time. And it can, will swallow you whole.
“You’re lost, you’re angry in the woods, and no one is here to help you. There’s a witch, and she keeps leaving shit outside your door. There’s no one here to help you! She left little trinkets, you took one of them, she ran after us. There’s no one here to help you! We walked for 15 hours today, we ended up in the same place! There’s no one here to help you!”
Of course much of the drama in Blair Witch comes not only from the freaky things and the survival situation, but the human drama of our protagonists alternating between loathing each other and caring for one another. Finger-pointing, snapping, screaming at one moment, then giving each other a chance to cry it out the next.
These interactions are what make the movie an experience—they make it real. …yes because the deprivation of food and being terrorized at night were actually happening to the actors. But still, the resulting product and emotions feel so much more real than an actual script (and SAG-approved treatment of film employees) would have felt.
If you want to look at the film differently, maybe there is no witch. Perhaps humans are the real cause of horror here. Maybe some crazy townspeople really were messing with these darn no good teenagers (with their MTVs and their colored hair and their plaid shirts) to the point of murder. Maybe Mike and Josh got so enraged by being lost in the woods and coincidental eerie tokens that they plotted and murdered Heather in that house at the end of the movie. *
*I know that plenty of production work went into cultivating the supernatural elements of the story. However, a movie that is so dedicated to keeping the monster hidden opens itself up to theory games like this about what was “really” going on. And if production notes are accurate, we almost got the Witch revealed to us as an art director dressed in long johns with pantyhose over his head. So. I think the off-screen witch was a blessing all around.
In survival situations, humans are constantly in a pull between instincts. Social cooperation is innate in mankind. However, so is awareness of mortality. Both can drive and assist in adapting and overcoming life-threatening situations. Unfortunately, they can also be in direct contradiction to one another.
Suppose in a survival situation, someone we’ll call ‘Karen’ keeps screwing up.
Karen can’t even forage for acorns. (THEY’RE ON THE GROUND, KAREN. FOLLOW THE SQUIRRELS.)
Karen’s almost lit the camp on fire twice. (FIRE STAYS IN THE FIREPIT, KAREN. IT IS NOT HARD.)
What if Karen being an idiot gets me killed? (Shouting ‘KAREN YOU’RE BEING AN IDIOT AND YOU’RE GOING TO GET US KILLED’ has not helped.)
Am I supposed to be nice to Karen and hope that niceness magically makes her a better survivor? Tough call, to be sure. We see this in real life situations—read all about The Donner Party if you want to see a complex map of how self interest and social instinct can play out when you are Lost in the Fucking Woods.
The Blair Witch presents exactly how bare bones a story can be to still be deeply effective and frightening. When a fear (the woods, being lost, the unseen) is universal, you don’t have to spend a lot of time building up why what is happening is scary. Instead you can start out with fear fully recognized, and drag it out to the conclusion. Everyone who walked into theaters in 1999 knew those kids were dead meat. But it’s how we get from a motel outside Burkittsville, Maryland to an abandoned house in the woods that makes the difference. It’s taking a sense of helplessness and milking it, even just by using unending footage of trees and crunching leaves.
So perhaps you now agree or have always agreed: Fuck the Woods (or other interations). Or rather, don’t fuck the woods. But respect their power and danger. And if townspeople tell you about creepy things they’ve seen in the woods, maybe believe them. And if you’re looking for an adventure but have to have it with Karen, maybe just stick with the Cheese Castle.