A year after the wild and unexpected success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, audiences snubbed one of the most unfairly maligned sequels in movie history: Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Instead of following the original’s found-footage format, Book of Shadows’ opening disclaimer notes that the film we are about to see is a dramatization of violent crimes that were inspired by The Blair Witch Project roughly a year after it first came out. The meta is extremely strong with this one, even becoming sub-meta as the reenactment dramatizes elements of the reenactment itself.
Book of Shadows follows local Burkittsville tour guide Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan) on his inaugural Blair Witch Hunt—a name itself that ends up becoming a double entendre. He leads guests Erica (Erica Leerhsen) the Wiccan, competing Blair Witch historians Tristen (Tristine Skyler) and Stephen (Stephen Ryan Parker), and goth Blair Witch Project enthusiast Kim (Kim Director) on a jaunt into the haunted Black Hills of Maryland. Was it mass hysteria or actual supernatural possession that leads the group to collectively and individually slaughter eight people over the course of just two days? Cobbling together traditional narrative storytelling, found footage elements, and VHS and digital recordings made by characters along the way, Book of Shadows is a masterful mixed-media collage that has aged particularly well in the sometimes harsh light of high-definition TVs.
Drawing heavily from the many mythologies presented in The Blair Witch Project about the witch herself, the serial killer Rustin Parr, and an unnamed dark entity said to be a force of evil in the woods, Book of Shadows deep dives into the stories while also presenting social commentary that has only gained relevance over the years. In Book of Shadows we see the Blair Witch craze amplified online, bringing fanatics from all over America to this small corner of Maryland. But it’s not until the events of Jeff and his tour group that the online hoaxes promoting the Blair Witch turn deadly. When I heard about the Slenderman Murders, the first thing I thought of was Book of Shadows, where the internet also helped fuel a mythology so convincing that it would lead to real life murder and violence.
But when Book of Shadows came out 20 years ago, we didn’t have so many examples of the kind of group hysteria fueled online that has led to some vicious real-life crimes – most recently when Kyle Rittenhouse travelled across state borders to kill Black Lives Matter protesters or the plot to kidnap and murder Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and her family. QAnon and the Blair Witch, in these contexts, have a lot in common: both are based on fictions that still managed to inspire violence. In QAnon’s case, the violence is very real and very dangerous; in Book of Shadows, the fictional violence serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers of conspiracy-minded thinking and the collective psychosis that can follow.
Many of Book of Shadows’s critics insisted it was completely unrealistic to think that the internet could inspire this level of brutality and inhumanity. But now the film seems to predict our current reality in an era of “fake news” rhetoric that has critical thinkers doubting what is real, while others would inject themselves with bleach if a certain person told them it was a cure. Before the violence escalates in Book of Shadows, Tristen says to Stephen, “Stories like this happen because they exist in a place of truth. … Because if people believe something enough, isn’t it real? Perception is reality.” Tristen was talking about the myth of the Blair Witch, but two decades later her theory inadvertently highlights how her own story on screen predicted the proliferation of internet-inspired violence that is now a part of our daily social and cultural reality.
On its twentieth birthday, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 is a dire warning of what happens when we blur the line between fiction and reality too far. In 2000 Book of Shadows seemed over the top; in 2020 the harrowing events in the movie actually feel more like a documentary than The Blair Witch Project itself.