Here’s your motivation: You’re lost! You’re angry, wandering through a hellscape of slasher flicks and torture porn and random demons that show up for no reason. Everything seems derivative and repetitive. You’re on a circular path you can’t deviate from. Hungry for originality, hunted by fat, greedy studios who have manipulated you for eons, you stumble, at last, upon a place of refuge. Friends along the way told you about it (the fisherman, the old woman clutching her purse, the young mother and her crying baby) and you’ve finally found it. But inside, there is no warmth, no sustenance, no creature comforts. There are intimations of violence. There’s a whiff of decay. You breathe in the terror of over a hundred years of legends and lore, your mind whirling with questions, but in the end you come upon a blank wall. You’re left with only yourself, and your fear of what may be behind you.
To say that The Blair Witch Project changed the horror genre irrevocably is an understatement. Crafted out of over a hundred hours of raw, amateur footage shot by actors (a tour de force of editing), the film had its share of detractors, but critics, scholars, and horror buffs have long acknowledged its unique contribution to cinema. Its tiny budget spawned the scrappy ingenuity that made the film so outrageously original and its marketing campaign so daring. But in creating their odd brand of dark horse publicity, the filmmakers forged a body of folklore around the film itself, establishing a question that persisted for years: Was it real? And that folklore is but one element of The Blair Witch Project’s impact upon the folk horror genre.
The “unholy trinity” of British folk horror — The Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973) — set the gold standard for describing other expressions of the genre. Although folk horror can be hard to pin down, given the importance of a certain “vibe” or feeling above specific technical or narrative constraints, there is general agreement about its basic criteria. A folk horror text should have some element of landscape that lends considerable atmosphere to the film. There should be a nod toward the idea of, if not an act of, human sacrifice or propitiation connected to a location. And, perhaps most importantly, it should have some sort of legend, lore, superstition, or myth at its heart. Enter the Blair Witch.
The film’s story contains all of these elements, to be sure. But it also forged a unique meta-identity that made its very creation and promotion a folk horror milestone. The actors relate an often-grueling film shoot, with very limited contact with the directors (spare rations and minimal notes to guide them through their daily work were left in baskets in the woods). Their physical duress is obvious in their authentic performances. Their shots of the forest are eerily atmospheric, the chaotic footage shot in darkness a surprisingly effective achievement.
Unable to afford to circulate prints of the film or do beta-screenings in test markets, the filmmakers (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) put all their eggs in the Sundance basket. But before fledgling distributor Artisan Entertainment bought the festival film for what now seems a ludicrous $1 million (it eventually set the record for the highest-grossing independent film in history), the filmmakers made a ballsy move: They created false hype for the film. They put up “missing persons” flyers picturing the three students/actors. They infiltrated horror forums and chat rooms, posting comments like “Oh wow, I saw a special preview screening of this cool new horror film, but it was like a documentary about these students that disappeared, and wow, they’re still missing, anyway, check it out when you can, it was soooo scary!”
Their gambit paid off. Because the film was scary. What’s more, it was iconoclastic, unlike anything anyone had seen before. No moody soundtrack, no calibrated jump scares, no atmospheric cinematography. Just three people, lost in the woods, losing their shit. The found-footage disclaimer lent the film a deeply unsettling authenticity that led a number of viewers to go on real-life quests to find the missing students. In their attempts to engage with the folklore of the film itself, whether through unusual sidelines (video specials, comics, scrapbooks) or by plundering the woods near Burkittsville, Md., these viewers were feeding a hunger for clues and artifacts, a desire to penetrate the mystery, to find answers.
Then there were those fetishistic stick figures found hanging from trees. Crafty objects with a feel of sympathetic magic — we’ve seen this in other folk horror offerings like Harvest Home (novel, 1973, mini-series, 1978) or The Wicker Man (1973). But in the wake of The Blair Witch Project, we’ve seen this trope in contemporary settings as well: the first and third seasons of True Detective; American Horror Story: Roanoke (2016), which was also a found footage/self-referential version of the show; as well as The Love Witch (2016), Crow (2016), and The Ritual (2017).
The found-footage conceit, first seen in Cannibal Holocaust (which inspired Myrick and Sanchez) and endlessly imitated and parodied, is seen as the film’s most significant legacy. The format lends itself to narratives that have elements of mystery and lore attached to them, not to mention attempts to “capture” elusive beings or occurrences on film. The Cloverfield (2008) and Paranormal Activity (2009) franchises have been hugely successful. The Last Exorcism (2010) was legitimately chilling (until its found footage framework gave way to slick Hollywood production tricks). Then there’s the brilliant Norwegian found-footage mockumentary Trollhunter (2010), arguably the most artfully clever of the Blair Witch progeny.
One undeniable impact of The Blair Witch Project was its (perhaps unintentional) challenge to filmgoers to completely re-evaluate their experience of what they found frightening. Horror fans, used to seeing scary creatures on screen, had to adjust their experience of viewing, forced to imagine the witch (or her ghost, or the ghost of the killer inspired by her) with virtually no visual information. This act of conjuring was a potent reminder of something that had largely been forgotten in an era when unremitting gore ruled the genre: that terror is as satisfying a sensation as horror, the mind as capable of a cold shudder as the viscera. What frightened us was no longer what was in front of the camera, but what we were unable to see because of the camera’s limitations. Myrick and Sanchez may have been interested in making “a little Dogme film” but in the end they taught us to be afraid of the dark.