It has become apparent that one of the stereotypical ways of storytelling in the horror genre is through the eyes of the characters. In other words, I'm talking about the technique of found-footage. Today, the Paranormal Activity franchise has the reins of the technique and has refused to let it go, however, it wasn't the first time this style was seen. In the year of 1999 on July 16th, a low-budget film titled The Blair Witch Project was released into theaters. Audiences viewed the film as a reality, for the movie was advertised as the terribly tragic final moments of three documentary students who were never found. Today, the film is either loved or hated and the split between not only horror fans, but movie fans in general, has become more divided than ever. It is a rare moment in my life when I meet someone who finds The Blair Witch Project to be a genuinely terrifying movie that takes three college students and brings them to the edges of insanity. Because of this I wanted to take a deeper look into what makes this particular film one of the scariest movies of all time.
1. Reality vs. Supernatural
The movie always ends with the open question of whether the antagonist is a reality or supernatural. In the beginning of the film we're presented with two stories. One tells the story of a woman that performed witchcraft in a Protestant community in the early 1800s while the other story talks about an old hermit that lived in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland that murdered children of the town. Because the film doesn't explain what exactly is happening 100% of the time, it is up to the audience to determine what story they believe. A perfect scenario would be to think of how you would react if you heard something go bump in the night. You are asleep in bed in the middle of the night when you hear the sound of glass shattering on the first floor of your home. You get up and walk downstairs, finding a broken vase on the kitchen floor. The number one question you'll be asking is, "what knocked the vase over?". In my head, there are two options: either it was knocked over by something supernatural or someone is in my home. That is what The Blair Witch Project does to the human mind. It creates the question of what is actually happening vs. what we think is happening.
2. Fear of the Unknown
Similar to my first point, the fear of the unknown is something that everyone is afraid of. It doesn't matter how old you are, how tough you are, etc. There is always that small fear of not knowing what is going to happen. This is one of the things that makes this movie so terrifying. When our characters are camping in the middle of the woods, who can say what can occur? The tense moments of the movie mostly take place at night and make it so the audience will never get a clear view of what is causing the distress. This element of the movie takes us as the audience and places us in that situation with the characters. If the characters can't see it, then the audience can't see it. The only thing that we can see and hear are the things that are being affected. This allows our minds to run wild, causing us to think of the worst possible answer as to what is following the characters. That said, even when we come up with things in our mind, we still aren't sure of what it actually is.
In today's world of horror found-footage, the effects have escalated to CGI and other unrealistic possibilities. What ever happened to the simplicity of practical effects and subtlety. The scariest thing about The Blair Witch Project is the simple yet effective scares. Nothing is over the top or computer generated. Everything is practical, using noises and letting the audience use their imagination. One of the major complaints about the film is that we never get to see the "witch" that is talked about throughout the movie. In my personal opinion, this was a smart move on the director's part. The whole point of the film is to play off of what people believe to be true, like the legend that the movie is trying to prove. The entire movie is a mind game that plays with the characters and the audience. If there was any kind of visual of the witch, the movie would not be as effective and would be a generic "monster movie".
The Blair Witch Project has become a classic since it was released in 1999 and it still holds up as one of the scariest horror films today. As I said before, there are a lot of opposing opinions between the fans of the genre and it all comes down to the fact that everyone is scared by different things.