The latest sequel to The Blair Witch Project is titled simply Blair Witch, because the 2010s are all about minimalism. And sequels! But that's not the only difference between today and 1999, when Lionsgate released the original found footage horror film to massive controversy.
Back then, we were a little more gullible. We believed that drinking Mountain Dew would shrink our genitals. We believed that Marilyn Manson had surgically removed his ribcage in order to orally pleasure himself. We believed that Richard Gere did unholy things to gerbils. Basically, we believed a lot of bulls**t, especially if it was embarrassingly sexual in nature.
It's amazing, in retrospect, how ludicrous urban legends spread before the age of social media. The literal whisper campaign about castration-causing food dye yellow No. 5 somehow reached everyone in your school, and in the next school over, and in every school across North America. Respectable traditional media outlets would never mention (and thus legitimize) these rumors. It must've taken millions of face-to-face conversations that began with "have you heard...?" and ended with immature, 100 percent credulous giggles.
A Rumor Can Go Viral In A Matter Of Minutes
A big story can go viral worldwide in a matter of minutes these days, but likely percolated for months or years back then. That changed with The Blair Witch Project. As Scott Bowles of USA Today wrote on the film's 15th anniversary:
Though it arrived five years before Facebook and seven before Twitter, Blair Witch became Hollywood's first film with viral heat, cropping up on horror fan sites and discussion forums.
For several weeks in 1999, it was all anyone could talk about (besides, I dunno, Monica Lewinsky's blue dress and how many women Ricky Martin must be sleeping with). You waited in line for the movie as soon as you could get tickets, even though you didn't know anything about it. Well, you did know one thing...
We Believed The Hype
We thought it was real handheld footage of college students getting killed in the woods. Or at least, we thought it might be real, and the filmmakers encouraged us.
The Blair Witch marketing materials included seemingly authentic police reports, childhood photos and missing persons fliers for each character. As USA Today explains, the movie's producers:
"Built a website that helped bolster the film's sense of being a true story by documenting the 'history' of the witch legend, complete with photos and 'evidence' of the students' supposed 1994 disappearance. ... Indeed, legions of moviegoers were fooled by the site, which ... drew dozens of calls from tipsters claiming knowledge of the urban legend."
It was the Web 1.0 equivalent of Orson Welles reading War of the Worlds on the radio in 1938, convincing listeners that aliens had attacked the planet.
Never mind that extraterrestrials are slightly more plausible than evil witches hiding in the woods.
Even if you had your doubts about the film's validity, you paid your $5.06 for admission — Christ, I miss the '90s — to see what all the hype was about. And yeah, it was all hype, especially if you ask those of us prone to motion sickness. (Not saying I barfed, but I'm not not saying I barfed.)
We Were Naive, Not Stupid
It's not that people were stupider then; we just hadn't been suckered en masse by a new medium yet.
We knew that the internet was full of baloney, but this was the first major case of widely distributed, professionally crafted baloney. And Lionsgate made a fortune, totaling nearly $250 million against a $60,000 budget. Financing The Blair Witch Project was a far better investment than buying stock in pre-iPhone Apple.
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It also led to nearly two decades of found footage horror films, none of which have been mistaken by millions for the real deal, perhaps because we collectively got wise to the format. The 2006–2008 Web series lonelygirl15, which originally presented itself as a real teenager's video blog, may have come the closest, although many viewers were skeptical from the beginning.
Fool us once, Hollywood...
Are you hyped for BLAIR WITCH (2016)?
Social Media Can Be A Powerful Fact Checker
This kind of mainstream motion picture hoax would be nearly impossible to pull off in 2016. Rumors are now fact-checked nearly as quickly as they spread.
An anonymous reddit user would post proof that she used to be roommates with one of The Blair Witch Project actors; a crew member who needed to pay the rent would sell evidence to TMZ that the movie was fake all along; a verified Twitter account for the local sheriff's office would immediately deny the veracity of those MISSING posters.
At this point, maybe the best that studios can hope for is masking the true plots of their films. By that metric, the true viral success of 2016's Blair Witch is the surprise announcement at Comic-Con that it actually is a Blair Witch movie, not a random horror flick titled The Woods.
But Hey, Never Say Never
Remember this gem of a prank from Jimmy Kimmel Live!, "The Worst Twerk Fail EVER - Girl Catches Fire"?
How about this one, "Epic #SochiFail: Wolf in My Hall"?
With millions of views each, it's clearly still possible to fool the internet, even if it takes more devious creativity than it did back in the twentieth century. We won't see the next one coming, but rest assured it will come. Basically, what I'm suggesting is that — get ready for the BIG TWIST — Jimmy Kimmel was the Blair Witch all along and totally killed those college kids in 1999. Mind. Blown.