It is not hard to cite The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) as one of the most influential films of the horror genre in the late 20th and early 21st century. Most of this is due to the uniqueness that is the film itself, especially when it comes to its controversial conclusion and its subsequent hotly debated status as either a solid film or a piece of overrated garbage. But what is even more visually apparent are the numerous and seemingly endless films that seek to replicate the success of The Blair Witch Project. While it is true that a found footage film is cheaper and therefor easier to make, especially when it comes to the horror genre, The Blair Witch Project’s influence is still being felt nonetheless. But while numerous films have tried the found footage formula, few have been anywhere near as successful as the 1999 film. Many reasons factor into this, but chief among them is the fact that while not much may happen in The Blair Witch Project, this is the core reason that the film works as well as it does.
The Blair Witch Project is unique in that its narrative exceeds the film itself. While the footage that makes up the film is critical to the overall story that is being told, much of the intrigue of the film comes from the fact that it was marketed as a genuine real world mystery and that the title cards before the film treat it as such. Because of this, the film does not have to establish or conclude anything, and it does not seek to do so. This is not a feature that many films can get away with containing, partially because it can be frustrating and off-putting to audiences, but also because the “based on a true” story feature of films is prevalent enough in the current cinema climate that it is almost a genre entirely unto itself. Simply put, The Blair Witch Project will likely never be replicated, mostly because of its substantial influence.
Still, despite its potentially frustrating narrative status and its lightning-in-a-bottle success, the film should not be denied as a one that is clever about the way that it handles its subject matter. Chiefly, the film handles the legend of the Blair Witch as just that, a legend or a folktale. Nothing is treated as a solid fact by the film, but also by the main characters making the film. And while the latter is a common feature in many horror films, the difference in The Blair Witch Project is that the film never shows what it is seemingly building up to. Even the eyewitness accounts of the Blair Witch are littered with inconsistencies and holes. The fishermen that talk about her reference events from around one hundred years prior and many of the townsfolk simply treat the tales of something in the woods as nothing more than overblown myths. The most compelling account, that of Mary Brown, is intricate and compelling; but also skewed by the fact that she is treated as and appears to be an unstable person. Heather, Joshua, and Michael treat her as such, and the entire account is soon deemed to be irrelevant and unreliable, just like the other accounts.
But all of the interviews are just buildup to the spectacle of three people getting lost in the woods while they slowly start to believe that they are not alone. And while the scenes in the woods may be creepy because of the strange rock piles and stick figures the filmmakers find, what is even more compelling is the fact that nothing is actually shown in terms of witches or any other beings in the woods. Horror films, in most cases, thrive on the buildup of tension and suspense, and this is where The Blair Witch Project excels. Other found footage horror films, such as Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008) or the Paranormal Activity franchise, while seeking to place the viewer firmly inside the film world, ultimately show what they are building up to. This is not an inherently bad thing, but once something truly extraordinary is shown, the film looses some or all of its realism and immersion. The Blair Project never shows the viewer the Blair Witch, and this allows it to be all the more effective. If the film concluded with the force in the woods being visualized, it would loose much of its mystique. The most powerful force that the film possesses is its ability to manipulate the imaginations of its audience, and if it were to give a face to its threat then much of this effect would be lost.
None of this is to say that the film is flawless or without sin because of its maintained air of mystique. After all, very little actually happens in the film. Three filmmakers who think that they have found an interesting subject venture into the woods and ultimately get lost and begin to disappear from each other. But the film is less about what is in the woods and more so about what is thought to be in the woods. Long before any concrete evidence of their persecution appears, the three filmmakers begin to unravel as their own insecurities begin to fester. As this happens, the film becomes something of a character study on its three leads. Alliances and pet peeves become apparent, such as how Joshua and Michael begin to berate Heather, and at the same time Heather will not stop filming everything she can. The woods become a character too, in their own right. The labyrinthine nature of them becomes apparent as it is made clear that no one knows where they are or where they are going, driven home by the scene in which the three discover that they have walked an entire day only to return to where they started that morning. The woods are equally damning in their aesthetics. There is little greenery to be found and no significant animal life or signs of life are ever encountered and they begin to seem less and less like a place of nature and more like a prison.
Overall, The Blair Witch Project thrives because of absence. There is not a witch to be seen, or any real adversary outside of the main characters themselves and their respective mistakes. By placing a physical threat on screen, the film would detract from the true adversaries of the film, which are the main characters and their respective flaws, one of which is their lack of respect for what they are investigating and likely facing. By pulling everything off the screen that might offer any conclusions, The Blair Witch Project plays to the imaginations of the audience and also to the imaginations of its characters. The bundles of sticks and rocks are creepy enough, but what truly sends them over the edge is what they hear. The sounds of children laughing and crying, and later the cries of Joshua, are all the catalysts for the characters’ respective ends. But, like everything else in the film that is a threat, it is not seen, only heard and alluded too. Heather likely finds Joshua’s teeth outside her tent, but this is never concluded. The film does not even concretely establish that it is Joshua that is heard crying for help. But while it would be remiss to definitively say that the film goes out of its way to establish nothing, it is important to note that the lack of overall clarity serves and creates the most powerful aspect of the film. The Blair Witch Project does not contain much, but this is intentional as it seeks to play on the fears present within its characters and its audience; and because of this it is the most successful of the found footage genre.