This is an article celebrating the 19th anniversary of one of the best horror films ever made, The Blair Witch Project. Instead of going into the facts behind the making of the film, or blather on and on about its marketing campaign or its lasting effect on horror cinema, I want to talk to you about something a little more personal. Since we all know the stories about its production and success, I am going to tell you a story about myself. By sharing this glimpse of myself with you, I hope to help you see not only how The Blair Witch Project became the hit film that it did, but also why.
The old farmhouse that I grew up in had its fair share of secrets and stories. It stood on a small plot of land, only three acres or so, out in the middle of nowhere about a mile north of Gilson, Illinois. Oh, you’ve never heard of Gilson? That’s weird… I mean, it does have a grain elevator and a pop machine, so to say you’ve never heard of it kind of makes you the ignorant one. The house was built in 1865 by a man returning home from fighting in the great Civil War. We will never know what happened in the house between then and when my Grandparents purchased it in 1969, but by the time I moved in during the late 1980’s, something rotten and angry was hiding in its foundation.
Paranormal activity was not a rarity in this house, but the majority of it seemed to center on me. I was too handsome for the ghosts to handle, I guess. That, or I am an extremely high-functioning schizophrenic. Either way, inexplicable things would happen in the house, and it was almost exclusively directed my way. My sister saw things and experienced things, as well, but I’m not my sister so I can’t write her story. The other experiences I had aren’t important for this article, so I wont go into them now… Maybe some other time.
You see, the house had two basements. One was a newer construction my Grandpa made when they expanded the home in the 1970’s, and the other was original to the house. It was hidden away in a closet in the bathroom and the only way to reach it was by lifting up a section of floor that we kept underneath a rug. It wasn’t something ancient or cursed, by itself. This section of the house’s foundation had a dirt floor and housed the water heater and the old coal chute. One day, while I was getting dressed (let’s be real, here, I was gelling up my frosted tips) I felt this sudden urge to go down there. I don’t know what it was that propelled me. I felt like there was something down here that I needed to see, like something was calling to me. So, dumb young man that I was, I went down there and let the heavy wooden trap door close above me.
“As I turned to slam the door closed, I looked to the bottom of the ladder and saw it. I saw what had drawn me down there in the first place…”
It was pitch black. Blacker than that, actually. It was so dark that I couldn’t see my hand when I held it up in front of my face. I reached for the familiar feeling of the pull chain that would illuminate the only lightbulb down there, but I couldn’t seem to locate it. My hand grasped and searched and flung about, but I could never find it.
That’s when I heard the footsteps.
The soft noise filled the darkness. Thump. Thump-Thump. Thump-Thump-Thump-Thump. They were coming toward me from the far corner of the room, over by where the old chute led to the front yard. These weren’t the lumbering shuffles of a mummy or the slithering gait of a creature from the black lagoon, mind you, but the hurried, hungry steps of someone with a purpose. I was frozen in place. I couldn’t run. There was nowhere to even run to. The footsteps stopped at the bottom of the ladder-stairs not three feet below where I was perched. My nose and throat were coated with the musty smell of recently stirred dirt, but there was something else hidden beneath it. It was fire. Coal. The angry red embers of a dying blaze. The smell filled my word, sending me reeling against the trap door above me.
My back was pressed against it, but it wouldn’t budge. I pushed and pushed, but I never saw more than a crack of daylight shine through. Finally, just as I was about to cry out for my Grandpa, the door flew open and I crawled through to the relative safety of the bathroom closet above. As I turned to slam the door closed, I looked to the bottom of the ladder and saw it. I saw what had drawn me down there in the first place. It was shapeless, it was formless, it was a void of darkness that somehow stood out against the black of its surroundings. The only distinguishable feature I could see were its eyes. They were red. Glowing like the coals whose odor attacked my sinuses. Further investigation was not in the cards, however, because I slammed the door shut before I could look at it another second. In other words, I never pulled a Supernatural and found out its true nature and handsomely salted its bones. I never cared to find out what it was that called me down there, because whatever it was, it was angry.
And it was hungry.
Fast forward a few years and it is the fall of 1999. Life couldn’t be better for a young man like myself. The Backstreet Boy’s Millennium was on repeat and Y2K was months away from destroying the world. I even had a new tape that I rented from the Family Video in the neighboring town. I had no idea what it was about, but it was called The Blair Witch Project and the guy who recommended it to me was wearing JNCO’s so you know he was legit. I nuked some Pizza Rolls, crashed into my bean bag chair and watched the movie up in my room that night. It was a night that I will never forget.
“[The Blair Witch Project] allows us to feel like we have made a decision on our own […] it forces us to look in the background. It forces us to try to find the boogeyman hiding in the shadows.”
As soon as we enter the forest with Heather, Mike and Josh, we know that they were doomed. The initial title screen told us as much, saying that they had disappeared and that their footage was found a year later. As we got to know them during their initial interviews of the townsfolk, we could tell that something wasn’t right. There was so much that the townspeople weren’t telling them. Their pauses were pregnant with secrets and stories that they were afraid to share with outsiders. My uneasiness truly started on their second night in the woods. They could hear screaming and footsteps in the woods. Footsteps belonging to an unseen being. These weren’t tiny leaf-crunchers, either. These were the loud, purposeful footsteps of an entity that had something on its mind. It wanted something from these three and it was not going to stop until it lured them out from the safety of their tent.
The nights turned into days. A map is “lost”, cigarettes are smoked, and an exit trail is agreed upon. A tent is shaken. They run. They cannot get away for the thing in the woods. It seems to be everywhere, all at the same time. Mike becomes the focus of their ire right before Josh takes off in the middle of the night. We watch as they continue on, hearing Josh’s cries in the middle of the night. “I don’t know if it’s really him”, Mike states as they both weep, but they know. They know that something out there is manipulating them into doing its will. They know that it is the Blair Witch. Something out there is calling them into the dirty basement, and watching it that night brought back every emotion I felt when I was confronted in that dark, dank room. The filmmakers had never met me (their loss), but somehow their film was able to make me feel the fear that haunted me my entire adolescence. How is that possible?
What makes The Blair Witch Project so special is not its limited budget, its innovative use of the “found footage” style of horror filmmaking, or its genius marketing strategy, but the fact that it found a way to tap into our primal fears without showing one ounce of gore or violence. It allows us to feel like we have made a decision on our own, much like Heather and her crew when they decided to try to find the cemetery in the woods, but then it quickly strips us of our power. This film reduces us to our most animalistic instincts and forces us to sit and watch as the characters on the screen are herded to their deaths by an unseen, but hungry, entity.
The Blair Witch Project is one of the greatest horror films of all time because it forces us to look in the background. It forces us to try to find the boogeyman hiding in the shadows. Some say that the fact that we never see witch is a detriment to the film, that it was a cop-out of sorts to save on budget and time. I disagree. The fact that we never see the witch allows us to fill that role with the thing that scares us the most. Some people insist that the witch was simply a crazed maniac living in an abandoned house in the woods. Others say that the witch resembles Slenderman, a faceless monstrosity that blends in with the trees and lures you to your doom. You may see her as an old crone, feasting on the flesh of the seven children she lured from the town of Blair. I see her as a black void at the bottom of the stairs, reaching up and pulling me down by my ankle, forcing me to stand in the corner until my sister comes down to look for me.
“[…] do yourself a favor and watch The Blair Witch Project again. You may never see the Blair Witch herself, but you will definitely see what scares you most…”
Whatever form the Blair Witch took for you back in 1999 is sure to scare you still. That is the genius of this film and why it should be celebrated as one of the finest films of all time. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez deserve all of the credit in the world for writing, directing and editing such a masterpiece of horror cinema. They gave us nightmares, sure, but the world would be a less spooky place if their film never saw the light of day. On this day, the 19th anniversary of the film’s release, do yourself a favor and watch The Blair Witch Project again. You may never see the Blair Witch herself, but you will definitely see what scares you most, and much like Heather and her crew, you may not be able to escape it again.
Once you have watched the film again, head over to our Facebook group, Horror Movie Fiend Club of Nightmare on Film Street, and let us know what you think! Does it still hold up as well as you remember? While you’re at it, bookmark our homepage at Nightmare on Film Street to stay up to date on the hottest horror news, reviews, and retrospectives the internet has to offer!