The Blair Witch of “The Blair Witch Project” is a spook that got inside the head of a guy who said the witch commanded him to take six kids to his house in the woods and murder them. This is how a few locals in and around Burkitsville, Maryland, who are interviewed by three kids, Heather, Mike and Josh who are making a documentary about The Blair Witch, explain it anyway. The story they tell is inherently terrifying, but it’s been blunted with the passage of time. The murders happened half a century ago. The witch hailed from the 18th century. This means they have passed into folklore. They are half-remembered, told cheekily. A couple fishermen Heather interviews briefly debate the Witch’s merit, wondering if it even happened. After all, it becomes hard for people to take something like it seriously because time wipes away so much.
Time was the ally and is the enemy of “The Blair Witch Project.” It was released in 1999, a pre Y2K-world where information was not quite so over-accessible. Its makers, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, used this to their advantage. They filmed it in a documentary style, pitched it as authentic, making the jumping off point that the entire movie was found footage, tapes discovered in the woods of these three kids who went off to film a documentary about the Blair Witch and disappeared. Sanchez and Myrick backed this up by creating a web site and paying the actors to keep on the down low in the run up to its release, as if they weren’t really out there, as if they had disappeared. Wesley Morris is among the critics who have copped to not really knowing the truth when they went to see it, a critic’s blessing. By the time I got around to it, at the point of its official release, the cat was out of the bag.
Then more time passed, of course, and found footage films became the norm for horror and shaky cam became de rigueur and the Internet became so prevalent that the “Blair Witch’s” pre-movie secrets now seem quaint. In all that there seemed to emerge the idea that “Blair Witch” only got by on its gimmick, which never felt right to me.
It is, to this very day, the scariest movie I have ever seen. And when I say it was the scariest movie I have ever seen, I want to make clear that I already knew it wasn’t true and that it not being true did not matter one single iota. Lord help me, it felt as real as anything I’d ever seen. I had nightmares. And I had nightmares, I think, because “The Blair Witch Project” isn’t so much shock and awe as an insidious burrowing into your brain. It’s not so much about scares as it is about slowly settling fear, the way you dismiss it initially, this idea of a Blair Witch, which is similar to the way in which Heather, Mike and Josh dismiss it, and the way locals who have heard the story so many times dismiss it, because you know it can’t really be real. And even when weird things start happening, it’s easy to brush aside, until you can’t brush them aside any longer, at which point fear has overtaken you without you even realizing it. What you do or don’t believe at that point is immaterial; “it’s” got you. In that way, the pre-movie ad campaign, stoking rumors of “Is this real?” underscored that very idea.
As with so many things, the passage of time has blunted the initial phenomenon of “Blair Witch.” Now, with the release of a third sequel, which did its best to ape the original’s obfuscated ad campaign by acting as a different movie until it premiered, at which point it revealed its real title, so many remembrance pieces have cropped up, measuring “Blair Witch’s” impact, talking about its influence, dissecting its marketing. Its inherent nature as a horror movie almost seems beside the point. Its scare tactics of sticks tied together and stick figures hanging from trees are laughed off. Yet the people laughing them off then start to sound like chest-puffers who don’t think much of haunted houses. They start to sound like the one fisherman in “The Blair Witch Project” who doesn’t think much of the Blair Witch legend. And you realize that’s where we are, seventeen years later, the original sensation that was this movie having transitioned into something approaching folklore, where those of us who lived it gather those who did not around the campire and do our best explain that yes, this cheap-looking little movie really did terrify us. “The Blair Witch Project” is no pre-millennium marketing myth, not to us; to us, it’s still real.