We were all far less sophisticated back in the nineties, which made manipulation far easier, yet it was a different kind of coercive dishonesty to the sort peddled on Facebook via shared posts, the sort taken for actual news. People are differently stupid now. These days, we know when something is being marketed at us through the screen, but struggle to see when agenda is streamlined into a headline. We think we’ve came so far, that we’re all so savvy, but the line that separates reality from unreality – or simply put, truth from fiction – is never as defined as it first seems. In that uncertainty is where audiences found themselves when confronted by The Blair Witch Project back in the late nineties.
For me, The Blair Witch Project arrived at the right time. I loved Scream and the explosion of smart meta slashers it unleashed. A whole generation of youth television spat out photogenic idols with bright teeth and messy (yet oh so styled) hairdos. Sarah Michelle. Jennifer Love Hewitt. Party of Five. Neve Campbell. Dawson’s Creek. Josh Hartnett. Freddie Prinze Jr. The best roles for their age group came in horror movies for teens. But by 1999 it all felt slightly played out. We didn’t just need something different, we required something new. I can’t quite remember where I was when I first heard about The Blair Witch Project, but I definitely bought into the whole campaign. A friend swore it was all true. Three college students went missing in a forest while making a documentary, but! Their footage was recovered. I had to ask how he knew it was true, only to be stared down balefully. Because it’s on the internet. Yes. It was on the internet, which meant it was absolutely true. We visited the official website, which took a while to load up because the connection was so shit. Three faces and the word MISSING eventually formed from bits and bytes into solid graphics. Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard, all three rendered starkly in black and white. Diabolical, I said. My latest attempt at a catchphrase didn’t take off, sadly. In those days, everything was diabolical.
Their missing footage had been reassembled and finally we’d get to see their last days. Back then, everyone believed in the unknown. America was run by secret government powers who controlled everything with their UFO technology stolen from Roswell crash. This was the decade of Mulder and Scully, and the unknown meant anything was possible – even three campers vanishing while leaving a horde of footage behind. That, more than anything else, made me slightly suspicious about the story.
The thing about The Blair Witch Project I found deeply unbelievable was how perfect it seemed. There was some serious world building going on that felt incredibly real. Elly Kedward. Coffin Rock. Rustin Parr. It was very believable to me, perhaps a little too plausible. But that in itself made me decide to just accept what Blair Witch had to offer. Without being able to check Wikipedia, it wasn’t easy to find the facts, especially in the Wild West of the Internet back in the nineties. And so I became a fan. I read all the magazine features. I bought the inevitable tie-in book. Really, I was preparing myself for the film itself. Along with my two best friends, we went to The Odeon in Glasgow, which was a brilliant cinema in a historic old building. Hyped up, with my bottle of Coca-Cola and my hot dog, I settled down to watch the thing that had completely obsessed me for months.
And I hated it.
Jerky footage, people screaming, maps disappearing, slime on camping gear, a severe case of motion sickness, and a terrible audience conspired to wreck what was an almost sacred experience. When Heather Donahue appeared onscreen to make her iconic acknowledgement that she caused the events that will likely kill her friends, she was bombarded by Maltesers from someone in the crowd. Fuckin shut yer moof! came someone, similarly unimpressed. As I left the cinema, confused and flat, my friends could do nothing but rave about the film. They went home that night, walking through a creepy forest. Apparently they were terrified. For them, Blair Witch hadn’t been impossibly over hyped in their heads the way it had been mine, so they loved it. And I loved it too, but only years afterwards. I took an opportunity to rewatch it on Netflix in the dark of my living room, far away from crowds, high expectations, and random bits of spheroid malted milk chocolate treats. I realised how good it was and what the filmmakers had actually done back then, not just with the film itself, but the campaign. I believed the lot. Many of us did. We were very innocent in many ways. We’re far savvier today in many ways, but I sometimes consider how a modern audience might be tricked by a similar conceit. Would the new Blair Witch be filmed on TikTok? Would it take the form of ‘news’ stories on Facebook? So much disinformation exists online, lies that people are willingly embracing to suit their own beliefs. Is that the way forward for a horror movie? Could the next Blair Witch Project happen on our feeds? Like the primitive (but effective) viral campaign that sold the original movie, might our feeds be the way to the future of the horror genre? I’m not sure. There’s enough horror in real life, in my opinion. Maybe the genre has no way forward. Perhaps The Blair Witch Project was the last great horror movie, even if I didn’t realise it at the time.