I believe your enjoyment of The Blair Witch Project is directly related to when you saw it. When the film opened in wide-release across the U.S. in July of 1999, it was beyond a massive success and yet, large chunks of that audience hated it. They wondered, “Why was this movie so hyped? Why did I just pay to see that? Who would be scared by this?”
Me. I was scared. And it’s because I saw it months before the film became a cultural phenomenon.
It’s hard to remember a time when we didn’t read about movies on the internet, when our daily routines didn’t involve visiting sites like this one to see what’s going on in the world of entertainment. But in 1999, that was still a relatively new concept with only a handful of sites competing for clicks, and one of the first films those sites embraced was The Blair Witch Project.
The Blair Witch Project premiered in January 1999 the Sundance Film Festival. Immediately after its first midnight screening, distributors stayed up all night bidding for the rights to the film. Artisan ultimately paid over $1 million for the film and, in the months that followed, changed the way films would be marketed forever by, basically, lying to the public.
By the time most people saw The Blair Witch Project in theaters that summer, everyone knew it was fake. The whole concept of “found footage,” while still extremely new, had been debunked thanks to the actors appearing on magazine covers and late-night talk shows. But after buying the rights at Sundance, Artisan had tried to delay that realization for as long as possible. They launched a website on the events of the film, but without acknowledging it was fiction. On the site were articles and photos that added context to the movie, spawning alternate histories, theories, and more. The result was that some readers believed the events of the film were real and that they could watch actual footage of three teens who went missing in the Maryland woods.
These days, we would immediately see through this marketing ploy. Of course, no one would, or could, release a snuff film in theaters. But this was 1999 and our collective bullshit meters weren’t quite as advanced. Which I say from experience because, when I saw the film sometime around April of 1999, I had no idea what I was walking into.
After months of reading about Blair Witch on movie websites, finally, a free screening came to New York City, where I was going to college. My friends and I RSVP’d and lined up early, eager to see what all the fuss was about, all the time debating if this could actually be real or not. We didn’t think so, but we couldn’t be 100 percent sure. Once the movie started, the filmmaking didn’t provide a definitive answer. As directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (whose names aren’t blasted all over the film like a normal movie, only adding to the ruse), The Blair Witch Project starred three unknown actors who shot the movie themselves and largely improvised everything. The result is about as realistic and raw a motion picture as humanly possible. Nothing about it feels fake because it isn’t fake. The footage is shaky (so shaky, in fact, people regularly got motion sickness in screenings), the performances are brash, the reactions authentic, and it truly does feel like a horrifying home video that could have been found laying under a pile of leaves.
Watching the film for the first time, it shook me to my core. To imagine that what I was experiencing could have actually happened, even for a second, was beyond terrifying. No matter how many Freddy or Jason movies you’ve seen, it’s not hard to realize those characters are fake. But the Blair Witch? Yeah, she could be real. Just look what she did to these three kids.
When I got back to my dorm after the movie, my roommate wasn’t there. It was late, dark, and only the street lights illuminated the tiny room. Then the thought crept into my head: “He was standing in the corner.” Just picturing the film’s final image freaked me out. For an instant, I imagined a supernatural being actually forced Michael to stand in a corner while it attacked Heather, who then dropped the camera before the credits rolled. I had trouble sleeping that night.
In the weeks that followed, I poked around the Blair Witch website to read what I could about it. And there was plenty, thanks to Artisan’s brilliant, landmark, online marketing campaign. If I could have immediately found proof that the film was fake, it would have eased my mind greatly but, in the Spring between the film’s premiere and its theatrical release, those articles were not easy to come by. Viral marketing had been born.
That meant, by the time The Blair Witch Project opened in theaters to a wide audience, everyone was talking about it. Reactions and recommendations like mine had built a huge buzz around the film. I’ll never forget my local, 12-screen theater in Newburgh, NY canceled three other movies on opening weekend just to free up screens to satisfy demand. And yet, without the seed of doubt on whether the footage was fact or fiction that I initially had, the film played differently. I say this, again, from experience. I brought several friends to opening night after boasting about this amazing scary movie for months. They hated it and still mock me to this day about the film being so crappy and overhyped.
In a way, because of its nature and marketing, it was one of the first movies that actually could be overhyped. Everything about the movie was new, fresh, and exciting. By embracing found footage, a relatively unknown mode of filmmaking (it wasn’t the first to do so but it was by far the most popular) and using the internet to craft a fascinating, false narrative (it is considered to be the first film that was marketed virally) The Blair Witch Project changed the way movies were made and marketed forever.
Over the next decade, films like Paranormal Activity, Rec, and Cloverfield, just to name a few, would follow the same formula with mixed results. It got to the point where now, almost 20 years later, the whole thing has become pretty passé. What movie doesn’t have its own website and unique online marketing strategy now? But to be part of The Blair Witch Project as it was happening, to be an unknowing witness to film history, resulted in the single scariest movie experience of my life.