Blair Witch Project: Playing with the Apparatus


In a classic masochistic effort, I decided to watch a horror movie the other night. Armed with pop-corn, a beer, and several deep breathing exercises, I turned on what I had heard to be a great ride – Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick/Eduardo Sanchez, 1999). From what I had heard, there was a distinct realism in this film’s approach that made it so revolutionary, and I had been told numerous times from the mothers of my friends that they walked out of the theatre in 1999 thinking they’d truly just seen found footage of a historical event. What could possibly bring this level of terror to a bunch of clever, educated people in a movie theatre?

It was pretty easy to tell while I was watching exactly what these people were reacting to. The shaky camera captures the world around it as a grainy, pale shadow of itself, contributing to a growing sense of dread before we even know the terrors that lie ahead. Most of all, it makes the footage feel truly authentic, as the characters are armed with the same technology that a pedestrian film maker would be armed with – a jarring realization to make when you find yourself sitting in a 12 dollar theatre seat with a 8 dollar jug of popcorn on your lap. The perfectly borderline-amateur cinematographer and her crew are making a documentary about the Blair Witch, a legend surrounding a small Maryland town, and naturally they want to find footage in the woods where this Witch supposedly lives. I noted immediately that in this sense, right off the bat, this horror movie becomes a movie about making movies, notably exploiting the strength of the documentarian, which is in his/her aggression towards uncovering and revealing the reality of something – a reality which we know in our study of theory is inherently limited by the mechanical capabilities of a camera. These limits define our sense of horror throughout the film, as what we interpret to be the “reality” that these characters are facing is really only what the camera chooses to reveal.

Further, it is interesting to think of this film as a reaction to the campiness and glossiness of many films (not just horror) that were produced in the decades preceding the millennia.  We talked about this aspect a little in class, about how it could potentially be seen as a revisionist genre of sorts, with this attitude of “hey look at us make 240 million dollars off of a 60,000 dollar budget while you struggle to make 10 million off a 50 million budget.”  It seems like realism is often the film world’s reaction to cinema that has become too predictable and too surreal to even have a shot at borrowing reality.  Maybe it’s better just to hit hard and fast with your own vision as Myrick and Sanchez did with The Blair Witch Project if you want to bring about change in the film industry.  After Blair Witch, we saw the ascendancy of shaking and candid cameras in the early 2000’s, culminating (in my opinion) with the Paranormal Activity franchise, which saw budgets around 15-30 thousand dollars produce hundreds of millions in return, as movie-goers were brought to their knees in terror at the simplest oscillations of a few cameras in a dark house.  Pretty brilliant stuff if you ask me.  I really think The Blair Witch Project can be looked at as a significant moment in film history in which the word “reality” was truly ringing in people’s heads as they walked out of the theatre (and hid under their bed for a few days).

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