There are few genres so centered around individual movie releases as horror. The popularity of the different horror subgenres–whether zombies, slashers, possession films, killer dolls, or haunted houses–are almost always created by the huge success of a single film. From Night of the Living Dead and Halloween to The Exorcist and Scream, these genre classics inspired dozens and dozens of imitators over the following years, before their popularity waned and something else took their place.
Sometimes a horror wave isn’t a specific genre–the current popularity of Stephen King adaptations cover many different types of movies, but are all unified by the appeal of the iconic writer. The same was true of found footage in the 2000s. Found footage means nothing more than a movie comprised of footage “filmed” by its protagonists, and was used throughout the decade in everything from the cheapest films imaginable to mainstream blockbusters such as Matt Reeves and JJ Abrams’ Cloverfield. But it all started in one place.
The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first found footage horror movie, just as Halloween wasn’t the first slasher movie. But it was the one that ushered the concept into the 21st Century and provided a filmmaking template for dozens of cash-strapped filmmakers. This was a film that cost a measly $60,000 to make and yet earned nearly $250 million worldwide. And while no subsequent filmmakers expected to recoup 4,000 times their production budget like Blair Witch did, the success showed that a few friends and a domestic grade camcorder was all you needed to be in with a shot at making a small profit.
But while this might be the reason why horror in the 2000s was defined by the sheer number of found footage movies, it doesn’t explain why The Blair Witch Project was such a phenomenon to start with. It’s crucial to remember that this was the late-1990s. The internet as a domestic service was in its infancy–while plenty of homes were online by this point, the possibilities of the internet as a commercial tool were still being explored by individuals and organisations. And even more importantly, there was no social media. Online discussions were conducted via bulletin boards, meaning a slower, more controlled spread of information as opposed to the constant, relentless, and instant information (and misinformation) dump we all experience today.
All of this played to Blair Witch’s advantage in terms of building buzz. The movie had already screened at the Sundance Film Festival six months before its release, but back in 1999, all this meant was a handful of reviews in industry trade publications. Mainstream magazines and websites rarely covered festival hits until they reached theaters. But even though directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez were only hoping for a TV sale, Artisan Entertainment saw the movie’s great commercial potential and bought the film for $1.1 million at Sundance. Artisan set up a wide July release, right in the middle of 1999’s blockbuster season, 20 years ago this week.
That’s where the fun began. The Blair Witch Project is widely credited as the first movie to use online “viral” promotion, and the filmmakers did it in a way that would be impossible today. The plot of the movie–three student documentary filmmakers go missing in the woods while investigating the spooky legend of a local witch–fed directly into the marketing campaign, to the extent that the campaign became a part of the movie’s narrative. Artisan and Haxan Films, Myrick and Sánchez’s production company, collaborated on creating content for the movie’s official website in the build-up to its release. The site featured mock police reports about the missing students and “interviews” with some of the residents who live near the woods where the Blair Witch reportedly lurked. In an era before every aspect of our online lives is constantly deconstructed and analysed, this was incredibly effective, causing confusion about whether these reports were real or not. It helped build buzz for the movie in a way that had never been seen before.
Artisan and Haxan’s publicity genius didn’t stop there. What remains so impressive is that they never broke cover–the campaign was consistent and focused on one thing: make people believe that The Blair Witch Project was a document of real events. There was never an “official” trailer, which is unheard of for a movie hitting thousands screens across the US in July. Instead, there were a pair of spooky and realistic short videos that gave no real clue that they were advertising a movie. The approach even went as far as changing the IMDB entries for the movie’s three stars to ‘missing, presumed dead,’ while missing person flyers were handed out at film festivals. In 2019, it would take just a few minutes on Google or Twitter for the entire conceit to come crashing down, but 20 years ago it worked brilliantly.
Of course, the idea that everyone who stepped into a theater to watch The Blair Witch Project on the weekend of July 14 thought they were about to watch something that actually happened is itself a myth. By that point, the hype machine was in full swing, reviews and articles about the movie’s production were everywhere, and audiences knew this was a fictional film, not some shockumentary. But it didn’t matter–the mystique of the movie had been set, making it an absolute must-see. And for that first viewing, with the backstory of the movie bleeding into the events that unfolded on-screen, it was a scary movie like few audiences had experienced for a long time.
The Blair Witch Project was released after a period where American horror had moved into a safe, mainstream place following the success of Scream in 1996. Wes Craven’s post-modern classic inspired a new wave of knowing slasher movies, but these were polished, commercial releases featuring casts of recognisable actors and little danger. Blair Witch was the complete opposite. It was raw, it was cheap, it was incredibly realistic, and it was damn scary. It broke conventions in terms of its structure and refused to bend to audience expectations.
I vividly remember watching The Blair Witch Project for the first time on its opening weekend in central London. While today the vast majority of movies open simultaneously in the US and UK, this wasn’t the case 20 years ago, and British film fans like myself had to wait a long three months for it to finally hit UK theaters. In a way, an October release made more sense–it is the month of horror after all. But it meant by this point, absolutely no one thought the film was anything but a work of fiction. But it didn’t matter. The immediacy of the film, the uncomfortable realism, and the naturalistic performances quickly removed the barrier that often lies between the viewer and the screen, and had me utterly gripped, fully immersed in Heather, Mike, and Josh’s nightmarish situation. I’ve seen hundreds of horror movies since, but the visceral effect that those final ten minutes had on me that first weekend remains a powerful memory to this day.
But while no horror movie is as effective the second time round when it comes to scares, this was especially true of Blair Witch. Despite the rave reviews, huge box office, and reports of absolutely terrified audiences, this is a film that is now remembered more for its influence on the genre than its power to scare. I rewatched it at home several months after my first viewing and it contained only a fraction of its power. It quickly became clear that not much really happens, and viewed on the small screen without a terrified audience around me, it was impossible to recapture that first experience. Even the movie’s ending, so utterly petrifying only a few months earlier, seemed a bit silly. So wait, he’s just standing in the corner?
Nevertheless, even if the film does not hold up to repeat viewings, the filmmakers did something remarkable with The Blair Witch Project. It was the perfect film for the era, one that simply couldn’t have built its reputation in the same way either five years earlier or five years later. Like many of the genre’s most influential classics, it was an independent film made far outside the Hollywood system, and for a brief moment, it truly reminded audiences how scary a horror movie can be. Happy birthday Blair Witch.