The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the ‘Found Footage’ Effect

Posted: September 3, 2016 in Movies, Philosophy
Tags: , ,

This video essay looks at how the 1999 horror film The Blair Witch Project manages to frighten its audience; in particular, how its pseudo-documentary technique generates an unsettlingly familiar aesthetic and evokes themes of technological paranoia.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

It might not have been the first “found footage” horror movie (even in the early 90s, there were titles like UFO Abduction, Ghostwatch and Man Bites Dog), but The Blair Witch Project undoubtedly established and popularised the genre for mainstream audiences. Throughout the late 80s and 90s, horror cinema had slipped into stagnation and cliché, to the point where it was widely parodied by the Scream movies. The Blair Witch Project offered something completely different and genuinely unnerving to audiences of the time, trading blood and guts of slasher films, for frenetic realism, psychological disintegration, and an invisible, inescapable dread. While the filmmakers deny ever having seen Cannibal Holocaust, it is interesting how much the two movies have in common. They are both about a group of young documentarians venturing into an isolated woods (or jungle); they proceed to vanish from existence, and the mystery behind their fates must be pieced together from the footage they shot. Both films are also concerned with travelling back in time, uncovering (and exploiting) past traumas, and confronting the ghosts of a nations eerie past (be it colonialism or religious hysteria). The act of venturing from the safe, ordered civilisation (suggested by scenes in family homes, classrooms, supermarkets, and motel rooms) and into the murky, unknown woods evokes this passage towards the primordial, a passage that is reflected in the characters psychological conditions, as they become increasingly unhinged and animalistic.

The Blair Witch Project, however, is a superior film in every way. Its characters are far more developed, better acted, and more emotionally and morally rich. The group dynamics as the three characters realise they are lost and begin to blame each other, before having to band together against a common threat, is particularly engrossing. The film was entirely recorded by the performers, with footage alternating between an 8MM film camera (attached to a separate DAT sound recorder), and a colour video camera, with every step, jump, turn, fall, shove, stray branch, splash of mud, and gust of rain reverberating through the lens. The frame effectively becomes an extension of the characters eyes and hands, inviting us into their head-space in a way that very few films had managed before. The realistic camerawork is complimented by very naturalistic performances, achieved by actually placing the actors in many of the same situations; they had to camp out in the woods for several days with no outside interactions with the directors, and only very basic scene guidelines. There was no script, which means that most of the scenes were improvised. The frustration between actors was genuine (stoked by decreasing food rations and sleep deprivation), and so was their sense of terror; Mark Kermode observed that: “When the characters discover spooky stuff hanging from a tree, that’s when the actors discover it, too. When they’re woken up by something banging on their tent in the middle of the night, that’s the directors banging on their tent. Obviously the actors knew that they were making a film, but you can see that they’re genuinely befuddled. It’s that element of discovery that pushes the performances over the edge.”

All of these elements serve to create a more frightening experience; the psychical embodiment of the characters through the camera, their emotional rawness, and the way visual disintegration (through frantic movements and environmental obstructions) evokes psychological disintegration, all contribute to unsettling the audience in new ways. Perhaps the boldest decision, however, is refusing to show monster. Throughout the film, the crew are being menacing by something they never lay eyes upon; they hear strange noises at night (including loud cracking, calls of pain, and the laughter of children), they discover ominous rock formations and bundles of sticks, they feel their tent being prodded at night, but the entity itself—which they come to associate with the evil spirit of the Blair Witch—never reveals itself. The crew’s camera searches for something in the darkness, the thick black canvas behind the flash-lit trees, and sees only more darkness. In century where vision become the most important and trusted sense, and a medium in which everything depends upon the gaze of the camera, the absence of any identifiable threat, threatens meaning itself. David Banash argues that the film succeeds because it trusts in the audience’s imagination to conjure up something far more terrifying than any special effects team could create. By focusing its energy on developing a sense of being lost, vulnerable and pursued within the imagery of a dark woods, it was able to step back and let the audience fill those woods with their deepest fears and nightmares. This subconscious projection shapes and is shaped by our intimate association with the point-of-view of the characters. The visual absence of the monster could also suggest it is a stand-in for death itself, a figure which inherently looms over every found footage movie, because its “found” status denotes a grim fate for all of its subjects. Perhaps what killed these characters was getting lost in the woods, and the eerie phenomena they experience is simply an extrapolation of their mental breakdowns in the wake of this knowledge. They even go through various stages of grief – including anger towards each other over losing the map, bargaining that someone will eventually find them, bouts of depression where they simply lie motionless in the grass, and acceptance in the form of Heather’s apology video towards the end of the film.

The faith these characters place in technology plays a big role in their demise. They enter the woods with a map, a compass, and two cameras, with the firm belief that it will guide to their destinations and back again, and will truthfully represent the world around them. However, on their way back, it quickly becomes apparent that they’re lost. The main character Heather is either unable to read the map, or unable to locate their location on it. They round in circles, end up having to camp out longer than they expected, and eventually lose the map altogether (it is later revealed that another member of the crew Mike threw it in the river out of frustration). After that, they switch to the compass, and, knowing that they car is somewhere south, cut a path through the woods in that direction. Unfortunately, and perhaps even supernaturally, they walk south for an entire day and still end up stumbling onto a previous campsite. It is at this point that they lose all hope. David Banash observes that the failure of these items “presents a world immune to technological representation.” Likewise, their cameras are unable to capture (and thus, contain or frame) whatever is stalking them – we get only the sense of its menace, and the frantic jolting of the camera in response to its presence. Because technology is equated with “power and control over the world” (Banash), its failure has cataclysmic implications, which are dramatized through the panic of the characters.

Heather’s obsession with continuing the documentary demonstrates her dependence on technology, and her belief in its ability to protect them from what they are filming. Mike acknowledges the sense of comfort provided by the camera in one of the few scenes where Heather appears on screen; he tells her: “I know why you like this camera so much. It’s like a filter reality. You can imagine things aren’t quite the way that they are.” This points a finger at the audience, who also believe what they are watching on screen (be it movies or television) cannot actually harm or affect them. The Blair Witch Project seeks to shatter such filters. It also sheds light on a persistent question throughout found footage movies – why do the characters continue to record, in spite of the present danger. Numerous answers are given, including the potential for cameras to capture what the human eye cannot, and the need to document this incredible event, but what’s also ingrained in many of these characters—all of whom have grown up in a world where recording and replaying daily life is the status quo—is that the camera is a mechanism which distances and cocoons oneself from the world. As humans, we believe our tools elevate us and set us apart from the animal kingdom, and what we consider daunting and arcane can be comprehended through scientific enquiry; modernity depends upon this premise.

During its release, the marketing behind The Blair Witch Project demonstrated a complete dedication to preserving the blurred lines between fact and fiction. The official website refers to the footage as though it were a genuine incident, supporting that claim with colonial records of the Blair Witch trials, interviews with locals discussing the gruesome legend, missing posters for the three documentarians (which were also hung in theatre lobbies and malls), and even a made-for-TV documentary about their disappearances. J. P. Telotte observes that this is one of the earliest examples of a digital viral marketing campaign, and combined with ads in college magazines and spots on MTV, managed to promote word-of-mouth interest amongst an increasingly tech-savvy young audience. It created an immersive experience for consumers, presenting a range of different texts (of which the film itself was only one portion), and encouraged to people to piece them together, and speculate amongst themselves over its potential meanings. The unglamorous quality of the evidence—which included old maps, police reports, grubby personal belongings, coarse video camera footage, the generally normalcy of the characters’ appearance—distanced the experience from Hollywood fantasy, luring people into a world very much like their own, and having them actively participate in its exploration and preservation (Telotte). This “piecing together” process also evokes the epistolary novels of Gothic literature, wherein narratives are constructed through journal entries, newspaper clippings and letters, often by the readers themselves. The black-and-white camera, and densely secluded woods even gives the movie a southern gothic feel.

Mark Kermode argues that The Blair Witch Project is distinct from later found footage movies, because it was released in an era before Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter (when such claims of authenticity could be easily disproven and online scepticism would undermine suspension of disbelief), and before television became oversaturated with reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor; it was an era when not everyone owned their own portable camera, and people could credibly go hiking in the woods without a mobile phone. The Blair Witch Project was born “during the transition between analogue and digital, between the 20th century and the 21st.”

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