As I explain (and later lament) in this semi-editorial from several years ago, The Blair Witch Project was a summer 2001 phenomenon following its release upon the unsuspecting world. With the Internet as we know it still in its infancy, the idea of pulling the wool over the eyes of its users was barely an idea. Fifty years prior, Orson Welles had gotten on the radio and insisted that aliens were landing and it was the end of everything as we knew it. Listeners fell for it. Twenty years ago, the BBC aired a program called Ghostwatch, in which a fiction narrative shot to look like live television convinced people that ghosts were not only real, but were soon coming for them. Viewers fell for it, one of whom would eventually commit suicide once he became convinced the ghost featured in the program was haunting his house.
From radio, to television, and now, to the Internet.
The Blair Witch Project was the first to seize that opportunity to make a lot of people look like gullible jackasses. (I don’t blame people for falling for it – it was very genuine.)
While far less theatrical and dramatic, and far more subtle, The Blair Witch Project was not bolstered by a marketing campaign that highlighted the newbie filmmakers behind the camera and the casts of unknowns – no, the marketing campaign was in actuality a national search for the truth. The Blair Witch Project website was a genius hodgepodge of missing person fliers, tearful interviews with alleged family and friends, and creepy black and white photographs of the items recovered at a rather strange location in the woods where it was believed this three-person film crew had dispatched to investigate the legends of the so-called Blair Witch of Burkittsville, Maryland.
Then audiences found out they’d been duped. Lied to. Made “the fool.”
And they didn’t like that. Not at all.
While some decried the film’s use of imagination (what a concept!) instead of the kind of stupid CGI that same summer’s redux of The Haunting was shoving into people’s faces, there was a kind of unsettling revelation that a lot of people were slamming the film because they thought they were there to see a genuine snuff film; not, it turns out, a well-executed descent into horror and madness that, except for some cold nights and hunger pangs, did not place its cast into any immediate danger.
Following the strange and disturbing viewpoints of people upset that the footage of kids being systematically stalked, haunted, and killed by a witch wasn’t genuine, soon came the next stage of the hype machine: the backlash — people enthusiastically exclaiming their hate for the film simply because so many others were so into it. Such unrelated mind-boggling campaigns of spite still exist to day, but more vitriol has been hurled at The Blair Witch Project than any other film of which I’m aware. Tell someone a film is scary, and it's a natural reaction for that person to find ways and explain ways in which it is not. Tell someone you think something of questionable legitimacy might be true; that someone will explain why you're a fucking fool for ever falling for it. We're human beings and by our nature we're pompous, arrogant, and we think we know everything. And we like to think we're above and beyond something new that comes down the pike if too many people, news media, or pop-culture bon vivants tell us we should.
I am a massive and devoted fan of The Blair Witch Project, and no amount of spite-hate will ever make me feel differently. And the dozens of proclamations that allegedly bolstered the haters’ arguments for why the film was bad – “You don’t even SEE the witch!” – actually works against those shouting it. Essentially, those people are saying, “I have no imagination! I need to have everything spoon-fed to me!”
Granted, I at no point thought any of it was real, and not because I'm a genius, but because I was an avid reader of Fangoria Magazine. Yet that didn't diminish my enthusiasm for what I had just witnessed on-screen.
People are quick to point out that The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first found-footage format film, and people threw out titles like Cannibal Holocaust, or Ghostwatch, or Man Bites Dog as examples. Some went back as far as 1922’s Häxan, for which the Blair Witch filmmakers named their production company.
And yeah, these people are right. The format had been around for years, decades, centuries. But The Blair Witch Project was the first cultural phenomenon in many ways. It was made by a bunch of first-timers with no actual script. Its cast and crew suffered the harsh elements of a Maryland winter just to get the thing on film. Famously, the crew was so broke during filming that, once the film was completed, they returned the camera equipment to Radio Shack for a full refund. And yet these broke filmmakers’ film, with its meager little budget, would go on to make back its budget three times. Wait, did I say three times? I meant THREE HUNDRED TIMES. It bested the previous record for most money made by an independent film – Halloween – and that record wasn’t for an independent horror film, but independent film in general. It inspired a wealth of imitators, all of whom would rip-off the infamous tagline. ("In October of 1994, three student filmmakers..."). It was a middle finger to studios making nonsense like The Haunting and The Mummy and other CGI extravaganzas that you didn’t need million-dollar special effects to put asses in seats. You needed ingenuity, passion, and a clever way to sell it all.
Having said all this, and as much as I love The Blair Witch Project, I love “Curse of the Blair Witch” that much more.
In the weeks leading up to The Blair Witch Project’s release, its filmmakers wrote and directed a television special that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel (back when it was still called, ya know, the Sci-Fi Channel). A companion piece to the feature film soon to terrify audiences to death, “Curse of the Blair Witch” was an extraordinarily well realized and well-written and even well-acted piece that surely would have been the last piece of convincing anyone skeptical about the coming film’s legitimacy would have needed to full-on believe it was all 100% true. Though peppered with scenes from The Blair Witch Project, “Curse of the Blair Witch” is largely as fake a “documentary” as they come – something that would have aired on The History Channel during the month of October, alongside their investigations into actual vampirism that occurred (and still occurs) in Romania, the Salem witch trials, or the origins of lycanthropy. Actors chosen to play doctors, historians, friends and family of the missing, accused murderers, news reporters, members of law enforcement, eye-witnesses, and the list goes on and on, all come together to paint a very convincing myth about the Blair Witch of Burkittsville. At no point does it feel fake, hammy, or over the top. At no point, since the documentary doesn’t offer up anything in-your-face fantastic or too ridiculous to believe, would you ever doubt its contents, if perhaps you’d stumbled upon it while channel surfing and were totally unaware of what this thing was called The Blair Witch Project. And this is the doc’s greatest strength. There’s no newly-created shaky footage of something creepy occurring before you. There’s nothing contained within purported to be actual anything of the witch. What we have are a collection of talking heads discussing myths and legends, history and hearsay collected from journals, newspaper articles, and everything else entrenched in the town of Burkittsville’s past. We have voice-over actors reading from testimonies and diaries, we have members of Burkittsville with tenuous ties to the conflict that are still made to feel important, and my favorite part, you’ve got one interviewee contradicting another participant’s claims – a typical opposing viewpoint taken out of real life.
So what the fuck does this have to do with Halloween? Well, let’s start with the witch aspect, which should be the most obvious. Witch iconography has been synonymous with Halloween for a very long time, and the town of Salem in Massachusetts has since embraced this association, going as far as hosting hordes and hordes of people who descend upon them every October for all kinds of witchy and ghoulish activities. Like a lot of other aspects of Halloween, much of its association was never part of its truest roots, but over time began to adopt certain other portions of history as its own, creating one big orange and black hybrid. (For instance, did you know that the idea of death had nothing to do with Halloween until the Catholic Church butted in and insisted people celebrate All Soul’s Day on November 2 as a way to cancel out the “evil” of the pagans who observed Halloween’s original traditions? Halloween’s sudden proximity to All Soul’s Day for the dead would be just one of many times in which something that had nothing to do with it suddenly became part of its traditions. For serious, yo – Wiki that.)
That the kids in the film go “missing” during the month of October, and that their footage contains them walking across a cemetery or dark foreboding woods where trees stand naked like sentries and the ground is blanketed with browning-over leaves certainly helps to add to the ambiance.
As I’ve explained before, when I think Halloween, I don’t think big cities of suburbia. I think small-town rural America – main streets, farm land, and isolated ramshackle houses in the middle of the woods…much like the one the kids stumble upon in the last ten minutes of the film. Burkittsville embodies much of that, from the beginning of the film in which the kids walk around interviewing townspeople, to the end, where they are stumbling around the woods and discovering a creepy abandoned house covered in children’s hand prints.
Most importantly, something has to feel like Halloween to me. I’ve seen films set on Halloween that don’t feel a goddamn thing like it, but I’ve also seen films, on their surface, not Halloween-related whatsoever, but which still become essential October viewing.
“Curse of the Blair Witch” is definitely one of them.