These days, it is difficult to imagine a world without the internet. To be clear, the world wide web was a thing in the late 1990s when today’s movie, The Blair Witch Project (1999), premiered. Yet, it was still saddled with the inefficiency of dial-up. For you whipper-snappers out there who do not know what that is, imagine having your home phone line (if you even have one) tied up every time you wanted to check your email. Put differently, you did not have the convenience of the information superhighway at your fingertips. Wi-fi was still a few years off. Why am I giving you this little history lesson? Because back then it was still possible to start a rumor and have it stick around for a while without an army of trolls climbing out of the internet woodwork and debunking these things faster than you can say the information superhighway. Specifically, the producers behind today’s film made it a point to get people to believe that what they were showing was actual found footage of three college students (spoiler alert) dying in the woods. Or at least I think they die. It is a bit unclear. It is also a movie that society seems to have grown to hate over the years. No matter your feelings on it, it is responsible for launching an entire sub-genre of movies shot in this manner. Actually, that might increase your hatred for it, if you are in that camp.
The Blair Witch Project focuses on three college students as alluded to before: Heather Donahue (as herself), Joshua Leonard (as himself), and Michael “Mike” Williams (as himself). The fact that they did not have character names added to the supposed realism. So, too, did a seemingly authentic mockumentary that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel prior to the film’s release detailing the made-up facts about the title tale, but that is a separate discussion. Speaking of documentaries, our three students want to make their own on the same subject. To do so, they head to the modern-day town most associated with the legend, Burkittsville, Maryland. Once there, they start doing interviews and gathering more information. The story supposedly originates in the eighteenth century when local people accused of witchcraft were executed for their activities. Since that time, there had been a number of strange occurrences, including the deaths seven children kidnapped and murdered by a hermit in the area going be the name Rustin Parr. He carried out his grizzly acts in the basement of his home, doing them in two at a time while one of them was forced to stand in the corner. Of course, none of these awful stories are enough to scare away Heather, Joshua, or Mike, so they press on into the nearby woods looking for clues. Their first day brings them to some of the sites tied to the killings, and they document it all before camping for the night. The next morning they find an old cemetery with seven cairns, or rock piles. Apparently Joshua knocking over one of them was the wrong move because from this point on is when things begin to get bizarre. That night is when they start hearing the infamous twigs snapping somewhere around their camp, making them think that someone is stalking them. Their calls and investigations reveal nothing, and they have a restless time until the following morning. We get to see some more hiking, and they soon realize they are lost when they cannot find the car. Making matters worse is the fact that Mike, in frustration, had kicked their map into a river because, you know, that is a thing you do. What it does for the three of them is divide them, launching a series of arguments born of their fear. Another sleepless night of camping being serenaded by snapping twigs brings them three cairns near their tent. Now there are wooden stick figures suspended in the trees wherever they hike, adding to their unease, with the sound of unseen children laughing heighten the scary atmosphere. Their camp for that night gets the most violent event to this point when it is shaken by forces outside. Their brilliant idea in response to this is to hide somewhere else in the woods, which only eventually leads to Joshua’s disappearance. Heather and Mike search in vain, and are only treated to the sound of his screams as they spend yet another evening in the forest. They are only able to find small pieces of Joshua’s body wrapped in a bundle of twigs tied by a bloodied bit of Joshua’s clothing. Heather is the one who makes this terrifying discovery, but they are both low in spirit heading into another nightfall. This is when we get perhaps the most infamous moment in the movie when Heather records her tearful confession for Joshua’s death, taking responsibility for events, even though events are beyond her control. This is interrupted by another round of screams from Joshua, and this time Heather and Mike head in its direction, determined to save their friend. Their trek takes them to a house covered in demonic symbols, and they go in anyway. In the process, they get separated, of course. First, we see Joshua go down, the camera suddenly falling to the ground indicating an attack. The next thing we see is Heather entering the basement with Joshua standing in the corner, and the sound of her falling victim to an assault. And this is where the film ends.
At the time, I appreciated The Blair Witch Project for what it did not show. One of the many reasons I do not watch horror films is, aside from the questionable material, they are painfully formulaic and predictable. That is a secular argument against horror films in general. With this film specifically, my Catholic senses say to avoid it for other reasons. This has nothing to do with what I will call the general annoyance surrounding the movie since its debut. Instead, let us look at the decision of these three people to go looking for this legend. The Church is firm in telling its adherents not to go poking around the occult. I know I have said this in other reviews, but I do not get why our society can permit belief in such evil, even in cinematic form, without also acknowledging the Greater Good that is our God in Heaven. Neither is this meant to make Faith out to be some kind of magical talisman that can protect you from dark forces. Things like Crosses/Crucifixes, scapulars, saints’ metals, etc., are all fine things to have, and I wear all three. The problem is that we can still inadvertently invite these bad things into our lives if we are not careful. And one practices being careful by not wandering off into woods where there are reports of demonic activity.
At the time of The Blair Witch Project’s release, I saw it a couple times in the movie theater. I was as swept up in the hysteria as anyone else. What I found interesting about it is that it scared you without needing to show you anything other than the reactions of the people on-screen to what amounts to noises. That might seem silly, but the mind is a powerful thing. Now that I am older and committed to my Faith, there is no reason to ever watch this film again. Make of that what you will.