In 1999, the internet was a smaller place. Spoilers were easier to avoid. Found footage movies hadn’t saturated the market. It was a simpler time, and everything was in place for a movie like The Blair Witch Project to become a proto-viral hit. I was twelve-years-old and about to get really, truly terrified for the first time.
Growing up, my dad and I watched a lot SyFy (then SciFi) channel shows, and I was a fan of more kiddie-friendly fare like The Addams Family movies, but few things really scared me. My parents gave me a lot of leeway with media consumption, and around that age the restricted bookshelf was opening up for my perusal.
The Blair Witch Project is one of the first advertising campaigns to really embrace the internet and utilize it for an augmented reality advertising blitz. The website was full of fake police reports and newspaper articles about the disappearances of the film’s leads, and SciFi started promoting a meta-documentary on the town.
I was so stoked; I think I wrote down the date it aired in my little planner. I made my parents watch it, too, I think in part of my campaign to be allowed to go see a horror film. Played straight, The Curse of the Blair Witch is a low budget documentary where townspeople are interviewed about the three kids who, presumably, died while filming about the Blair Witch. It was meant to cement the realism aspect of the film—the actors weren’t trotted out to do press, and for a while it was unclear where they were and if they had actually suffered some kind of harm during filming.
I couldn’t wait. I’m sure my mom was less than thrilled, but I had to go. People were getting sick watching it, it was terrifying, it was horrible, I didn’t care, I HAD to go. Even at twelve, intellectually I knew it wasn’t real. But I was definitely more open to believing it could be, that maybe it wasn’t all a hoax, and the unreliability of the internet let that sliver of fear/hope live.
The anticipatory tingles I felt as we settled into the theatre kept up as I watched, unspoiled and way too young, the scariest thing I had ever seen in my life. I remember the rush, that creeping dread in my chest as each pile of rocks and stick doll was revealed, every time Heather, Josh, or Mike stumbled and swore.
It was like the anticipation never ended—the mythos, the documentary, and now the movie, full of rapid cuts and scrambled images and semi-method acted chaos. It felt real, because there wasn’t a monster CGI’d into the screen, no person in a rubber mask. It was just these three people, trapped somewhere they’d never meant to be, panicking. Were they reasonable? Was their fear founded? Did it matter, as my heart-rate still rocketed when Heather cried into her camera lens?
And then it ends, that last iconic shot seared into my memory of Mike, back to the audience, no witch to be found.
The people I went with weren’t bowled over like I was—where was the payoff, where was the witch? No jump scares from monsters meant that the whole project was a hoax. But it was terrifying to me—that emergency brake of an ending, leaving you with pent up anxiety and nerves rubbed raw. I didn’t understand when other lucky twelve-year-olds with lax parents told me it was stupid, that it wasn’t even scary. Just a bunch of people running around in the woods doing nothing.
But no other film has gotten me quite so viscerally; you can probably tell how much my adult brain has analyzed that singular viewing experience just by this essay. And I’ve spent a lot of time trying to recreate it. The Blair Witch Project is the movie that really defined what I want to get from a horror film, and what I like best—that anxious anticipation. Even now, I tend to lose my suspension of disbelief when a ghost or demon is finally revealed; I know those monsters don’t exist. But I still don’t know what was in those woods.