Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Letting you scare yourself: The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project (1999) gets a lot of (deserved) credit for its influence in modern horror, spawning a decade and a half of handheld camera horror from the terrible (Paranormal Activity) to the brilliant (REC, The Last Exorcism), but I think it doesn't get enough recognition for how restrained it was. It suggested things in a way that defied immediate understanding or interpretation and forced you to strain your imagination harder, looking for explanation. That final shot in the basement particularly. It blew my mind when the camera caught the man just standing there facing the corner. That was not how horror movies ended! What did that even MEAN? And yet it was undeniably haunting. It stuck with me even more because I had no idea why it freaked me out so much.

This was a movie that got you to scare yourself, and did so very effectively. My memory and impression of the Blair Witch Project is partly based on the movie itself, but it is also based on the things I imagined on that car ride home along the back roads of Nova Scotia, and of the laughter and shared experience of my friends and I scaring one another.

I also have trouble separating my feelings about the movie from one of the most terrible things I've ever seen.

On that car ride home, we hit a cat. There was a thump, and then, after we stopped the car, there was a horrible wailing sound from the dark behind us. We had been scaring one another for a full half an hour by this point, and we were in the middle of nowhere with woods on all sides of us. None of us wanted to get out of the car to see what was making that sound, but eventually we did. The cat we hit wasn't dead, but it was only a matter of time. Part of its head had been crushed so that it stuck to the road, and the cat was flailing its body around that fixed point, making a sound that was more human than animal.

Sometimes a thing is so horrible that you find yourself in a confused place where you are living a combination of the horrifying reality and the romance of the STORY of the horrifying reality. You start seeing things the way you are going to look back and see them, this bloody mess of a dying animal coming right in the middle of that haunted feeling a good horror movie leaves you with. With nothing explained at the end, I was still in the world of the movie when I left that theatre, and so watching that cat die and burying it in the woods by the side of the road became a part of the Blair Witch Project for me.


  1. That first line from the last paragraph really did something to my head. It's so awful, but it's true, every time something bad happens, there's a part of you floating somewhere else, recording the experience like it's a story and nothing else. It's odd and Blair Witch captured that kind of messy, weird feelings.
    When I first saw it, I was at a friend and I had to go home alone. Every whisper of the wind, every shadow, became a scary monster... Worse walk home ever... I think I'd've panicked if I so much saw a cat, much less kill one.
    Anyway, great post, sorry for the rant.

  2. Although of course the seminal hand-held camera horror mockumentary is Cannibal Holocaust (1978 or so). BWP just turned the genre mainstream.

  3. I'm going to respectfully disagree about Paranormal Activity being terrible (and I'm kind of curious why you think it is). Sure, it's not particularly deep, but the scares are genuine, the kinds of things that I, and clearly a lot of people that were in the theatre with me, am afraid of when I turn off the lights. I've never seen another movie in the theatre that got the same kind of audience reaction. It was more like an amusement park ride than a movie, really, in terms of adrenaline and so on.

    I'm not a horror expert by any means, but I think that that's pretty special and not something that should be dismissed. (I'll admit that I didn't like the ending much.)

    As for The Blair Witch Project, I didn't find it that scary when I watched it, other than at the very end. I think I should probably give it another shot, since I was probably thirteen or fourteen when I first saw it, and my sensibilities have changed just a tad since then.

  4. I agree with M.R. regarding Paranormal Activity.
    The point of a horror movie (for me) is for it to be enjoyable, and I really did enjoy the suspenseful jumps there were all throughout the movie.

    Of course, what happened after really helped with the enjoyment, as I had just started taking some medication that made me horrendously sick at odd intervals, and suddenly started hyperventilating right at the beginning of the credits (from holding my breath and trying not to be sick before the end of the movie), while the group of guys I was with freaked the heck out coz they thought I was having a heart attack or something. :P

  5. I thought Paranormal Activity was great, if you ignore the characterisation and dialogue. Which I could, seeing as it was made largely on the fly, or so I'd heard. I'm not very interested in seeing the sequels though.

  6. The moments of a movie scene that will make astonished.

    Blair Witch Project