Sunday, 1 May 2016

Cutting Edge: The Blair Witch Project

Often horror films play with the viewers imagination, convincing them that some monster, beast, supernatural force, or psychopath is out to get the characters. However, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's found footage horror film, 'The Blair Witch Project' (1999), plays with the imagination in a very different way. Unlike some horror films, The Blair Witch Project purposefully avoids showing the viewer what is terrorizing the characters. On top of that, it convincingly feels like found footage, as though the viewer is watching these events happen to real people. Myrick and Sánchez play with primal instinct and basic human fears to scare the audience.

Fig 1. 'The Blair Witch Project' (1999)

By forcing the actors into similar positions as their characters, the film seem real despite the viewer knowing it's not. Most people can relate to the fear and panic of being lost or how lack of sleep or food can inhibit clear, rational thinking. Since the actors themselves were put into these conditions, their improvised lines feel even more real."Though the story was plotted very carefully, the dialogue was improvised. The raw, amateurish-seeming scenes that result... only pull us deeper into the film's illusion of what we're seeing really happened. The actors, who actually spent several days in the woods, eating less and less and never quite sure of what was going on, come apart harrowingly," (Rose, 1999). Seeing how fast people succumb to stress and turn on each other is frightening in itself.

The Blair Witch is known for causing motion sickness for the viewer due to the fact that one of the cameras (the one used most in the film) is handheld. Because of this, it is often hard to see what is going on and many of the scenes are focused on monotonous leaves, trees, and dirt as the characters wander in the woods. While this use of camera can cause motion sickness, it also increases the tension by forcing the audience to have a limited view of what is going on."The cameras, which can't capture the thing or things that go bump in the night, produce increasingly shaky images that reflect the nerves of the crew," (Travers, 1999).

However, there are portions of the film where we can see the characters and environments clearly. Glimpses of children's handprints on walls, hanging stick figures, and creepy abandoned houses give the viewer enough information to piece together that something bad is after the characters. Even just seeing Heather's panicked, tearful eyes as she apologizes to her camera for endangering Mike and Josh is more than enough to transfer her fear into the viewer. The camera wavers, Heather hyperventilates and cries, and makes a very real and relatable statement that she is "too afraid to close her eyes and too afraid to open them".

Fig 2. Heather
The Blair Witch has received much attention and praise despite it being such a low budget film. By making the film feel as thought it was a real documentary that was found, it plays on the primal instincts and fears of the viewers. Instead of investing in special effects, the real horror comes from the reactions of the characters, the authenticity of the locals they interview, the shakiness of the cameras, and the unknown entity that hunts them. "At a time when digital techniques can show us almost anything, 'The Blair Witch Project' is a reminder that what really scares us is the stuff we can't see. The noise in the dark is almost always scarier than what makes the noise in the dark, " (Ebert, 1999). Not knowing what is actually after the characters and often not being able to see what is going on makes the film even more unsettling.

Fig 3. Running
Despite how real this film feels, depending on the viewer, some parts can seem somewhat ridiculous. For example, one would think that after hearing the screams of Josh, knowing the stories of a hermit who murdered children in a house in the woods, and discovering a pile of sticks with bloodied rags, that your instincts would say 'do not go into that abandoned house'. To some, it may also seem silly that Heather would record their whole predicament despite its seriousness. However, considering how many people are addicted to social media today, it feels like something many people would do. Perhaps this film should make people reflect on this strange desire to document oneself obsessively, is it really worth putting yourself and others at risk?

The Blair Witch Project is evidence that even with a low budget and an idea, a great and inventive film can be made. While it may not be filmed using the best cameras or high end special effects, it grabs the audience's attention and makes them feel the stress and anxiety the characters feel. This film is all about the imagination, it's the viewer's imagination that creates the monster, the beast, supernatural force or psychopath. Some people may think it was the witch who got them, or maybe a ghost, the hermit or possibly even Josh just pulling a prank. The Blair Witch Project plays on realistic, everyday human fears such as the fear of the unknown and the fear of getting lost to engage and immerse the audience. By utilizing the stress of the characters to heighten the feeling of dread, the film creates a very realistic and relatable situation that is unsettling to watch, even if it is all fake.

Ebert, R. (1999) The Blair Witch Project At: Accessed on: 1/5/2016
Maslin, J (1999) Film Review; Vanished in the woods, Where Panic Meets Imagination At: Accessed on: 1/5/2016
Rose, L. (1999) Documentary Style Aids 'Blair Witch' At: Accessed on: 1/5/2016
Thomas, W. (2000) The Blair Witch Project Review At: Accessed on: 1/5/2016
Travers, P. (1999) The Blair Witch Project At: Accessed on: 1/5/2016

Illustration List:
Figure 1. The Blair Witch Project [Poster] At: Accessed on: 1/5/2016
Figure 2. Heather [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 1/5/2016
Figure 3. Running [Film Still] At: Accessed on: 1/5/2016

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