When you’re in film school, you will constantly get the question, “What made you want to make movies?” You rehearse your answer, because you’re going to be asked it all the time, and you want to sound like you’ve thought about it. Often, the truth is that there really isn’t a definable thing. There’s a long spectrum of things that happened over the years, and a slowly dawning realization. But you give an answer anyway.
My answer was always The Blair Witch Project.
I never really liked the outdoors all that much; my ghostly pallor can attest to that. I liked the idea of things like the Boy Scouts and summer camps and cabins and hiking and all that outdoorsy stuff. But I never cared for the actual doing of those things, admittedly in large part because I would far rather stay inside and watch movies or play video games. But I also never wanted to spend the night in the woods.
That predates The Blair Witch Project. This movie didn’t make me scared of the woods; it told me “you are damn right to be scared of the woods, kid.” Granted, watching a version of this movie on TV at the age of six because the title had the word “witch” in it and you thought Scooby Doo and the Witch’s Ghost was awesome is probably not the best idea, and having that experience only reaffirm already held fears can only be said to be an incredibly lucky outcome.
Somehow, I emerged unscathed from that viewing as a six-year-old. Sure, it was spooky, but it just made me want to avoid camping even more fiercely. It didn’t have me terrified of wandering through my house at night and finding a stickman in my living room.
It did, however, leave me with an enduring fascination. It wasn’t like most of my obsessions with a piece of media, where I dove deep immediately and learned everything I could about it. Again, I was six. It did keep my curiosity, however, and over the years it would pop back into my brain. One of my best friends in elementary school developed a fascination with it in fifth grade, and I talked about it with him quite a lot. We dove into the mythology of the movie at that point, reading all we could about the film’s unconventional and revolutionary marketing. We did what felt like critical academic research on Elly Kedward and Coffin Rock, treating the film’s backstory as sacred text. It was awesome – one of the first fictional universes I can remember being invested in.
Throughout this, I didn’t revisit the film. It wasn’t on TV much, and my parents wouldn’t let me rent an R-rated movie (they would let me watch an edited-for-TV version, but alas, it never circled around). I don’t remember when I was next able to watch it, but it was after some years of being engrossed in the mythology of the movie.
When I did watch it again, I was terrified. Well and truly scared out of my mind. Horror movies had always somewhat unsettled me, and it took me a long time to develop a thick skin for them (longer than most, I would say). This one broke what little thickness my skin had developed and made me feel nauseous from the fear.
The filmmaking on display here is shockingly adept – it took me a number of subsequent viewings to realize that. It really comes alive on a big screen, in a theater filled with people watching. I got to experience this at the SLC when I attended FSU, and it was phenomenal. A college audience that chattered all the way through The Babadook was dead quiet the entire time. Small beats that I didn’t even realize were there got blown up into huge moments of dread that landed perfectly – a character saying “there’s a house” was timed exactly with a camera pan that revealed the house, sending a paroxysm of fear through the audience that was palpable in that theater. It was an incredible movie going experience, and one that I don’t think I’ll see topped any time soon.
At the time, though, it felt like a payoff. Like years of being absorbed into this mythology had finally resulted in something tangible. I felt so much like those filmmakers, going off into the woods sure in my knowledge of this urban legend. But what I got was something else entirely. All of that backstory and mythology, interesting and neatly textured as it is, barely plays into the film. Instead, it’s just a slow building horror show where these filmmakers are tormented by an unseen force. No mention of Elly Kedward, barely any discussion of Coffin Rock, hardly any discussion of Rustin Parr. It’s just fear in its purest, most primal form: the fear of the unknown, of the unseen.
The creators of The Blair Witch Project had created this rich tapestry of history for their film, and while that history is woven through the beginning and provides some moments of dreadful realization near the end (the handprints on the wall), it is mostly discarded in favor of pure horror filmmaking. All of that story means, in the end, nothing in the face of their cinematic force and verve.
The Blair Witch Project scares the hell out of me. It made me want to make movies.