Why did the world think The Blair Witch project really happened?
Remember when found footage – now seen as the most drearily over-used technique in horror –still fulfilled its supposed remit, making audiences feel as if they were watching something…real?
This weekend at the annual San Diego Comic-Con, there were ripples of anticipation when it was revealed that forthcoming scarefest Into The Woods (nothing to do with the Stephen Sondheim musical of the same name) was in fact a sequel to 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.
But while the filmmakers behind the movie, now officially renamed Blair Witch, deserve kudos for keeping their reboot secret – apparently even the cast were excluded from the knowledge that they were making a Blair Witch sequel – any excitement feels about 17 years out of date. It’s simply impossible that the new film will cause the same furore as the original, or that it will frighten anywhere near as many people.
Back in 1999, both the real world and the shadowy mirror-world of the internet were very, very different. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, the creators of the original Blair Witch movie (neither of them are involved in the sequel), consistently presented the film’s central premise – that three students had gone missing in the woods of Burkittsville, Maryland while filming a documentary about a legendary local witch – as fact and manufactured online evidence to back up their claim. Nobody had seen marketing quite like this before, and nobody knew what to believe.
True, similar “it’s all real” techniques had been employed in the famous case of 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust – a found footage movie that saw its director Ruggero Deodato face murder charges, after authorities became convinced that some of the film’s brutal on-screen deaths were unsimulated. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that Deodato had paid his key cast to go into hiding and avoid publicity for a year after the film’s release, to help perpetuate the illusion that they really had died.
The Blair Witch Project, however, was the first film to successfully harness the power of the internet, capitalising on the fact that no one was quite sure where to turn to for trustworthy information. If you looked “Blair Witch” up online, you’d find yourself confronted by a host of fake interviews, photographs and diary entries, courtesy of Myrick and Sánchez’s http://www.blairwitch.com, launched a year ahead of the film’s release in 1998. Even the IMDB page for the film’s main actors – Heather Donahue, Michael C Williams and Joshua Leonard, all of whom shared their full name with their Blair Witch character – told us that they were “missing, presumed dead”
These days, we’d be able to label all of the above “just marketing” and swiftly click away – but back then, Bonsai Kittens (a famous internet hoax website, claiming that miniature kittens were being cruelly reared in jars) was still a year away, and our inherent suspicion of all things internet wasn’t quite so sharply tuned.
According to a mwpdigitalmedia.com blog, Myrick and Sánchez even joined internet forums, to drip feed further “information” to curious browsers and ensure that the conversation surrounding their film was an ongoing one. Nobody and nothing was breaking character.
In a 2012 interview with popcultureaddict.com, Donahue (who abandoned acting to become a medical marijuana farmer and writer, in case you were wondering where she’s been all these years) , spoke about the disorienting strangeness of running into strangers convinced “she” had died.
“Well, it doesn’t happen much anymore, but when Blair Witch first came out my Mum kept getting sympathy cards,” she said. “It was all part of their marketing scheme so, yeah, people thought I was dead. When people found out I was alive a lot of them were kind of annoyed with me and wanted their money back.”
True, the sympathy card senders were in the minority – most adults managed to work out that they weren’t going to see “real” found footage (as an 11-year-old, barred from actually seeing the film but surrounded by playground gossip about the “dead students”, I wasn’t too sure).
But so insidious was the power of the viral marketing, many people still remained uncertain about whether or not the film was based on a real witch legend (it wasn’t).
The problem is, it’s just not feasible to repeat this late-Nineties success and make it work for a 2017 release. In the years since the film’s release, the horror movie market has become all but saturated with “true story”-style campaigns and found footage movies (the Paranormal Activity series, for instance, managed to turn the gimmick into a successful sic-film franchise).
The filmmakers behind the new Blair Witch might be able to make audiences jump…but try as they might, they’ll never be able to replicate the raw, unpolished menace of the original. That belonged to 1999.