Over the years we’ve seen all manner of movie monsters grace the silver screen. But when it comes to picking a personal favourite, I had to go with one you didn’t actually see.
The Blair Witch Project opened in the summer of 1999 to much fanfare. The plot was simple: three filmmakers go into the Black Hills of Maryland to film a documentary on a local legend and are never seen again. One year later, their footage is found.
The ad campaign featured faux missing person posters of the cast, and to this day there are some people who still believe the film is real. (FYI, it’s not.) All of this helped to make TBWP a huge commercial success. Critically, the film was appreciated for serving up something different than the usual slasher-horror fare, while some people took issue with things such as the shaky-cam footage, to the fact that the film’s ending offers little in the way of closure (something I personally liked about it).
For me, I found the film absolutely terrifying. If Jaws made me stay out of the water, then The Blair Witch Project has made them stay out of the woods. At least at night. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the woods. When the sun’s up, I love hiking and just being among the trees. But at night, I can’t think of any scarier place to be. Twin Peaks probably played a part in this, but it was The Blair Witch Project that cemented my fear of walking in the woods at night.
Much like the spectral presence seen (or rather, not seen) in Robert Wise’s masterpiece, The Haunting, the effect of scaring the audience in The Blair Witch Project is done through visual suggestion and sound effects. When Heather is peeking outside the tent with her video camera, all we can see is trees about three feet ahead, but what we can hear, from somewhere much deeper in the woods, is the sound of branches snapping. It’s a simple effect, but a disturbing one, especially if you’ve ever been out camping and heard something similar.
The Blair Witch is more than just a monster that lives in the woods. In a way, she is the woods. There’s no better example of this than by the very fact that while the characters spend their days walking in one direction, with the aid of a map and a compass, they still can’t find their way out. Again, this plays on a common enough fear, that of being lost, and turns it up to eleven in a horrifying way. Suddenly it goes from What if we’re lost? to What if something in these woods is making us lost? Take away the idea of a witch tormenting these kids and you can view The Blair Witch Project as a film about nature showing absolutely no regard toward humanity.
Even if you didn’t like the film, or found the shaky-cam nauseating, you can’t deny the effect The Blair Witch Project has had on horror cinema. From Heather’s close-up confessional, to the image of stickmen hanging in the trees, to the slew of “found footage” films that followed, like Cloverfield, REC, Paranormal Activity, and Apollo 18.
Personally I still think there’s something to be said for a monster who can instill that level of fear without ever appearing in a single frame of film. All I know is when my wife and I go up north to our cabin getaway, I’m still afraid of waking up one morning and finding piles of rocks outside our door.