Revisiting The Blair Witch Project

 

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Let’s talk about found footage horror for a moment. It’s a subgenre that has enjoyed a considerable heyday over the past two decades or so. Launched somewhat by the cult favorite Cannibal Holocaust, and more so by the release of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, found footage went on to see thousands of releases throughout the 2000s and 2010s. It became the popcorn flick of the horror genre– the role previously filled by slashers in the 80s and 90s. Given a quick examination of finances, it’s no wonder why found footage horror became notable. The Blair Witch Project was made for $60,000, and returned a comparatively incredible $1.5 million in its opening weekend (Not to mention its $140 million lifetime gross, according to boxofficemojo.com). In its opening weekend, The Blair Witch Project returned about 2,500% of its budget. It’s easy to understand why found footage horror gained the attention of the Hollywood money machine, and why for a good minute there, it had such a hell of a run. The Blair Witch Project remake was released recently, marking a milestone for the genre, and so I’d like to take a moment to return to this ever divisive film for a new critical look.

I first saw The Blair Witch Project when it came out on VHS. I was 11 years old. It inspired me, as it did many others, to grab my dad’s camera and make a parody film, beginning a hobby that I would pursue for the next decade. I found the movie laughable at that age. What could possibly be scary about a bunch of idiots screwing themselves over in the forest? I cringed at the entire middle act of the film, which was essentially a half hour long screaming match. The impression colored my idea of the found footage genre in the ensuing decade and beyond. Upon further review, I will admit that my critical faculties at age 11 might not have been as sharp as I thought. Actually, I feel prepared to say of the many found footage films I’ve seen, The Blair Witch Project is probably the most artfully done.

The film, by necessity, is probably the most conservative horror film I’ve ever seen in terms of actual screen time it dedicates to its monster. With virtually no budget, it’s easy to see why this is the case. The witch (or what-have-you) is left 100% to the viewer’s imagination, which is a stark contrast to many of the found footage films The Blair Witch Project inspired. Leaving the monster to the audience’s imagination is a hallmark of many beloved classic horror films, and allows the viewer to appreciate the film’s use of atmosphere, which requires much more subtlety of a film crew.

The Blair Witch Project is actually a very patient depiction of seeping panic, and how it can cause a group of perfectly decent people to behave monstrously. Although the woods are (maybe) stalked by some unseen evil, what ultimately undoes our protagonists is distrust and betrayal. Mike kicks the group’s only guidance into a creek because it is “useless,” an expression of frustration at Heather’s inability to navigate. As tensions set in, they all begin to subscribe to the idea of Heather’s, and then each other’s, incompetence. Sure, the arguing and bickering gets tiresome, and as they get more agitated, the camera work becomes nauseating, but it’s a pretty realistic, convincing depiction of a frightening idea: Just below the surface of each and every one of us, there is a panicked half-wit waiting to emerge when enough goes wrong.

The film even deals relatively well with a fundamental problem all found footage movies must tackle, and it’s something that has always bothered me about the found footage premise: Why, when faced with life threatening scenarios, do people continue to film, rather than devote the whole of their energy to survival? The Blair Witch Project is rife with conflict over the continued filming throughout. One of the film’s major conflicts is, paradoxically, the film’s very existence in the first place. The fact that Heather keeps the cameras rolling at times of stress is a major factor in the fallout and ultimate death of the our protagonists. Heather’s dedication to her craft serves as to satisfy the question that often goes entirely unanswered in found footage, and even elevates the film to a level of postmodern irony. What, after all, is more horrific? The fact that these terrible things happened to a bunch of students, or the irony that in trying to share their experience with the world, these same students caused those terrible things to happen to them?

The Blair Witch Project, for all the mainstream attention it garnered, is a surprisingly deep work of fiction. Is it perfect? Of course not. But set against the backdrop of the entire found footage movement, it sets itself aside as an experience and work of art.

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On Thematic Ties between the 2016 Election and Black Mirror

I’ve been doing a lot of two things recently: watching Black Mirror, and reading the news. Both leave me with the same kind of feeling. I’ve decided that feeling comes because both sources are hitting on a common theme at the moment, in that bizarre netherworld where art and life cease imitating each other and become the same thing.

In Black Mirror’s notorious first episode, “The National Anthem,” the British Prime Minister is spurred on by a kidnapper and social media to publicly have sex with a pig. As the PM humiliates himself on national TV, the viewer sees only the increasingly sickened reactions of the masses watching on, paradoxically powerless to look away and yet, the movers of the entire travesty. If it wasn’t for the people who gave audience to the kidnapper’s actions, he wouldn’t have a platform on which to terrorize others. We become aware who the true villains of the episode are in this moment– the people who failed to realize, through massive diffusion of responsibility, their own culpability in the horror they now observe. The whole thing points to what is perhaps the greatest theme of the show: the idea that with new technology, every day people must adopt new definitions of responsibility, or suffer terrible consequences.

As frightening as it is to think about the direct ties between an episode of Black Mirror and real, modern life, we musn’t ignore them. One exists in the recent spotlight cast on fake and heavily spun news, widely consumed through social media. In 2016, more than half of adult voters recieved their news through social media, myself included.  Of course, not all news on social media is false. However, even if we like to think of ourselves as critical news consumers, we cannot excuse our roles as partial perpetrators in our own misinformation this election. If you are like me, you were probably lured into a false sense of security by election predictors which forcasted a tremendous likelihood of a Clinton win. I also don’t doubt that more than a few of the articles in which I partook were more slanted than I wanted to admit at the time– granting liberties to favored parties, and likely taking things said and done by right wing politicians out of context. Surfing Facebook, I have seen a lot of information shared by Trump supporters which decontextualizes and reimagines facts to the point of falsehood. The New York Times recently published a case study that highlights the avenues by which some of these pieces become overblown. In mindlessly consuming and sharing these materials, we are guilty of the same sin as those thoughtless masses in “The National Anthem.” We have acted on impulse, and allowed these pieces, with their hyperbolized, exciting titles, to manipulated us. We have given our racist uncle’s blog the same visibility (and therefore, in the minds of some, credibility) as a long-standing, established publication. Now, as we look on at the travesty we’ve created, we feel just a little dirty, but we aren’t sure why.

The greatest lesson we need to learn from this is social media, and Facebook in particular, is an unreliable source. Even when a credible articles appear in our feeds, we must remember that it has been picked for us based on what Facebook knows of our beliefs. It will inflate our own feelings of self-righteousness, which can blind us to facts which might nuance or change your views in the future. Always seek out information for yourself before posting or sharing anything. In the post-truth world, we have a personal responsibility to fight the spread of falsehoods by this new medium.

In Black Mirror episodes, the characters come to grips with the flaws of their technology only after it has become integral to their society, beyond the point where warnings are useful. In this way, I hope my analogy to the show will fail. Our response to these events will shape how people interact with these technologies in the generations to come. The internet can be intoxicating, and we are teenagers waking up to behold the carnage of our first rager. Here’s hoping we learn from it.