Are you rural or urban? That question determines how you felt about the game changing phenomenon known as The Blair Witch Project. City kids did not understand the horror that lurks in the woods day or night. It is the unknown, which describes the storm that hit so well. The film was unknown in all regards, actors, director, idea, marketing and success. Fifteen years ago today, it was released to become one of the, if not the, most profitable films ever. It also changed mass media more than media critics give it credit.
The 1999 shoe string budget film used the Internet and a savvy "is it real" marketing campaign. Viral marketing, "Frankenstein" styled frame story using primary documents; in this case, found video cameras, and using video or low quality film within the Hollywood production all start here (sorry Sex Lies and Videotape, your try did not stick). My mom thought it was real right up to opening weekend. This was early in the reality media explosion, and pushed the boundaries for how reality could be used and done right. People crave the intangible idea of authenticity because everything in American society is so phony. Blair Witch was real or at least well done manufactured reality. Just two months later, people bought whole the use of digital home video "footage" in American Beauty without complaining. There is no Paranormal Activity without this, no Snow on Da Bluff, no Cloverfield, no backstory false document movie websites without the Blair Witch. Alright, it would happen but later.
Was it scary? I lived in the woods, it scared me and my friends on opening night. Were production qualities poor and the camera too shaky? Yes and at times it was nauseatingly jiggly. Was an evil force in those woods messing with humans for decades and got to them? Does the legend drive susceptible people crazy? Were the locals toying with the students in a ritualistic killing? Did Josh just go insane and kill his friends? I lean towards an evil force infecting local(s) to protect the legend and kill the students. The cairns were made by someone, hurting the Josh goes nuts theory. The trio was being watched as they snatched Josh first. With all the focus on the method of storytelling, it is forgotten that it was a great mystery story.
This was a perfect storm for mass success. Right time and right idea. Students with good enough home equipment investigate a local legend and in their efforts become a bit of an urban legend. The "found" camera film is cliche fifteen years later, but was exciting then. Viral marketing and blurring the edges of reality in Hollywood are features in most marketed productions now. Hollywood destroyed the possibility of reality horror in the woods with a terrible sequel of Blair Witch. Hollywood horror has gone down a gross out porn, remakes and zombies path, but the woods will always be waiting.
Countless children's tales have the protagonist go into the woods because the woods is dark and full of danger both known and unknown. To borrow from Rumsfeld, the unknown unknowns are far worse in the woods. We can build civilization but nature will always be waiting. Multiple times in the movie, the female lead jokes that they can't get lost in the woods in America. That is the statement of a cosmopolitan. It is also why the urban viewers did not grok The Blair Witch Project. Every rural teen who thinks they're big enough for that first trek alone will tell you that the first snap of a twig, the first "up close" surprise animal sighting and the first gust of wind all remind you that you are alone, small and the woods is large, dark and deep.