31 DAYS OF HORROR #18: Alex Kronenburg on THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)

If you go down to the woods today… Moving Pictures contributor Alex Kronenburg boots up the old VCR to examine a classic found footage horror, and asks “Who’s to blame?”

Small-town rural America, October 1994. Three student filmmakers high on naivety prepare to trek deep into the Black Hills Forest (about 25 miles west of Burkittsville) in search of a myth. None of them could have expected the terror they would endure during their six days as residents of those woods. Nor could they have predicted their demise at the hands of some unseen evil, ritualistically slaughtered one by one. Heather, Josh and Mike: friends and peers that came to blows over accountability, each one guilty of errors that would lead to perhaps their unavoidable demise. The tapes were found. The film uncovered. But one question remains: who is to blame for the Blair Witch?

A black and white 16mm and colour RCA Hi 8 cameras: eyes through which The Blair Witch Project is told., and that belong to director and protagonist Heather Donahue. Aside from brief interludes, every creak, snap and scream are shared with the film’s director. It would be an easy conclusion to lay the blame at Heather’s door solely. After all, she was the leader of the crew, she decided the location, schedule, and drove the production forward to its terminus. The project is clearly Heather’s baby, and she defends it with the ferocity of a mother defending her own flesh and blood. Her dedication rarely waivers. Perhaps after 20 years of found footage replicants constantly filming during a crisis is a tired trope, but watching with fresh eyes allows for a sense of admiration. As events descend into nightmare fodder Heather is berated and threatened by Josh and Mike but still, she persists.

Heather’s role within the crew is fluid and she evolves as the film unfolds. In the opening third, Heather happily mothers Mike and Josh – nagging and cajoling through their adolescent traits. As the project starts to form she becomes more attached to it, prioritising her new-born love. She gives it her utmost attention, caring for it and protecting it at all costs. Whilst the other crew members flounder in fear, Heather (though still terrified) focuses her fear into the lens of the camera.

Whilst Heather’s convictions are inspiring, and certainly the qualities of a reliable leader, it could be argued that a more modest character could have avoided the events of ’94. Similar to Hickspolitation films of the 1970’s, the crew – and Heather in particular – approach the people and, more overtly, the landscape with swagger. They march into the vast forests of Maryland with a confidence that could only be attributed to intimate knowledge or lethal ignorance. As circumstances deteriorate, Heather’s once comforting but simplistic geographical mantras wear thin. “If we keep going South, we will get out” and “it’s very hard to get lost in America” demonstrate just how much Heather’s underestimated the landscape before them. Later we see Heather’s last confession as she frantically apologises to the loved ones of Josh and Mike, seemingly believing that she is solely responsible for their demise.

And yet, one could feel the snare of a trap being triggered. The Blair Witch Project is not only ingenious in its ability to invoke humanity’s most primal fears but also in its capacity to surface the hidden misogyny of its audience members. It’s feasible to suggest that – for some – Heather’s resilience, leadership and vocality grate, simply because these are the traits of a male character and should not be attributed to a female. What’s more telling is that she utilises these traits to instruct and control her male counterparts. Presently, the film industry still wrangles with the concept of proportional representation in productions, so it’s no surprise that audiences rejected the idea of a powerful female auteur some 20+ years prior. One scene perfectly mirrors this struggle, where Heather is berated by Josh for her ambition to the point of tears and the very next day she is seen retreating to more subservient, “motherly” duties, sewing a hole in Mike’s Jeans. The Blair Witch Project is without a doubt a strikingly feminist vision: two imposing female forces collide whilst the expendable male subjects simply stand in the corner (both literally and figuratively) and welcome their fate.

So, with the jury out on Heather’s culpability, the focus shifts to camera operator (by name only) Joshua Leonard or – as Heather dubs him early in the film – “Mr Punctuality”.  From the moment Josh trudges up Heather’s drive, visibly nursing a vicious hangover, it’s obvious that he is as unreliable as he is reckless. Josh fans the flames of the Blair Witch from the very first evening, perhaps marking them for sacrifice before their fate was determined. The Witch “speaks” to Josh before anyone else, him hearing what he describes as “cackling” in the middle of the night: a strange admission, considering that the witch is never considered to be the archetypal Wizard of Oz sort, and perhaps more an early indicator of Josh’s volatility than a humorous paranormal presence.

Provocation can be defined as an “action or speech that makes someone enraged, especially deliberately”. To provoke another human can be deemed as unkind, unwise or aggressive but to provoke an ancient sadistic evil is downright idiotic. And yet that is exactly what Josh does. The crew are investigating what seems to be an ancient heretical burial ground. It’s the dead of night and the crew are in pitch black darkness with only a few weak torches to light their way. They’re entirely secluded, fenced in by a perimeter of impenetrable woodland. In amongst the foliage are seven deliberate formations of rock – seven stone pillars – each one a tribute, a warning or perhaps a trap. Seven cairns dedicated to the seven children slaughtered by Rustin Parr at the behest of the Blair Witch. Whether tragic accident or unforgivable arrogance, Josh topples over one of the grave markings and seals the three friends’ fate.

It may be a coincidence that Josh is the first to be taken. He, or at least his dismembered voice, is used to lure Heather and Mike to their death or worse. It could just be a stroke of bad luck. He went for a leak at the wrong time, and perhaps stumbled upon the undead hermit Rustin Parr. What’s for certain though is that Josh is at the very least partially guilty for the events of October 1994.

For two thirds of the film, sound technician Mike is a bystander. He quietly bemoans being lost. He doesn’t get involved in the theorising about midnight phantom visitations and refuses to leave the tent when the others want to investigate further. Mike is the everyman; he speaks for the audience and recognises the devastating reality of the situation before anyone else. He lacks the unwavering certainty of Heather and isn’t anywhere near as juvenile as Josh. When tempers flare and the threat of violence surfaces, Mike plays the role of peacemaker. When Heather’s resilience finally depletes, Mike is there to comfort her. He makes the group laugh when there is nothing left to hope for. He even manages to find a pack of cigarettes when all of their other resources are long since spent. Mike is the guy you would want to be around if you ever found yourself in a similar situation. That is if it wasn’t for one small transgression: in a moment of blind panic, senseless rage and poisonous spite Mike stole Heather’s map and the groups only hope for survival and tossed it into the creek. Josh seizes upon this opportunity to chastise Heather further whilst Mike stokes the flames. Mike later hysterically admits to his guilt, but by then it’s too late. They are hopelessly lost and have the Witch’s full unblinking attention.

With the testimonies of the crew, and evidence documented, there is just one guilty party left to accuse. Not the Witch that stalks her prey with increasing hunger. Nor the forest that consumes the friends so readily. No, the fault lies much closer to home. In fact, the blame is in each and every one of us. We the audience are bound in the guilt of Heather, Mike and Josh. We created Heather. Our desire for more, to uncover everything, to leave no stone left unturned, no mystery left unsolved. That is what fuels the crew. And what else are they but a product of the time that they exist in.

The Blair Witch Project is an augury warning. In 1999 the world was on the brink of limitless knowledge with the infancy of online consciousness as we know it, the ability to see, hear and uncover anything at our fingertips. Are we really happier for it? The message here is clear – let stories remain stories. Dragging fables kicking and screaming into the light of day might reveal terrors that we can never be prepared for. And it is for that reason why The Blair Witch Project remains the single most terrifying film I have ever experienced.

Alex Kronenburg

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