by Jane Roscoe
Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 3-8
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is undoubtedly the "sleeper" hit of the year. Made for $35,000 and expected to gross over $150 million in the U.S., it has exceeded all expectations and been hotly debated and discussed in print, on television and on the Internet. It has turned the directors Sanchez and Myrick into celebrities, and got them the cover of Time magazine in August 1999. As well as inspiring young (poor) filmmakers, it has opened up debates about issues such as genre boundaries, and the marketing of mainstream movies.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT defies any easy categorization. Utilizing the codes and conventions of the documentary genre, the story of the three student filmmakers who go missing in the Maryland woods while making a documentary about the myth of the Blair Witch, provides a new twist on the horror genre. As a mock-documentary it constructs a world plausible enough for some sections of the audience to be confused as to its ontological status.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT can be read in a number of different ways depending upon what you know (or think you know) about it. It provides an excellent case study of the role that extra-textual material (such as websites, advertising, and so on) plays in constructing particular viewer positions and readings of the film. In this article I want to discuss THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT as a mock-documentary, and I also want to consider the extent to which the film is able to construct a reflexive position for viewers that presents a critical commentary on documentary and aspects of popular culture. In so doing, I will consider the way in which the film utilizes documentary codes and conventions to construct a plausible "reality" as well as examining how these various extra-textual resources were used in the service of this construction.
As has been the case with several other mock-documentary texts, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT caused some confusion as to its ontological status with some audience members assuming that the film was a "real" documentary. Mock-documentary texts usually succeed as hoaxes because viewers fail to read cues that reveal the films' fictional status. But while this partly explains these reactions to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, I would argue the film partly succeeds as a hoax because it has been manufactured as such by the filmmakers.
No discussion of the film is complete without some consideration of it as a horror movie. In the latter part of this article I want to consider the way in which the adoption of documentary aesthetics shapes the way we read the horror. Finally, 1 will address THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT as a film that has taken the mock-documentary out of the "arthouse" into the mainstream.
THE VERY MODERN MANUFACTURE OF A HOAX
One of the most interesting aspects of this film is the way in which it was marketed through the Internet. What started off as a cheap and easy way of spreading the word about the film became the perfect forum in which to effectively manufacture the hoax story of the Blair Witch and of the missing students. Months before the official release of the film, there were a number of dedicated websites filtering various pieces of information to an Internet audience intrigued by the rumors about the film, the witch and the students. Many of these sites had been set up by people who had not seen the film but believed it to be a true story. These websites effectively participated in the creation of a hoax, either unwittingly because they believed the film to be a real documentary about a real disappearance, or through colluding with the filmmakers to manufacture and maintain the hoax's hype. Initially there was no conscious decision to set the film up as a hoax, but because of the early responses to the film, this uncertainty over its ontological status was capitalized on by the filmmakers, who refused to confirm or deny that it was a true story.
In June 1998, Haxan Films, the creative team behind THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, created the official website, (www.blairwitch.com) which racked up 75 million hits in the first week.[open notes in new window] The site presents various "documents" that present information on and evidence about the witch, the tapes and the (fictional) filmmakers, and thus the site encourages the browser to participate in the hoax, either as a "knowing viewer" or a "believer."
Although at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999, the film was categorized as a horror movie, there was still enough confusion over the status of the "documentary footage" and the story for the "missing" posters that advertised the film to have a real impact. There are stories about people traveling to Burkittsville to help search for the students and so on. At Sundance, Artisan Entertainment bought the film for $1.1 million and very quickly joined in manufacturing the film as a horror movie with an edge — it was real horror. Without spending any money on traditional advertising, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT had already acquired a cult status and was guaranteed an audience when it finally opened nationwide in July 1999.
The internet did much more than merely advertise the film, it created a community of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT fans, who used the websites to communicate with each other and participate more broadly in virtual networks. These sites also became forums in which to respond to the film. This phenomenon has generated a variety of less serious websites; one of the best spoof spin-offs is The Blair Warner Project, which was set up after its creators, Cecilia Populus and Trisha Hurlburt, saw trailers from the Sundance festival (www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Lounge/3027/Blair.html). It is a tribute site which playfully mimics THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. Especially funny is its "poster" which states:
These sites continue to be a place where you can view trailers, talk to the filmmakers and swap Blair Witch gossip. Once the film was released in the U.S., these sites provided links to reviews, gave access to additional footage, and most recently has functioned as a market place for the purchase of the video tapes, and other merchandise.
The Internet has played an important part in publicizing the film, creating a market for it, and helping to manufacture the film as a "true story." For those who knew the film was a mock-documentary, a complete fiction, surfing the websites became a way to knowingly join in the fun. For those who believed the film to be true, many of these sites would confirm their beliefs and reinforce them. Either way, the web sites can be seen as shaping the way in which audiences could read and engage with the film.
THE CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITCH
It was not only the internet that contributed to the manufacturing of the hoax; two days before the film premiered in New York, the Sci-fi channel showed Tim CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITCH, a mock-documentary which detailed the Blair Witch Myth, from its origins in the 1785 and the woman thought to be the witch (Ellie Kedward), to the present day and the disappearance of the three film students. Utilizing the leftover footage from the film, it is presented as an expositional documentary and appropriates the expected codes and conventions of that mode. Using "experts" (The Blair historian, professors of anthropology, and Folklaw) as well as "authentic" looking documents from the time (diaries and letters), its objective is to build up an account to convince us that the Blair Witch exists. As well as the material on the Blair Witch myth, the show also includes extracts from THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which in this context are used as "evidence" to support the myth of the Blair Witch.
The show also works to cue viewers to particular ways of reading THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. It signposts for viewers the people and the events, picked up within THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. For example, the story of Coffin Rock, where a search party were found disemboweled with strange symbols marking their bodies, and the story of Burkittsville resident, Rustin Parr, who is said to have murdered 11 children in the 1940s on the orders of the Blair witch. The story of Parr gives some hint as to the ending of the film too. In an interview conducted with Parr shortly before he was executed, (presented as archival newsreel footage), he describes why he killed the children (the Blair Witch told him to) and the manner in which he killed the children (with knives). He adds that he made one child face the wall while the others were killed. His account is confirmed by a young boy who escaped him and death. The boy added that all he could hear was "the sound of a girl screaming."
Myrick and Sanchez had originally intended to use the expert interview material and those "primary sources" within THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT PROJECT itself, but were quick to see the potential in the "found footage" scenario. And so they utilized the leftover material to present this piece which served to further authenticate the tapes and the story of the missing students. It also worked well as an extended promotional for the film.
There are obvious clues to this program's fake status, or at least enough pointers to warrant some incredulity toward the material. For example, it had a screening on the Sci-Fi channel, itself a forum for often-wacky science fiction fantasy as well as for those shows which thrive on contemporary paranoia. The final cast list also reveals most of the participants to be actors — only slightly confused by the fact that the three people playing the film students use their real names. Like the various Internet sites, it becomes another extra-textual resource to be drawn on in making sense of the film, used to reinforce the authenticity of the tapes, or to highlight its fictionality.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT''S DOCUMENTARY AESTHETICS
For THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to work as a mock-documentary it requires a documentary mode of engagement, that we watch it as if it were a documentary. However, such a mode of engagement is offered in the knowledge that this is fictional film. The film attempts to guide viewers toward such an engagement through its construction of a documentary look. The opening title card explicitly cues our reading in this direction:
The titles presented in white type on black background evoke a sense of seriousness expected of documentary. It relays the events as occurring in a contemporary historical timeframe, and locates the events in a real place, the Black Hills of Maryland. This information works to construct a plausible reality which we are encouraged to participate in.
Filmmakers, Sanchez and Myrick wanted THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT to look as believable as possible:
In their attempts to produce a believable document, they employed a number of strategies. In order for the three actors to seem convincing as film students, each were trained in the use of their camera and equipment and were encouraged to stay in character during the eight days of filming. During the shoot they actually did camp out in the woods and, like their characters, were essentially deprived of food and sleep
The three actors were fed parts of the script daily so they were never entirely sure where their characters would end up. Using a Special Forces consultant, they used Global Positioning Systems to mark out various points in the woods. The actors were given a map and told each day to make their way to various points on the maps. Only told at what time to get there by, they had no idea as to what lay ahead for them. Hence, when the three arrive at one particular point to be greeted by various stickmen hanging from their tress, their surprise, as is ours, is real. This is exactly what makes the film scary. Much of the dialogue was improvised, and a lot of the material was captured in the first takes.
Drawing on the rhetoric of naturalism, fly-on-the-wall, or observational documentary promotes the idea that the camera can capture reality as it unfolds. Such notions of documentary as pure and unmediated hold much cultural sway, and they are reinforced here through the action's spontaneity and the visual style's being constructed through the use of the video camera within the film. Like much Reality TV or docu-soap, the style looks rather amateurish, which for us as viewers tends to signify authenticity and heightens the feeling that we are seeing the world as it is.
The utilization of the video recorder within the film is central to creating this feeling for viewers that we are watching the story unfold in an unmediated way. The aesthetics of the camcorder look, the shaky frame, the movement in and out of focus, the inability to keep the subject(s) within the frame, and the camcorder's portability are most often associated with intimacy and authenticity. Within the film, the filmmakers use the camcorder to make a video diary, to chart their experiences, fears, and in this case their disappearance. The video camera can penetrate the most personal and intimate spaces; here it is used to record the personal relationships and interactions between the three students. In fact, much of the interaction between the characters takes place during moments of filming with the video recorder. Heather communicates with Joshua and Michael from behind the lens of her camera, distancing herself from them yet controlling them by capturing them. This inevitably leads to certain conflicts between the three characters. The position constructed for the viewer through the characters' use of the video camera is clearly voyeuristic. We are given privileged access to these personal moments that otherwise would be denied us. We are encourasged to gaze at the characters' faces as the camcorder captures their every emotion and in doing so feel as though we are as close to the action as if we were actually present. So, the film is fairly successful in constructing a documentary look and encouraging a documentary mode of engagement. Clearly, this only one way in which we may engage with the film, but if we take up the offer of reading the film as mock-documentary, then we are able to participate in a number of critical commentaries.
DECONSTRUCTING THE DOCUMENTARY LOOK
The film sets up a number of dichotomies or binary oppositions. In addition to the oppositions of video recorder/ film, color/ black and white, subjective/ objective, we also have these: camera present/ camera absent, irrational/ rational, and science/ myth. The video camera presents something of a paradox. On the one hand its point-of-view perspective makes us feel that we are seeing the events with our own eyes rather than through the lens of a camera. Yet the video camera also makes us constantly aware of its presence because the look of the footage, the shaky, blurring, often low quality images, and the reminder of the presence of the filmmaker. The text indicates the camera's presence in a number of ways. For example, the social actors perform for the camera with the "look at me, look at what I am doing" so evident in home videos. This is seen in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT in the early scenes when the video camera captures Joshua and Michael playing up to the camera as they prepare for their trip into the woods.
The camcorder footage is contrasted with that of the 16mm camera, which is used to shoot "proper" documentary footage. The film camera's use signifies a different intention, to record evidence in the service of the argument. Whereas the video camera reveals the private, the film footage provides the public document, the official evidence. In the film we are often shown the people and locations — presumably shot on the video camera in color — prior to their presentation on film. The students' initial contact with the locals is often informal and jokey. Their video representations are juxtaposed against the more formal representations on film. These juxtapositions actually work to undermine the credibility of the 16mm footage, since the video camera footage seems more natural and honest, while the film footage seems more staged, more a performance for the camera.
Juxtaposing video and film footage references a whole range of extra-textual debates — such as the tension between traditional (film) and new (video) forms of representation, distribution and engagement. Film's elitism is contrasted to video's popularity and accessibility, film's expense of film versus video's economy. Film is often associated with feature-length documentary and notions of quality, while video has an association with "bastardized" forms of documentary, in particular Reality TV, and with notions of populism. The highlighting of these dichotomies serves to show their constructed nature and to provide a mild critical commentary on the issues. Yet although the film may highlight the issues, it leaves it to the viewer to develop the arguments in relation to documentary form.
CLASH OF CODES
One of the more interesting commentaries on documentary theory centers on the clash between science and myth. Here the documentary form stands in to represent Science with its claims to be able to explain the socio-historical world.
As these two film scholars note, the association between doc umentary and the discourses of science is a strong and established one. Documentary shares with science the objective of discovering truth and knowledge through objective collection and testing of evidence.
The Blair Witch represents the paranormal and that which seems beyond human comprehension. In THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT the rational scientific impulse behind the documentary look — to capture, reveal and explain — is set up against the supernatural, paranormal and irrational. The film sets up the myth of the Blair Witch and the disappearance of the three students as unexplainable. While those who believe in the Blair Witch can mobilize various forms of evidence (most apparent in The Curse of the Blair Witch ) in support of the myth, the film's story defies rational and logical (read scientific) explanation. Likewise, it offers no rational explanation for the students' disappearance. Within the film, documentary seems the mode of enquiry capable of revealing two truths: that of the myth of the Blair Witch (Is it true? Does it have any basis in reality?) and the fate of the three students (Is their disappearance linked to the myth? What happened to them?). Yet, here documentary fails on both counts. We are left only with the knowledge that we cannot trust documentary form to tell the truth. The film brings into collision the rational and the irrational, illustrating the limits of science and its inability to demystify the social world.
MOCK-DOCUMENTARY AS MEDIA CRITIC AND CULTURAL CRITIC
Reading the film as mock-documentary presents the opportunity to engage in a critical commentary on documentary, as well as on aspects of popular culture. All mock-documentaries contain the potential for critical reflexivity on the nature of factual discourse and documentary representations. Unlike other mock-documentaries such as MAN BITES DOG (1992), and DAVID HOLZMAN's DIARY (1967), this film contains a more muted and implicit critique. In particular, it offers a commentary on the documentary filmmaker's role and ethics. Reality TV and the fly-on-the-wall docu-soap are now established popular commercial formats but have attracted criticism for being exploitative and sensational. And like other mock-documentaries that have targeted these forms, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (1996) and ER — AMBUSH (1997), THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT also questions these forms' ethics. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT uses some transparent strategies to highlight the constructed nature of documentary representations, such as having young documentary filmmakers as the central protagonists within a narrative that revolves around their attempt to make a documentary. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT attempts to be a self-reflexive account of filmmaking, laying bare the processes usually hidden from the viewer. However, in many ways, these strategies in the plotline are heavy handed and obvious and lack the subtly and skillfulness that mark the same strategies in a film like MAN BITES DOG.
What I find most interesting in a mock-documentary is that it breaks the sacred relation between the image and the referent so central to documentary. As well as offering a potential critique of documentary, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT may also stimulate a critique of certain aspects of contemporary culture. The film has successfully tapped into contemporary fascination with alien abductions, supernatural experiences, XFILES-style paranoia and conspiracy theories. While the film draws on these wider discourses and in fact feeds on them, it also may be read as offering a commentary on such discourses' cultural status.
READING THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT AS HORROR
For me, the film's genre status as horror is the film's least interesting aspect, but given that so much critical discussion has focused on its success as a horror film, this reading needs some attention. In fact, documentary aesthetics are utilized alongside the codes and conventions of horror so that the documentary aesthetic seems both to reinforce psychological terror yet also to distance us from it. In certain scenes the documentary look convincingly makes the film more frightening. For example, halfway through, the lost students begin to show signs of fear. Hearing strange noises, they grab a camera and run out of their tent to see if they can film something. We are plunged into darkness as they are, left confused, not sure what we can see, if we can see anything. The fact that the video camera cannot capture what we fear is out there leaves plenty of room for our imagination to fill in the gaps. It is creepy not because we see but because we don't.
In one of the most chilling scenes we see Heather set up the video camera in the tent and directly address it (us) in the manner of an on-screen confession. The extreme close up of her face barely contains the quivering nose and tearful eyes. Her terror is obvious. As she apologizes to friends and family for getting them all into this mess, we watch as tears run down her face. The stillness of the image contrasts with the sounds of chaos outside the tent. Heather up until now has been presented as confident and controlling, but in this scene she now seems vulnerable and weak — more like a conventional horror film's stereotypical victim. As in conventional horror films, such a scene encourages us to fear for the victim, yet unlike a fictional film in which we can turn away and say, "It is not real," the documentary engagement here turns this fear back on to us, the audience, with the thought, "It could be me."
Given that we are fed a diet of Hollywood horror movies that compete against each other to show the most gore, horrific images and special effects, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT's "realism" provides a refreshing alternative. The fact that the film looks real holds novelty value but also makes it seem more frightening because we believe it could happen to us, too. We are encouraged to read the film as a neutral recording of real horror rather than the creation of special effects.
Of course, the film contains many of contemporary horror movies' expected codes and conventions. The young naive victims, monstrous-feminine Blair Witch, and references to the paranormal are all staples of the genre. Many viewers may react to the documentary codes and conventions as a shorthand way of setting up the narrative, which heightens its fright factor through realism.
Documentary mediamaking proper, especially observational work, makes claims to be a "window on reality," and as a genre it constructs an ideal viewing position which is essentially voyeuristic." However, the genre also conveys the sense that no matter how close the camera gets to the action, people and issues, as viewers the camera protects us from the actual consequences of involvement in that action. It is possible then even when watching documentaries to feel at a distance from the action, to remember the camera's presence and its protective qualities. In THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT while the camera is turned on, it seems to put up something between us and the witch. In this way, the use of the video camera within the film both draws us into the action yet also serves to distance us from the fill impact of the horror. One of the horror genre's characteristics is its impulse to reveal horror hilly in all its gruesomeness, yet here we have a film that reveals very little. Documentary's claim to capture truth is shown to be a claim it cannot live up to.
MOCK-DOCUMENTARY AS MAINSTREAM CINEMA
As THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT takes mock-documentary out of the arthouse and into the mainstream, it has achieved phenomenal success. In fact, the mock-documentary texts that have attained popular success are usually those that provide only a muted critique of documentary and popular culture. Thus I would ask, is the mock-documentary merely the latest low-budget style? Maybe this film's popularity comes from an anti-Hollywood aesthetic and the twist it offers on the traditional horror movie, but THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT also offers a muted critique of documentary and aspects of popular culture. We will have to wait and see if future filmmakers will borrow these aspects of the film rather than its surface style. In terms of my personal viewing pleasure, engaging with it as a mock-documentary text offered me critical pleasures. I conclude that it offers little challenge to documentary proper, but as a horror film, well, I was scared!
MAN BITES DOG. Dir. R. Belvaux, A. Bonzel, B. Poelvoorde. Belgium, 1992.
DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY. Dir. J. McBride. USA, 1967.
WAITING FOR GUFFMAN. Dir. C. Guest. USA, 1996.
BLAIR WITCH FAN WEBSITES
Below is a small selection of what is currently available to the Blair Witch fan. New sites are being created daily, older ones moving or being deleted. The official sites have links to many of the fan sites, and there is a Blair Witch web ring that can be accessed via many of the ones listed below.
Visit <http://tbwp.freesavers.com/links.html> for an extensive list of official and fan sites, reviews and other links.
The Witch Files - a combination of XFiles and TBWP:
The Blair Witch journal - interesting fan site:
The Blair Witch Fanatics Guide - one of the best fan sites. Very
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT Forum - fan site that includes chat
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT Camping Trip - a site for crazy people who want to camp out in those Maryland woods:
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT Chronicle - fan site:
The Unauthorized BLAIR WITCH PROJECT:
The Wicked Witch project - an excellent spoof site!
Thanks to Diane Scheinman for passing on The Curse of the Blair Witch, and to Janet Walker for her insightful comments.
1. Richard Corliss, "Blair Witch Craft," Time, Aug. 16, 1999, p. 52.
2. There are literally hundreds of sites dedicated to the film. A simple search will yield links to reviews, spoofs, commentaries, chatrooms, fan sites, places to get merchandise, and of course links to witch craft sites and other paranormal sites. A list of websites is included above.
3. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) 25.
4. Myrick. quoted in the interview with Andy Jones, In Rough Cut, http://www.roughcut.com/features/qas/daniel_myrick.htr31/8/99.
5. Brian Winston, Claiming the Real (London: British Film Institute, 1995).
6. Jon Dovey, "Camcorder Cults," Metro No. 104, 1995: 26-29.
7. See Carl Plantinga, "The Scene of Empathy and the Human Face on Film," in C. Plantinga and G.M. Smith, Passionate Views (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) 239-256, for a discussion of close ups of the human face and their emotional affect.
8. Michelle Citron, Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1999).
9. Michael Renov, "New Subjectivities: Documentary and Self Representation in the Post-Verite Age," in Feminism and Documentary, eds. Diane Waldman and Janet Walker (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1999) 85.
10. Brian Winston, Claiming the Real (London: British Film Institute, 1995) 127.
11. See Roger Silverstone, Framing Science: The Making of a BBC Documentary (London: British Film Institute, 1985) for a discussion of the similarities between the structure of expositional documentary and the scientific experiment.
12. See J. Roscoe and C. Hight, Faking It: Mock-Documentary and the Subversion of Factuality (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming).
13. Richard Kilborn and John Izod, A Critical Introduction to Television Documentary (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997); Victoria Mapplebeck, "The Mad, the Bad and the Sad," DOX, No 16: 8-9.
14. See Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine (New York: Routledge, 1993).
15. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) 43.
16. Ibid, 13.