Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez's 'The Blair Witch Project', 1999

Fig. 1 Blair Witch Project Poster.
The Blair Witch Project is a thrilling tale of unseen horror deep within the woods.  It is most notably the first example of an independent film that has made vast amounts of profit from a production made with only hand-held cameras. Not only this, but it introduced the idea of 'viral marketing' via the internet.
Fig. 2 Viral Marketing for The Blair Witch Project.

This style of marketing is always fascinating, and it was revolutionary in the nineties as the internet had only just become popular and has never before been used for something so unique.  James Castonguay explains that "Like the print media in the 1890's, the Web provided an elaborate narrative context for [Blair Witch Project] spectators that became an integral component of the film's reception." (Castonguay, 2004:73). Without such intriguing marketing the film that sells itself on being a documentary of the experiences of film crew it features could easily be passed off as another art film.  It was this refreshing take on advertising that gripped the worlds audiences and made them want to know more.  Castonguay goes on to say that "On April Fool's Day, Artisan relaunched their Blair Witch Project Web site with additional intertextual material, including additional footage presented as outtakes from discovered film reels, police reports, the back-story on missing film students, and a history on mythology of the Blair Witch legend." (Castonguay, 2004:74)  Not only did Artisan, the company that picked up The Blair Witch Project to sell, want to support this unique film but they encouraged and aided them in completing the illusion by adding as many faux-documents as they could to really pull audiences in.  This had never been done before so the audience is not entirely sure what to make of it. Is it all an elaborate hoax or are these incredibly detailed pieces of evidence exactly that, evidence of what really happened? Jill Nelmes divulged that"By the time of the film's US release on 16 July, 1999, a marketing phenomenon had occurred with the official web site having been visited 22 million times. This promotion went a long way to explain the film's eventual box-office take of over $240 million worldwide." (Nelmes, 2001:39)  Clearly, the use of peaking the audience's interest with something unfamiliar and unsettling worked incredibly well and was not only a boon to the film's publicity but their profit too.  She then goes on to express that "This cross media phenomenon of film and web has, since its first appearance, reinvented film marketing. 'Word-of-internet' is now an integral strategy of film promotion. And fortunately for the industry, the predominant online users correspond conveniently to the frequent filmgoers, the 16 to 24 age group." (Nelmes, 2001:39)  This is true of many films now, the most prominent example being Matt Reeves' Cloverfield which had a huge viral campaign not only over the internet but in the streets too.

Fig. 3 Ambiguous final shot.

Not only does the film have a unique marketing strategy, but an equally unique narrative structure. The narrative itself is fairly straight forward, a group of young people are terrorised by a horror that may be punishing them for overstepping their bounds, but the choice of displaying it in a documentary style, through the 'eyes' of the hand held cameras the characters hold is very interesting.  Jon Lewis believes that The Blair Witch Project "exploits certain limitations of the film medium be setting them against our imagination's resistance to limitations." (Lewis, 2002:105)  The limitations he may be referring to are the visual limitations that are thrust upon the audience due to the camera rushing around the screen with every movement of the characters.  Though this can seem to be a distracting technique that detracts from the plot, the way the film is structured means that the audience is forced to be in a constant state of confusion. The human mind needs to know what is going on around it, this is the same within film so the audience's imagination is constantly battling this violent camera movement with their imagination to try and piece together what they could be missing. Another example of limitations, Lewis goes on to explain, is that "Heather insists on lugging the camera and sound equipment, and refuses to turn them off.  Her vision through the view-finder...subtends a sharply, dangerously limited horizon." (Lewis, 2002:113)  Due to her relying on the camera for comfort the audience can again, only see what she and the camera see.  One of the male characters calls it 'filtered reality', and it's this filter that is leading the characters deeper into danger, because Heather, the lead female, feels safer looking through the lens, she follows her documentary into oblivion.  It is this end that Sarah L. Higley found interesting. She believed that "The ending is without denouement or revelation of their stalker, and the heroes die. It lacks, in short, all the cues that tell a seasoned filmgoer that this is a Hollywood production and a fiction, and this ambiguity, of course, is what its producers banked on." (Higley, 2004:88)  It is an incredible example of what can be achieved without the help of 'Hollywood' style budgets and backing. This ambiguity is what the entire marketing campaign was based around and the film did not do anything but add more to the whole experience.
          This ambiguity is continued within the narrative, as the characters are stalked by what the audience is led to believe is the witch, but never see her. Lewis interpreted that "The conviction of "reality" grows and tracks with the movie's refusal to show any agent of terror or even any unambiguous shape of terror's material effects.  Out of hanging stick figures, ominously placed clumps of stones, and a mounting sense of the characters' helplessness the film forges its frights, and something more: it makes the fact of not seeing the proof of a malevolent otherworldly presence. The movie lures the viewer into "horrible imaginings" of the unseen, the occulted." (Lewis, 2002:106)  It is this seeing nothing that allows the audiences mind to really wander and think what could possibly be doing all of these horrible things.  Could it be the witch that was described to the viewers earlier, creeping around and threatening the characters.  Could it be that one of our three filmmakers is possessed and does it all himself, or is it all in their own minds as the hallucinate thanks to hysteria and starvation.  The only thing that is for certain within the narrative is that what ever it is, it is malevolent and twisted and can only be something from a nightmare, but something the audience will never see for sure but will follow them for a long while after they leave the cinema.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Blair Witch Project Poster. At: (Accessed on: 23.02.11)

Figure 2. Viral Marketing for The Blair Witch Project. At:


Lewis, Jon (2002) The end of cinema as we know it: American film in the nineties. London: Pluto Press

Nelmes, Jill (2001) An introduction to film studies. London: Routledge.

Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew, Castonguay, James, Higley, Sarah L., (2004) Nothing that is: millennial cinema and the Blair witch controversies. Michigan: Wayne State University Press.

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