The Blair Witch and the Problem of Fear

October 2nd, 2009

In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary…A year later their footage was found.

Imagine those opening words set against a silent, black screen, and you’ll know how The Blair Witch Project—among the most anticipated films of the summer—has been intorduced to frantic theater audiences across America.

What’s all the buzz about? Call it a collective desire to encounter fear—the kind of fear that torments your psyche, induces paranoia, and makes you sleep with the lights on. Although there’s no sex, no nudity, no witches, no hacked-up bodies—not even any music, menacing or otherwise—The Blair Witch Project is a horror movie like no other.

The “found” footage at first documents this trio’s quest to uncover secrets behind the legendary Blair Witch for a college film project, as they do mundane stuff like interview locals and film themselves buying marshmallows. But after they get lost in the woods, walk in circles for days on end, and see and hear things they can’t explain, the footage documents three kids who get progressively more tired, frightened, and helpless in the face of a true nightmare: A growing sense that they may never leave the woods—especially since the’re clearly not alone.

Because The Blair Witch Project is shot in a crude, documentary style, audiences are easily swept up in the emotionally charged ordeal as these young people regress from playful unity to harsh division, dread, and paranoia.

So…how does it end?

Ask your students who’ve seen it.

While this column is not an endorsement for a youth group screening of the film—I could barely sleep after watching it—youths are flocking to The Blair Witch Project in droves. (The numbers don’t lie: Although it was only the seventeenth-highest grossing movie in its first weekend—July 16—it was alimited release, playing on just 27 screens. Its per-screen average of $56,000 blew away the weekend’s top movie. Eyes Wide Shut, which managed the second closest per-screen average, surpassing the previous wide-release record of $21,822 set by The Phantom Menace in May.)

It’s no surprise young people are drawn to The Blair Witch Project: It stars young people and is filmed by young people. The Web site (www.blairwitch.com) created a huge buzz months before the film’s release, so far generating more than 22 million hits. The Sci-Fi Channel has aired an hour-long special on the movie several times before and since its release. And besides, teenagers and scary movies have been like two peas in a pod ever since Michael Landon got a bad case of five o-clock shadow in the ’50s groundbreaker, I Was a Teenage Werewolf.

As expected, the night I saw The Blair Witch Project, the theater was filled with teens and young twentysomethings, supercharged with anticipation, laughing, yelling, and running in the aisles, and successfully scaring each other as the lights went dim. But later, as the film progressed, the theater fell at once more and more hushed and horrified—all the way to the disturbing, devastating climax.

In Case You’re Wondering…
The Blair Witch Project isn’t truly a documentary. (No one is really missing in the woods.) But the film is played out in a documentary style by skilled actors—all the dialogue is improvised—who really shot all the footage and really camped on their own for a week in the Maryland woods with only a global positioning system to find their way around. The film’s directors—in MTV’s “Road Rules” fashion—left the actors vague notes about where to hike next and gave away no intentions. (They also created eerie noises and clues, but stayed way out of sight.) The result? The trio’s fatigue, hunger, paranoia—and progresively blurred perceptions of reality and fiction—are indeed authentic. The idea was to keep the actors in character but as in the dark as possible (literally and figuratively).

One of the film’s producers had served in the military and recalled his experiences during a fake prisoner-of-war camp he’d endured during training. “After a few days, you felt you were really immersed in that world,” the producer said. The directors then decided that if they could push their actors to a similiar psychological place, they’d get “performances you just can’t script.”

The Blair Witch Project was the undisputed hit of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, this winter, and the filmmakers—who spent about $75,000 making it—sold their creation for $1.5 million before the festival was over. At press time, The Blair Witch Project has grossed $80 million at the box office.

Despite all the media saturation to the contrary, many are convinced the film is true—and that there’s a kind of conspiracy convering up the “facts.” Scads of Web site chat rooms—targeted to 18- to 35-year-olds—are filled with every minute theory imaginable. In fact, a growing number of curious folk are visiting Burkittsville (pop. 200), questioning bewildered townspeople about the “missing students,” conducting searches in the woods, and causing a general tizzy in the sleepy burg. “This is a Christian community,” the mayor told the Boston Globe,” and we’re praying that it all goes away.'”

Why You Should Care
The Blair Witch Project isn’t a harmless movie in the vein of slasher flicks like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer (and their campy, ultra-hip sequels). While not without its flaws—occasional doldrums and plenty of profanity—The Blair Witch Project is a psychologically unsettling work that cuts to the heart of primal emotion. You’re right there as these kids cower in their tent, panic in the darkness, and gradually break down into almost toddler-like behavior. In short—as another reviewer put it—The Blair Witch Project “isn’t a very safe film.” And though it’s been scaring young and old audiences alike, all its accompanying elements make it especially attractive to youths.

But your teens who gleefully run to the theaters are likely to return—if not greatly disturbed—quite a bit more sober than when they left.

The Blair Witch Project’s power isn’t in what’s caught on celluloid—it’s what’s unseen that causes hairs to stand on end and chills to crawl through bodies. But despite the negative emotions it will conjure up in many, the film does a great job of getting viewers to consider their unseen fears—the things that really frighten them.

So why not use what you know about The Blair Witch Project (you don’t necessarily have to see it to understand it) as an opportunity to help your students process through the things in their lives they’re truly afraid of? The things they wouldn’t want to admit. Things they rarely talk about or think about. Things that really go bump in the night—like death and eternity, for example.

If there are teens in your group who’ve seent the movie, you may want to ask them how it made them feel. While there’s probably a great Bible study series to be framed around the kind of fear The Blair Witch Project creates, it wouldn’t be the worst discussion starter on the spiritual world, either. The film also presents countless chances for Christian teens to share with their friends about real fear—and what the Bible has to say about combatting that fear.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.