Back in 1999, a tiny, amateurish, independent horror film called The Blair Witch Project managed to turn a massive $248 million profit on a meager $600,000 investment, while scaring audiences despite a lack of onscreen violence and gore. So what happened here? Good luck? Good timing? Genuine cinematic skill on the part of directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick? With a new Blair Witch film headed for theaters in a couple of weeks, YouTuber Ryan Hollinger examines the original phenomenon in an installment of his web series Ryan’s Theory entitled “The Blair Witch Project: Why Is It Important?”
Even though Blair Witch was a trendsetter and game changer for cinematic horror, it was far from original. Its pseudo-documentary structure had already been used in films like 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust and 1998’s The Last Broadcast. So what made The Blair Witch Project special? As Hollinger sees it, it was the first major horror film to take full advantage of the internet.
By 1999, people were just starting to make the internet part of their daily lives. But there was no such thing as social media at the time, nor were there convenient video-sharing platforms. In short, information got around a lot slower in those days. Sanchez and Myrick cleverly kept the origins of their entirely fictional film shrouded in mystery but built up an elaborate, spooky mythology on the popular Blair Witch promotional website. The movie’s rough-hewn, shaky style, created by having then-unknown actors film themselves with handheld digital cameras, was not like anything the general public had ever seen on the big screen. Audiences of 1999 believed Blair Witch could actually be true, which lent authenticity to its vague jump scares.
The movie did not invent the “found footage” style. Italian filmmaker Ruggero Deodato had been there almost two decades previously. But The Blair Witch Project brought the technique into the mainstream. The runaway success of 2007’s Paranormal Activity helped make “found footage” a much-imitated horror cliche, a trend confirmed by the next year’s Cloverfield. But the current wave can definitely be attributed to the success of Blair Witch.