Dissecting the Macabre: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Hey there, Creepy Peeps! If you watched my Dissecting the Macabre video this week, you would have heard that this companion post will be a little bit different. In the past, some of you have expressed interest in seeing some of my papers from my Film Studies courses, so I figured I would kind of do that today.

For my final paper during my Film Theory class, I wrote about realism and how it relates to found footage horror. I specifically analyzed The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) along with Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2013) and Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007). So, below is an excerpt from that paper – the full paper is twelve pages, so I’m not posting the whole thing. In this excerpt, I explain realism and then I go into my analysis of The Blair Witch Project! Enjoy!

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To understand how found footage horror films redefine realism, we must understand it’s characteristics. Film critic and theorist, André Bazin, emphasized the realistic nature of cinema and he maintained the style of editing involved in montage could destroy a scene (Giannetti 172). Bazin also believed distortions involved in the techniques of formalism violate the complexities of reality and even classical cutting could be corrupting (Giannetti 172). Theories of realism emphasize the camera as a recording device as opposed to an expressive medium (Giannetti 453). For realists, a minimal amount of interference in terms of editing is ideal. “That is why we are witnessing the almost complete disappearance of optical effects such as superimpositions, and even, especially in the United States, of the close-up, the too violent impact of which would make the audience conscious of the editing” (Bazin 48). 

In his essay “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” Bazin argues that objective editing should only use cuts in a dramatic or psychological way. “In other words, if the scene were played on a stage and seen form a seat in the orchestra, it would have the same meaning, the episode would continue to exist objectively” (Bazin 48). Bazin argues in his essay about the insidious nature of classical editing that gives the illusion of reality; he goes on to state that “it is only an increased realism of the image that can support the abstraction of montage” (Bazin 53).

Found footage horror films are far from a traditional realist film; but they emphasize certain ideological and stylistic characteristics to produce a new sense of realism.  There are many ideological and stylistic characteristics associated with realist filmmaking. The primary ideological characteristic is the addressing of social issues within the film. Susan Hayward states the recognition of these social issues “serves only to naturalize social problems and divisions and not provide a deep insight into causes” (312). Hayward asserts there are two types of realism: seamless realism’s primary function is to mask the illusion of realism while aesthetically motivated realism attempts to convey a reading of reality (Hayward 312). 

Louis Giannetti references theorist Siegfried Kracauer’s assertions on realist filmmaking: firstly, realist films favor subjects that give the illusion of having been discovered as opposed to arranged. Secondly, realist film is essentially found moments and revelations about humanity. Thirdly, realist film refuses to tie up loose ends, making the feature seem limitless and endless (Giannetti 455).

The stylistic characteristics of realism include shooting on location, and the use of natural lighting and nonprofessional or unknown actors. Realist filmmaking makes use of deep-focus cinematography, long takes, and 90-degree angle shots (Hayward 313). Realists reject neatly structured stories and plots preferring the ordinary events of everyday life (Giannetti 455). 

The aesthetics of found footage horror films are marked by their rawness via shaky, handheld camera footage or surveillance camera footage (Heller-Nicholas 3). Other characteristics found in both found footage and realist films are the use of nonprofessional or unknown actors and lengthy takes. An important difference between realist filmmaking and found footage is the audience awareness that they are watching events that were filmed. As mentioned previously, the camera in found footage horror films is an active participant in the action; they are even operated by characters within the film. “The paradox – and power – of found footage horror is that its particular type of realism hinges explicitly upon exposing itself as a media artifact” (Heller-Nicholas 7). 

The growing accessibility of technology plays an important role in found footage horror; the awareness of the camera in these films emphasizes the power of media and its potential for manipulation (McRobert 143). Thus, found footage films cause audiences to reflect on the construction and truth of narratives (McRobert 142).

In The Blair Witch Project, three students, Heather (Heather Donahue), Mike (Michael C. Williams), and Josh (Joshua Leonard) set off on a hike through the woods to make a documentary. During their trip, the students become lost and they soon realize there is something in the woods hunting them.

The Blair Witch Project is a compilation of different types of action, some of the footage is the staged takes of the student’s documentary project, other shots are “live” or “candid.” The two cameras are operated by the actors and the dialogue was entirely unscripted (Turner 18). Furthermore, the directors, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, weren’t even near the actors during the filming; except, of course, to make noises in the night and leave witchy symbols for the cast to find (Turner 23-24). 

Because the camera is operated by the cast, the shots are often shaky, jerky, and the framing is sometimes off. The most notable scene from The Blair Witch Project is Heather’s confessional where the camera is in an extreme close-up where only the top half of her face is in frame. The iconic shot was an accident as Donahue thought she was framing her entire face (Turner 27). “The modern audience is accustomed (nay, conditioned) to the longstanding rules of filmmaking and television production, where the rectangular or square frame itself is structured rigorously, and compositions of film grammar symbolize certain accessible and concrete concepts” (Muir 356-357). The extreme close-up and the other off-center shots make the film imperfect compared to the carefully framed shots of conventional films; this emphasizes that a “regular” person was operating the camera, making the film more realistic. Directors Myrick and Sánchez invite audiences to believe the footage of their film to be real, even though they are acutely aware of the presence of a camera.

The ending of The Blair Witch Project is as mysterious as the Blair Witch herself.

Throughout the film, we never see the witch; we only hear the noises made in the woods and see the signs she leaves for the students. The film ends with Heather and Mike frantically searching an abandoned house they find in search of Josh (who goes missing a little over halfway through the film). Heather trails behind Mike, who rushes into the basement, thinking he hears Josh there. When Heather finally catches up, her camera glimpses Mike facing the corner of the basement, unmoving. Heather is knocked down by an unseen person or force and the film ends. There is no narrative closure, no resolution. We are never told whether the Blair Witch is real—and if that’s who the students found in the woods – or if a bunch of locals are trying to scare them.  

“[The Blair Witch Project] dwells meaningfully in that haze of tech-savvy uncertainty. The point of a good, decorum-shattering horror movie is to disturb, to unsettle” (Muir 356). The ambiguous ending of The Blair Witch Project leaves the audience with that unsettled and uncomfortable feeling (Muir 356). There is no closure for the audience. The unclear ending is reminiscent of life and its numerous unsolved mysteries. “So The Blair Witch Project is really about those things in our existences that, even with the best technology available, remain disturbingly opaque” (Muir 356).

Works Cited

Bazin, Andre. "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema." Film Theory & Criticism. 13th ed. New York: Oxford U Press, 2016. 41-53. Print

Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies. 13th ed. N.p.: Pearson Education, Inc., 2014. Print.

Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. 4th ed. London: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014. ProQuest. Web. 4 Feb. 2017.

McRobert, Neil. "Mimesis of Media: Found Footage Cinema and the Horror of the Real." Gothic Studies 17.2 (2015): 137-50. EBSCOHost. Web. 4 Feb. 2017.

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That's Left to Know About Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Milwaukee: Applause Theatre & Cinema, 2013. Print.

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If you made it this far, then I love you! You can watch The Blair Witch Project here (this is an Affiliate link):

The Blair Witch Project
Starring Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael Williams